Three months ago, on a windy Monday evening, I threw a book at someone. A friend. We had been sitting in her living room, my friend and I and another woman, reading aloud from When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chödrön. We were passing the book among us, and it was my turn to pass it to my friend, who was sitting on the couch, out of reach. I had chosen the most comfortable chair, my legs propped up on a cushioned stool. Out the window I could see the neighbors’ gray-slate roofs and a road of blue sky, its color gaining depth with the darkening light. For the book to reach my friend, I would have had to leave my chair, or she would have had to leave her seat on the couch. This seems simple enough. We are both civilized, well-intentioned women. The three of us, and usually a couple of others, had been meeting like this to read books — books that would inspire us to have compassion for the folly of human experience, the sloppy turning toward grace — every two weeks for thirteen years. But that night I was feeling restless. I had spent the day at home alone, working on a project I did not want to do. And I had told myself a story about my friend, a story that had grown over time and held some sliver of truth. It went like this: She won’t budge. She will make me do all the work. I leaned forward to pass her the book, but I did not lift my butt off the chair. She leaned forward, too, but couldn’t reach it. I didn’t get up. She stretched her arm out again without leaving her seat, and then she sat back with a harrumph.
“For God’s sake,” she finally said. “Just throw it.”
That’s all I needed. I hurled the book at her.
The birds are going wild in my backyard: robins, sparrows, hummingbirds, and others I can’t identify, all flapping or buzzing or singing or squawking. The June California sun has finally hit San Francisco. The rubber and eucalyptus trees light up and coo in the breeze, like mothers cooing to babies. We are all being cooed out of the rainy season into the brightness of summer, though soon the winds will come, and we can complain about that.
I am sitting on my porch in a short-sleeved shirt, looking out at the shimmering trees and feeling grateful for my house and the yard and the sunlight. I am, right at this moment, content. Is this what Chödrön calls a “kind of cool loneliness” — the deep kind where I can hover beneath the surface like a jellyfish, floating, directionless? I am alone with my beating heart, my pulsing breath, the birds.
The chapter I had been reading from, before throwing the book at my friend, was about the six kinds of loneliness:
When we feel lonely, when we feel hopeless, what we want to do is move to the right or the left. We don’t want to sit and feel what we feel. . . . Heartache is not something we choose to invite in. It’s restless and pregnant and hot with the desire to escape and find something or someone to keep us company.
I have spent a good deal of my time avoiding heartache and loneliness by talking on the phone, checking e-mail, making plans, pacing the hallway of my small flat, watching YouTube videos, kissing, obsessing about ex-lovers, obsessing about new lovers, listening to the radio, gossiping, or going to movies. I have also spent a fair amount of time being caught off guard by loneliness, feeling desperate to escape it, unable to move to the right or left, to find any distraction or company. In those times I feel as if I were dangling in the air, as if one more breath would kill me.
“You knew what she meant,” the other friend, who had witnessed the incident, said to me later. “She meant a soft, underhand toss.”
“Yes,” I said, “I knew what she meant.” Of course I’d known what she’d meant.
The window framed a blue road of sky. My friend was reaching out her hand. She was reaching, and I would not budge, and I had a story about how she would not budge, and I felt restless, and she was looking at me with her exasperated face, incredulous, confused, accusing.
And I hurled the book at her. Straight for her head. Her arms went up, her long, beautiful hands protecting her face. And even as the book flew from my hand toward my friend’s head and hit her arm and fell to the floor — even when it was still in midair — I knew this was not who I wanted to be. This was not how I wanted the evening to go.
“I’m sorry!” I shouted. “I promise I didn’t mean it that way.”
In what way had I meant to throw a book at my friend? I still don’t know.
Once, years ago, when my ten-year-old niece and I were playing a game in her living room, she suddenly picked up a stuffed animal and threw it across the room at her mother. As the animal left her hand and sailed toward her mother’s face, my niece screamed, “I didn’t mean to do it!” Then she lay on the floor for five minutes and wept.
I am not someone who goes around throwing books at people. I am someone who wakes up in the morning slightly confused and pulls out her yoga mat and her meditation bench. But I have thrown things at people in the past: a plastic spatula full of cookie dough at a girlfriend; several pillows; a doll (I was six); another spatula across the dinner table at which my family was eating a rabbit I had raised and thought of as a pet.
I am trying to remember what I was feeling in each instance before throwing the object. Anger, of course, but one inch underneath that was an itchier feeling, a raw discomfort, a panic, a feeling of being misunderstood, powerless, abandoned, lonely.
Two days after I threw the book, I sent my friend a note. “I threw a book at you. I apologize. This must have frightened you and felt confusing. I am also confused.”
A few days later I sent another: “I will see you in two weeks. I promise I won’t throw a book at you.”
That night, after I hit her with the book, my friend became angry and threw me out of her house. She did not physically throw me, but she yelled and yelled — not only about the book but also about other things I hadn’t known she was mad about, things I had done or said, some true, some debatable. But certainly, in the thirteen years we’d been meeting, I had done things to upset her. I could see the pain on her face. She had a story about me. Her story came out. I looked at her, incredulous.
“Get out!” she shouted. “Just get out!”
At home I sat in my kitchen, my favorite room of the house, feeling agitated, frightened, plump with competing emotions.
I opened the fridge, then closed it. I called a friend and told her what had happened, then called another and repeated the account. I paced the small hallway between my kitchen and my office, then walked back and forth in the living room, but everywhere I went, the emptiness kept coming, and the air felt thin. The hot edge of desperation clung to my skin, making my breath shallow.
Who could love a person like me? Where was the place for such a person?
Finally I sat at my kitchen counter and just looked out the window. The sky was black. I could see the white porch banister in the glow of the outside light, the shadowy shapes of trees and shrubs in the backyard. I did not know what to do.
So I just sat. I followed my breath. I felt my body. I observed my mind.
And something happened. Sometimes I’d felt an openness when I’d meditated, but this was the first time I’d experienced a plunge into new territory. It was as if I had suddenly discovered in my house a new room without walls, quiet and airy and dappled with sunlight. I could feel my blood wash through my veins, and then my body vanished, and I was part of a limitless, endless we. All that unbound space and time to unwind and watch the shadows and light drift and take shape. All that room waiting underneath the room where I thought I was supposed to be. In this new place we were all just human beings plotting our courses through the psychic squall.
A neurological storm. A flash flood. A spear of lightning. An elemental tantrum.
I hurled the book across the room. The book with all that loneliness and uncertainty inside it. The book from which I’d first learned that there is another possibility, a place between here and there where I can go for refuge, where I can, Chödrön writes, “look honestly and without aggression” at my own mind, where I can just “look directly with compassion and humor” at who I am.
My friend at whom I threw the book was right: I had made harsh statements to her over the years. I had once berated her in front of the group for interrupting me while I was speaking. I had told her several times to sit down and please stop fidgeting with the lights, or the cat, or the dog. A few days after I’d sat in the kitchen and felt that unbounded space, I sent her another note, a longer one, apologizing for my behavior. She wrote back, saying, “I appreciate the note.”
A little while before the next book gathering, my friend sent a message to the whole group saying she had decided to drop out. I announced that I was leaving too. I’d realized that I had stopped listening to the readings. My awareness wasn’t budging. Our discussions, and my own reflections, no longer surprised me. The eruption of anger and the experience in my kitchen had awakened me to a new possibility: instead of reading books about being more mindful and talking with friends about being more mindful, I wanted to be more mindful; to cultivate my meditation practice; to actually walk the path.
The group did meet one final time to say our goodbyes. Before we parted, my friend returned my book to me.
“Hey, Nona,” she said. “Catch.”