Anger was carefully modulated in my family. As a small child, my supreme act of rage was to hurl my father’s toothbrush to the bottom of the carpeted stairs. For a long time, looking back, I saw this as a rather pathetically impotent gesture. But now I can see the power in that small act: for it involved the displacement, the desecration of something quite intimate.
There was also a curse that had come down to me from the Russian greatgrandmother I never met: “A streetcar shall grow in your stomach!” When I shouted this at my friends in the heat of anger, they laughed at me: “Astrika? What’s astrika?”
Now I can see the power in that seemingly ridiculous curse. A streetcar in the stomach. It was a curse of barrenness, no doubt—but here, too, a radical displacement: the inner invaded by something foreign, hard, metallic.
For me the most intense anger always has to do with a violation of what is most intimate. I agree with James Hillman when he writes that it is in our closest relationships, where trust has been most profound, and we have been most exposed, that we can feel most betrayed. It is precisely there, where we have loved most intensely, that the greatest anger arises.
Some time ago I suffered an immense betrayal in the very heart of what I held most dear, and in what appeared to be the absolute fullness of love. The man whose passionate declarations began with the words “No one else”—as in “No one else has ever loved me the way you do” and “No one else has ever seen me the way you do”—reached out to someone else. This so violated my sense of what was possible that it took on a cosmological quality for me: my very perception of the world had to shift to accommodate such a crack. Until quite recently, the trees looked different to me, the hills, the stars. Even now, I can be standing at my sink washing dishes, and all of a sudden I double up in pain. For a moment, the sense of shock is as powerful and immediate as upon first hearing the news. Now that was a streetcar in the stomach.
To some degree, a sense of karma—not as a concept, but as the palpable reverberation of my own actions, of the pain I had brought to others in surrendering to this love in the first place. Palpable, yet impersonal—that’s the balm. Realizing one is simply part of the machinery, or the music, of the universe, with its resonating structure of wave patterns: this one giving rise to this one, giving rise to this one . . . to hear this music, piercing as it is, restores a measure of order in the havoc of pain.
Remembering not to identify with the story has been crucial—and very hard to do, because in anger the story carries such obsessive power. But this for me really is, most fundamentally, what it means to be “religious.” It means remembering, again and again, that the stories we tell ourselves—all those stories about loss, failure, shattered hope, betrayal, blame—are not what is most true about who we are. This is for me the true meaning of “taking refuge,” this is residing in the vast only don’t know of practice. Without this perspective, which has given me the ability to put quotes around the words “tragic ending,” I honestly don’t think I would have been able to live through this story.
Yet here’s a surprising thing: detaching from the story’s plot line, even just a little, makes possible another move, a plunge deeper in, to the story below the story. And this is where I come upon a photograph of myself at age three, sitting on a rocking horse in a dark living room the year my father went away.
Looking at that sad child, I discover what I have discovered so many times: that below the rage is grief, the rock of grief. It’s a rock I carry in my belly. A big, hard rock.
A streetcar in the stomach.
There it is again! Even my great-grandmother’s curse carried, unrecognized, a kernel of wisdom, a familiarity with that sorrow.
Because always, if I can sink into that hard place—which is a difficult labor, similar to childbirth, involving breathing, breathing into the rock and the decision, renewed moment by moment, not to split off, not to give way to panic or sheer aversion before what seems unbearable—always, if I can sink into that hard place, there is Kuan-Yin.
There is Kuan-Yin, riding that streetcar, the streetcar named sorrow. With the heat of my anger she melts its metal. The heat turns to tears and she melts herself, she melts until there is no “Kuan-Yin,” there is only an open place in the belly, where the breath moves freely at last, and there is a vast tenderness within, without.