To Sleep with a Stranger

It was late. Before collapsing into bed, would the grandparents have time to talk, to communicate openly as husband and wife, even for a moment?

“There was a great piece in the New Yorker on Camus and Sartre,” I volunteered, hoping to catch my wife’s attention with an article I had read recently. (Jeanine happens to be French.)

Sitting on the edge of the bed, she answered incredulously “Do I hear a shower?” She lowered her head to listen. Down the hall, there was the unmistakable sound of running water, our granddaughter in her bath.

Our teenage granddaughter lives with us. She has a head of long, cascading brown hair. Getting it dry after a shower is one my wife’s perennial concerns. “Can you believe it?” she asked rhetorically, exasperation in her voice, “taking a shower at this hour?”

I paused before answering. “I’m sure there are larger issues,” I said finally, in imagined solidarity with my existential friends.

“What do you mean?” Jeanine demanded, irritation in her voice.

This evening, I had hoped to share my admiration for Camus.  As a man, he combined altruism and elegance. His writing, especially his journalism, while incisive, struck a poignant tone.

Where was my sense of engagement, my wife demanded? Was I ready to ignore the implications of everything? How about a teenager with a contagious cold or a mysterious, bedroom-based, unstoppable eco-culture created by moisture, coconut conditioner and a cotton pillowcase, could I ignore those too? No mention of Camus. Perhaps I had missed the point of the existentialists, I wondered.

Maybe it’s a French thing, but if my wife senses that her husband is attempting to hover above the day-to-day details that should concern him, she will energetically challenge his lofty position. Think “la revolution” and “la justice.”

“I better hear the hair dryer,” Jeanine muttered, listening for the next revelation from down the hall.

Feeling alone on the edge of the bed, I was left to contemplate my own existence. Earlier in the day, I had been a meditation teacher at the local retreat center. Who was I now? In the morning, our granddaughter would be driven to High School. That’s who I was; I thought bitterly to myself, I was the driver. The hair needs to be dry, it needs to be brushed, and in the morning, it will need to be driven to school.

Existential pleasantries are not for drivers.  Drivers just need to be ready to drive. From down the hall, came the sound of an electric hair dryer revving up.

Relieved that granddaughter had done the right thing, my mind wandered to that day’s meetings at the meditation center. “She called you a special teacher,” a colleague shared in a confidential tone. We were meeting about a visiting student who needed instruction in meditation, as well as help with her posture on the meditation cushion.

The student had seen me at the center earlier in the week. Apparently she wanted the insights that a “special teacher” could share. I liked her already, but to meet, I would have to make time out of a busy schedule. “Sure, I’ll see her.” My colleague, whose job was finding meditation teachers for visiting students, seemed very pleased.

Next, there was an invitation to a staff discussion. A restless visitor was having trouble keeping the discipline at the center. I didn’t know the student. Still, it seemed important to the staff that I was there. A decision was about to be made. I thought, “you’re a special teacher, you should have something wise to say.” Nothing came. My gaze wandered out the window to a view of the forest behind the meditation hall. I wondered why I was there.

Later, over lunch, I shared advice with a residential student on his upcoming solitary retreat. As we spoke, I was haunted. A special teacher would be more meditative, less quick to agree, at least not talk with his mouth full. At the end of our meeting, with some formality, the student thanked me for my time and wisdom. There was something about the tone of his ‘thank you.’

“I wonder if he heard a word I said,” I remember thinking to myself.

At the retreat center too, I now realized, my identity had been unclear. Was the pain of my irrelevance at home somehow related to my struggle to embody importance earlier in the day? Before lunch, by some accounts, I was a special Buddhist teacher. By bedtime, I was the lowly driver of a teenager. “Praise and blame,” I thought to myself. “This is what the Buddhist tradition means by worldly things.”

Outside the window by the bed, the lake loons were calling in the darkness. Down the hall, the hair dryer stalled and then stopped. I mulled over my shifting status. I was both a special teacher and a teenager’s driver. I was also a husband. If I was all three, who was I really? As my head sank into the pillow, I felt sad. Who was I really? I didn’t know.

My wife’s irritation seemed to linger. This evening, the hair had enjoyed unearned privileges. The husband had not engaged. Jeanine turned off the light, but not before sharing something else about my ability to ignore–to miss the truth behind the appearance. I don’t remember her comment (honestly!), but it was a pointed remark and it made me laugh.

Suddenly and unexpectedly Jeanine laughed too. We kissed and said goodnight. Outside, the lake loon called again. In the darkness, I might have smiled. I had hoped for a moment with my wife and it had arrived. There was openness and communication, there was also tenderness, in a poignant, existential, French kind of way.