Lean Into Something Bigger

photo courtesy of Lora Abernathy

I met Bob when I was in college. He was directing a production of Romeo and Juliet at a local community theatre. I auditioned and he cast me as the County Paris – the guy Juliet is supposed to marry but loathes. Paris, the character, is a man of privilege. If he lived in our world he’d attend Harvard like his father and his father before him. After school he’d accept a position at the family law firm where he’d be groomed for a step into politics. He would belong to the country club, have multiple homes, wear all the right clothes, and have a battery of advisors carefully crafting his image. Juliet would have been chosen for him because of her breeding and her father’s position in society. In the play, the character, Paris, serves a function – he is a form of social pressure on the lovers, he represents the expectations, what Juliet is supposed to want. The social expectations crush the young lovers, including Paris.


Bob’s close-cropped grey hair sat above a face shaped like the full moon but was weathered brown and cracked by long hours in the sun. His broad easy smile scored deep trenches that ran from his eyes. His Cheshire grin was always punctuated by a hearty, “bitchin’!”


During the day he was a caretaker and gardener of luxury houses built just outside the city limits of Santa Fe, houses occupied by their owners only a week or two each year. Early each morning he’d drive his aging powder blue Volkswagen beetle to one of the houses. He’d get stoned, rake leaves, prune trees, sweep patios, he’d take care of the minor repairs and in the afternoon he’d climb onto the roof, eat apples, cheese, and good crusty bread. Sometimes he’d stay on the roof until the sun dropped beneath the horizon. He loved the quiet of it, the no-rush of it.


Bob had a great passion for the theatre and absolutely no gift for it; he was the Ed Woods of the local theatre scene. He cared deeply for the people, the doctors, waitresses and accountants that stole a peak behind the curtain of their desire and, for a short while, could say they were actors in a play. He loved that. He adored the engagement with the play and his excitement was infectious. No one cared whether his productions where good or bad. It didn’t seem to matter that much.


Life for Bob seemed like one giant finger painting and he delighted in showing the marks on the paper and the color on his hands. He could make a fantastic mess and yet there was always a rose that blossomed through the wreckage.


Before his life as a gardener Bob was a movie executive. He was Icarus and flew too close to the sun. He lived a fast paced life and was enamored with the bright lights and the prestige of his position. He told me that his relationships were superficial and based on usury and status. He lived in that cocktail culture (you know the one) in which you smile and look over the shoulder of the person to whom you are talking to see if there is someone else more important at the party. The higher he flew the emptier his life became. One day while previewing a film in his private viewing studio he stood up, not knowing why, he fled his office, got in his flashy fast car and drove east until the car ran out of gas. He abandoned it on the side of the road and kept walking. He has no memory of how he got to Santa Fe or how he got to the nunnery. He remembers the sisters teaching him to prune and to weed the plants. They taught him to care for the garden and helped him process his grief and eventually reclaim his sanity. It was a long fall and a slow slog out of a muddy depression.


Having lived a life of wealth without meaning, consumption without substance – and having died to it – Bob had eyes uncluttered by the debris of excess that obscures most of our lives. He released his American-style attachment to lack and ceased trying to fill the gap with stuff and status. He stepped into the gap. Most people feared him so they wrote him off; “he was a loser,” he was “just a gardener.”


Recently one of the participants in our tele-coaching class asked, “Why don’t we do what we want to do? Why don’t we do what we know is good for us, when we know it is good for us?” In other words, why do we desire to be a writer but refuse to make time in our lives to write; why do we continue smoking even when we know it will kill us; why do we yearn for something more and turn on the television to blot out the yearning?


To do those things you have to let go of other things, you have to lean into something bigger.


I’ve come to believe that asking the question, “why?” often doesn’t matter. There is an action and there is the story you wrap around that action. In fact, asking “why” can be a dodge, a defense against making the change you want to make. It is to believe that if you can rationalize your behavior, if you can possibly understand what you do, you will change it. Despite what we want to think, there is no sense to be made of yearning, there is no rational explanation for passion; those impulses swim in pools deeper than the intellect can reach.


Bob asked himself the question “why” for years: “why do I feel so empty?” He had to fall to the earth before he stopped asking “why?” Like Paris, he was in love with the idea of success and traded away the essential for the superficial. He was crushed by his own social expectations. After Bob re-emerged he no longer concerned himself with questions of worth or the angst of wondering “why.”


Bob was leaning into something bigger.


One autumn day Bob found me in tears sitting in the plaza. After college I decided to stay in Santa Fe for a while. Unlike Icarus I was afraid of my wings so I refused to put them on. I wasn’t ready. I needed a job. I thought I had to do what was expected because I could not imagine doing what I wanted to do. I took a position in the office of a financial advisor. My job was to make cold calls while my boss sat across the desk looking at me, waiting for me to “snag a live one.” I hated it. Several hundred numbers into my call-list an elderly woman answered the phone and I asked to speak to her husband (his was the name on my list). She told me that he’d died the night before and she started to cry. My boss demanded that I hang up but I couldn’t. She sobbed. My boss glared at me and hissed that I was wasting time. She caught her breath and asked why I was calling and I was too embarrassed to tell her. I’d lasted for less than a day. After the call I fled the office and sat in the sun in the plaza and cried.


“So, what did you tell the old lady?” Bob asked after listening to my story.


“There was no answer to ‘why?’ that I could stomach.” I whispered. “I apologized and told her it didn’t matter. I told her I was sorry for her loss.”


“Bitchin,” he smiled, unwilling to participate in my tale of woe.


He winked and said, “I think you’re ready to be just a gardener!” He jumped up like a kid who had money for the ice cream truck – and shouted over his shoulder that he’d pick me up in the morning.


This world has never made much sense to me (and I suspect it makes no sense to most of us). For a few months in a tender time I worked as “just a gardener” with a man who’d fallen from the sky and lived. Without saying a word (well, except for,“Bitchin’”) I learned from him to lean into something bigger.