“Gloriousness and wretchedness need each other. One inspires us; the other softens us.” Pema Chödron
If I had ever wanted to borrow a few bucks from my dad then the first words out of his mouth would have been: “What’s it for?” Then, “How are you gonna pay it back?”And he’d have reason to ask. He never had the money to lend me but he always had the reason to ask and then say, well, “No.”
If my fifth grade teacher, Mr. August Simondson, asked me a question in class I had to answer the question. Get it wrong, maybe, but not answering the question was simply out of the question. Turning from him and winking conspiratorially at my audience—after asking if I could call him Augie and coyly declaring that I would not answer the question and instead speak directly to my American class mates—would have kept me after school, hollering in vain at retreating school chums: “But we are the most respected nation in the world!”
If I misplaced (read: lost) something that was going to cost my financially hard-pressed parents money to replace, say, gloves, umbrella, schoolbooks, or I don’t know, my sister, I could try and deflect the blame, though certainly not onto my missing sister: “Er, she lost herself after she lost all the other stuff,” but I would get a smack on the bottom for my efforts.
If I stole something from Woolworth’s on Steinway Street in Astoria, even something as relatively trivial as a bottle of nail polish (only on a dare because I—as a self-avowed tom boy who tortured her fingernails with her teeth—would never deign to wear the stuff), I would be made to return it to the store and stand red-faced before the stern gaze of neighborhood women under home perms pin curled into a stranglehold on their scalps, their unquiet hands pat-patting away in the pockets of their matter-of-fact smocks who not only knew my mother but liked her even less. I knew what punishment awaited me back home. The Twinkies Insanity Defense (or in Bernie’s case, kreplach) would fall on deaf ears. My sister declared regularly that I was insane. No big deal.
If I hit another kid because I thought that kid was going to attack me first well, you get the drift. If my parents didn’t read me the riot act, then the kid’s parents would.
So, what it’s come down to today is that somebody else’s parents weren’t quite so strict, or they weren’t around much because they had lives of their own, and let their kids off easy or they were the role models their kids grew up to be. Those kids get away with murder—some literally—as adults. They grew up to be bankers, financial advisors, vice-presidential candidates and presidents. They’ve grown up to be the bankers who have been handed billions of taxpayer dollars, which, like the entitled brats they are, they refuse to account for. Billions of dollars have been stolen by grown up financial advisers and left investors—big fish and small fry alike— reeling (and a lot less rich) from a pyramid scheme that sounds like a childhood game. A little girl grows up to be a governor with aspirations to the Big White House on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. and decides in a widely watched political debate that she is just not going to answer the moderator’s questions and then flashes an ‘us against them’ wink at the television audience. And then some do make it to the Big White House and blithely make pre-emptive murderous strikes on foreign nations and don’t get even get a ruler thwacked across the knuckles, much less a more appropriately lengthy term in the Big House.
Growing up I learned right from wrong, tripped up a lot and eventually executed said wrong doing with less and less conviction until it became painful enough to make me want to stop. When, as an adult who had chucked organized religion for its failure to live up to any promise and that left only eternal damnation that may or may not pan out, I began to explore philosophies I could learn something from and live with. I was raised as a Lutheran in a church that held candlelight processions along stone pillars bedecked with fresh pine boughs at Christmas and draped the mournful purple cloth over Jesus at the altar on Good Friday where, as a girl desperate for forgiveness, I sat quietly pious in an empty pew for seven hours as the last words from the cross were delivered from the pulpit every hour until there were no more. A fire and brimstone-hurling pastor aptly named Pastor Ripper headed the congregation. I sang in the choir until I was a teenager. My sister and I appeared on a television program called Faith For Today, white robed and singing our angelic little hearts out—a momentary halt of hostilities. Aunts, uncles, and my poor unsuspecting cousins prayed under a different clerestory than we did that the world would be rid of the kind of homosexuals the boys grew up to be. They answered to the evangelical call and were born again, which apart from the hypocrisy I was witnessing firsthand, confounded me no end. Born again? Once is enough, thank you. I don’t want to cower before a god, rely on a god, get pissed off with those that do and then rationalize their ungoldly behavior because they have found god.
Atheism suits me but I am not so narcissistic as to think I don’t still have a lot to learn about hedging one’s bets. And I’ll admit to the heart-racing ghostly sighting and a penchant for German films about angels tumbling to earth for love. Over the years I have sporadically attended talks at the Shambhala Center in Manhattan, drawn by the Kerouackian sound of their dharma gatherings. I don’t call myself a Buddhist. I do call myself a gleaner. I like the Zen philosophy of “Once you know you can’t un-know.” If anything has kept me relatively crime free it’s been this simple phrase; that, and the ‘do unto others’ chestnut. I was, and still am, an avid reader and until I began exploring further the tenets of Buddhism, inspired in part by the writings of Pema Chödren, a Buddhist who follows Shambhala tradition, I relied on the witty aphorisms of the likes of Mark Twain: “Be careless in your dress if you will, but keep a tidy soul.” And “If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.” “God made idiots. That was for practice…” For relief from the more dire aspects of life I turned to comedy: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”—Mel Brooks.
This brings me to Samsara and The Wheel of Misery. What I was doing was looking for a way out of the miseries of life. Catholics had Purgatory. So what if the place itself had been downgraded; sin and its consequences was still a pretty unpleasant notion if you weren’t going directly to heaven. Jews have Gehenna where it might be a year between death and salvation. For Muslims, hell is temporary residency for some who have erred and for the worst evildoers it’s eternal strife with no get-out-of-jail card to be had. Evangelicals have The Rapture. The country club mentality of Protestants suits their religious ends as well. Been good? You’re in the everlasting members-only private club. Bad? You’re not.
Buddhism was a jolt to my not fully released grasp of life after death. Religious afterlife: Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Protestants Evangelicals, Mormons; they all had it going for them. If I could make myself believe there was no hell, maybe there was a heaven; a relentlessly charming afterlife devoid of bankers, politicians, landlords, armed peace officers. Or incarnation! Poor and not nearly as smart as I secretly aspired to be in this life would be rectified when I was born again as a fabulously wealthy do-gooder scholar. Nope. Samsara blew the chips right off the table. Whereas reincarnation might be thought of as kind of do-over, in Buddhist philosophy that just means repeat, repeat, repeat.
If I can’t watch a movie like Marley and Me in this life because I feel miserable about all those dogs in shelters that get passed up for the costly designer breeds, I can expect the same angst in the next. I’ll never lose the acute hearing I am suddenly cursed with when I overhear conversations on the bus about losing jobs at Christmas. The only way I’ll release myself from samsara (in my humble opinion) is to just stop thinking about it. When we meditate we are meant to stop everything; movement, thought, helping yourself to that extra and wholly unnecessary slice of pumpkin pie.
We meditate so that we can learn to be in the moment. So when The Mister and I see an old friend who is on her own and we accompany her and her expensive but adorable Maltese to the dog run in Riverside Park, I’ll also be aware and invite pleasant passing conversation with a stranger and her newly adopted mixed breed that narrowly escaped being put down at a shelter. I’ll listen for the sympathetic voice in some other stranger’s conversation about lost jobs who counts himself lucky in a schadenfreud kind of way because he’s got his own place. “Nobody’s ass, nobody’s feet but my own. No matter how bad thing’s is goin’, somebody else is got it worse.”
I’ll come to understand misery as a personal journey I need not be on but that no one but me can navigate the map of my own enlightenment. I may be on a journey that takes longer than this present earthly existence to complete, but I’ll continue to seek out the billboards along Transcendental Highway that read: “Happiness does not come from having much, but from being attached to little,” from Cheng Yen. I’ll return again and again to those earlier signposts from my literary guardians like Virginia Woolf: “Arrange whatever pieces come your way.”
Recently I came across a quote from the owner of Le Cirque on being successful: “You can’t be afraid of anything, but you have to stay nervous all the time. If you aren’t, there is something wrong.”
I’m somewhere between that angst-inducing fog and blissful enlightenment.
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