Two ways to open an egg
by Alexandra Franzen
open this egg!”
the first woman said
against a cold metal tin
a dead yellow gem
there, it’s open
watch me open
the second woman said
placing the orb
in the encircling arms of a nest
holding it to
for ten thousand breaths
… and the egg opened itself.
Nine years and four months ago, I fell out of a plane. I didn’t dive, I didn’t jump, I really just fell.
I was, as Paul Simon notes in his song Graceland, “falling and flying and tumbling in turmoil” in every part of my life those days. Working on the road three weeks out of four, deep in the ending of a seven-year relationship, living in a house that was stripped down to the studs. Being pulled in every direction, with no sense of where I was actually going. At that time, there was very little that seemed more sensible than climbing to 11,000 feet and falling out of a perfectly good airplane.
Now I, of course, have a paralyzing fear of heights. I’ve gotten vertigo on my grandparents’ third floor balcony. So this was perceived by some close friends as a bad idea from the very beginning (and let me tell you, I didn’t dare tell my mother). But a new friend was celebrating her graduation from a Master’s program and wanted to do something a little bit crazy. At this point I’d known her for all of a week, so when she asked if I wanted to come I didn’t hesitate for a moment.
Early on Saturday morning we drove out to the Gananoque Flyers clubhouse, wedged our bodies into bright red jumpsuits, and climbed into a tiny plane with no seats in the back. We slowly circled to 11,000 feet. Calmly pulling myself to the edge, I slid one foot onto the strut, the other onto the wheel, and I let go.
All of the turmoil, all of the tension, all of the pain of the last year rose suddenly to the surface, as I rolled head over heels over head over heels again, my eyes closed tight, clinging tightly to what I knew, even when what I knew was mostly heartache.
And then I heard a small whisper, right in my ear, “open”. And so I did. And so much of the turmoil was suddenly gone, thrown off by that twisting, that turning and tossing, cast out by the bright sun shining on me and sparkling upon the river below.
Looking down I could see the whole of my world: the prison where I volunteered, the country route I ran training for a half-marathon, and the quarry where once I had gone swimming with friends from work. And at a glance I knew that my view encompassed the meandering roads my partner and I had driven as we finally called it quits after years of drifting further apart.
But this was a new perspective. Because none of those things looked like they had from the ground. This new scale made plain the constraints I had taken for granted, my world revealed as really very small. With the slightest turn of my head there was more beyond where I had been; a castle on the waterfront, forests I did not know, fields I had not yet walked, roads and rivers that would lead me far from here. Despite the wind in my face and the roar in my ears, I was breathing deeply and freely and the quiet that my mind found I had been seeking a very long time.
The voice returned and said “fly”. And so I did. My body, still clenched tight, needed this further word of release. I unfurled my wings, threw my arms above me and sped through the air like Superman, my greatest childhood yearning fulfilled. I cast my arms to the side and swooped left and banked right like the sparrows in the meadow below.
And then the voice said “swim”. And so I did. I did the most graceful breaststroke of my life and I laughed aloud as I passed through thin clouds, swimming through the air as I fell to earth.
The voice, one last time, “come back” and I did. Grasping my harness, looping my fingers through the cords, my parachute opened and I floated, lighter than I’d felt in years. Ten minutes later, my feet touched the ground, a foot and a half from the red hula hoop target.
“There is a girl in New York City who calls herself the human trampoline.
And sometimes when I’m falling and flying or tumbling in turmoil I say
‘Oh, so this is what she means.’
She means we’re bouncing into Graceland.”
These days I still feel like I’m often on the verge of falling and flying or tumbling in turmoil. It’s a hard predicament to avoid for most of us in this era of multiple careers, multiple families, and bucket lists that grow and grow without ever crossing anything off. I saw a list a little while ago in National Geographic Traveler – 100 places you have to visit before you die. Combine that with the 100 restaurants I have to eat in, the 100 trails I have to hike, the 100 romantic gestures I have to make and the 100 ways to hack my sleeping habits to maximize productivity, and I wonder sometimes when it is that I’m supposed to simply live my life.
I know that transformation is essential, that change is the only true constant, but sometimes I just want to cry out for someone to halt the merry-go-round. I want to get off. I am, it seems sometimes, still rolling head over heels over head over heels again.
It has been my experience though, that when this turmoil ends, I am almost certainly blessed with clarity I haven’t found before. Indeed, when the world steadies and I lift my head and open my eyes, I find myself in a new place, not quite sure how I got there. Because transformation is always both a journey and binary, because we are ever changing and in any moment we are one thing and another.
Buddhist Nun Pema Chodron remarks in her treatise on the root of suffering that, “What keeps us unhappy and stuck in a limited view of reality is our tendency to seek pleasure and avoid groundlessness, to seek comfort and avoid discomfort. This is how we keep ourselves enclosed in a cocoon. Out there are all the planets and all the galaxies and the vast, vast space, but we’re stuck here in our cocoon. Moment after moment, we’re deciding that we would rather stay in that cocoon than step out into that big space. Life in our cocoon is cozy and secure. We’ve gotten it all together.” Chodron then calls us to leap into that turmoil, to move into the unknown, to blossom forth from that cocoon, and leave false safety behind.
But she’ll also tell you that if you are seeking Bodhichitta, that last most enlightened state where chaos and calm are reconciled to one another, you’re going to want a guide for the road.
That voice in my ear compelling me to open, to fly and to come back wasn’t an auditory hallucination or divine vision. At least what we commonly think of as a divine vision. It was in fact a giant bear of a French-Canadian man; whose name, of course, was Fuzzy. Indeed, as I tumbled from that plane, I was strapped to a strapping ex-military man. Fuzzy had put in his twenty years of service and moved along to his one true love: falling from the sky, over and over, every day. Helping others to let go too.
If you’re a first time skydiver, they don’t let you do it alone. You have to do a tandem dive ten times before they’ll let you try it solo. Now, I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen what tandem skydiving looks like, but it’s safe to say it’s one of the more undignified predicaments an adult can find themselves in. Hinged together at shoulders and hips, ratcheting straps pulling us tighter and tighter together, the best parallel I can offer is an oversized baby in a carrier. Fuzzy stood close to a foot taller than me, so once we were together, I had to stretch my toes to even touch the ground. With my battered leather aviator helmet, the huge goggles on my face and suspended haphazardly from a much larger man, I was thankful that no one seemed to have remembered a camera.
Now, I find myself wishing there were more pictures of that day, more pictures of Fuzzy. I want to study them to see if there’s something in his appearance that I missed. I want to search his face and see if it reveals somewhere in the creases the peace he holds, the grace he offers, the joy that makes him laugh from deep in his gut. I want to find him again and pursue the wisdom that is intrinsic in one who has lived right into life’s challenges and found love and compassion and a calling that fulfills his needs and others. I wonder still if I might have met my Bodhisattva, my teacher, my guide, falling through the air that day.
For I fell from that plane enormously calm, ready for what would come. While Fuzzy delighted in “popping my skydive cherry” as he politely put it, this jump was the 3500th time he had trusted himself to his own careful preparation, to the laws of gravity, to the certainty he held that land was beneath him and he would return to it again. That the catharsis of the fall would end in the comfort of the soft loam beneath his feet. In the grace of the earth and of connection.
“But I’ve got reason to believe
We all will be received
We all will be received in Graceland. Okay, hands up if you always suspected that Paul Simon was a Universalist.
We are all welcome in the land of grace, in a community of gratitude and faith, in a joined vision of a future filled with hope, beauty and depth.
Grace has always been a confusing word for me, and I can only tell you that five years of seminary on a three year degree hasn’t helped clear it up at all. I have no issue with the experience of grace. I’ve felt it many times. In nature, in a child, in love, in community. I have seen it, said it and sung it across the dinner table at home and in the dining hall at Unicamp.
But what of this notion in Luther or in Calvin, that grace is God’s alone to offer? What of this notion that grace is offered to a select few or that grace is, in the words of theologian Paul Zahl, “unconditional love toward a person who does not deserve it” or the old shorthand version, salvation by mercy, not merit.
The response of our Universalist forebears to this idea is always inspiring to me when it claims salvation not suffering for one and all. Likewise our Unitarian and humanist ancestors, who said that grace has nothing to do with the supernatural, but rather that it is any unbidden kindness offered without condition. Any unbidden kindness offered without condition. And so in our lives we are the ones who can create grace by our actions, we can see it in the beauty of the world about us, and we can practice accepting it when it is offered to us.
For us as Unitarian Universalists, coming into Graceland isn’t about the certainty of answers and avoiding that experience of being untethered. It’s about embracing it, about walking into that unknown mystery, braving the turmoil, being tossed, and being agents of grace ourselves.
As Rebecca Solnit says in her book “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” “We must leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.” Solnit invites us into that unknown future, into that distant horizon, beyond where we sit today. But we won’t get there without work and more and more I know that we won’t get there alone.
My leap was made possible because someone had gone before. Had paved the way. Had watered the seeds others had planted in me. Had taken their strength and turned it into an affirming hand on the shoulder, an encouragement whispered in the ear, a willingness to fall through the air and hold me when the turmoil came. For me each of these is an example of grace.
There’s a story I’ve heard many times; maybe you’ll know it too. It goes something like this. A guy is walking down the street in the night and he falls into a deep hole and can see no way out. He calls out for help, and a doctor answers. He says “Doc, can you give me a hand”, so the doctor writes a prescription, throws it into the hole and carries on his way. Again the man calls out for help, and this time a minister answers. He says “Reverend, can you me help me out,” so the minister writes a prayer on a piece of paper, tosses it into the hole and carries on his way. The man is growing more and more frustrated, more and more anxious, more and more fearful. Once more the man calls out for help, and this time it’s a friend who hears him. The friend immediately jumps down into the hole. “Joe?! What’re you doing? Now we’re both stuck down in this damned hole.” Joe looks at the man and says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down this hole before, and I know the way out.”
As our time unfolds, as the turmoil and tumult of this season grows, what holes do you already know the way out of? Whose tremors can you steady, who can you hold gentle as Alexandra Franzen’s egg, patiently allowing it to open on its own, graceful?
If it’s you in the turmoil, how will you escape the tyranny of the expectation that you be able to do everything alone. It is not weakness to admit the need for help – indeed, asking for help, acknowledging our interdependence, is courageous in a time when the individual is ultimate. You may feel like you don’t want to appear undignified, but sometimes you have to be willing to be embraced, to be strapped in, to trust that another’s feet are solidly on the ground while your toes still seek it out. How will you resist simply cracking the egg, and instead sit inside that darkness and be held until you are ready to emerge?
Sometimes we need to be shaken, to be tossed about, to careen wildly in darkness, before we are able to see anew. Sometimes we sit too long, eyes closed, hearts locked, in the same place. Sometimes we think that grace comes without effort, without courage, without faith; or that it comes to us alone.
If we are going to greet the new days at the ends of challenging times, by cracking our shells, by opening our eyes, by flying through the sky, I think we’re all going to need to get a little Fuzzy. We are all going to need to be a little Fuzzy.
May we all find in the coming months and in the coming years, in those challenging times that return again and again, our very own Fuzzy. May we all find the strength to know that we hold, each and every one of us, the capacity to be Fuzzy for another. The more we move into our struggles rather than away, the more we embrace the cacophony instead of shutting it out, the more we simply trust in the work of our hands and the hope in our hearts, the more unbidden kindness we offer without condition, the closer the land of grace comes.
“But I’ve got reason to believe
We all will be received, in Graceland”
To whom will you give a reason to believe? And who will you receive?
Our closing words come from the poet and painter Jan Richardson.
Blessed Are You Who Bear the Light
Blessed are you
who bear the light
in unbearable times,
to its endurance
amid the unendurable,
who bear witness
to its persistence
when everything seems
Blessed are you
the light lives,
the brightness blazes—
an altar where
in the deepest night
can be seen
the fire that
shines forth in you
in unaccountable faith
in stubborn hope
in love that illumines
every broken thing
It matters that we hold the light for one another.
Who holds the light for you? In this season, who might need you to hold the light for them in acts of love and grace?
Go into the world, sharing love and grace. So say we all.