I’m a happy ending kind of person. I can’t help it, that’s just who I am. So it was fitting that after having to don my black dress for no fewer than four funerals in the last six months, I got to slip on my dance shoes and attend a wedding. And in the space of a car journey (actually in our case, multiple plane journeys and then a car journey), the revolving door of life transported me from the solemnity of letting go to the promise of a future. And it did it in Downton Abbey!
Okay so it wasn’t really Downton Abbey, of course, but it certainly looked like it. Long, wide, carpeted corridors,
chandeliered reception areas,
family portraiture and tapestries adorning the walls
and hotel staff dressed to look like footmen.
Even the name was similar – Down Hall – but instead of being the residence of a peer of the realm, it was a country hotel and plebs like me could stay there without having to cook puff pastry or help someone get dressed for our keep.
I roamed the corridors, amazed that I could actually be in such a place, while imagining all the changes this country manor had witnessed since it was built in 1550. And it wasn’t just the writer in me, picturing scenarios, that made me think about these things; it was the family member who had just come away from a funeral and couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to our lives now that this participant in our story was gone.
Because the Buddhists believe our karma is connected to that of our family. Or families if we tie the knot. Which is mind boggling when you consider that we don’t all share the same interest in improving our karmic standing. Or just improving ourselves. Add to that the fact that most of us seem to stumble into personal growth rather than being able to will it, and family turns into something akin to a Broadway dance number before the choreographer gets a hold of it. People moving in every which direction, tapping the wrong rhythm, spinning the wrong way. And just when we’re beginning to get a sense of how to move together, someone goes and dies leaving us with the possibility that we may never get it right.
But maybe the beauty in life is in our not getting it right and our job, instead of trying to correct imperfections, is to embrace them. One of my favorite stories is from The Unknown Craftsman by Sóetsu Yanagi. The author is talking about Japanese tea bowls and how they’re not supposed to be perfect because that teaches us we have something to learn. He goes on to tell the story of a visit he made to a Korean wood turning studio, where he watched an artisan make a bowl out of a block of wet pine. “The pine block was so fresh that turning made a wet spray, which gave off a scent of resin.” Yanagi was shocked that the wood turner would use such wood, knowing the bowl would crack as it dried. But, when asked, the artisan just smiled and said he would “mend the crack.” And when he did, the mended bowl was even more beautiful than the original.
The hole left in a family by death may not be so easily mended of course but the way certain family members step into the place vacated by the deceased and fill it with their own special gifts can be quite beautiful. What worried me, however, as I wandered up and down the corridors of Down Hall was how do we mend the cracks in a family left around that hole? Because cracks in families tend to linger, and settle, unless they’re filled with forgiveness and not everybody is into forgiveness. So to come back to the question of karma, if we’re all connected and we don’t help each other understand how to fill those cracks, then where does that leave us?
Fortunately the wedding started before I could get lost in this interminable loop and as I watched the bride and groom look tenderly on one another I realized that the happy part of our family dance was the introduction of new partners. New partners with moves that might soften even the crustiest of hearts among us and set us on a path to filling those cracks. But then, like I said before, I’m a sucker for a happy ending.