I believe God is a poet; every religion in our history was made of poems and songs, and not a few of them had books attached. I came to believe the green fuse that drives spring and summer through the world is essentially a literary energy. That the world was more than a place. Life was more than an event. It was all one thing, and that thing was: story.
I was in a small house in Irmo, SC with old healer women. We were eating green Jell-O. One of them told me this: “When you write, you light a bonfire in the spirit world. It is dark there. Lost souls wander alone. Your inner flame flares up. And the lost souls gather near your light and heat. And they see the next artist at work and go there. And they follow the fires until they find their ways home.”
Aside from thinking my old Catholic priest would not be amused by this kind of pagan talk, I recognized the beauty and awe, the deep respect in a woman who didn’t read, for the act of literary creation.
Now, if it is all story, I believe we are the narrators. Many writing instructors will tell you that to be a great writer, you must be attentive. Shamans will tell you the same thing: If you want to be a good person, a whole person, wake up! Pay attention! Be here now! Zen monks will go so far as to hit you with a stick. Look!
I used to approach writing like a football game. If I went out there and aggressively saw more, I’d know more and I’d capture more, and I’d write better. Hut, hut, hut: First down and haiku! But I found out something entirely different. I learned that if I went into the world and paid attention (in Spanish, you “lend attention,” presta atencion), the world would notice and respond. I would have demonstrated my worthiness to receive the world’s gifts. It’s a kind of library where you lend attention and receive a story. Or God will toss off a limerick for your pleasure.
In South Carolina recently, I was telling my hosts before a speaking engagement all about this idea. I told them that Story comes on the wings of hummingbirds and dragonflies. My host told me to turn around. A hummingbird hovered outside the window, three inches from the back of my head. After the event, I was in the street enjoying the silence. A dragonfly came and hovered over my head. Both times, all I had to do was look.
This is a preview of my book that is currently in editing with Simon & Schuster’s Scribner. Thank you Margaret for your support, guidance and helping me find my “voice” in this amazing story that has been my life.
Ole Jørgen walked out of customs in the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport in Kolkata on the afternoon of October 2nd, carrying the same red backpack he’d had in London. He hadn’t changed a whole lot. Same bright eyes, same enthusiastic attitude, same boyish dimples in his cheeks.
“Cast, get your ass over here,” he said, holding out his arms. “Cast” was a nickname I’d had amongst some friends years ago, a play on my last name and a recognition that I’d always seemed to be casting a “peace-line” to people….some chose to bite, other chose to keep swimming. Jørgen had appropriated it in London during a Upasanti Village Board meeting in 2014.
We hugged. I said, “It’s so good to see you.” I meant it. Jørgen has been a most important part of Upasanti Village since almost it’s creation, so it was a homecoming to see his shining smile. I’d been alone so much in the last year….alone physically, mentally and emotionally…..on edge with just about everyone I’d known. Before leaving the US in July, I’d had several life-changing experiences. I lost my father. And I lost a close friendship that, because I was the only one willing to feed it and so it meant more to me, had been unravelling for some time.
I’d often compared my close friendship to a finely woven tapestry. Seems this dear friend and I ‘d been pulling threads for years, one here, one there. For so long, the tapestry could be mended, and each time it was mended it became stronger. But I supposed and asked myself…..what if the wrong thread had been pulled? Would the whole piece unravel? This time, I’m afraid the answer was yes.
The familiarity I felt with Jørgen was instantly calming. He threw an arm over my shoulders as we walked outside into the warm Indian air. I let myself be flattered by his presence, by the fact that he had gotten on a plane from Vietnam, interrupted his UN work, and flown all the way to India to accompany me to Myanmar….I was nervous, I was fearful and I was acutely aware that the destruction of me, my work with Upasanti Village and the children we have saved could yield a hefty price in Myanmar. Jørgen flew all this way to guide me, help me work and show me the progress he’d made in Upasanti Village’s medical unit.
We took an auto rickshaw to the Salvation Army Guesthouse, in the heart of the backpacker ghetto, so he could drop his bags in a locker, and then we went out to walk the streets of Kolkata and talk.
The streets of Kolkata were crowded. Children trailed us down the street, calling, “Aunty, Aunty!!”, their palms held open for change. Men brushed up close to Jørgen, muttering, “Ganja? Ganja?”. We spent about two weeks there volunteering at one of Mother Teresa’s charities, working the morning shift in the women’s wing of the Kalighat Home of the Pure Heart; Jørgen working the infirmary requiring his medical knowledge; me delivering tea and giving sponge baths to patients with tuberculosis, malaria, dysentery, AIDS, and cancer, sometimes in combination. The frankness of it was galling, even nauseating at first, but slowly I relaxed. Jørgen felt this to be an important precursor to what I’d likely see in Upasanti Village and in Myanmar all at once. I could never be saintly like the nurses and doctors like Jørgen who staffed the place, but I tried to at least be helpful.
I had just spent 3 months in private study with His Holiness, of which I also spent time with my Guru in Mysore and Chennai; a visit to the Southern beaches of Kerala, where the lip of the Indian Ocean foamed over long stretches of white sand. Finally visiting Varanasi, a holy city for Hindus, thought to be a direct portal to heaven. There, pilgrims sat half sunk in the grey-green water of the Ganges, washing their bodies, washing laundry and dishes, washing cows, while dead bodies burned on the ghats above. From Varanasi, I went to Mysore and Pushkar. I learned to sleep on trains, to not think twice while using the toilet holes that emptied directly onto the tracks rushing below. Nothing was going to slow me down.
A few days later, Jørgen and I crossed the tarmac at the International Airport in Kolkata, headed toward a decrepit-looking “Mandalay Airlines” plane. We were both tense, lugging a couple of carry on bags, a few thousand dollars in American money, the currency of choice in Myanmar, and some medical equipment and vaccines. We’d each checked a bag.
In exacting detail, I would recall the rub of my backpack on my shoulders, the petrol blur of the airplane fueling trucks in the hot Indian air, the train stations, the chaat delicacy street vendors. I took myself back through the past four months. I recalled what it was like to scoop handfuls of sugared pistachios in Varanasi, devour momos served by Tibetan refugees in McLeod Ganj and dip chappathi bread in luscious sauces on the beach in Kerala. Kitchari with my Guru to warm my heart.
The airplane was packed with about a hundred Rohingya Muslim men and women, plus a few kids who clambered over ripped canvas seats. The walk across the hot tarmac coupled with a sense of foreboding I couldn’t shake, had combined to make me feel lightheaded and a little bit sick. I noticed many of the women wore a conservative form of hijab, heavy dresses with long veils. A number of them were wearing nijabs, their faces fully covered except for their eyes. A few had stuffed their feet into white plastic bags before putting on their sandals, an effort to cover every last millimeter of skin out in public.
Everyone seemed to be chattering loudly while loading what seemed to be an insane amount of carry-on luggage….plastic bags of every color, packed with clothes and books and food, knotted tightly to stay closed. The walls of the plane were streaked with dirt. The door to the bathroom hung partially off its hinges. In the waiting area, I’d exchanged a few words with what appeared to be the only other non-India, non-Muslim, on the flight, an older Italian man who spoke English. He said he worked for a Christian NGO and was headed to the city of Shwebo, the capital of the Sagaing Division, which would be the plane’s second stop after Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, Myanmar.
Hearing that we would be disembarking in Sittwe, he raised his eyebrows and made a dramatic poof with his lips, a gesture of disbelief. “Be very careful in Sittwe.” he said. “Your head…” – he tapped his own head – “…it’s worth half a million dollars there. And that’s just your head.”
I knew what he was saying. Westerners were a useful commodity in Western Myanmar,, especially in Rhakhine State, even dead ones….and especially if they were a problem for human traffickers. A body was a trophy; living hostages could be sold back to their home countries. I knew exactly what the Italian NGO worker was trying to tell me, but I didn’t appreciate hearing it.
Jørgen and I were sitting in the back of the plane. Around us, people talked on cell phones, appearing agitated, standing up to shout out what sounded like news to other neighboring rows. A Burmese woman who’d been raised in America and now worked in Delhi translated for us. “They’re saying there is violent protesting due to the Rohingya Muslim crisis at the airport in Sittwe.” she said. “There is fighting and deaths on the road with militants and there are threats to Western civilians. Maybe the airport will be closed. Maybe we can’t fly.”
I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly – “there is fighting on the road with Rohingya and the military”, especially against the backdrop of the war that had been going on for almost two decades and was the cause of Aung San Suu Kyi’s incarceration, but in the plane, among the Muslims, it appeared to be causing a stir. We waited for some sort of announcement. The blood seemed to be pumping with extra force through my veins – a possible panic attack….I had gotten better at controlling them. For a second, I allowed myself to feel relieved by the prospect of being ordered off then plane and back into the Kolkota airport, to have the matter taken entirely out of our hands.
But after a few minutes, the plane’s engines kicked on. A flight attendant pulled the door shut, vacuum-sealing us from the morning heat of Kolkota before taking to the loudspeaker to order people off their cell phones.
Protests at the airport, protests on the road, be damned…..we were flying.
How deeply we fear being nobody. One way to think of the ego is as a defense against pain, particularly the pain of being no one. It shores us up, reminding us that we are somebody. We update our internal resumes and narratives constantly. We seek new skills and go on self-improvement regimes of all kinds, including the practice of mindfulness meditation. And we may improve a little. We may feel a little more peaceful, a little more resilient and less quick to anger.
And yet, deep down we may sense that we are still seeking to plant a flag in ground that gives way under our feet. Nothing we do can stop time’s passage and all the things that keep happening that we don’t want to happen, like aging and loss. Even with a very deep and well-established practice that has grown new neurons and reduced stress and accomplished everything else that scientific studies promises, even then we still touch the sadness of life. And that fear of being no one….of being hopeless.
I believe that giving up on hope is giving up on life. I believe that the sun is still shining behind the storm clouds. The hard part is remembering that it’s always there and that the storm will pass.
Three years ago, I began my struggle with Major Depressive Disorder. The clouds of self-hatred began to roll into my mind. My world was quickly darkening as I felt hopeless, out of place and inadequate in so many realms of my life. Despite the constant support of my Sangha and family, I kept slipping farther into my dark hole of depression. Thoughts of self-mutilation and suicide attempts entered my mind and my life. The light was gone. I could see no other way to escape this darkness then to permanently end it.
I was sitting on my bed, cupping a bottle’s worth of sleeping pills in my hand. The thoughts that had been attacking me hadn’t stopped raining down and I wasn’t able to push them aside any longer. I felt like a burden and a waste of space. The constant love that had been shown me had to be a lie. Who could love someone as messed up as me? After all, I was there to solve problems, not be one. My mental storm was blowing hard and I was sure I wouldn’t survive. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I looked around my room for what I thought was the final time. I saw pictures of my Teachers (Ven. Sudharma, Swami Rishi and His Holiness the Dalai Lama) faces smiling back at me. Memories that had once kept me going were now going to see me off. The small calendar hanging on my wall looked curiously at me as the future plans it held had no relevance anymore. All my hope was gone and with it I was giving my life. I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths to prepare myself. Any sense that I had once had was gone. Consumed by what I thought was impossible. I was lost and knew I wouldn’t be found.
As I opened my eyes a picture caught my eye. I wiped the stinging tears from my eyes to clear my vision. It was a picture from the United Nations Upasanti Village bio book of one of the children that had recently been rescued from the atrocities of human trafficking. Next to her photo was a picture she had drawn for the on-site social worker in Myanmar…..a picture of her crying and Buddha with his arms wrapped tight around her. A gray cloud above her head poured rain upon the duo, but in the corner of the paper there was a sun.
When my dear Teacher, Ven. Sudharma was in the process of passing, she told me that even though it’s raining there will always be sun, which means there has to be a rainbow. I couldn’t see it yet, but it would be there. A rush of hope flooded my body as I realized that the children I’ve worked so hard for…..dedicated my life to….were actually saving me. My hands shook and the pills that were going to be my answer cascaded to the carpeting beneath me. The sun was there, the rainbow was coming, and the rain would finally end on that July evening when I boarded a plane for India….the “no one” I had been, was finally shed.
It may come as a relief that in ancient times, when people first heard of Buddha’s teachings on emptiness or no self, it was considered most auspicious to feel not joy but terror. One classical explanation is that to feel fear is to intuit what must come. The ego must volunteer to abdicate the throne in the center of your life. It must agree to die or at least diminish and let you be no one at least some of the time. These days the secular mindfulness movement takes the sting out of this death. It practices a kind of bait and switch, benevolent but still a bait and switch. It promises people a little more peace and inner spaciousness, a better brain, and so on. And slowly, slowly it leads on to the realization that real peace and freedom come in those moments when we are no one. When we are willing to give up. We notice that when we are more awake we are not thinking of a self. We find that being nobody is not deadness. It is awakening to the flow of life.
Before leaving India for Myanmar, and after sharing my experience with His Holiness, he hugged me and seized both my hands and held them for a long time in His, and looked at me with a smile. He assured me that without rain, the beauty of a rainbow wouldn’t exist and that the sun’s light has been there all along. Storms are temporary but the sun is permanent. The sun is a symbol of hope. And, like all conversations, this one led us to a peaceful silence.