In Medieval times foundling wheels came into use in Europe. They were lazy-susan-type devices built into the outer stone wall of a church as places to abandon babies. Mothers who couldn’t afford to keep an infant or whose lives were too fractured to accommodate it’s tending could leave their child there. The baby was placed within the wheel from outside the church and then the wheel turned, transferring the child safely inside where a priest would find it. It was a way to let go of a precious burden without doing it physical harm.
The wall of the building where these devices were installed came to be known as foundling walls.
During the past two years I’ve written several times about my journey through separation and divorce, making this blog a bit of a raw diary. From the personal comments and emails I get, I know this has made some friends uncomfortable, but this organization of my thoughts and experiences has been a comfort to me, and as it turns out, to others as well.
I have been handed many books and self-help prescriptions from friends during this time, but nothing has spoken more directly to me than Thik Nhat Hans book “Reconciliation.” It’s not necessarily about reconciliation in marriage, but personal reconciliation with the inescapable realities of life.
I dog-eared a page from the book that lists the Buddha’s Five Remembrances and underlined two that struck me deeply:
“All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of a nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them. I cannot keep anything. I came here empty-handed, and I go empty-handed.”
“My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.”
In the Vietnamese temple in Indianapolis where I’ve spent many Saturday mornings in the past two years, we’re called to meditate on a simple counting from 1 to 10 as a way to clear our mind of chaos. I did that for a long time, and still do. But Thik Nhat Hans called for meditating on well-wishing, compassion for others, and letting go of personal burdens. I went time and again to those two “Remembrances.” And so I’ve spent many of those meditation sessions within the towering temple, with the Buddha before me, making small mental journeys to a foundling wall in my mind to give away the things I can no longer tend. The things that are not really mine.
I made up my own rules . . . or ethics about the foundling wall.
The foundling wall is a place where you let go of a piece of yourself, a part of yourself that speaks to your soul, something you built or nurtured with love and diligence – but that has become a painful burden to you, or to others you love. No one can force you to the foundling wall. To have something taken is theft. You have to give it freely. And no one can make the journey for you. You must go to the wall of your own resolve, and you must go alone.
I am a persistent person, often persisting beyond reason and logic. During this difficult time I found myself hurt repeatedly by a two close friends. I kept trying to reclaim or nurture these fractured friendships — beyond reason and logic, blowing on the flickering embers of our connections, offering olive branches only to have them slapped from my hand or left to wither. At the same time I complicated the friendships by forcing my own weaknesses and failings against my friends’ hurtful actions. I eventually realized I needed to let go. I needed to accept that we wouldn’t really be friends anymore, but simply acquaintances. That was a hard thing to do — to accept that two people I loved and had shared so much with would not be my friends any longer.
But there was peace in letting go of those relationships. Yes, there was hurt, but also peace to be found in going to that foundling wall in my heart, kneeling down and laying those friendships in that turret-like device, symbolically turning it and letting them go. No pronouncement is needed at the foundling wall, just resolve to love and feel compassion for those you let go.
and count to 10 . . . and count to 10 . . . and count to 10 . . .
It’s not just a Buddhist calling. I learned it first as a Christian prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
While many parents of the middle ages were no doubt driven to the foundling wall by desperation, others must have had ample time to reflect and understand that while they could physically keep and care for the child, something in the failing of their stars and their circumstances was not enough. I can’t imagine their personal journey. But I can imagine mine.
I am a carpenter of sorts. I build things. There are things in my home that I built with my own hands, like an oak porch swing. I designed it in my own mind, imagining its form, the joints, the flush-finished brass screws to be polished smooth along with the sanding of the wood. It would all be built from salvaged wood, every piece of it pulled from a dumpster or garbage can. The discarded oak chalk tray from a school where I once taught would be the back rail of the seat. A stack of half-inch oak slats pulled from a garbage can would make the seat bottom and the back. Pieces of quarter-sawn oak baseboard from a demolished house would make its armrests. Then I built it. For years my children sat there as I read to them when they were small, or they swung hard and wild with childhood friends, pumping their legs with reckless abandon, laughing, or they curled up and napped there on a long summer afternoon, or cuddled with their first love as a teenager. My friends drank beer in that swing on warm summer nights and many a thunderstorm was watched from that swinging seat while lightening crackled across Old Town.
It’s just an object made from wood no one wanted. How does something like that worm its way into your soul? But in the division of property after the divorce, it will go. It is not mine. I cannot keep it.
It is a small item in the scheme of things, but a precious child of mine none-the-less. And so in yet another way, I knelt at that foundling wall in my heart, the place I take the things I cannot keep, no matter how much I want to. And there I gave it away. It was not mine. Even though I conceived and built it, it was never really mine. At age 53 I am grown up enough — just barely, to do such a thing – to let go of yet another piece of my identity.
and count to 10 . . . and count to 10 . . . and count to 10 . . .
But then a miracle!
An email arrived one day that said, “Why don’t you keep the porch swing? It belongs with the house.” She too has been to the foundling wall, the one in her own heart. And suddenly I find myself on the interior, receiving side of the wall while she kneels outside. I had not even imagined the easy return of this thing whose loss I had totally accepted.
But be warned: you can neither count on nor dare imagine the return of things left at the foundling wall. If you are prone to such mystical hopes and magical thinking, as I have been most of my life, then you do not belong at the foundling wall. Best keep clinging against reason to things that aren’t yours – that cannot be reasonably kept. Best torture yourself, your family, your friends with your senseless clinging than allow those corrosive hopes of reclamation into your mind.
There are so many people and things I have said goodbye to at the foundling wall these past two and a half years; family members, friendships, and possessions I’d nurtured with love and attached great expectation to. But that trying journey is now in the past. Regular, relatively peaceful day-to-day life surrounds me now and lies ahead as far as I can see. I knew that life once before. And it has returned to me now, in part because of the things I let go of.