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Great compassion

My apartment smells like a new car: fresh paint, glue, and fabric sizing. No spaghetti stains or soup spills stain the carpet; no animal has vomited or left muddy paw prints on the chair. There are no rings on the tables left by coffee mugs or wine glasses, and the bookcases have no scrapes, gouges, or cigarette burns. No one has rested a tired, greasy head on the back of the sofa; no one has had sex or peed on the bed. No endearments have been whispered here, no blame hurled, and if a betrayal has occurred within these walls, it was before my time. It’s all pristine, virginal, untried and un-lived in. This is Paradise. I’ve been in Portland, Oregon for twenty days. For eighteen of those days, it did not rain in this place where they say it rains every day. Everything is in perfect order. My life in this place is as clean, cold, and sterile as a vacant cubicle in a city morgue.

The odd thing is that I am radiantly happy, happier than I’ve ever been. I am not running to catch up with responsibilities. I don’t feel like a fraud or a failure. I’ve paid all my debts, and I have just enough to live on. When I’m tired and my head hurts, I can just lie down and be still without having to file for sick-leave and make up for my absence by working twice as hard next week. I’ve burned no pots, overwatered no pot-plant, neglected to take no animal in my care to have the tartar removed from its teeth. I’ve disappointed no child, broken no promise, quit no job, forgotten no appointment; nor have I fallen in or out of love or lust for man or woman while living here. In the morning when I wake, I sit up and watch the traffic flow madly in both directions over the Fremont Bridge as all those people go to work. I know how it is for them.

The day began with an alarm clock going off. Some were hung over. Others had gone to bed angry, needy, frustrated, or humiliated by what happened at work yesterday. Many were simply exhausted, numb from the effort of living their lives with less success than they wish they had. They push the snooze button, lie in bed a little longer, and as consciousness seeps into their brains, they are filled with regret, anxiety, fear, grief, or–most painful of all–hope to do better today, to be less of a shit today than they were yesterday. By nightfall they will be disappointed of that hope. They stagger to the bathroom, bleary-eyed. They stock up on sugar and caffeine, to push the body harder. They get their kids ready for school or daycare, preparing lunches or finding lunch money, arbitrating sibling battles, figuring out what to wear (nothing looks good enough, the body never looks good enough, hard enough, muscular or thin enough), and they are already behind because they didn’t finish the work they brought home to do last night. They hurl their bodies into the car, hope it has enough gas, hope the ignition switch hasn’t frozen up again, wonder if the windshield wipers will go another month, and then, with or without children in the back seat, they thrust their fragile bodies into a stream of traffic in the fog, on slippery pavement, where anything could happen and it could all be over in an instant.

Some days are better, of course. Some days begin with tender kisses, with a reminder that they are still alive to pleasure and possibility; the body still works, even if the mind does not. Some days begin in laughter, with a dog’s wag, a child’s marvelous dream, a lover’s romp, or the pleasure of wearing a new thing. But as the day progresses, there are a thousand moments in which they tell themselves: I am not good enough, not fast enough, not funny enough or quick enough, not sure enough or too sure and probably wrong; I didn’t do that well enough, I was too tight or too loose, and there is that phone call I forgot to make, that report I failed to write yesterday which will blow up in my face today. I’ve lost the receipts. I can’t find the document; how the hell did I file it? Why did I ever think I could do this job? What made me think I had enough to give this relationship? I will never be a good-enough parent for this amazing child who deserves so much better.

I sit here in Portland, watching the traffic on the Fremont Bridge, smiling with infinite compassion at my fool self and at all those hard-working people on the bridge who are so much more worthy than they think they are. I love us so much, poor slobs that we are. I ache with all this love, and as I stand back from my habits of self-castigation and see how unnecessary it all was, I am glad to be leaving tomorrow to go meditate for ten days. It will not be enough time to forgive myself for having done everything wrong for sixty-two and a half years, but maybe–this hope–maybe after ten days of silence I can begin again and do it better.


4 responses to “Great compassion”

  1. donna says:

    You should at least get a houseplant to overwater. ;^)

  2. Julia from Thoreau says:

    Here’s (only some of) what my reading of Passionate Guest has given me—a sense of what this quote looks like in the daily, vivid experience of another person:

    “I must learn to love the fool in me—the one who feels too much, talks too much, takes too many chances, wins sometimes and loses, often, lacks self-control, loves and hates, hurts and gets hurt, promises and breaks promises, laughs and cries. It alone protects me against that utterly self-controlled, masterful tyrant whom I also harbor and who would rob me of human aliveness, humility, and dignity but for my fool.” —theodore rubin

    Any chance Passionate Guest will be made available again (republished?)? I would LOVE to have my own copy, bet other people would love it too!

    Thanks for all you give us….

  3. Steve Raymond says:

    K –
    Your thoughtstream while writing this post `resonates` within me so …
    completely … I’m surprised ( and a little dismayed ) that there aren’t an
    endless ‘scroll’ of other “comments” here, in addition to Donna’s and mine.
    [ Thus, it falls to me, the ‘duty’ to continue the extension of the `comment` list. ]
    I re-read your words, and savor the comfort that they bring. Comfort? Yes, in knowing
    that a person (you) has survived long heavy periods of comparative hopelessness and despair . . . to resurrect yourself into the joyous/interested/connected- anew person
    that you are becoming, in your new home.
    Your successful metamorphosis gives hope to those of us, `stuck here on the Fremont Bridge`.
    — Steve

  4. Kathryn says:

    Thanks, you three. I went looking for a houseplant today, Donna, but I was overwhelmed by choices and bought nothing. Julia, Passionate Guest is in print again. It’s at and the press has reconstituted itself after Katrina, in Pennsylvania. I don’t know if the typographical errors have been corrected or not–I haven’t seen the reissue yet. Thanks for asking. And Steve, thanks–let it never be a duty. I love to hear from you and enjoy your company on the Fremont Bridge.

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