My friend had left the garden patio and returned to the kitchen to put the water on for more tea. In his absence I puttered around the yard, wandered through a wisteria covered archway and toward the small pond where a Buddha statue sat serenely poised in the center, eyes closed, surrounded by water lilies and pink and white lotus. The lightly intoxicating scent of jasmine drew me closer to its source. There, just to the right of the small white flowered plant, was a large, smooth stone on which were carved the words,
“Tread lightly. Love gently. Let go of what was never yours.”
“Hmm,” I thought to myself, “Tough to push back against that I guess. It’d be like trying to get your footing on cotton candy.”
The stone didn’t attribute the words to anyone, though clearly the pond-centered Buddha was the closest suspect. I hoped they weren’t his words. I’d be disappointed if the Buddha had gone all Hallmark card/Susan Polis Shultz/Maya Angelou-in-later-life cheap and easy sentiment. I didn’t think much of it and yet something about the preciously worded stone bothered me.
Weeks later a conversation with a friend made me remember Leo Buscaglia. In my early life there were two stand-out positive influences in my otherwise dark, fear-filled existence: one was the movie “Free to Be You and Me” and the other was Leo Buscaglia. Despite all of my church upbringing and the bizarre Europeanized images of a lily white Jesus, what Jesus really looked and sounded like to me when I was twelve was Felichi Leonardo Buscaglia. What Would Leo Do? Dr. Leo Buscaglia was a professor in California and taught and wrote and gave passionate talks about love. Especially during fundraising season, PBS would run a series of his taped sold-out talks with titles like, “Together with Leo Buscaglia” or “The Art of Being Fully Human”. The auditorium would resound with applause as Buscaglia walked to the podium of the otherwise empty stage. As the audience continued to applaud wildly, he looked at us, his eyes sparkling like Christmas and opening his arms wide like Easter, like he would embrace the entire audience in one giant hug if he could. Of course, he would if he could. Buscaglia was at least as well known for being a world-class hugger as he was for his best-selling books. After every talk, as the credits rolled, there would be Buscaglia surrounded by hundreds of people and he embraced each and every one of them; each one of them being seen exclusively, individually, lovingly, despite being shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the audience now in the lobby. Buscaglia encouraged us to risk loving each other, to not wait, and through his heartfelt invitations and animated presentations he introduced me to thinkers and writers like Walt Whitman and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and Eric Fromm and, even though I had no lived experience of it, Something from his heart that shone through his eyes, also introduced me to the foreign idea that while love may wound, it didn’t bruise. Buscaglia’s message was really always the same whatever the title or theme of the talk might be: Risk loving. Approach open-armed. Embrace it all now. Hold it. Love it. Of course, he openly admitted, sometimes we’d be disappointed. Of course, sometimes we’ll be hurt and we’ll cry and our heart will feel like it’s breaking and because of it we’ll know we’re really alive and then we’ll love again because that is what you do to really live. I imagine Buscaglia would alter that irrepressible modern meme that begins, “Dance like no one is watching…” to “Dance like Everybody is watching and pull them to the center of the dance floor with you!” No, I couldn’t imagine Buscaglia encouraging me to “tread lightly” or “love gently”. Buscaglia’s refrain was always, “Wear it Now!” “Do it Now!” “Say it Now!” “Collect the autumn leaves and your friends and dance in them them Now…in your living room!” Perhaps, it’s semantics, but since words matter so much, I’m sure Buscaglia’s adjectives for how to love would be the urgent to call to love wildly, intensely, with abandon.
And, of course, there’s Uncle Walt, Walt Whitman singing his body electric, treading by foot and word and lusty spirit and leaving his mark by them all. I don’t think Whitman would sign off on “treading lightly” or “loving gently” either. Striding nude to the open field, heady with scent of his own bodys’ odor, a sly, slight smile creasing his lips as his fingers discover the dried trickle of cum nested in his beard from last night’s sailor, Whitman loved with fearless abandon and held what was not allowed to be his, what was never his to hold.
And, of course, there’s the actual Jesus holding so much that was never his: the adulterers, the widows and children, the lepers, the outcasts, and never letting them go and insisting that we do the same. Jesus told us that it is all ours, the whole messy, painful, ugly wash of humanity And life and life more abundantly – all of it ours – and without fail our greatest sin being our unwillingness to see it and to hold it – especially all of that that we think is not ours.
No, it seems to me that the greatest lovers and teachers in my life: Buscaglia, Whitman, and Christ would have stepped quickly, heavily across that smooth, lettered stone burdened by the weight of all that we would say wasn’t their own.
There’s an Icelandic legend, the “Volsunya Saga”, in which the heroine, Gudrun, who avenges the death of her brothers, says, “The legacy that endures the longest is not love, but unyielding cruelty.” Now, there’s a thought I definitely need to push back on. We all should, but none of us can if we believe we should “let go of what was never ours.” Too often this idea translates to our having experienced a loss; the end of a relationship, the death of a loved one, and we’re injured further by folks with good intentions that tell us we should “let go” of that love, that it was only ours for a short time, or worse, that it was never really ours at all. And since love, like the heat that it is, expands and rises and pain, like the cold that it is, contracts and descends, we’re left with only the cruelty, if we let the love go. We’re left with only the pain if we believe the love was never really ours. Surely the only way to change this is to Not let go of the love, but to hold it; hold it even while it burns and until it cools and settles, so that at least we hold both the love and the pain, so that we are not turned into a kind of Teflon, but instead, slowly, we become more like well-seasoned cast iron, participants in transformation.