At the beginning the aspirant should go into solitude now and then. Spiritual discipline is necessary. You want to eat rice; suppose you sit down somewhere and say, ‘Wood contains fire and fire cooks rice.’ Can saying it cook the rice? You must get two pieces of wood and by rubbing them together bring out the fire.
I'd decided to go to the Vedanta Society’s retreat center in Olema, California, near Point Reyes National Seashore. It required a letter from Swami Sarvadevananda and permission from the swami in charge of the retreat center – and I’d gotten both. The women’s center allowed no more than eight women at a time so, on a Sunday afternoon, I brought it up with Kevin. “The retreat center said it would be okay if I came up so I have to decide when to go.”
Kevin was at the sink, filling up the tea kettle. He’d gone straight from the gym to the farmer’s market without a shower. The late morning sun was coming through his wild, early silver hair. Sundays are sweet, sleepy; each of us usually puttering somewhere in the house in the comfort of communal solitude.
Kevin walked from the sink to the stove with the kettle and said, teasing, “I’m not going to have to come rescue you from a cult or anything, am I?”
A messy pile of newspapers was on the yellow-and-blue tablecloth in front of me along with the tops of a few strawberries on a small white plate. There was so much light coming from the windows near the table, Kevin hadn’t bothered to turn the lights on over the stove, the darkest part of the kitchen. We were both in our Sunday best: sweats and shorts, loose shirts, shoes meant to be worn, not looked at. Kevin put the kettle down on a burner.
“It’s just a silent retreat,” I said. “There aren’t any group events or talking or even eating together. You even have to bring your own food.”
His back was still to me as he bent down to make sure the gas was turned on under the correct burner even though he knew those burners by heart.
This wasn’t a joke. He was actually worried.
I got up because I couldn’t think what to say. I started to take some useless receipts and out-of-date school lunch forms off the refrigerator door when the kitchen door slammed open. Luke never could just open a door; his entrance was always an event. “Bertrand Russell’s a fucking idiot.” He paused, looking for a reaction, but then barreled on without one. “You think Mickey Morgan would mind if I called my essay: ‘Bertrand Russell’s a Fucking Idiot’?”
Luke was standing in his boxers and socks. There was no muscle, bone, organ or hair follicle in his body that wasn’t straining and stamping towards adulthood but not always at the same time or in the same direction. Still in front of the lichen of promotional magnets, yellowed receipts, a half-full grocery notepad and ancient school announcements, I was torn, between life and lists, between loving and organizing. I gave up on the fridge door. What were my options? Deal with the words or with the passion? Teacher Mom or Etiquette Mom? I hate Etiquette Mom. She ‘s a priss, and pretty ineffective, too. Of course, there was always Tired Mom or Distracted Mom or Keep-to-the-Schedule-Mom or I’m-Talking-to-Your-Father Mom.
Maybe it’s time to experiment with no official role at all.
I turned from the fridge door and said, “I think you have a perfectly grabby title without that one word.”
“Yeah, but he is, he’s a fucking idiot.”
I decided to concentrate on the fact Luke was, well, talking about homework, at least. “What’s this essay about?”
“God.” He swiped a glass from the cupboard and got between me and the refrigerator to pull the cranberry juice out of it.
I threw the papers I’d taken off the door into the trash and said, “How long is it supposed to be?”
“The usual. Two to three pages.”
That made sense. God, in two or three pages. By Wednesday. My insanity is spreading.
Or maybe he’s just fifteen.
When I was fifteen I took a stance that all music was bad, that it filled up space in brains like so much cotton, protecting people from the sharp edges of their thoughts. I took it mostly to see what would happen. It was thrilling standing out there alone on a plank, seeing what passion I could stir up just with words and stubbornness.
Kevin, who’s usually game for debates, was staying focused on his tea-making so I bit: “So why is Bertrand Russell an idiot?”
“He takes the position that Thomas Aquinas’ Prime Mover theory – you know the one that says that of course God exists because nothing can start moving without something making it move?” He waited, glaring. He’d even stopped mid-pour. When I nodded, he continued pouring but not before roughly wiping his long hair off his face - with the hand with the cap to the cranberry juice bottle still in it. “Well, Russell says that’s bogus because nothing can exist without a cause. Just because he can’t imagine something that could create itself doesn’t mean it can’t exist. I mean, if God is omniscient and omnipotent and infinite, then why couldn’t God create itself?” He threw the bottle of cranberry juice back in the fridge door, turned back to me, and said, “Om – ni - scient. Om - ni - po - tent.” He snorted and then took a swig of his red juice.
This was the child who, at six, announced that he knew there was no God because he thought the Big Bang theory made the most sense as the origin of the universe. Now, he's God’s advocate. Of course, his younger brother, Matt, whose answer when he was four years old to Luke's Big Bang thesis was , simply, that God did exist and who has insisted on saying grace before every meal before anyone can eat since he was five, now thinks he's Wiccan.
I took hold of Luke’s forearm so I could stand on my toes to sort of kiss his scruffy cheek and said, “I know you’ll figure it out.”
“What-ever.” He wheeled around, long hair flying, pounding the living room floor as he left for his room. Just before his bedroom door slammed shut, Kevin and I heard, “Fucking Bertrand Russell.”
Kevin and I just looked at each other in the stillness Luke left behind, the question and answer didn’t need to be said out loud: did we just do the right thing? Not reacting, not going after the language? Probably not, but who knew? Kevin scooped some loose tea from one of his tins of Chinese tea into a small pot.
I said, “Don’t worry, Boy. I’ve stayed away from any temple where they looked way too happy.”
“I’m not sure what that means, but, okay. I just don’t want to have to rescue you.” Kevin was on the other side of the butcher block island slowly pouring the boiling water over the dry leaves.
“Boy, don’t worry. It’s still me.”