Sand Mandala (Agnostic’s Prayer)
I. Candles, Burning
The world is not important. The world is an illusion.
My daughter’s shoulder blades, ivory carvings under
the warm, silken blanket of her skin, might as well be
made of wax. Her hair, its smell of cherry-almond
shampoo, is no more than a flame, consuming tissue
paper. She will be gone before the universe notices her.
Today I saw Tibetan Buddhist monks creating a sand
mandala, a round picture made from layering different
colors of sand. Shimmering, resplendent and complicated,
a yard in diameter, it took three unbroken days to make it.
Tomorrow at 11 a.m. they’re going to sweep it away.
This creation of beauty then its eradication is symbolic.
II. Lessons, Learned
My tears are irrelevant. My suffering is insignificant.
The monks believe our material existence is transitory,
well-nigh unimportant. They were relatively young
though it was hard to tell because of their shaved heads.
They all wore plain maroon pants, sleeveless maroon
tunics. I walked by them, entering the building, shied
away, tried not to look. But they seemed to radiate
serene alertness, a lack of angst. They didn’t flinch
but gazed at me, through me, beyond me, plainly,
readily. As a little girl, I wanted to be a nun.
Discipline of the flesh is holy. To contradict desire
is sacred. The world is a sickening dream we long
to wake from. I dressed one year as St. Theresa
for Halloween. I was in Catholic school for kindergarten
and first grade, and came home one day to tell my mother
I couldn’t wait to die and go to heaven so I could be
with Jesus. She put me in public school the next day.
She was dismayed. I had seen dead animals
in the kitchen, plenty. One time I saw a chicken
roasting in the oven, asked what it was. “A chicken,”
she said. The earth is not significant. The earth
is an hallucination. I got hysterical, pleading with her
to take it out of the oven. She fibbed, told me
there were two kinds of chickens, one with feathers,
for running around outside, the other for eating.
It relieved my frenzy, then. What about now?
My life is an illusion, my life is empty. I shovel food
into the mouths of other unfulfilled beings. Ceaselessly,
I’m on the horns of a dilemma. Doesn’t every suburban
housewife secretly, in her heart of hearts, want to run off
on spiritual pilgrimage, at least each and every time
the dog vomits on the rug? Yes, I live like a spy.
III. Emptiness, Filled
I feel like an undercover agent most of the time.
I just don’t get the whole show. Something’s not been
explained fully to me. I’m waiting for my operating instructions,
but my contact is nowhere to be found. I don’t know
if I’m religious. I never have the strength to decide
if I believe. From that first plump, naked chicken in the oven
I cried for, at five — chickens have their own heaven,
my mother lied, bright with love — from that first dark
lamentation over the insolence of death I wanted only
to understand the enigma of creation, to fathom the depth
of my intimate source. Fitted out as Saint Theresa
it felt sinful to accept candy, I wanted more than anything
to sanctify those hands moving with meek generosity
toward my outstretched pillowcase. Yes, I saw myself
with bright blue skin, leading pale cows to drink.
Or robed in red, a fluffy hat atop my head; a hesitant crown.
I could easily put fragrant powdered saffron in my hair,
eat nothing but fruit picked off the ground, sweep the earth
bare before my steps with a handmade straw broom.
All creeds appeal to me inside the inquisitive casement
of my brain: a fickle twitch of nerves, chemicals, proud
of its weak pulses of electricity. The difficulty dwells
deeper, amid blood, bone, sinew: a sad hollow space,
never filling up. Afraid to give over to a thing I can’t control —
or at least charm. I want to dance in green meadows,
wrap ribbons around a pole, follow the golden ring.
I imagine flinging myself into cool grass, crying from joy.
The world is unimportant. The world is an illusion.
IV. Waiting, But Not Endlessly
Everything will be all right, the melancholy quietness says,
as I lie solid on the ground. I feel resigned to my fate,
steeled to endure the torments ahead — that one last breath,
that one ultimate moment of longing. Have I received
the divine gift of faith? I still sit for hours, eyes closed,
waiting for that voice, those words, to lift the roof
of my skull and cleanse my fears away like silvery water.
I will, after all, be gone before the universe notices me.