Making Assumptions

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When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.”

—Oscar Wilde

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Mary Lee and I are planning a trip to Africa. We’re reading up on where we think we might like to go and watching YouTubes made by people who’ve taken trips there. I’ve just finished Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town. We’re getting shots for typhoid and hepatitis, and reading up on the kind of pills we need for malaria and what bug sprays to take along.

Planning, writers on pilgrimage agree, is essential to the pilgrimage experience.

What I need to be careful about is that I don’t confuse making plans with making assumptions. I’m better at separating the two—one of the benefits of aging (they do exist)—but I still fall prey to the anxieties, delusions, and disappointments that occur when I make assumptions about what’s going to happen, whether on a pilgrimage, retreat, or quick trip to the grocery store.

Several years ago, as Mary Lee and I planned our pilgrimage to Jerusalem, I assumed the old city would look like all the photographs and paintings I’d seen of glorious holy sites and people kneeling quietly in prayer. Israel, I assumed, would look like the 23rd Psalm: green pastures and still waters. I assumed I would be filled with awe and reverence. I did not assume how steep the streets are, how relentlessly hot the weather can be, and how the crowds could at times be suffocating; nor that I would become sick with dysentery, and that most of the holy sites were swarming with packs of children hounding us for money. Only later—when I returned home, really—did I recognize how important a pilgrimage I’d made. But my assumptions, I think, ruined much of my actual time there.

None of the YouTubes—and I saw a lot of them—on hiking St. Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose, Scotland to the Island of Lindesfarne off the coast of England prepared us for the hills and the cow shit. (See above photo.) None of the brochures on San Francisco prepared us for the mosquitos that attacked us one night in our hotel. On the other hand, when Mary Lee and I traveled to Iona off the west coast of Scotland, we assumed that a couple of days would be more than enough to cover an island just four miles long and a mile wide. The next year, we spent a week there and still didn’t feel as if we’d stayed long enough.

I’ve made similar faulty assumptions before going on a retreat. Once, I assumed I’d spend my time snowshoeing in the woods and spent it in bed with excruciating back pains. Another time, I thought I would enter a period of silence and slow time and wound up spending several days in tears, banging my head in rage against the side of my bed.

These previous pilgrimages and retreats have helped me learn to put aside preconceived notions about what may or may not happen and accept that what will be is what will be—a lesson I’m trying to carry over into my day-to-day pilgrimage through life. If I’m going to have lunch with some of my old classmates, I try not to assume I’ll wind up arguing over politics and spend that morning getting ready to do battle, because if the subject of whoever’s President never comes up, (which it often doesn’t) I’ve wasted the morning. If I’m going to be spending time with my one, two, and five-year-old grandchildren, I’ve learned that to assume they’re going to arrive at the house wanting me to fix them oatmeal and read books and go to a playground is only going to make both them and me miserable.

It’s taken thirty years, but I’ve learned never to assume how I will be each year from November to Christmas—the two months I spent at my daughter’s bedside when she was dying of cancer. Some years, I’m overly angry or forgetful or sad or sick. Last year, I realized that I wasn’t any of those things; that, in fact, I was cheerful and looking forward to Christmas—until the anniversary of Laurie’s death, when I suddenly spasmed into tears.

Assumptions illustrate how, as the Buddhists say, “We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are.” The year after Laurie died, besides being angry, I was confused and afraid. But what I wrote in my journal that year were rants about news articles in which I disdained everyone else for being confused and afraid: book sellers for pulling Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses off their shelves because of fear of Muslim reprisals; people for taking anti-depressants because they were afraid of not feeling happy all the time. These days, I find myself fighting the assumption that because I’m not as strong as I was fifty years ago, neither is my country; that because I’m going to die within the next twenty or so years, the United States will as well.

I find it interesting that when we talk about assumptions, we do not have them, we make them. Assumptions, then, are what we create, we fabricate. There’s also the implication that what we create is false, as when we assume a role in a play or assume a pseudonym. We make these assumptions, I think—okay, I make assumptions, I think—in order to bolster the ego, convince myself that I have control over the future, hide my anxieties about the unknown.

The problem is that these assumptions keep my mind closed to possibility, to mystery. Last week, I ran across a quote by Albert Einstein:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no long wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle.

One thing I do now to try to avoid making assumptions is to end each day asking, “What surprised me today?” Not all of these surprises are, of course, pleasant ones—yesterday I was surprised to find caterpillar nests in the beautiful apple blossoms on the tree at the end of our street—but the practice has opened me up a little more to some of life’s mysteries. And at my age, I want to be open and standing in awe as long as I can. My candle’s going to go out pretty soon anyway; I don’t want to snuff it ahead of time.

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Dancing Lessons

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Christmas Prom 1960

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Just before hitting the “Publish” button for my last blog on the importance of music in my life, I heard this voice in my right ear, “Of course, your next blog is going to be about dancing.” Music and dancing are intertwined, sort of like going on retreat and making a pilgrimage. My feelings about dancing, however, are more complicated than they are about music. I have always loved music; I have not always loved dancing.

I want to blame Arthur Murray, who, it has been said, taught America to dance. In the 1950s, when I first discovered rock ‘n roll and girls, there were over 3000 Arthur Murray dance studios in the United States, one of which sent instructors (I remember him as 30-ish, with thinning hair, wearing a wrinkled tuxedo, and her as blond—bleached?—in a black strapless dress that showed off her legs and the run in her stocking) to Yarmouth, Maine to line us boys up on one side of the room and the girls on the other, leaving a no-man’s land between the sexes that I spent years trying to cross.

Apparently, Murray, whose given name was Moses Teichman, felt that dancing was how people could become more sophisticated and move, as he had, into a “better” class of society. So, along with the steps to the waltz, the foxtrot, the jitterbug, or the cha-cha, the instructors also taught etiquette. Young men, for example, were instructed to walk across the floor to the young ladies, bow, and say, “May I have this dance?”

I have to say, however, that if the aim at the Masonic Grange Hall was to teach refined behavior to seventh and eighth graders, it was not a good idea after having taught us the steps to blow a goddamned whistle. The scene turned to something resembling the kickoff of a football game, as barely-pubertal males raced across the floor, elbowing each other in an effort to get to the four or five girls with breasts, the fastest and dirtiest fighters skidding to a stop in front of them, yelling “My’vethisdance!” while the chosen ones stood giggling and the rest of the girls stared at the floor, waiting for the losers to get to them.

My first experiences with dancing, then, taught me to divide the world into us and them: boys and girls, fast and slow, winners and losers, all engaged in a fight for survival of the fittest. (Which was underlined the evening my partner and I won a dance contest. I can’t remember how we won, but it certainly wasn’t because of my dancing ability. I think she and I must have been standing in the spotlight when the music was stopped or something. Anyway, my prize was a switchblade knife, once the weapon of choice used by street gangs.)

When I reached high school, the record hops in the gymnasium at first perpetuated my sense that dancing was a battle, first with myself to get up the nerve to cross the no-man’s land between the guys standing along one wall and girls standing along the other, and then with her to find something to say or how close to get or where to put my hands.

Until one night, dancing suddenly became unlike anything I’d ever experienced: losing myself in another’s embrace, looking into the eyes of someone and seeing both her and myself for the first time, forgetting my adolescent self-consciousness in our interaction with each other and with the music. (I think the song was “Dream” by the Everly Brothers.)

Fast-forward twenty-five years. I’m in Princeton, New Jersey, evaluating high school essays for the College Board. The last night of the reading, a bunch of us teachers are in a bar, bouncing our middle-aged bones around the dance floor to a collection of golden oldies played by some kids in ripped tee-shirts.  When the band switches from “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” to “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You,” the woman I’ve been twisting with says, “Do you dance slow?”

Thirty-four years later, we still try to get in at least one slow dance a week.

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I wonder if the reason I feel called to write about dancing is to make me more aware of how the secular and the spiritual intertwine, and to reveal how my relationship with the God of my Not Understanding has changed and where it might be going.

When my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie died of cancer, I thought my belief in God had died with her. But after a year of raging at my family, friends, students, the driver in the next car, and Boston sports teams, I realized, no, I’m really pissed off at God, which means I think God exists. Focusing my anger at God became the first step in what I think of as my pilgrimage through grief and grace. And almost thirty years after Laurie’s death, I still often feel like Jacob in the Old Testament, wrestling with, if not God, then with God’s angel.

On my desk, I have a copy of a Rilke poem, The Man Watching, in which the speaker praises those “wrestlers of the Old Testament,” who, “…beaten by this Angel/…went away proud and strengthened/and great…” Winning, Rilke writes, is not important to such a fighter, because

This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,

 By constantly greater beings.”

And yet during the last few years, as I’ve become more and more aware of having received the grace not only to survive Laurie’s death, but also to have lived, all in all, a happy life surrounded by love, I’ve started wondering if I’ve really been wrestling with God, or whether I’ve been engaged in a sort of dance, where all along, God has been trying to embrace me, take me into loving arms. And if it hasn’t been during those times when I have surrendered—let God lead, if you will—that I’ve received the grace to sustain me.

Both scientists and modern writers on spirituality tell us that everything in the universe —animals, vegetables, minerals, living and dead—is interconnected. Everything exists in relationship. The question for me these days (and I wonder if it isn’t a question this country is struggling to answer), is whether this relationship is going to be in the form of a wrestling match or a dance—whether when I look out my window at tree branches in the wind, I see the trees struggling against the elements or dancing to them; whether when I see someone of another color or another life-style coming toward me on the street, I see an opponent or a partner; whether I still see the world as us and them lined up on opposite sides of the floor, or whether I see just us, moving in harmony to the music.

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Prayer flags and daffodils, dancing—I like to think—in the wind.

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