Thirteen years into our marriage, my husband, Chuck, chose the itinerant, public life of a Methodist pastor. As an introverted, spiritual-but-not-religious person, I struggled with his decision but was grateful that he was able to serve in Iowa City, where we were raising our two sons. But after 12 years in Iowa City, just as our nest emptied, the bishop appointed Chuck to a Methodist church in Ames, and I realized I was going to struggle with the “itinerant” part of my husband’s vocation.
And then, five years later, DeWitt, a town of 5,000.
The fact is, we do grow more vigorously in some places than in others. We can fall for a place just like we fall for a mate. It had been love at first sight with Iowa City, and even Ames had become a best friend. But as a writer who thrives in university towns, how would I survive little DeWitt?
One day soon after our move, I picked up some smooth landscaping stones clustered around the foundation and made three small piles on the side of the step to the kitchen door. One cairn was for Iowa City—still Home-with-a-capital-H. Another represented Ames and its unexpected blessings. The third and smallest was little DeWitt.
I prayed. Dear Big Busy God who will be watching over Chuck and his new flock, will you ask some quiet little god to watch over me, the agnostic, privacy-seeking pastor’s wife who is living a very public life in a very small fishbowl!
I took a few deep breaths and repeated a phrase I’d picked up from a book by Thich Nhat Hanh: “I am home. I have arrived,” I told myself.
But my stomach remained unsettled, so I began driving 70 miles to Iowa City two Wednesdays a month to sit in meditation with a small Buddhist sangha at the old Unitarian Church near downtown. Gradually I learned to watch my thoughts and feelings come and go—and I realized how utterly gripped I was by my likes and dislikes. Graspings and aversions, Buddhists call them—two major causes of suffering.
I didn’t want to live in such a small town; I wanted to return to Iowa City. I wanted to be less lonely, more connected; but I didn’t want to be too connected, because I didn’t want to get stuck in DeWitt. I didn’t want to grow old there, wither and die there.
With fascination, I watched my thoughts come and go with awareness, compassion, and nonjudgment—and I was getting it: the grasping for Home was triggering my suffering. “What fires together wires together,” neuroscientists say, meaning that when we ruminate over negative thoughts, our brains develop neuronal tracks that the brain defaults to, especially under stress. I began to see that my thinking patterns were affecting not just me, but also Chuck; and not just Chuck, but also my family and friends back in Ames and Des Moines and Iowa City who knew I was in distress and frequently called to check on me. My refusal to warm up to DeWitt also surely affected the other good, hospitable, amiable people there as well.
Dukkha, the Buddhists call it—that anxiety we experience when we are fixated, trancelike, on our graspings and aversions.
Thich Nhat Hanh tells us to bring to ourselves the utmost compassion when we are aware of our dukkha. We are to tell ourselves, “Dear One, I’m here for you.” Watching my thoughts and feelings, I began to see the layers of suffering—the grief of leaving family and friends, plus a layer of shame for carrying the grief. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t turn it off? Yes, I loved Iowa City, but really, why couldn’t I just bloom where I was planted, just for now?
I began to offer compassion inward. “Dear One, I am here for you,” I told myself, putting my hand over my heart as Thich Nhat Hanh recommended.
One time, I asked the sangha, “Do you ever get to the point where your issues don’t bother you anymore?”
Charity, one of the elders, smiled. “They just become irrelevant.”
Miriam said, “When I am aware that my mind is getting triggered by one of my hot buttons, I say to myself, ‘Oh, there’s my stuff.’” She smiled and everyone chuckled.
Another explained the Buddhist concept of the two arrows of suffering. “The first arrow is the external event that causes suffering. We have no control over that,” he said. “The second arrow is the suffering we add with our thoughts. That layer we do have some control over. We can accept our thoughts with compassion, but we also can learn to let go of them. ‘Dropping the storyline,’ it’s called,” he said. “By dropping the narrative of what we want or don’t want, even for just a few minutes, we can remove the second arrow of suffering—and reduce the pain.”
Each time, I soaked up the discussion. Then, under the night sky, I drove the 70 miles back to DeWitt, the town’s dismal plainness stabbing my heart, triggering that desperate wanting to go Home.
Oh, there’s my stuff. Dear One, I’m here for you. I know this is hard. But no need to grasp. In time, we’ll get this figured out. For now, let’s try dropping the story.
Breathe, Suzanne, breathe.
Slowly I made myself turn from the question of what I wanted or didn’t want from life to: What did life want from me while I was in DeWitt? Eventually I began to assimilate with the community.
Now, two moves later, we are in Mason City—and I built only one cairn.