This is a letter to my 22-year-old son. He is in England.
You once told me, in a French cafe in Roslyn…
– over your onion soup with its crust of toasted Gruyere and my salade compose; you were a freshman at Hofstra and I, frazzled and overwhelmed, was meeting you halfway between Great Neck, where I was helping your grandmother pack up her house, and your campus) –
I’d been wishing aloud, wistful, thoughtful – the way that I get when you and I are together, talking about life, sharing a meal. I said, “I wish that I’d known, at 20, how much I’d love doing this work…”
– this work that I now do, this listening to stories, this weaving of meaning and memory, this alchemy –
And you said. “Mommy. You could not have done this work when you were 20. You had to live your life first.”
And I understood something I hadn’t understood before.
It is what it is, you taught me. You were 19 years old.
A few years later, when you were a Junior, at another college, closer to home, we met at another cafe. This time, it was Panera Bread, and I was worrying about your future, your resume, your after-college career plans
– You were having half a sandwich and a bowl of soup. I was working my way through a chicken caesar salad –
“Mommy,” you said. “All of this concern about what I am going to do; what plans I am making or not making is anxiety. It’s future tripping and it’s not doing anyone any good. Right now, I am going to enjoy this bowl of tomato soup. Isn’t it nice?”
And I understood something that I hadn’t understood.
It is what it is, you taught me. You were 21.
So now, dear love, I am reaching across the ocean – across the Skype connection where you and I have been having an extended conversation about suffering; and the Facebook Chat box that pops up each evening when I am just finishing dinner and you are getting ready, in England, for bed.
I am reaching across miles and memory and placing, back in your hand, this pearl that you have given me (twice) and which I have treasured ever since:
Open your hand.
Here it is.
It is what it is.
This blog post, this night in England; that romance, that friendship, that new town full of unfamiliar streets and buildings – all of it, simply, is what it is.
it is not a test designed to trip you up, to test you, to force you to reveal your imperfections, your scars.
It is what it is.
Just a romance, a friendship, a cafe to discover, a bunch of classes that you’ve never taken before.
And you, meeting it, are what you are.
There is no right path to take, no choice that will not lead back to you, as you are.
All the rest is anxiety.
You, my wise son, are a teacher of “It is what it is.” And so you are learning what you will one day teach: You are learning about suffering and attachment and wrestling with your mind and your ego and your body and your soul.
There in the monk’s cell of your college dorm, you are learning, as all teachers must, the things that you will teach – by meeting their opposites.
You are living through it, strengthening your understanding through simply living your life.
Still, it helps to have a teacher. And for that, I have a suggestion.
There was another teacher, a great teacher, of “it is what it is.”
You learned about his life in 6th grade: A young nobleman, a prince, protected and pampered looked down one day upon the village that surrounded the castle where he had dwelled all of his life and suddenly, that teeming, lively, chaotic world called to him.
He had never cared about it before. And now it was all he could think about.
And a great longing surged through him. A longing to know more, to explore and experience that world. To leave the protective walls of his castle and learn the ways of the world.
So he did.
I can see that longing surging through you now. I can see it lighting the fire under your questions, making your search feel more urgent and also, more painful. That is the kind of suffering SIddhartha was feeling when he left his familiar home to travel and to learn.
He learned so much. He also suffered. He missed his family. He missed his familiar habits and routines, the ways of the castle.
But the contrast between the ways of the unfamiliar world and his home taught him much. He met many people – new kinds of people. Meeting them, also, taught him much.
One day, he sat down under a Bodhi tree and closed his eyes. He sat there until he became enlightened.
When he opened his eyes, the young man had become the Buddha.
The Buddha gave the world many teachings – among them, four noble truths:
1. Life is Suffering.
2. The origin of suffering is attachment.
3. The cessation of suffering is possible.
4. The path to the cessation of suffering. (This path, according to Buddha, is the middle way between the two extremes of excessive self-indulgence (hedonism) and excessive self-mortification (asceticism). According to the Buddha, this Eightfold path leads, eventually, to the end of the cycle of rebirth.
I would like to call your attention to the second truth – the origin of suffering is attachment – and to the middle way, since you and I often talk about hedonism and self-mortification.
And now I will step aside.
Just as I did when you were 1, 2, and 3, when you were just learning to speak, to walk, to run. I let you practice, make mistakes and make your own way. I let you choose your own path.
The truth is: Even if I did not let you, you would choose your own path.
You are free.
- Free to follow or not follow this teacher.
- Free to suffer or not suffer.
- Free to learn or not learn from that suffering.
- Free to find a middle way between hedonism and asceticism.
- Free to read or not read this post. (I have done my part in writing it. In leaving it here along the side of the path.)
- Free to walk the path, or walk the rougher terrain off the path.
Just remember, whatever you choose: It is what it is. There is no way you can choose a path that will lead anywhere but back to you.
My heart, and my door, will always be open to you. My Skype connection; and Facebook Chat are open, any time. I have loved you since the beginning of time; as I will love you until the end and beyond.