Who Was She?

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In an often-told Zen tale, the parents of a village girl storm the hut of the aging monk Hakuin and thrust on him their daughter’s newborn child. They blame him for fathering the baby, mock his esteemed reputation, and name him a dirty old man. Awkwardly cradling the squalling baby, Hakuin makes a deep bow and responds with equanimity, “Is that so?”

That night, as a chill wind penetrates the hut, he encircles the baby with his own warmth, offering her protection. He nurtures this child as a father would his daughter: stitching her clothes from his monk’s robes, sharing his own meager broth and rice, as well as schooling her in poetry, brush painting, and the wisdom of the dharma.

When the true father is revealed, the village girl’s parents appear once again at Hakuin’s hut, this time to claim the child as their own and to take her away. They praise Hakuin for his generosity, ask forgiveness for tarnishing his image as a monk, and name him a great benefactor. As he releases the beloved child, he makes a deep bow and again with equanimity responds, “Is that so?”

I’ve found myself returning to the Hakuin tale as I’ve reflected on a recent school reunion. A reunion—what better occasion to confront the tight grip of the self image; the exquisite pull, and sometimes pain, of seeing through the lens of reputation, name, and identity?

The first class reunion for my progressive New York City private school was our twenty-fifth. Some of us, including me, had started at the school at age 6, and so we went back a long way together. At the reunion, my fifth-grade teacher told me a story. “At morning circle,” Joan said, “I asked for a volunteer. Before I’d mentioned the errand, you raised your hand and jumped from your seat. You raced out of the room en route to do that errand. Who knows where you went? It was ten minutes before you raced back, empty-handed, confused.” I’ve savored the tale of this small, intense enthusiast, and wondered, “Who was she?”

At our second reunion, our thirty-fifth, my childhood friend Suzy told my 10-year-old daughter about the young me: “Every single day at school your mom would cry.” And who was this? I’ve pondered both of these stories for hints of who I was and, in some ways, who I am now.

Over these many years, I’ve committed much time and effort to meditation practice, to therapy, to qigong or yoga, to countless modalities to train in awareness and equanimity. That’s meant I’ve often taken myself gently by the scruff of the neck—to listen with more care, to contain soaring emotions (not always so benign as enthusiasm or tears), and to pause and consider before I jump. At times I’ve taken pride in my progress; indeed, I’ve relished praise from friends for how I have “changed.”

Of course, in Buddhism we’re taught that pride is based in illusion and, ultimately, causes pain, as does attachment to either blame or praise. Yet how I’ve yearned for you to certify me, to stamp me, to applaud me, to mirror me back to myself as a new and improved self. And who is this “you?” I’ve been in awe of you since I was 6—the Big Shot, the primo-identity!

This past year, I’ve been one of the planners of a third reunion, our forty-seventh. In my kitchen in Berkeley I met with a classmate, Carly. She had been the queen Big Shot. When we were little, I dreaded the Fifth Avenue bus ride home with Carly, who teased me daily about my little-shot ways—a dreamer, a klutz, a teacher’s pet. Often, as we rode downtown, she would knock me down and sit on top of me, crushing my cheek against the seat. With me struggling underneath her weight, my face stinging with tears, we’d ride past my stop at 81st by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, all the way to hers at 53rd, almost as far as MoMA. It was a long walk back uptown to my stop.

I still don’t know why she did it or why I stood for it. I do know that at some point I paid a high price to win Carly’s friendship. I also know that we continued a long love-hate history throughout school and beyond; listening to Mozart together, staying up all night talking about our boyfriends, our mothers. We went through her breakdown during college and mine ten years later. Since then, our on-and-off visits have felt strained for reasons that have remained mostly opaque.

At our recent visit, after reunion planning, we exchanged news of family and work. I picked up a booklet of photos from the past month’s meeting of the Berkeley City Council, where in their tradition of naming days in honor of local artists, my birthday for that year was named “Barbara Gates Day.” The cover photo featured a group shot of my crew, arrayed in jeans and shawls, running shoes and silver boots—family, the staff of Inquiring Mind, neighborhood kids—precious strands of my life that had come together to celebrate. But as soon as I opened the booklet, something felt off. I hurried through to the final shot of me at a podium, eyebrows raised, nostrils flared, gesturing with dramatic flourish. “Whoa!” Carly shook her head with a snort. “Same old Barbara!” She scowled, narrowed her eyes, and, as if to someone across the room, added, “Nope, hasn’t changed a bit!” I felt it like a wallop. A whole lot of words followed that I couldn’t take in, that I could barely hear, but three that I thought I did were: “Full of yourself.”

Where did that come from? I had the urge to grab her by the shoulders, to escort her out the front door, and, with an imperceptible shove at the landing, to knock her down the steep sixteen steps. Tongue-tied, I sat there raging. Once again I was pinned under Carly on the Fifth Avenue bus headed past my home stop. Again, I felt crushed into some diminished picture of my “self.”

But what if instead, like the Zen monk Hakuin, I had responded with a gracious nod, “Is that so?” What if I had let her comment breeze through our exchange?

Not so easy. I try to imagine our monk by the doorway to his hut clasping the dazed baby to his fast-beating heart, blamed, called dirty old man. Or years later, releasing this child, whose tender life felt inseparable from his own, now praised with the lofty great benefactor. When his world as he knew it was overturned and he was presented with opposing identities, what a feat to hold steady in himself, to be unshakable. For me, pulled as I am by enthusiasm, by hurt, or by thirst for validation, such freedom from the addiction to identity doesn’t come easily.

This visit with Carly touched off memories. So many memories from childhood were of the powerlessness of us little shots and the clout of the Big Shots—whom I feared, hated, and secretly craved to impress.

What if I had let her comment breeze through our exchange?

Who were the little shots? They were dreamers, artists, tellers of tales: Ariana, with her tender cheeks and spun-sugar halo of hair, a painter, even at 9 capturing the nuance of seasons; Plum, with her silky braids and embroidered tops, a book lover who wrote endless tales of mystery and imagination; and me, a fervent story-maker, rapt in the child’s worlds of dress-up and dolls.

And the Big Shots? They were the tough girls. Each and every one could throw a mean pitch in baseball or Soak ’Em—the scourge of little shots like me. In a Soak ’Em game, sometimes dubbed Dodge Ball or Murder Ball, the Big Shots seemed all powerful. When two teams faced off in the gym, the team with more Big Shots always inevitably won. When one of them got the ball, we knew they would slam it at one of us little shots and knock us out of the game. A sidearm throw aimed at the face could blacken an eye or bloody a nose, or aimed at the feet could send us flying–smack–against the gym floor. And for me, the choosing of teams was the most excruciating part. Big Shot captains took turns picking, and my friends and I were always chosen last. Talk about a diminished identity.

After two years of planning, when the forty-seventh reunion finally happened, our gatherings included a visit to a building overlooking Central Park that for many years housed our school. In a bizarre juxtaposition with our freedom-loving progressive institution, this building now housed a minimum-security prison. A bright-eyed, gray-haired, and balding group of us was graciously ushered around the site. As we toured the lobby (now complete with metal detectors and a gun arsenal) and the former classrooms (now dorm units with tight tiers of bunks), I had an eerie vision of the sacred chambers of our childhood illuminated in the background. Glowing behind a large, dimly lit room rose our school gym. A Soak ’Em game was in full swing, Carly in a blue mesh pinnie spinning a mean ball, sending me sprawling.

As I descended the stairs from the cafeteria and peered down the corridors of locked doors, a memory blossomed into consciousness:

With a passel of children, I skitter down the steps, laughing and shoving, dash left through the fifth-floor hallway, almost to the end, and throw open the door. It’s Fred Shultz’s fifth-grade math class. Fred is late, so someone seizes the boxes of fresh chalk and starts throwing. It’s like a multi-ball Soak ’Em assault, two Big Shot girls in alliance with the boys against the little shots—Ariana, Plum, and me. We recoil at the far end of the table and duck a barrage of flying chalk while flinging handfuls of broken pieces back at our tormentors. Suddenly, the Big Shot girls, armed with new packs of ammunition, jump up on their chairs and, towering above the rest of us, focus their full attack on Ariana.

Through the cloud of chalk dust, I stagger up onto a chair. In a sudden reversal, I turn on Ariana, pummeling her with chalk. Ariana, with her spun-sugar hair; Ariana, who has been my dearest friend. When I’ve used up the last of the chalk shards, I search wildly for more. That’s when I grab the eraser from the tray along the blackboard. With all of the force I hadn’t been able to muster in hundreds of failed Soak ’Em games, I hurl that eraser. When the speeding missile hits Ariana’s eye, she shrieks in pain.

Did Fred finally arrive and make us stop? Did Ariana leave in an ambulance? I can’t remember. I do remember that Ariana was out for the rest of the week while rumors spread that she might lose her eye. It was June already, almost time for summer vacation, and as the year drew to a close, she stayed home, and, in fact, the following year she never came back.

As we alumni headed out of what once was our school and into Central Park, I grappled with the karmic consequences of this chalk fight. By hitting Ariana with that eraser I ended our friendship and was catapulted into the ranks of the Big Shots. Heady with the pheromones of betrayal and victory, I was now allied with Carly and her pals. Secretly, I harbored the anguish of loss mixed with a stinking dirty sense of shame. And now, more than five decades later, despite the fact that Ariana’s eye healed quickly and that she and I reconciled during college, I have continued to feel the pain of that betrayal. Now, sitting on a park bench, I came back into contact with its burn. I lost Ariana. I lost my way.

Our school had espoused freedom; mostly, it was the opposite of a prison with metal grids and an arsenal. But indeed, we were human beings suffering from the same imprisoning habits as the rest of our species. How locked in we were by our fixed images of each other—Big Shot, little shot, crybaby, enthusiast, athlete, artist—and our images of ourselves—in my case, so rigid that I sacrificed what I loved most just to end up in a different cell.

Sitting on the bench, my thoughts steeped in the chalk fight, I returned to the grown-up event with Carly. In my Berkeley kitchen when I had felt accused, I jumped to anger so fast. Yet I hadn’t known my raw heartache underneath—of feeling somehow unseen and unappreciated. Now, I let that heartache seep through me. It then came to me, Carly may well feel that way too. Why would the pain that drove me to switch sides and assault a friend somehow be different from what drives Carly or anyone else to bully?

And I returned to “Is that so?” Is anything ever really “so?” I questioned the pictures I hold of myself or Carly, of little shots or Big Shots. Without those, what is left? Not me. Not her. Not us. Not them. Right there a glimpse of emptiness. And out of that, a taste of equanimity.

This piece has been adapted from the Fall 2010 issue of Inquiring Mind (Vol. 27, No. 1). Text © 2010 Barbara Gates.

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