On Being Empty

Church wasn’t a major element in my young life; both of my parents, recovering from Catholic upbringings, were lax in my siblings’ and my religious education. This allowed me to grow up with a curiosity and affection toward my spirit and its position in the universe, rather than the humiliation or confusion that a more strict religious childhood might have projected onto that relationship.

My mother did bring me to church with her, but it was a Unitarian congregation where most members were more interested in political and social activism than spreading the Good News, and although I attended Sunday school, the classes were focused on researching different world religions, volunteering within the community, and openly discussing our earnest and naive explorations of the spirituality each of our young heads was just beginning to wrap itself around. I was never once told what to believe. Rather, I was given opportunities to ask why and how, and the tools to uncover the answers to those questions. It was religious education with the scales tipped toward education, and merely nodding to “religious.”

Each Sunday’s search for meaning was punctuated by a light breakfast provided by and for the congregants. I always felt that snack time, that staple of any religious congregation (regardless of perceived piety) was always the most intimate part of church Sundays. After coming together to reflect, to purge, and to connect, spirits and bodies were hungry in a way that invited unprecedented confidence and affection among congregants – even the tiny ones snacking on juice boxes and sliced American cheese.

On one particular Sunday, which is particular only because of this small memory, I remember an interaction with one of the younger girls in the congregation, in the kids’ snack room. Her name was Gabriella, or Gabrielle. We called her Gabby. At the time, to me, she was “practically a baby,” but the reality is she was only a few years younger than me – she’s now in her mid-twenties, living in Boston and working for a law office, I think.

All those years ago, during an otherwise unremarkable Sunday snack time, she was showing me the purse she’d received recently for her ninth birthday. It was small, I think it might have been pink and glittery, and I believe I recall some kind of Disney Princess applique decorating it. While showing off the functionality of the open-close clasp , she sighed with such gravity that for a moment she was not nine, but ninety. And she said it was just so hard to have a new purse, because what was she supposed to put in it?

The grayness that’d set in as she said it lifted as quickly as it’d fallen, or maybe it was never there at all aside from in my view of her. Either way, after an almost indecipherably short silence, she giggled, shrugged, and probably ate some cheese or a muffin while walking away.

Almost two decades since that small moment, it hangs in my memory, gathering dust and waiting to be meaningful. Or perhaps that’s the wrong metaphor; perhaps it is that for almost two decades that small moment has been germinating below the soil of my memory and its buds have only recently gone to bloom.

Religion and femininity are two realms of reality that have always felt unwelcoming and foreign. Perusing the seminal texts of any major religion would reveal that the two discomforts are unmistakably intertwined, at least in their standard-issue packaging. And every woman I know has been nine-year-old Gabby, lamenting what to do with a new container – whether it’s a purse, or a mature woman’s body; a dress, or a social situation. And every woman – every person – struggles with filling an assigned container with whatever convenient contents are nearby, simply for the sake of fullness.

A little girl has no use for a purse. A little girl needs untethered emptiness. A little soul needs untethered emptiness. Without that, how can our young minds decide for themselves what merits the gathering of dust, and what should be planted in the ground and allowed to grow roots?

Putting the container before the contents begs the hasty action of shoving full, like a suitcase stuffed with whatever’s nearby in a moment of panic. When the flood comes, will those three pairs of pants bring solace? Or will empty space, an area to process and collect the nuances of a new reality, be more useful, more comforting? If an unorthodox religious education taught me anything of the world, it’s that it is tiny – the size of my own perceptions – yet incalculably huge, encompassing trillions of facts, realities, and possibilities. The idea of emptiness is an uncomfortable one, but without it the world, on any scale, could never change. Only in emptiness, in openness, can we begin to sort and decipher the complexities that arise when our tiny worlds smash up against the infinite reality around us.

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