The group I was traveling with in Jerusalem had risen early for the day's planned itinerary. I'd stayed behind. I could no longer keep up the charade that I was part of their adventure: I wasn't here to visit sacred sites, or to walk the Stations of the Cross, wail at the Western Wall, or chant the Ninety-nine Names of Allah. No, I was here to further delay making a decision about my life at home. I had come to Jerusalem only because my friend, who was leading the trip, was worried enough about me to pay my fare--which worried me enough to fly halfway around the world to a city as mixed up as myself. Now I was here, but really I was still back there, at home in New York, scared and confused about my crumbling marriage.
Wandering deeper into the walled Old City, I came to an ancient alleyway lined with shops selling religious artifacts for the Western pilgrim. Normally I would veer away from these kinds of stores. Inspirational sayings stitched in needlepoint or Virgin Mary coffee mugs seemed no different to me than those velvet Elvis paintings you see at flea markets. But I needed help. I needed inspiration--even from a coffee cup, or an embroidered pillow, or from Elvis himself.
One narrow, dusky shop appealed to me, and I went in. On the floor was a patchwork of Persian rugs. On the walls hung small paintings, some of saints and prophets, others of mountains and flowers. Was this a gallery? A rug store? A gift shop? I couldn't tell. In the back of the long room, drinking tea at a low table, sat two Arab men dressed in white caftans. One was a stooped and aged gentleman, and the other--his son perhaps--was a mysterious-looking character with gleaming eyes and long, black hair like the mane of a well-groomed horse. After a while the son put down his tea and came forward to greet me. Fixing his gaze on me, as if trying to read the secrets of my heart (or the contents of my purse), he said in perfect English, "Come, you will like this picture." Taking my hand, he led me around piles of rugs to the back of the store, near where his father was sitting.
The old man stood and shuffled over to meet me. He placed his right hand on his heart and bowed his head in the traditional Islamic greeting. "Look," he said, pointing at a small painting hanging on the wall. He touched my arm with the kindness of a grandfather. "See the rose?" he asked, turning me toward the picture. There, framed in dark wood, was the ethereal image of a rosebud, with shimmering, pale petals holding one another in a tight embrace. Under the flower was an inscription that read:
And the time came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.
Unexpected tears stung my eyes as I read the words. The two men hovered around me, more like bodyguards than salesmen. I turned away from them, hiding my face in the shadows. I was afraid that if the old man showed me one more ounce of mercy I would break down in a stranger's store, thousands of miles from home.
"Nothing is wrong," I said. "I'm fine."
"No, something is wrong," the man said. "You are in pain."
"What do you mean?" I asked, suspicious yet curious. Was he a con man, trying to sell me the painting, or was my heartache that palpable, my story so easily read? I felt exposed, as if the long-haired man was a spy of the soul who knew all about my marriage, my two little boys, and the crazy mess my husband and I had made of our life together.
"What do you mean?" I asked again. I looked at the men. They stared back at me. We stood in silence, and then the long-haired man repeated, "You are in pain. Do you know why?"
"No, why?" I asked, even though I certainly did know why.
"Because you are afraid."
"Afraid of what?"
"Afraid of yourself," the man said, placing his hand on his chest and patting his heart. "You are afraid to feel your real feelings. You are afraid to want what you really want. What do you want?"
"You mean the painting? You think I want the painting?" I asked, suddenly confused and desperate to get away from the smell of the rugs and the intensity of the man. "I don't want the painting," I said, making my way toward the door. The man followed me to the front of the shop. He stood directly in front of me, took my own hand, and put it over my heart.
"I don't mean the painting," he said kindly. "I mean what the painting says.
I mean that your heart is like the flower. Let it break open. What you want is waiting for you in your own heart. The time has come. May Allah bless you." Then he slipped back into the darkness. I pulled open the door, stepped out into the bright and bustling day, and wound my way through the circling streets to my hotel. Once in my room, though it was noon and ninety degrees, I ran a bath.
As I rested in the tub, the words under the painting echoed through my mind. Somehow, the long-haired man had seen into me and named the source of my pain. I was like the rosebud, holding myself together, tight and tense, terrified of breaking open. But the time had come. Even if I was risking everything to blossom, the man was right: It was time for me to find out what I really wanted-not what my husband wanted, not what I thought my children needed, not what my parents expected, not what society said was good or bad. It was time for me to step boldly into the fullness of life, with all of its dangers and all of its promises. Remaining tight in a bud had become a kind of death. The time had come to blossom.