“We are fragile creatures, and it’s from this weakness, not despite it, that we discover the possibility of true joy.” – Archbishop Desmond Tutu
We see pictures posted like these all the time – mainly on Instagram – bragging about a perfect life be it jet-set glamorous, altruistic, inspired by nature, witty, gritty or fit for Yoga Journal. We all have our idea of perfect–or at least what we think others will believe to be perfect.
This photo was actually taken in one of those perfect moments. I’m in the gardens of a villa under the Tuscan sun reconnecting with my mother country and overcome by the beauty of all these flowers blooming in one impossibly gorgeous setting. Images like these, unfortunately, fail to capture the rest us, the b-sides – the unedited stuff.
Cut to 3 unedited days later: After indulging in raw pecorino – the specialty of the region – I found myself with a multi-day case of food poisoning that left me dehydrated (no need to get into details, but you can easily fill in the blanks) in a provincial emergency room trying to explain my symptoms to the nurses in broken Italian.
The scene in the clinic was Federico Fellini meets Mr. Bean. A cacophony of characters kept filing into the waiting room clutching crucifixes and espressos. They finally brought me to see the head nurse who had just come off a cigarette break. She took my info, my vitals, my blood, and began poking at my arm trying to insert a catheter to set me on an IV drip. I felt my stomach flutter as she wielded the needle into my arm like she was weaving an intricate carpet with the threads of my veins. A heat quickly rose from the bottom of my gut and travelled up to my chest, my neck, my cheeks. Though I had never fainted before, I knew it was coming. It’s an unmistakable feeling, like a hand dragging you down into an open grave. I tried to warn her, but she didn’t understand – and then I was gone.
I don’t know where I went. It wasn’t a spiritual or mystical place. It was actually very banal. Not quite a dream, but rather a cluttered consciousness that was not my own. It was as if I had jumped into someone else’s body and was now experiencing their mind, their racing thoughts, but I was also enjoying it, like watching a sitcom on an airplane.
And then, I came back. Just like in the movies my eyes fluttered open and three faces peering down at me came slowly into focus. I had no idea who these faces were or where I was. I could recall nothing except the cluttered thoughts of some other woman’s consciousness that I had just been awoken from. The first thing I said was, “I don’t know who I am.” I couldn’t tell if I had only said it in my mind or if the words were spoken out loud, but once I did another voice in my head calmly said “You’re Nicole Davis.” Instantly, it all came back : the food poisoning, the fainting spell, the me that was me once I inventoried my entire life history. The three faces were now clear – one of them was my husband’s. A single tear careened down my cheek.
I laid still for a very long time. I couldn’t feel my feet and could barely speak. It was like being reborn, but what was scary is that I could have just as easily stayed in that other state suspended above death. It was the most vulnerable I had ever felt. Yet, I became aware of another emotion subtly emerging : joy. In this unpleasant mishap I had learned that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter “who I am”. I could have been anyone. My clothes, my face, my walk, the DNA that makes me half Italian…none of that matters except that tear. That one ambiguous tear that fell upon waking links me to all that matters : the salt of the earth, the foam on the wave, the cool air hitting the heat of the rising sun that left the dew drops on the tea roses that made me swoon with delight in that Tuscan garden. The joy is in knowing that tear came from the depth of my soul before it knew which ego it belonged to.
In moments I was back in the room negotiating my reality again as Nicole Davis, but I felt very different. The grip of that identity was not as strong or as desperate. As the bustle of the clinic hummed around me I got to see many other patients moving through those starched halls. My heart beat for a moment within each of them: crying babies, frail elderly, even an unconscious woman sailing by me on a stretcher. Oneness.
I believe if we don’t recognize our teachers in this life we are lost. This fainting spell was my teacher in humility and also the profound magician that pulled an instantaneous understanding of the state of oneness out from its proverbial hat. But, just like the white rabbit – oneness is an elusive thing. And so the relic that remains is the salt of that tear.