Welcome back, dear readers, to another Living Metta experiment in taking metta off the meditation cushion and out into the world.
In my experience, the Dharma is both the ultimate comedian and the boss of all bosses. Never more so than during this penultimate month of 2020 when, in true Godfather style, it made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse . . .
Regular readers will remember my previous column, Lily Pad Sutra, which described seven years of combining meditation practice with location-independence. Much of that nomadic chapter of my life was spent as a house-sitter, looking after others’ properties and pets while they were away. Hilariously, the same student accommodation provider that hired me last month to deliver food and parcels to self-isolating undergraduates also asked me to consider looking after their 1,000 empty rooms for the rest of this pan(aca)demic year.
Some necessary backstory before we continue: this company is in fact the merger of two companies that never had a chance to integrate this pandemic year. Essentially, I would be unlocking the door on a thousand unknowns daily, across eight sites in locked down Liverpool . . . some more void than others, some more welcoming than others, all due to politics both before my time and completely beyond me.
The practical part of the job sounded easy enough. At each site, I was to pick up a current list of empty flats and rooms, a temperature probe, and a master key from each site manager. Upon entering an empty flat, I was to head to the kitchen and let the cold water run over the temperature probe while I unlocked and opened all water outlets—sink, toilet, shower—in each of the rooms to run, flush, and spray while I returned to the kitchen to record the coolest temperature the boiler could reach. Then I was to turn on the hot water and let it run to the hottest temperature the boiler could reach while I closed all the outlets and locked all the rooms again, noting anything unusual like taps dripping or toilets not flushing or showers losing pressure.
Well, within minutes the left side of my body was already soaking wet as I learned the hard way that—while unused bathrooms may well look pristine on the surface—letting water flow for the first time in months can bring all sorts of unseen problems to the surface.
And then there were the office politics within and between the different sites. Some were happy to see me and even happier for me to take this unseen worry off their plates, while others were more cagey and wondered whether they were secretly being checked up on by the head office. Some sites looked and felt like they hadn’t been shown any love since the first lockdown back in March, while others were so pristine that I actually carried a cloth to wipe away any evidence from the chrome fittings, CSI style, of my ever having been there.
I must admit, I limped home on my first evening, utterly soggy, exhausted, and confused. On an energetic level, I described it to a friend as like being an icebreaker cracking through months and months of collective unseen and unspoken uncertainty about the future.
Another friend teased that the new job reminded her of a novel called A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Set in1922, it tells the tale of Count Alexander Rostov sentenced by a Bolshevik tribubal to house arrest in the grand Hotel Metropol across the street from the Kremlin. “More like A Lady in Liverpool by Wet Towels,” I quipped back ruefully.
After drying off at home, I sat with my discomfort and had my first inkling of the Dharma’s stealth tactics in hiring a former house-sitter and meditator to bring some equanimity to two polarized teams running both hot and cold with one another and amongst themselves.
And so began this month’s experiment: how to become metta’s mixer tap?
My first inspiration was to ask the more skeptical site managers how I could help them while doing my rounds. Perhaps I could insert washers in leaky shower heads? Or draw the curtains on any ground-floor windows to deter burglars? Or make a note of any empty rooms being unofficially occupied?
Maintenance staff gratefully handed over washers. Security staff gratefully agreed to making the ground floor look more lived in. Housekeepers gratefully noted where limescale was already staining toilets from disuse. Managers gratefully took news of roof leaks and caved-in ceilings that may have gone unnoticed for months in their stride.
But solving the mystery of the “land grabs” united us all, Cluedo-style.
Every few hours, I would re-emerge at the site’s office with a list of unexplained occupants. Sometimes, an empty room accidently left unlocked was put to use innocently enough to dry laundry or store empty suitcases or secure bicycles. Sometimes, they’d been turned into party rooms, with bottles and bongs and the towel to block the threshold still in situ. Sometimes, they’d been transformed into hi-tech group gaming rooms. Sometimes, the booking system had simply forgotten to check legitimate new guests in, so they were still ghosts as far as the site admin was concerned. And sometimes, they were being used by staff themselves on the sly!
Before moving on to the next site, I also awarded each one with comedy awards for the visit: best biscuits—a hopeful hint for others to follow suit next visit—best banter, best flow—a 100% flush rate actually is a real reason to rejoice—best music, best hair, best staff loo, etc to get some good gossip and friendly competition circulating. When I casually mentioned to a team first thing one morning that the previous site had been awarded most festive for already having all their Christmas decorations up as well as playing carols in November, their office was magically transformed for the holidays by the time I returned for lunch.
On a more serious note, the stagnant energies of all sorts 2020 brought to the surface were still palpable no matter how many toilets I flushed to let in fresh water or windows I opened to allow in fresh air. And then further inspiration flowed in: why not make a “land grab” of my own of all these empty spaces only I currently had access to and fill them with as much metta as possible for all past, present, and future students and staff as I flowed through them every fortnight?
And so the real void-sitting plumbed new depths.
That same evening as I wrote up a clean, dry, and legible copy of my 101 dog-eared, soggy, and scrawled notes, I asked a receptionist I’d only ever spoken to briefly the previous visit what was new. It turned out that her father had died abroad a few days earlier, and she was only able to attend the funeral by video link.
For the next two hours I held the space to tell me all. When she’d spoken her piece, she thanked me for being so neutral as those closest to her had been anything but at the moment.
In Greek mythology, Helen of Troy was considered so beautiful that her face launched a thousand ships. And so, my fellow metta scientists, consider overflowing any voids that 2020 exposed in your own or your loved one’s lives with so much metta this December that we launch a thousand oceans.
Or, to metta-morphose the Tori Amos song of the same name, written about holding space for her husband while he mourned his father:
These tears I’ve cried.
I’ve cried a thousand oceans.
And if it seems I’m floating
In the darkness . . .
So I will cry a thousand more
If that’s what it takes metta to
Sail you home,
Sail you home,
Sail you home.