I live at the cul de sac of a road that ends in forest, in a wood-framed Priory that once housed six Catholic priests, but not anymore. My own rooms, I would guess, were once used for visiting clergy because they look out onto an impressive lawn, but the bathroom is barely the size of a closet. I suspect it was rarely used, because the sink, toilet and shower are squeezed into this tiny space, and I bang my elbows and knees on them every time I step into the room. A hefty priest, I imagine, would have had to wedge himself in to pee, and as for showering, he probably waited until he got home.
For weeks I scrubbed away at the rust-stained sink, but the tap had apparently been dripping for years, and all I got was more rust. I tried to see the humor in my situation but after a while I lost patience, and getting creative with a clever handyman, we tore it all out and started over.
The space is still tiny, but now it is usable.
So I think a lot about walls these days: what is walled in and what is walled out, who belongs where, and why? I wonder how much space I am free to take up, and where I must draw my boundaries? How much room do I actually need, and how much ‘stuff’ should I squeeze into it?
Autumn is almost gone here in Vermont, and I watch the lightshow of crisping leaves—gold and red and burnished brown—tumbling from high branches with the slightest breeze, whole battalions of leaves covering the ground with each waft of wind. Gorgeous mulch. Looking up, I get face-fulls of color that land softly and then tumble to my feet. Here, that means ‘transition’ whether we’re ready for it or not, reminding me that everything is in motion all the time, even when it doesn’t look like it—like trees, like myself and all of us alive.
We breathe, our blood circulates, our eyelids blink. Trees breathe through their leaves, exchanging elemental gasses with the atmosphere, which circulates oxygen and hydrogen through moving air while sap rises—maple syrup?—and root-hairs reach through the soils towards water and rock and the mycelial web of delicate fungi. In minute motion, everything connects ultimately with everything else whether we witness it or not. Like magic.
How marvelous is that? There are no walls in the natural world; it is one interconnected and patterned process to which we all belong and all depend upon for life—that not one of us owns. No kings, no landlords. There exist no Divine rights to territory, no private property, and Monopoly is nothing but a boardgame.
Growing up a Jewish girl in an Irish neighborhood in Brooklyn, I wished I could go to the Catholic School up the street with the other kids on my block. My mother warned me against them because “their people killed our people” but I don’t recall any of them trying to kill me. My best friend Mary wouldn’t, I was sure of that. The only difference I could see between her and me was she had blond hair and blue-eyes, and I had brown hair and brown eyes, and her Mom made cookies for the kids, and my Mom did not, so I grew up wondering what this ongoing story of Good and Evil was about. Later, once the War was over and I was old enough to leave home, I left for France with a Fellowship to “learn about Catholics,” as my parents put it, studying the depictions of Heaven and Hell in Medieval Art.
The fact was that I was still trying to understand the difference between Good and Evil—about “their people killing our people”—but more to the point, I needed to understand why I was frightened so much of the time. How did ‘fear’ fit into the psychology of religion, I wondered, and what did the Last Judgment mean? Like, what was being judged, and even more, who did the judging? I figured that some One or some Thing got to decide who was sent to Heaven and who was sent to Hell, but who got to choose the chooser…?
So I went to France, and before classes started I took to the road, hitch-hiking, to check out the oldest churches in the Poitou area, searching for scenes of the Last Judgment above their front portals. And there they were, each with the robed figure of a wise-looking man in the center looking down at me.
On either side of him were the dead, on their way to their ‘just rewards.’ To his right, winged Angels escorted the ‘faithful’ to Heaven in a neat line, men and women peacefully being led to their ‘just rewards’; and to his left, leering Devils with slashing tails torturing the ‘sinners’ with red-hot pokers, flaying off their skin and scratching out their eyes, dunking them mercilessly in the fires of Hell, the women, naked and exposed, getting it worst of all!
I was shocked! I am still shocked by this longstanding portrayal of Good and Evil, and wonder how it has worked effectively for so long! I mean, leering devils pouring hot oil into the eye sockets of ‘sinners’ and pitchforking them down into the fires of Hell? Head first! Evil women trying to hide their ‘obscene’ naked bodies from view? Ye Gods! Whoever dreamed that one up?
I ended up laughing, and then looking around to make sure nobody witnessed my unholy amusement.
To be honest, I considered the good angels rather boring, but the devils had at least some imagination, and a wicked sense of humor—I mean, upside down in boiling oil with pitchforks? They may have been designed to scare the pants off us, but who could take that stuff seriously? Not me, apparently. Last Judgment scene after Last Judgment scene, I found myself siding with the ragtag sinners who seemed to have lived with some independence, rather than the goody-goodies who obeyed orders unquestioningly.
But I wondered, and still wonder, who gets to makes these rules? Who decides who is worthy to live, and who not? Why do some of us have way more than we need and others, way less? And why, oh why, is falling in love and enjoying healthy sex considered sinful… often, by the same ‘grown-ups’ who sodomize the young ones in their care…!
How else other than being sexy are we supposed to reproduce our species, for God’s sake? Tell me!
I gaze at micro-photographs of the fungal web—how I love these fungi—and feel in my own body that same innate tug of attraction that causes fungi to creep outwards, down in the deep darks towards life-giving sustenance, beneath the roots of a mother tree, towards water trickling, tickling the earth, sucking sweet moisture and growing…
Unseen by human eyes, untold artworks of living matter unfold and flare, reaching to share life with its own kind, sustaining its life and our life, reproducing itself in the dark and breathing in its subtle breaths. And I feel a stirring of wonder and gratitude, even as bombs fall in our frightened human world, of the great Mystery happening in the air and beneath our ground, keeping us alive beyond our limited awareness and sharing life with other life that really has no walls to stop us from living, in whatever forms, whatever colors, whatever talents and capacities we tend to come in with.
We are alive to live, now, and that is all I need to know.
Now… Even as I weep with both fear and gratitude for my life in this world, my arms spread open, my heart keeps keeping its beat, and my body breathes.…and again…and again…