Almost twenty years ago I sat in an office located on Fifth Avenue, just up from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and listened intently as a well-known pediatric neurologist explained the results of the MRI done to the brain of the beautiful seven month-old girl we had planned to adopt, a baby girl who, to our untrained eyes and in the eyes of our loved ones, was a plump, curly-haired picture of health.
The news was not good. We were told that Katie, who had been placed in our care the day after she was born, was schizencephalic, which, he explained, meant that she had a longitudinal cleft in her skull and was severely brain-damaged. According to this neurologist, Katie would never walk or talk.
I was fresh out of law school and trying to log the hours that young associates were expected to log in the late 80’s at prestigious Wall Street law firms and was way over my head, in more ways than one. Webster’s defines “numb” as being “devoid of sensation, especially as a result of cold or anesthesia,” and that about sums it up. It was spring, but in my memory the trees along Central Park outside of that neurologist’s office were bare and coated with ice. And they stayed frozen for some time, through the years of infertility treatments, a move to Rhode Island, the eventual birth of twins and a divorce, but eventually they began to thaw. I was thirty-seven, exactly at the age at which Jung suggested that “an important change in the human psyche is often in preparation,” when, in his apt metaphor: “the wine of youth grows turbid.” Jung also wrote that the cure for all such cases is inevitably spiritual in nature. And so I found myself reading all the spiritual classics I could get my hands on, and was a near daily communicant at a Franciscan chapel.
We shared custody of Katie and our boy and girl twins, who had just turned three. And in the middle of it all – of the nights with the kids eating pizza and Kentucky Fried Chicken in front of the Rugrats and of trying to run a law office out of my apartment and borrowed conference rooms in the city – I began to meditate, a practice which, like my attendance at mass and my spiritual reading, was the result of desperation rather than virtue. Prayer, or at least the largely petitionary prayer that I was engaged in at the time, was not helping. It had always made me felt slightly ridiculous, like the nervous little Catholic school kid on the basketball court I once was, crossing myself before taking a foul shot.
I started and ended each day on my meditation cushion in front of an improvised altar containing a crucifix and a Buddha. I couldn’t and can’t choose between these two. Thankfully, neither has asked me to choose. In fact, neither has ever claimed to me that they were gods in the first place, and both seem to hold credo at arm’s length, as do many in the Episcopal church I now attend. Indeed, most of the theology I have come across has not withstood much scrutiny, revealing itself as so much second-rate philosophy premised upon faulty history and all of it – the notion that I could ever believe my way to God – began to seem funny somehow.
I simply sat and breathed each day and night as an onslaught of financial fears, generalized anxiety and lust rushed in, uninvited. And after weeks of not fighting, of actually welcoming the onslaught as I sat for ten, then twenty, then thirty minutes, something amazing happened. I became infused with an entirely new, overwhelming feeling of, for lack of a better word, peace, which I can still access, many years later – an overwhelming certainty that what had happened and what was happening was entirely and completely sufficient, as sufficient as Katie’s smile.
Words cannot describe this experience, or feeling, or conscious contact or whatever it was and is, although many gifted people over the years have tried, for which I am grateful. Without their efforts, I would probably have thought I was unique, or at the very least in need of medication.
Suffice it to say that the tiny hint of a smile on my wooden Buddha began to broaden and the eyes of the crucified Christ on my make-shift alter began to sparkle. And nothing has been the same since.
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