Something strange happened to me a few weeks ago — a winter gift — that I’ve been pondering ever since.
It was early in the morning, and already I was failing. I’d failed to meditate — my heart just wasn’t in it. I’d failed to get to my early morning exercise class on time. There were no spaces left when I got there, so I turned around and drove back home.
As I stepped out of my car on that black, starlit morning, nothing felt quite right. I didn’t want to go back into my house. I didn’t want to go anywhere else. I didn’t know what I wanted, or what could make me feel better. So, for lack of a better idea, I decided to just lean against my car and look up.
And right as I looked up, the biggest shooting star I’ve ever seen sailed right over my house.
Was that star a special gift meant just for me on that winter morning? Was it a custom-ordered shooting star for a lady who really needed to see some brightness?
I can’t say for sure, but I doubt it. Having grown up in a Christian church, I remember the words from scripture about the even-handedness of natural occurrences: “God makes the sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” I don’t think that star was custom ordered just for me.
But it wasn’t just for anybody. It wasn’t for somebody who’d slept in. It wasn’t even for somebody who’d been extra virtuous and gotten to her 6 a.m. exercise class on time. It was for somebody who found herself in a place between things — between being active and being still, between dark and light, between the car and the house. Somebody who didn’t know what to do or where to go, and who, in that moment, just stood there with open eyes.
It can be a hard thing, not knowing what to do; not knowing what’s going to happen next; being in an in-between place. We’ve all got a lot of not knowing in our lives. It’s like dark matter, the stuff we just can’t predict or figure out; the stuff that, somewhat disconcertingly, scientists tell us, makes up the vast majority of the universe.
We need to see not only darkness, but light. Not only failure and confusion, but also brightness and clarity. We need a field of vision wide enough to take all of that in. And we also need to leave room for all of the in-between things; all the dark matter; the things we just can’t pin down or understand.
I read a folk tale recently about a man who asks a beautiful woman to marry him. The woman says yes, but on one condition: The man must never look into a magical pail she possesses.
The man agrees, and he and the woman are married. But of course, the temptation is too great, and one day the man ends up looking into the pail. He thinks what he’s done is no big deal, because when he looks into the pail, he finds it empty.
But his wife says, “You fool — you’ve ruined everything”. And she disappears before his very eyes.
What was in that pail? Nobody knows. Maybe not even the woman knew. But without that bit of mystery, the woman wasn’t who she really was. By trying to figure out everything about his wife — by not allowing her to possess her own mystery — her husband lost her.
We lose a lot when we try to banish mystery from our lives; when we try to figure everything and everybody out; when we have an agenda for every situation. And maybe, most especially, when we try to comprehensively figure out, analyze and categorize ourselves.
This year I’m going to try to do less of that. I’m going to be less quick to call something a failure or a success. And I’m going to be more quick to admit there are things I just don’t understand, like a strangely-timed shooting star on a cold winter morning.
A favorite childhood poem of mine by Mary O’Neill ends: “Think of what starlight and lamplight would lack; diamonds and fireflies, if they couldn’t lean against black.”
I’m going to do more leaning against black this year. I don’t want to miss those mysterious gifts that only not knowing can give.
— Elizabeth Fitterer is an islander and a member of the Puget Sound Zen Center.