Stepping Backward

Hearing lessons from a bomb

In some ways the bomb that aborted our vacation in India, that landed us in the hospital back in Oregon, created an unexpected harmony between my wife and me, a symmetry of form. We both had the same ear removed and reattached, the same missing eardrum built from scratch with cartilage grafts, the same absurd bandages wrapping our heads, the same concerns—about our future hearing, the new sounds we heard in the silence, the asymmetry of our newly attached ears.

The nurses had seen nothing like it—two bombing victims, a couple, injured the same way—and it was easy to be swept up in the novelty of how we seemed to move as one. I held my wife's hand as they administered the general anesthetic to her, as her eyes rolled upward and they wheeled her off toward the operating room. And within mere minutes of her departure I was on a gurney myself, being prepped by the same nurses, for the very same surgery. We woke up across from each other in the recovery room, came home with the same medicines, the same set of instructions and restrictions, and, most important, with a deep understanding of what the other had been through. And yes, we were oddly grateful to have that, as much as we would have preferred to spare the other any harm.

But despite this outward sense of being in step, in reality there was a hitch in mine. Hours before the blast wind blew us off our feet along the shores of the Ganges, we took an excursion to a Buddhist pilgrimage site, the town where the Buddha gave his first sermon after he achieved Enlightenment. The area is dominated by a formidable stupa, a dome-shaped Buddhist shrine made of carved stone that Buddhist pilgrims and tourists alike come to see. The fight we had there was nothing unusual. Not to say that our relationship was in trouble. It had always been volatile, deeply felt, full of daily tenderness and also frequent conflagrations, usually big, brief fights about trivial things that left no lasting damage.

On that day, I wanted to take Lucie's picture before the stupa. Yes, there was a group of Japanese pilgrims praying en masse before it. Yes, others circumambulated the stupa in deep devotion. But many people were taking its picture, often the pilgrims themselves, and given its size it was certainly possible to do so discretely, I argued. Lucie felt understandably uncomfortable about it. It just felt wrong to her. But I persisted. And persisted. Finally she relented. She glowered at the camera as I centered her in its sights. The rest of that afternoon we marched around the site separately, the irony not escaping me that we were stomping in anger across the same ground where the Buddha first preached the Middle Way and its Eightfold Path: right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration, right attitude, and right view.

The nearby city we were staying in was not Buddhist but one of Hinduism's holiest sites. Varanasi is the famed place where Hindus wash away their sins in the Ganges, a river that remains spiritually cleansing despite the trash, industrial effluent, dead cows, and human corpses floating through its waters. If you died in Varanasi it is said you automatically achieve moksha, release from the karmic wheel of death and rebirth. And while we nearly tested the truth of this claim, we might have returned from India unscathed if it weren't for me.

Like usual, we recovered from our spat and when we returned to our guesthouse in Varanasi, Lucie took a well-earned late-afternoon nap. But after awhile I woke her and cajoled her, with the same pushy persistence of earlier that day, to walk the river with me and watch the nightly Hindu puja ceremony where lamps and flowers were offered to the river, a river that some saw as Shakti herself, the divine embodiment of female creative power.

If I had let Lucie sleep, if I had yielded to the flow of things, if we had walked along the river on any other day, our lives would be very different now. And at first the superstitious part of me shouldered the weight of this. That the stupid fight I had started beneath the shadow of that holy stupa, the same pushy ego-driven dynamic that urged us forward toward the ceremony that would ultimately be the site of a horrific act of terrorism, had also pushed the wheel of karma in motion, producing a cosmic payback for my personal failings.

But while I rationally know that I don't bear that burden, I do feel like the adversity we faced together exposed not the fault lines in our relationship but the ones that run through me, the two ways of being—pursuing one's desire versus seeing and hearing the other—that fight and alternately win out in any given moment. Both of us will always have the lumpy scars behind our ears, the strange feeling of "other" deep in our ear canals, the high-pitched interior whine that only we can hear. These are marks of that outer conflict we inadvertently stepped in the middle of, between Hindus and Muslims, and their never-ending cycle of retribution, for a destroyed mosque here, for a desecrated Hindu ceremony there, for supremacy of one religion over a disputed shared space of holiness.

Yet I am also reminded of the Buddha's ears, of how they were depicted in that little out of the way town, improbably long and pendulous. Their formidable size symbolized his capacity to listen compassionately to the suffering of all the world.

Lucie and I still have our fights. And the ones I'm responsible for still come from that pushy, impatient space in me. But we always recover, and I believe we do so not because one of us wins or loses, but because of that other way of being, that other way of hearing, that mutual tuning into the desire of the other, and the reward that comes from meeting each other there.

Now when I look at the infamous photo of my wife before the stupa I cannot see the anger in her face. I had to walk backwards quite a ways to be able to fit the entire stupa within the picture, and thus she is but a small form at the bottom of it. And that's how it should be, the shrine to compassionate listening much larger than either of us, and stepping backward, not pushing forward, the answer that puts everything in perspective.



Family, International, Values, Spirituality


2 comments have been posted.

Ever since I was exposed to massive radiation by the explosion of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in PA, I have dedicated my life to pursuing the actions and communication of moving to alternative physical and conscousness structures available and assisted in the non use or closure of 3 large nuclear plants. The latest is the Columbia Generating Station nuclear plant focus owned by so called public utilities. I hope very soon this plant will be closed and transformation will begin. Thank you for your wonderful article.

Nancy Newell | July 2015 | Portland, OR

Thanks for sharing this personal story, David. It's especially sad to learn of your injuries knowing how much you've done to help other people (including me) heal through your acupuncture. Best wishes to you and your wife on your recovery.

Daniel | July 2015 | Portland, OR

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