Not Broken

On the morning of election day last week my eight-year-old was lying on the sofa with a blanket over his head.

“What’s integrity?” we heard him say, in a muffled sort of way.

I took a deep breath and said, “Wow.”  Then breathed some more. “Integrity,” I said, “is when a person is making choices about how to be in the world—how to act, how to speak, the kind of work they do—and they try to do those things so that they match what they really care about, what they value, what they really believe.”

My husband was in the kitchen doing dishes, and at that moment chimed in: “Or it just means not broken.”

“Oh, right. That, too,” I said. “Structural integrity. Solidly built. Not broken.”

Then I asked my son, “Why are you asking that? Where did you hear that word?”

“It’s on my National Park Junior Ranger badge,” he said.

So he did mean human integrity, behavioral integrity, not structural integrity. But perhaps they’re the same thing. Still, why is the question of human integrity even a thing? How did we get this way—able to fracture our own sense of care, of value, of alignment with the world?

At a retreat once, John Tarrant Roshi said that the closest definition of integrity he’s found is a koan that is actually a small poem: Step by step in the dark, if my foot’s not wet, I’ve found the stone. He said this during a time that felt dark and confusing to me, in the wake of the huge October fires that devastated my county. I was gripped then by what I can now see was the flight mode of fight-or-flight. I wanted to leave everything—my husband, my children, my life choices, my community in the hills that gets bone dry by July of every summer, and hotter and drier by the year. I wanted something different in a visceral, at-the-time inexplicable way.  I felt wild, unloosed, kind of crazy. But how could I even acknowledge this wanting, let alone get what I wanted, with integrity?

Step by step in the dark, if my foot’s not wet, I’ve found the stone.

All I wanted during this retreat was to be in the dark—sitting in the early morning or late evening meditation hall, or on my back in the duff under coastal cypress and stars. I avoided the bright swath of Bolinas beach. I regretted the sunrise. I sent rash, unthinking texts to an old lover. I cried. And cried. And then I went home.

Step by step in the dark, if my foot’s not wet, I’ve found the stone.

A few weeks later, I was clearing brush with my community so that if (when?) our rural property is hit by wildfire it will not spread so rapidly. My father-in-law and husband had chainsawed lower limbs off of manzanita and small oaks, and we dragged the branches by their stubs to the side of the gravel road, where they bristled limply, awaiting the arrival of a chipping machine. The remaining manzanitas did just that—remain. They still shimmered in their shockingly smooth maroon bark, peeling profligately in places. Their loops and curves still astounded us. “Manzanitas are sexy!” someone said. And my neighbors and I laughed. “Manzanitas don’t care nothin’ about your morality,” I said. And the manzanitas nearly pulsed with the pleasure of recognition.

I told one neighbor who was working by my side about a piece John had recently drafted for the magazine we edit together. Animals, he said, were so identified with the dream of the world there was no room for spiritual practice. People, on the other hand (and dragons, but that’s another story), live with a gap between the forms of the world and their own sense of possibility. It is this gap, this fracture between what is and what-could-be, that makes us capable of spiritual discovery, of wonder, and of suffering. The gap is the place in which we wake up. We laughed again, not so much in humor as in astonishment, that working side by side on a gritty, dusty hillside could lead to a conversation like this. It was wonder-full.

So when I long for integrity, or for the people around me and above me to act with integrity, as a sort of completeness, of perfection…do I really? When I write a small poem like this:

Cats are way more
beautiful than people.
Why can’t
we all just be
cats?

…do I really?

“Integrity is active, a practice concerned with motion, connection, and struggle,” John wrote in his book The Light Inside the Dark. “It does not just go by rules. In the great silence, integrity listens for the true course. This means that integrity is slow. It allows us to feel the anxiety of events developing, finding their shape….”

It was important that it was election day when my son asked that question. For months I had been working on the campaign of a County Sheriff candidate, managing his social media presence, helping to tell his story to the world. Despite a history of political activism, I had never worked on an electoral campaign. As I sat in the muted light of a local bar’s second floor, where the election night party was held, I told a few people about my son’s question, and I thanked the candidate for running with integrity. We had just seen the first precinct results, and they didn’t look good. I was trying to stave off the desire for a second glass of wine to manage my anxiety and a wave of oncoming sadness. One of my friends, another volunteer, turned to me and said, “But isn’t integrity doing what you have to do to win? My father was a labor organizer. There was all sorts of sabotage going on. Integrity in that context did not always mean following the rules.”

Integrity is active, a practice concerned with motion, connection, and struggle. It does not just go by rules.

“Maybe that’s the difference between electoral politics and direct action,” I replied. “Maybe in the electoral world it’s important to hold some moral high ground.” We looked at each other, perplexed, not really believing anything we said. Anxious about losing, silently second-guessing the moves we’d made. And that’s okay. It was the conversation, the connection and struggle, that was the thing.

After that retreat in the dark, I told my husband about the unloosed wildness I was feeling inside me. I even told him about the old lover, and the desire to run away. He let it be. I really mean that. He let me feel what I was feeling. And in doing that, he gave me a way to anchor myself to the ground I actually inhabit. To live with that gap between the forms of the world around me, and my own sense of possibility.

To live with integrity. In the unexpected fracture, and the reaching for realignment. Not perfect. Not broken.

 


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