At the same time, I know that while religion is not Katie's cup of tea, God is. Like me, she was born with a longing for spiritual communion in the marrow of her soul. I realized this one Fourth of July night when Katie was five. While John stayed at home with our two sleeping toddlers, I loaded Katie into our minivan and drove up onto the foothills of the Utah mountains. I parked at the top of a steep hill. Then Katie and I climbed up onto the van's roof, from which we had an unobstructed view of the fireworks display just beginning in the valley below.
It was awesome. For over an hour, great thundering, whistling showers of light bloomed and faded right at our eye level. We oohed and ahhed. I taught Katie the Japanese word for fireworks, hanabi, which literally means "flower fire." Then we subsided into silence for fifteen or twenty minutes, after which Katie said, "Fireworks make me feel like I'm home." I was puzzled. "Well, I guess we wasted a trip, then."
"No," said Katie, "I mean I feel like I'm home, and I'm safe, and it's okay to go to sleep. It's kind of hard to explain."
"Ah," I said, getting it. I thought about leaving things at that, but it seemed right to go on. "You know, I believe that when we see something as beautiful as this, it's almost like a memory of what we really are, where we really belong."
I could feel Katie going very still in the darkness beside me. "And I don't know what God is," I told her, "but that feeling-that beauty, that memory, whatever it is, wherever you find it-I think that must be part of it. That's one of the things I mean when I say `God.' " There was another long silence, and then Katie's small voice whispered, "Mommy, for the first time, I'm crying because I'm happy."
That voice, soft and high-pitched though it was, didn't sound like an untutored child contemplating a novel concept. It sounded like an ancient soul, groping along in an unfamiliar body, beginning to remember itself. And though Katie has already traveled a great distance along her own spiritual path, I still see in her this brave, inquisitive, perpetually awakening soul. I think that's what she is, at the very center. I think that's what we all are.
All these people felt what The Cloud of Unknowing calls the soul's "naked intent toward God." The key word here, I think, is naked. Any spiritual practice is ultimately just a way of stripping off the illusions we have learned from other flawed mortals, letting go of whatever holds us back, opening ourselves completely to what comes next. It feels like a terrible risk, to be so vulnerable, to disobey the rules, to end up losing the things and people we love.
When I live this way, the wounded five-year-old in me still tends to quail. I know my little fears are inconsequential next to what many others face, but they send me into frequent tailspins nonetheless. A client I was seeing decided to break up with her boyfriend; when he called in a drunken rage and told me to butt out, I was tempted to stop working with her. I quit a job with one magazine to take another that paid less, but felt more in tune with the Stream, and when the editor of the first magazine angrily promised my agent I would fail as a writer, I felt skittish for months. After a member of my family published my father's biography, describing me as an unstable victim of false-memory syndrome who had inflicted the trials of Job on my parents, I couldn't help feeling depressed. Typing these words, right now, makes me so nervous I want to hide in the crawl space under my house and eat a twenty-pack of Twinkies. I could go on and on. Believe me, I often do.
But then, right in the middle of a grand mal fuss, I sometimes have the sense to open my eyes, to become present, to see the flower fire blossoming in the sky, and to remember what I've learned. For example, I've learned that the worst pain, fear, and torment I've ever experienced has only deepened my ability to experience joy. I feel this even when I'm hurting, because while pain and pleasure are mutually exclusive, pain and joy are not.
The more I tune in to the source of my own being (and every religion I've studied has helped me find ways), the more anger, sorrow, and fear seem confined to the shallows of my personality, while my true self and yours, and that of every being is like a sea whose depths are always tranquil, however troubled the surface may become. Pain reminds me to return to the deep, calm, gentle sea, so that I find myself crying because I'm happy, and because I'm sad, but never because I'm in despair. Once you're sure that God is waiting in the acceptance of every true thing, even pain, I'm not sure despair is even possible.