the inner battle at the smithsonian

This is part of your story, and you are the main character. Your view of the world is messy and usually your hair is, too.

You’re frightened by large groups of people. A crowd of more than twenty souls gathered in an enclosed space quickly resembles a zombie apocalypse (their limbs all akimbo, their eyes unfocused, their mouths warm and drooling).


There was a point during our recent trip to DC when I felt like my body would float away because my mind was racing too fast. It was as thought I had simply taken in too much amazing stimuli at the National Gallery of Art (Calder, Modigliani, Rodin, Degas, Close, Goya, Manet, Monet, Lichtenstein, oh my!) and my body wanted to lie down in the cool grass and allow a sort of mental processor to properly file data away and reboot. But I didn’t have time, I had to meet my husband, son, and other assorted family members underneath the big elephant at the Natural History Museum.

The crowd underneath that elephant made my borderline agoraphobia bleed straight into exploded neurosis: my palms were sweaty, my heart was racing, my stomach hurt, my head was dizzy, my legs were wobbly. I balled my fists so tight that my too long fingernails made painful indentations in my palms. Needless to say, I made it as far as the giant squid before I had to run away back into the open air of the National Mall.

After gulping in some humid air and walking across the lawn towards the Smithsonian castle, I started to feel better. After a few minutes staring at a giant peacock inside the red, hardwood-floored castle, I exited and walked through a small garden. I’ve never been to DC before, and I wanted to keep walking before I had to go back to the steps of the big scary Natural History Museum to meet my family. I asked the Universe to hold my hand a little, to show me how to stop freaking out, ruining memorable trips and important events.

The Freer was so close, that I almost bumped into its smooth white steps. I didn’t think I would have time to visit it originally, and in fact I had forgotten about its existence. Once I entered, surrounded by a mere half dozen tourists (instead of six hundred!), I felt the anxiety and the heat melt away, and I moved through the halls, which are filled with sunlight from big, heavy french doors that lead out to a quiet courtyard.

Ahhh. I think Heaven is a big, echoing museum just like the Freer. It’s filled with giant, placid Buddhas and sexy bronze Shivas. I found my calm center inside the Freer, and the core of my salvation was tucked neatly and carefully away in the subterranean Sackler Gallery.

Giant Cave Buddhas, lit by blue light against charcoal grey museum walls. A stone hand with its thumb curled towards its forefinger in a gesture that means “have no fear”. And I didn’t have any after I saw the hundred or so statues and silk screens. Have no fear, all of the Buddha’s faces seemed to say with their eyes only slightly open and their lips curled in peaceful smiles. Have no fear, I rest where you live. Your heart is full of lotus petals and you can take me with you.

When I had to leave my personal Heaven, when all of the Buddhas had been admired and I had to pass through the French doors back to the crowds underneath the big elephant, I tried to keep the Buddha’s face in my head. I recited under my breath have no fear have no fear have no fear. I let my forefinger curl towards my thumb like the Buddha. Once I passed through security and a crowd of sweaty arms and legs pressed at my back, pushing me forward, I closed my eyes and thought of the statue’s glistening eyes, his kind smile, his smooth face.

When I opened my eyes, my heart slowly growing calm from my whispered mantra, I heard my husband’s voice call my name. I heard him through the din of several hundred voices, all speaking in different accents and languages. He was standing quite close to me, holding my son’s hand. We made our way down the big steps and back down to the grass below. Squeezed between all of those hungry souls were the two souls that are my own heart, my reason for breathing. Have no fear.

(There is a wonderful article about the exhibit in the current issue of Tricycle.)


2 thoughts on “the inner battle at the smithsonian

"... all my lovers were there with me, all my past and futures."

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