Held in the Arms of the World
I gave my mattress away to an aging Indian woman who had been sleeping on a hard surface and was having back problems. It was about the last thing I had left in my loft space worth bothering with. The twelve-hundred-square-foot loft was divided into two large spaces. The studio faced the noisy street three stories below. The living area was quieter and had a view of the Hudson River and the large prison on the far riverbank in Ossining, New York. In spite of its sad, dark reality, the prison looked like an exotic golden kingdom when the last of the day’s sunlight fell on it.
The studio that had been filled with my large paintings was now empty. My close friend Deborah had sent someone by to talk to me about using the studio. He gladly offered to pay the low seventy-five dollars a month rent I paid for the entire loft. The timing was perfect, as I had no money to pay the rent and it was due. He took the studio, facing the street. I stayed in the side facing the river.
With my rent miraculously taken care of, my life went deeply inward. I hardly spoke for over a year. Many visitors came, sat in silence, and left. Sometimes I spoke, but mostly I did not. The unwritten rule seemed to be that I would not speak out of discomfort or fear of silence. I would speak only when I felt that somehow a compassionate word might help someone I was with. Fasting, silence, and reading defined my life for several years. I fasted for so many days one year that I thought I would just fade away.
Several years earlier, I knew the famed German actress and singer Lotte Lenya. She befriended me and helped me financially as a young artist. She also gave me gifts. She gave me an old recording that she had made; it was a reading of “The Hunger Artist.” The story fascinated me. I didn’t know if the main character was a fool or a saint. The story was about a man in the circus whose art form was fasting. Each day great numbers of people came to the cage where he was housed and looked at him as though he were a strange animal. In amazement, they read the sign out front that announced the number of days he had fasted. Eventually, people lost interested and stopped coming to see him. The sign in front of his cage fell down, the number of days he fasted was forgotten, and everyone just ceased to care about the man. Still fasting, he was reduced to a crumpled little heap, lost in the pile of straw on the floor of his cage. Although the world had forgotten him completely, he still believed in his art enough to continue fasting.
The story haunted me and stayed in my mind during the time when I was fasting so much. I wondered if I had received the recording because my lot in life was to be forgotten, and my story would become that of the hunger artist. I didn’t know if I was giving myself to foolishness or saintliness. When we no longer use the world as a reference point, the tendency of the mind is to focus on little signs along the way that may offer guidance, especially in times of doubt.
That was how my inner life went while I was living in the Nyack loft, until one day a man appeared. He was carefully inspecting all aspects of our beautiful, yet old and rundown building. He wanted to buy it. The building was full of individual loft spaces used by artists as studios. A dance studio and yoga center were across the hall from me, and a bookstore and a pizza shop were downstairs on Broadway. Everyone in the building was a little nervous about a new person owning the building. He might change things! I think he was just a man wanting to buy a building, and he didn’t know what he was getting into. He did finally purchase the building and he assured people that he wasn’t going to change a thing.
He was most interested in my beautiful space. I was the only tenant who lived in the building full time. One day there came a knock on my door. It was the new landlord. He said, “You are going to have to leave. I would like to live in your space.” I asked, “How soon do you want me to go?” He said, “As soon as possible.” I inwardly said a prayer and walked straight out the door, leaving what little of my possessions remained. All hell broke loose in the building! Everyone thought he had thrown me out. I was gone so I knew nothing of the anger and conflict that followed. Everyone was just looking for a reason to pounce on him. Now they had their “justifiable” reason! I ran into the new landlord shortly after this occurred, and he told me what had happened. He told me that he had been in a car accident, and he was sure it was related to the stress of dealing with the problems created by my leaving. He asked me to help, perhaps by talking to the others in the building. I came back and helped the poor man make the transition by talking to everyone on his behalf. I assured people that he did not throw me out and that he was really a nice person who had every right to buy the building. They could stay in the building if they would just work with him. It was strange to be comforting others about their housing problems when I was on the street.
That was the beginning of life in the arms of the open world. It was very difficult living this unsettled new life. But interestingly enough, I never spent a single night on the street in the many years I lived without money. Many wonderful people helped me. In retrospect, what I find most amazing is that most of the people who helped me told me that they felt guilty. They felt that I gave them more than they could give back to me in return! I never fully understood this, but it was of great comfort for me to hear this. Somehow, what I was able to give was enough. I was fully present with others, listening with an open heart. I was fully, unconditionally there for all who came into my life. I also added creative touches in the houses I stayed in. I did whatever I saw needed doing. I even learned to cook and became quite good at it.
At times in this twelve-year period, the world was not there for me, or me for it. At times, the physical world seemed to fail, and I failed it in return. My life was not about the world; it was about God. When I had to let go of something, it was always the world that was the first to go. I was not able to attach myself to any comfortable situation. I walked away from a situation if I thought it no longer served everyone involved. I never felt like my life and actions were so perfect that the world loved and helped me consistently. Sometimes people were threatened by what my life represented in relation to their own. They had a personal need to keep me and what I represented at a distance. The nature of the ego is to see only its own reality. Any other reality—certainly one as strange as my own—was seen as a threat. I understood the threat—I lived with it. As long as I did my own work in the area where that fear came up in me, I could forgive. It was hard at times to be so misunderstood. It is human nature to misunderstand what we most fear about the unknown, and we have all fallen into that small-minded trap. But when the world seemed most against me and all seemed lost, something would always come through, just as I needed it. I was saved by something larger than the imperfect details of a given situation. I could not save myself nor could I depend on anyone to save me. A third, unseen entity ultimately held my life in balance, and I came to rely on this as the only thing in my life that was at all constant.
I had accomplished so much in the past with my will and I continued to struggle against surrendering that will. I once read that “the highest use of the will is to eliminate the will.” When we transcend the will and trust unseen forces, we are held in the arms of the world.