Free Read! The Narrow Way, Chapter 14.

Here’s the next installment of The Narrow Way. Don’t forget to check out my new website, monkle at large!

Chapter 14

Clean

It is eight years before India. The beginning of the new millennium is only months away. Y2K. It is the end of the world. It is the beginning of the world and I am coming home to try sobriety for the first time.

The Colorado air is clean and cool but as I step off of the plane and take a deep breath it sears my lungs, raw from fifty thousand hits of crystal meth. I am nothing more than a skeleton now, a hundred and thirty pounds of bones and desperation. I am sunken eyes and death-ash skin. I am rotting teeth and bleeding gums. I am forgotten name and alone, shell shocked and trying to remember.

But now it all comes back to me. How could I forget? A thousand nights of higher and higher, with the drugs and the porn as my only purpose. Glass pipes and weed pipes, nitrous and bottles of beer set up in front of me like a surgeon’s tool kit. A hit, a line, a drink, a drag and then a nod. Don’t nod off, not yet, only want to go to the edge of the other side, I would say. And so, mind twisted and strange, I stared deep into those images on the little screen, digging deep to cut out the bloody tumors of my desire.

Still, I could never really own that desire, could never call it by its true name. I couldn’t even see that it wasn’t desire at all but the essence of the real me, the gay me, just trying to get out. So I took the drugs wildly, hoping they would help me to sound out that name with dry throat and tongue. I would snort whole grams of speed in one great inhale, stay awake and stuttering for days, make my way to the gay clubs and porno stores when I thought I had finally broken through. But even then I could only stand there on the shore of that sea of men and sex while the throbbing music and the desperate moans crashed over me like waves. Sometimes I would hold those men in the middle of the night, there in the dark little booths where I could get down on my knees and with open arms and mouth finally confess. But mostly I would just bite my lip till it bled and run for the door.

Three years I did this. Nine hundred blinding sunrises in a row. Then the bottom came up too fast and seeing the imminent future of me, shattered and broken there on the hard, concrete earth, I called home.

“Help, help, help!” I cried. But not for the help I needed. Just a quick fix and a place to run to and crash.

Now here I am in Colorado. Soon my family will embrace me, welcome me home and breathe an uncertain sigh of relief. But all the while they will shoot me cautious sidelong glances from the edge of uneasy memories and the anguish of all those years I spun further and further away will still be too raw to touch.

“He’s come home,” they will think. “But is he really ready?”

They will be right to worry but for now, with two old suitcases, my dog and a pocketful of the best intentions I think that the change has finally come. I tell myself that high up in the mountains, I will finally find my true self and resurrect him from his long burial. Good food, sleep and fresh air will be enough to make me grow strong again. The first snow will come and I will dance in it renewed. My addictions and obsessions will fall off like an old snake’s skin.

I will work hard at my cousin’s restaurant there in the mountains, make good on her and her husband’s generosity. I think, too, that the small town life will do me good and I will forge new and wholesome friendships with the people and the land. I will become some newborn mountain man and the moose and the elk and the coyotes will all lean in close and whisper their names to me. So will the columbine, the aspen and the sage. The deep mountain lakes will be blue and cold and I will dip my fingers and toes in their clear, holy waters so I become clean and whole again.

But none of this will ever come true.

You see, fueled by a little success, my ego will grow bigger even than the Rocky Mountains that surround me and my bravado will echo through the land.

“I used to be a drug addict,” I will say. “Now I am in control.” Then I will take a big gulp of the beer in front of me and, without even knowing it, start the cycle anew.

All of the old, unresolved conflicts that I packed with me at the bottom of those two beat up suitcases will be standing right next to me. All through the long, dark nights of winter they will whisper in my ear bedtime stories of failure and shame. Then the bedtime stories will weave themselves into dreams of suicide and day after day I will wake curled up on the floor, head ringing from the booze and the wine, trying to forget.

Every morning I will look into the mirror, deep into my eyes and I will not like the person I see there at all. He will not be the dear old friend he should be but a disgusting man that no one could ever want or love. I’ll slap him hard across the face and beat his chest until he chokes all of his bitter self-loathing down. And there it will grow like thick tangled roots in the cellar where he keeps all of his unwanted memories and scary truths. Down there in the dark he will hide all the men he ever slept with, all the longings he’s ever had, all of the terrible things he’s ever done.

“That’s not me,” I’ll say. “That was just a phase. I’m normal now. I’m straight.”

But I won’t be able to swallow that bitter lie. I’ll have to wash it down with gallons of gin and wine and beer. Everyday I’ll need more and more until finally the day will come that I’ll go into town for a drink but instead I’ll have fifteen. I’ll drink till I’m spinning and falling and screaming for more. I’ll drink till I stagger back out into the blazing sun, into my car, laughing and drooling as I pull out the keys.

I’ll make it ten miles down the long highway without a scratch, squeezing one eye shut to stay in my lane, before spinning the wheel hard and tearing onto the dirt road. I’ll turn up the radio and scream. Then, knowing I’m invincible, I’ll punch the gas. Thirty miles an hour. Forty. Fifty. I’ll skid and slide over the wash-boarded curves with my teeth rattling in my skull and as I come to the edges of the steep gullies and ravines, I’ll just laugh like mad.

“Fuck it!” I’ll shout. “Ain’t death a hoot!”

It will all happen so fast that I won’t have time to take it back. Suddenly, the world will explode in a blast of shattered glass and twisting metal. I’ll go up and over, end over end. I’ll come crashing down in a broken, steaming heap. I’ll hang there upside down for a long while with the sun shining through the sparkling dust dancing in front of my eyes. It will be very quiet then, just a breeze in the creaking branches of the pines and the spinning whir of a mangled tire. And then, in the silence that follows, beautiful and almost perfect, I’ll think shit, I’m still alive.

There will be no life flashing before my eyes. I will not be shaken out of my thick sleep. There will be no epiphany or realization of any kind. Instead I’ll just crawl out of that wreck of my life, stalk around it like a hunter over his prey then kick it to make sure it’s dead. Then I’ll wipe the blood and the broken glass off my face and shoulders and without another thought or a word, I’ll just walk away from my second attempt at suicide and order another drink…

As I head out of the airport on a fine fall day I don’t know any of this. The taste of my last line is still chemical metallic on my tongue. I want to change. I really do. I just don’t know that it’s going to take work. And so with a little bit of hope and all those good intentions, I step into the clean air and smile like a naïve and trusting child.

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Free Read! The Narrow Way, Chapter 13.

Here’s the next installment of The Narrow Way. Don’t forget to check out my new website, monkle at large!

Chapter 13

The Smile

I am in India, in retreat and for the first time in my life I am all right.

“Today we’re going to go for a walk,” Tim says. There is a holy place above Tushita and we are going to make a short pilgrimage there.

We sigh in relief at even the prospect of this welcome break, this diversion from silence and sitting. I blush with guilty pleasure. After five days of the routine of retreat, it sounds like an impossible indulgence, like a movie with popcorn and soda or a tray of chocolate éclairs.

This retreat has been nothing of the sort. It has been a full on offensive. For five days we have been marching headlong into unexplored regions of our minds. We have been challenged with new ideas and asked again and again to look ever deeper into who we really are. There is more pain here than I ever imagined, emotional as well as physical. I dredge it up like the muck and silt from a deep riverbed and some of it is older and darker than I’d like to own up to.

I’ve tried hard not to have any expectations about this retreat. I’ve tried to just take whatever comes up as being the thing to embrace. But the truth is I’ve brought a whole suitcase full of expectations. I imagined I would be bathing in spiritual ecstasy and realization by now, that there would be non-stop clairvoyance, revelations and the truth of myself unfolding in a heavenly shower of flower petals, perfume and nectar right before my eyes.

But instead I find that I’m sitting day after day on a hard, uncomfortable cushion on the floor of a cold, damp meditation hall. The cushion cuts into my veins and stops the flow of blood until my legs are cold and numb like two frozen lamb chops dangling useless from my hips. Sometimes, as I sit there with the others who shift and sneeze and cough, I can barely stay awake. The rain beats its fists against the windows in the last furious argument of the monsoon and sometimes it’s hard not to be distracted and even afraid. Sometimes my body aches and moans so badly that I just want to get up and walk out in a huff of exasperation and self-righteousness. And then there are times that I just don’t feel good enough to be here at all.

But then I remember the young woman who used to sit in front of me. If sitting is uncomfortable for me, it has been an unbearable torture for her. She has finally given up on the cushion and now sits on a chair to my right. She shifts and squirms in the silence and as she reaches around to massage the knotted muscles of her lower back we can all hear a tiny groan escape. Every minute for her is heat and pain. But still, she doesn’t give up. Not ever. She endures the suffering because there is something worthwhile to be found here, with it and through it. After the sessions we take turns offering our condolences, our help, our sympathy and suggestions. But she just smiles and shrugs, “Oh well, I have back problems. I hoped it wouldn’t bother me this much but what can I do?”

I have to jump up and spin a little pirouette at this. How amazing! Everyone here is making this huge effort to find out the truth about themselves and this tangled confusion of a world that we’ve all been thrown into. I am not alone. So I sit through my own little pain looking to the courageous woman to my right as a hero. I sit through the boredom and the wishing that I was somewhere else. I stop looking forward to the time when we will really start practicing. I let the dark memories of the past twenty years come up. I stop fighting and just do my best to try and let go.

Now it is after lunch and we have all gathered at the back door of the gompa. The sun is bright and warm and it soaks into our tired joints and muscles. Our bellies are full of vegetable soup and fresh bread and we all feel giddy at the prospect of leaving the retreat grounds for a little while. The hike, this mini-pilgrimage, is not required but no one has opted to stay behind.

We take the path that leads us off the grounds of Tushita, up into the mountain forest. After crossing the road to Dharamkot, the path narrows and we walk single file, stopping now and again to catch our breath at six thousand feet. The town of McLeod Ganj comes into view far below, a few haphazard buildings strewn across the top of a thin ridge. I can see Tsug Lhakang, the main temple of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, at the end. Jampa Deyki stops and faces it, touching her hands to her crown, throat and heart in a gesture of reverence. I want to do that too. I want to throw myself onto the ground, prostrating a hundred times like I’ve seen the Tibetans do. But instead, I succumb to propriety and pride and just fold my hands at my chest and offer a subtle bow.

We stop our march after twenty minutes and we pant and sweat at the entrance of a tiny path that leads into the thick part of the forest. Prayer flags stream from every tree, fluttering in the wind.

“It is only a little bit further,” Tim whispers. “We are going to pass the huts of many meditators. Some of them are here on lifelong retreat.” He turns and heads into the dark.

Lifelong retreat. I go chill and tingle as I try to comprehend what that means. This is the big view of Buddhism put into practice; the action and the sacrifice of the bodhisattva is to never waver from the goal of liberation for the sake of others. If that means spending a lifetime, or a dozen lifetimes, alone and in deep contemplation, then so be it. I look up the hill into the forest and wonder if could do that, if I could renounce the world of pleasure and gain all for the slim chance of finally waking up.

We file up the narrow path over hand cut, mossy stone steps. Through the trees I can see a half a dozen stone huts surrounded by neatly stacked granite walls. The roofs are made of old plywood and corrugated aluminum and I think they must turn into deafening percussion instruments in the heavy rains. Tiny chimney pipes puff out wisps of wood smoke and the smell of cooking rice. The yards are crisscrossed with prayer flags and red monk’s robes draped over laundry lines. No one stirs inside any of them and the air is silent and still as we pass by.

We come into a tiny glen and on the opposite end are two stupas. Tim has told us that just by circling these holy monuments and making prayers around them, one is said to accumulate vast spiritual merit that will one day culminate in enlightenment.

But as I look at these two funny looking structures, squat bulbs on square foundations of grey stone with tall skyward reaching spires leafed in gold, I feel nothing. There is no spiritual fireworks show, no rainbow light emanating from them. If they do radiate some unseen power, I don’t feel it.

Still, I approach them with reverence and respect. These two house the remains of two great meditation masters and teachers, realized beings who followed the Buddha’s instructions to the letter and finally succeeded in their final goal of enlightenment.

I walk straight for the largest of the monuments and face it. I let my go of my pride and prostrate three times in front of it. Then I pull out my mala and following Tim’s advice, start reciting the prayer I made up before we left.

May my spiritual practice flourish for the benefit of all beings, I begin.

It seems like not too much to ask and noble enough. But still I blush thinking, who am I to aspire to such things?

I round the stupa once, counting off a bead on my mala each time I say the prayer softly under my breath. I feel foolish at first and nervously glance around, worried that everyone is watching me and laughing to themselves at this green Buddhist. Still I keep going around, again and again, and I say the prayer until the noise of my fears is drowned out by the mantra.

I try not to expect too much, even though in the back of my mind I’m waiting for some sign carried by the wind in the trees or a voice or a vision. I’m looking for some confirmation that this is the path for me, some recognition that I’ve done this before in a place like this, in a life like this, like a deep calling to my soul. But that doesn’t come at all and I finish my rounds and bow quickly before walking out of the gate, holding my disappointment in front of me, careful not to push it too far away. I’ve learned that much already.

I return to the group, which has already begun to gather in the small glen under the old, gnarled pines. I linger as they start to head out of the clearing and back down the mountain. I wait until they are out of sight before I follow, stopping every few feet, looking back, making sure I didn’t miss something.

I trip over a mossy root hidden under brown rotting leaves and when I catch my balance and look up, there, outside the door of one of the stone huts, is a monk. He has a round, pleasant face and a plump belly. He is hanging his red monk’s robes out to dry. He looks right at me and waves. His mouth is wide and I think, how is it possible for one face to hold such a smile? It is as big as an apple pie and his fat white teeth gleam in the sun that peeks through the trees above. It is the most genuine smile I have ever seen. He is happy and what’s more he’s happy to see me. Me, a total stranger. He waves and waves and though he doesn’t say a word I know exactly what he means.

“Hello, dear friend! It’s so nice to see you! Don’t worry, we are the same, you and I and everyone else. All of us are OK!”

Doubt and disappointment fall away like leaves in November. I am not a failure. There is nothing to be ashamed of anymore. I am on the right path.

I wave back at my new friend then fold my hands and bow. He bows back and I turn to put one foot on the track in front of me. I start to skip and laugh. I skip and laugh all the way down the slippery steps until I catch up with the other pilgrims. I jump into their midst and plant my two feet hard into the ground and let out a hearty hoorah! And I feel, for the first time in a thousand years, like I’m finally a part of the human race.

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Free Read! The Narrow Way, Chapter 12.

Here’s the next installment of The Narrow Way. Don’t forget to check out my new website, monkle at large!

Chapter 12

Meth

Devote the mind to confusion and we know only too well, if we’re honest, that it will become a dark master of confusion, adept in its addictions, subtle and perversely supple in its slaveries. ~ Sogyal Rinpoche

May 11, 1998

I’m starting the pages again. I’ve neglected them for a while now. Can feel their lack. Haven’t written a poem in a couple of weeks. Think I may be getting blocked up again without my emotional faucet. So much is going on in my life today. I’m dealing with it all pretty well though. Have felt really positive the past few days. Still, been doing lots of speed. Been using speed, pot and alcohol in my “ritualized” masturbation. I’m not sure if it’s helping me cope with my sexual frustrations. Actually, I think it is. Just putting in disclaimers in anticipation of outside criticism. Does this make any sense? Just babbling. What do I want from all of this? Freedom. No responsibility for a while at least. Physical pleasure with no guilt or regrets. These are the things I was always denied growing up. Getting too hectic here—I don’t want to go that deep right now. I’ve got to get going. The battery in the van is dead-have to tinker with it…

October 28, 1998:

Why have I been taking so many risks lately? Am I still suicidal? I worry that I am. The other night I took hit after hit off my glass pipe—I was seeking oblivion—mindless ecstasy no matter what the cost. It’s not death that I seek but life. Life everlasting. Pure. The blood and guts. The stink of shit and sweat. Electric flesh. Laughter, agony and longing. The spirit and the flesh as one. Is that possible? Is there any hope for me? I feel that if my eyes were opened even just a little to the hazy vision of my forgotten dreams I would blind the world with light. It’s so hard to let go of my shackles. The traumas of my youth are still with me. My old hiding places still viable retreats. Been having anxiety dreams. One ended with mom appearing on a television. She wore too much make up. Her face was shining and plastic. She lectured me with plastic glee about responsibility. I woke up angry then became depressed and despondent. My past is not resolved. I have not forgiven. It’s ok though. I will survive. I will be free.

January 12, 1999:

Yes, it’s still morning. Spun. I can’t bullshit my way through this anymore. Got to just admit it, all of it, the whole truth and I don’t care who reads it. What are you reading my diary for anyway? Who gave you permission? Did I die a great man and this is now the fodder for fools to ponder and ah-ha? Well here it is. I am the greatest man who ever lived. Idol to millions. Worshipped like a god. When I speak there is a great hush. My words are the truth uncloaked. Because I am the fucking messiah! Don’t you dare question me you pathetic little roach! How dare you doubt me even for a second. You’re obviously not ready for my great teachings if you oppose me. Yes the messiah—I am the reincarnation of Christ, Buddha, Jim Morrison, Black Elk all the greatest men rolled into one. I am pure and strong and have nothing left to learn. My coming has been foretold. I am the one and only chosen one born now to save the world with my perfection and divinity. I believe this. I know this in my heart. I’m sure of it. All the signs, portents and coincidences say so. Mother said so…

May 21, 1999

Went to the porn store on Telegraph yesterday. Found an empty booth and left the door wide open. Then he came in and locked it behind him. I let him unzip my pants and I got hard and fierce inside his mouth. I was shaking, up for days on the drug with no food or water. I came electric and all at once and it seemed like it would never stop. Then he spit me out onto the dirty floor and I got sick to my stomach. I weebled and wobbled and fell against the walls, reaching blindly to find a way out. I needed to get out of there but he kept trying to hold me and love me and keep me close. But instead I ran with him trailing behind me into the blinding sun. I ran without looking back. “I’ll be ok, I’ll be ok, I’ll be ok…” I couldn’t stop shaking and all I wanted to do was take it all back, to take back the come and the pleasure of it all and pretend it never happened.

So I went out to the clubs and bought two rolls. Couldn’t wait and took them in the cab only fifteen minutes from home. They hit me hard and fast in the backseat and the cabbie had to drag me out because I couldn’t find my wallet or the door.

I took off all my clothes when I got inside and fell down on the floor, wrapping myself up like I was my own lover. Then I rocked myself back and forth and heard a voice as clear as the man standing inside my head.

“Chris, you’re gay,” he said and I realized the voice was mine.

I was so happy. I got up and danced naked and free for the only time in my life. I said it over and over again, out loud and unafraid of all the ears pressed against the walls. “Chris, you’re gay, you’re gay, you’re gay!” Then I fell laughing back down to the floor and flirted with myself until I came down and fell asleep to the thought of finally throwing away all the drugs and learning how to live like a newborn in the morning sun.

But instead, I am awake now and it is the same old day. I got some more speed and I hate myself again. I hate myself for wanting him still. He sickens me: superficial, degrading, absurd emasculation. I am repulsed by his whimpering, feminine affectations.

Oh god! I’m just a pathetic piece of dogshit!!! Why do I feel this way? Why can’t I be happy? I want to die! Loser! You suck I hate you I wish you would just die and stop being a burden. I wish you would go away. I wish you would take your weak pathetic helpless ass out of here and let me live!

July 19, 1999

Some bad things about speed:

  1. I do it all the time.
  2. Sometimes I get so high I forget to breathe.
  3. I worry that everyone who sees me knows I’m spun.
  4. My face turns red and my hands turn cold and purple.
  5. My teeth are falling out and my breath smells a little like death.
  6. It makes me crazy.
  7. I don’t take care of my dog.
  8. It controls me. Sometimes I do it only hours after saying I wouldn’t.
  9. I don’t even like it anymore.
  10. It defines me and that’s scary.

July 22, 1999:

Letting it all out. Brain frazzled. This is the part that holds me back. I hold myself back. I’m trying to love myself. This is gibberish. Like a madman walking and talking to know one. I want to quit speed once and for all. No more last times. I want to be a golden man, a man of the New Birth. How grand! Flip-flop. Can’t make up my mind when I’m in this state of mind. Will this freak me out tomorrow or will I be able to laugh and love? I saw the sun rise earlier. Everything was clear. That wasn’t the first time this morning or this year. I am changing but I cling to old habits, old thoughts, old tricks. I want to love myself. Really love myself. That means know myself. I am so close. My spirit is waking up (or is it?). I worry that I might be gay but I want to rejoice that part of me is gay. Trying to assimilate it all consciously. That is impossible. The method to achieve understanding is impossible to teach or describe. Yet it must be acted out precisely nonetheless. I know what I’m saying then sometimes I don’t. I didn’t mean for this diary to turn out like this today. But what else could it possibly be for? I sometimes just want to stop thinking. Stop the input, the incessant analysis of the same old data. Am I still in some kind of prison? Are there others like me? Yes! I’ve seen them with my own eyes. Talked to them. Kissed them. Called them Brother and Sister and Beautiful Girl. They are all around me, have always been. I just wasn’t ready to notice. It is possible to be humble and arrogant at once. I think it’s called courage. Time is running out. I feel I must do another line before going to work. (Cling, cling, cling.) Can’t quite let go of the old ways. There are no punishments, only consequences in the Law. I’m certain of this though I don’t know how. I’m not a sideshow ranter at a violent peep show! That’s what I call poetry. But what does it mean? Who does it help? What veil does it lift? Falling by desire back to earth while spirit struggles to stay aloft. The two must meet half way to achieve harmony. The body serves the spirit, a guide in this densest forest. The spirit cares for the body so the whole may become…not gibberish. I just don’t really understand yet. Letting off the steam. Too intense inside when I believe I’m all alone. Flip-flop. Back and forth again. How do I stand this crazy ride? Lot’s of questions. That’s good and ok. I’m heading home on the other side. The uncertainty will pass. Today will pass. I will make the best of this gift. I’m my own best teacher when I listen. I will calm my fears. I will let my True Will guide my actions. I will work hard so I may discover my True Nature and the powers of my Being. I will be alright.

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Free Read! The Narrow Way, Chapter 11.

Here’s the next installment of The Narrow Way. Don’t forget to check out my new website, monkle at large!

Chapter 11

Suicide

Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love. It is reached when a man deliberately turns his back on all help from anyone else in order to taste the rotten luxury of knowing himself to be lost. ~ Thomas Merton

It’s a cold, gray summer afternoon in San Francisco when I find myself standing outside of my body. I watch as my first wife paces back and forth at the end of the hall with a piece of white notebook paper in her hands. I had left it neatly folded on the bedside table for her to find when she came home from work. Now, hovering over her shoulder from above, I read the letter I’ve written and cringe. All those late nights sneaking off to North Beach, looking for men in some peep-show heaven were too much to admit, so instead I told her: I am a porn addict and our relationship is a sham. A few lines to make her hate me just enough to let me go. But that’s not what I meant. It’s not what I meant at all. I just wasn’t ready to come out yet, not to her, not to myself.

So now I look down the hall and see my bag propped next to the front door. Run, run, run, I say to myself. Run from the pain of what is about to happen. Run from the truth. But something, maybe even courage, holds me to the ground under my feet. I have to see this through however cowardly I may feel.

Her hands start to shake like brittle leaves in a gathering gale and the paper falls out of her fingers, spiraling down to the warped hardwood floor.

“What the fuck is this?” she screams. “You bastard! You lying bastard!”

Our white German Shepherd scampers into the bedroom to hide, shaking under the bed. Then my wife tears off her wedding ring and throws it at me. The heavy silver band bounces off my chest with a dull thunk and hits the floor before rolling off under the kitchen table.

“Get out! Just get the fuck out of here! Get out, get out, get out!” comes the murderous crescendo and for a second I wonder why she doesn’t try to stab me or strangle me or claw out my eyes. I back away, towards my bag and towards the door. She beats her fists on the walls, on the table, on her chest. Suddenly I feel nothing but regret for what I’ve done. All I wanted was to free us both from the lie I’d been living but instead I’ve broken her heart. So now I do run, down the steps and into the fog, tripping at the bottom into a full sprint. At the end of the street I hear her scream, full of blood and the end of the world, and that scream echoes inside my head for days.

“It’s done. It’s done. It’s done. It’s done,” I chant to myself in between quick panic breaths that tear open my chest leaving my heart exposed to the chill and the wind. I put my head down and my feet flap hard and fast on the sidewalk as I head for nowhere at all. A bus pulls up, brakes screeching like nails on chalkboard and I get on without thinking. I find a seat and the city flies by stop by stop while I try to remember how I got here.

Six years together. Now gone, just like that. Three of them married. Some good years, some dark. But she was bright and sunshine and flowing dresses in Santa Barbara and as she shone on me I grew boundless for a while. I remember that first night in the beer garden as I saw her eyeing me nervously from the other table. Ten Meister Braus later I got up the courage to sweep her off her feet with a sneaky kiss and a smile. We ran all the way home to make love, my first time, and it was just so good to feel ok with another human being, to feel that embrace that I had only longed for and imagined.

And so not a night apart for more than I can count after that. Seven hundred happy sunsets at least, holding hands and laughing with heads tilted back in great guffaws of love.

Then a whisper one night in her ear: I want to be with another man and instead of pushing me out and away forever she pulled me in tighter and we both came, full of light, to the very thought it. So we danced through those hot sticky nights of summer searching until we found the one and he was perfect for the twenty minutes that three bodies needed to wrap themselves into one.

That night melted away through my fingers too fast and we didn’t see him again for almost a year. I had almost forgotten him until there he was, another face in the party, holding hands with his lover, beaming proudly “Hey Chris. Hey, Sherry. I want you to meet my new boyfriend!” The word hung there in italics, sharp and serrated, and it cut my heart into two pieces until jealousy pumped out of them in hot, dark spurts. That could have been me. That should have been me.

There were other lovers after that and I wore my bisexuality like a second hand sweater, taking it off and putting it on when it suited me. But it was never enough and I tore myself apart inside all the time. Depression filled me up, depression I could taste like some thick black oil on my dry and swollen tongue. The days were all dark, one after the other without end, until the memory of sunshine and laughter disappeared into the void.

Then the meth came and everything unraveled: my life, my marriage and even the sweater.

Now, as I ride through San Francisco for hours, the city doesn’t notice my nakedness at all. I am numb and shiver in the damp of dusk. I get off the bus and wander some more. There is nowhere to go. I reach into my wallet and count seventeen dollars in loose bills. She’s frozen the accounts by now, a cold retribution.

Across the street a neon sign glows: Pharmacy with the mortar and pestle flashing hypnotically. The doors slide open and the air, thick with too much perfume of Dial and Pert Plus, tickles my nose. Is this what heaven smells like? I roam up and down the aisles pretending I don’t have a plan, that I don’t know exactly what I’m doing. I’m outside of my body again and I watch from above as I pick up little bottles one by one looking for that specific combination of letters and words that I will recognize only when I see them.

Then there they are. “In case of accidental overdose please call…”

I shake the bottle like a baby’s rattle next to my ear. I shake it in a little rhythm, shucka-shucka-shucka, and walk it up to the counter in slow, shuffling steps. The clerk smiles at me through braces and acne as he rings me up.

“That’ll be ten-seventy-eight!” he beams.

Outside, I find a payphone in the dark. The cars whiz by on streets slick with new rain and I let the plan simmer in the back of my mind letting the phone ring until he finally picks up.

 

My friend’s place is small, a bedroom addition stuck haphazardly on the side of a rickety mustard yellow house in Potrero Hill. He gives me a big hug and looks me over like a mama bear inspecting her cub before I squeeze into his room. He didn’t see this coming, fooled by the act I’ve put on for all these years. We drink beers and sniff little bumps of crystal as I try to explain what’s going on. The burn and the rush fill me with hope and I forget for a little while the plan I have stuffed in my bag. I jabber on incoherently and we stay up all night until I start to think that my new life is going to be amazing.

“Are you gay?” my friend asks as my head snaps back from a line of meth.

The question stings more than the burning drug in my nostrils and I pretend at first not to hear it.

“Shauna thinks you might be gay,” he says. She should know. Shauna who used to be Sean has a nose for these sorts of things.

“No! No!” I say with a shake and a wag and I look over my shoulder for the door, for the exit, for the great escape. But there’s nowhere to run now. A parade of all my lovers tromps through the room with crashing cymbals and drums and trumpets and I worry that my friend can see them too. All the Chris’s and Jimmies and Aarons and Mikes wave and shout as they walk by, “Hey Chris, don’t you just love a parade?” I put my head down and pretend they’re waving at someone else.

“No, not at all,” I say.

My friend shrugs his shoulders and smiles like he knows something I don’t know. The fanfare dies down as the parade turns down a dark alley. I smile back at him as I pass him the tray lined with rails of speed and he doesn’t bring it up again.

The next day my friend goes to work and I am left alone with my thoughts. The euphoria of speed and beer are gone and I spiral down as the memories of the day before come back sharp and clear. They slash at me and though I put up my hands to fend them off they still cut deep. Phantoms and banshees swirl all around me calling me names. They check off long lists of faults and shortcomings cackling as they watch me squirm at the truth of them all. Liar, they say. Cheater. Betrayer. Pervert. Faggot.

I gasp and claw at the air begging them to stop. I fall over, curl up on the bed and tear at my hair until my scalp starts to bleed.

Then I remember the plan. I remember the pills and the darkness breaks just a little. I sit up and rub my eyes and for the first time in months I think I can see clearly what needs to be done.

I pull out my notebook and begin to write letters to all the people I love. The words drip onto the pages like a sweating fever. I write to my friend, to my brother, to my wife, to my mother, to my father. I apologize for all my failings and for all my broken promises. I tell them how I just can’t bear to live one more day as a failed human being.

I am relentless and I don’t even offer myself one tiny pinch of compassion. I am given over to the mind of suicide, selfish and beyond reason. All I see is my own pain and I don’t care about anyone else or the consequences of my actions.

I fold the letters neatly, printing names in big letters on each one. Then I stack them on the bedside table propping them up so they won’t be overlooked.

I find the bottle of pills and dump a pile of them into my hand. They look like little blue seeds and I begin to lay them out in front of me in neat little rows. I count out forty of them then pour myself a glass of water.

I pick up the first tiny blue pill and look at it between my fingers for a long time. I put it down then pick it back up again. Finally, I call my bluff and put it in my mouth, squeezing my eyes shut tight as I swallow. It is bitter and metallic as it slides down my throat and I resist the impulse to vomit as I take another one, then another. I take them faster and faster counting them out, “Twelve…thirteen…fourteen…” A life that might have been unfolds before my eyes. “Twenty-one…twenty-two…twenty-three…” A thousand possibilities of happiness, laughter and success rise up and fall away but they are nothing but mirages.

I lie down on the bed and fold my hands against my chest. As I close my eyes and wait, the chemicals work their way through my blood stream and I let go of my life. For a moment there is no impulse to fight or flee. I have given up. I am so tired and I let myself drift off to the very edge of sleep. It’s very peaceful here with the cool breeze blowing in from the ocean, through the open window and across my face.

But suddenly my body jerks and heaves into a state of panic. What am I doing? Apparitions and ghosts of all the people I know and love have gathered around my bed. My brother, my mom, my dad, my friends, my wife. They all look so sad and for just a moment I am consumed by an unbearable empathy.

I twist off of the bed crying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”

I call 911.

“I’ve just taken forty sleeping pills,” I say.

The operator is cool and unfazed. I give her the address and she sends me an ambulance like I’m calling for a Desoto Cab. Thank you and have a nice day, I think as I stumble out into the morning haze and fall down on the curb to wait for my ride.

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Free Read! The Narrow Way, Chapter 10.

Here’s the next installment of The Narrow Way. Don’t forget to check out my new website, monkle at large!

Chapter 10

California

The sun rises behind me and the Pacific gleams like a hundred thousand sparkling, wish-fulfilling gems. I walk down the steps to the beach and baptize myself in the holy water. I am in California again but not in the proud and purposeful way that I hoped. Two years after high school I spent in the haze of acid and pot until I borrowed enough money from my best childhood friend to force an escape. He is with me now, slashed and bleeding from my betrayals and lies. I coerced the money out of him really, made it a condition of our friendship. Now he stands behind me, silent and seething.

But here I am now, starting a new life from the few dollars I have left from his kindness. It is enough to move into a house with four of his friends from the year before, onto a corner of living room floor and an egg foam mattress.

This little town is wild and on the tiny square mile cliff top overlooking the ocean I will try and fail to break free. But for now the place is beautiful to me and to the ten thousand college kids who call this their first home away from home. For us this is paradise. There are no rules, only youth unleashed. The days are lazy Southern California dreaming but at night the festival begins. Beer flows out of homemade kegerators, house parties go on for days and the air is filled with the endless jam of punk rock, funk and ska.

Drugs are everywhere.

When the weekend finally comes, the already deafening volume is just cranked up another notch. The streets are choked with a mass of drunken, swaying bodies until the chaos rises to a fevered pitch. By Saturday night we are dragging old couches into the street to set them on fire. We cheer and scream in the night as they blaze like sacrifices that light our faces red with the hunger for more and more and more of this new life. They burn to the ground. They burn until they are nothing but piles of the black ash of the pasts that we all want to forget.

My roommates throw dance parties of their own. Every weekend the call of P-Funk, James Brown and Sly is answered and before I have time to roll up my mattress there are two hundred people dancing across the living room floor.

We drink cheap beer, malt liquor and tequila and I think that I need it just to survive. I am still a self conscious and frightened little boy but when I pour the booze down his throat faster and faster he feels warm and free. He loosens up. He lets go. After ten beers he is passed out in the corner but I leap out reborn onto the dance floor in a twirling, whirling, flailing of limbs. The room erupts and everyone cheers and I become even drunker on the sweet fruit of their approval. And so I drink out of need, the need to be accepted, the need to feel right and normal in a world that I don’t fit into. I drink as my sole purpose in life.

I read Bukowski, Kerouac and Burroughs and they become my new heroes. I want to be just like them so I write unintelligible poems and drink all day and night. Then I get up on the coffee table in the middle of the never-ending party and scream my mad verses to anyone who will listen. Sometimes I get a good laugh, sometimes I get punched in the face but mostly I just fall off my pedestal, vomit and black out.

So I slip and slide down this dangerous slope. I quit my job. I am drunk and obnoxious all the time. My roommates can’t take it anymore and they finally kick me out. But I sneak back into the house to sleep when I think no one is home. Then they chase me away like a mangy coyote, wild and snarling. They throw stones at me until I leave the pack for good. I am homeless for weeks and sleep in the open fields or on the couches of strangers I meet at parties.

I get a new job, the only one I can find or even want, as the clerk at the all-night porn store. Every night I watch the parade of desperation march by. I can smell it in the sweat and semen of the slow trickle of men who amble in through the dark, cold mornings. They buy handfuls of quarter tokens from me and I plunk them into their hands like gold doubloons. They sink them into the video machines in the back, lock themselves in their dark closets until the electric-blue light of porn seeps out of the cracks in the doors. Then the air is filled with the soft moaning that becomes our subliminal mantra, calling us all to that which will never truly satisfy.

Sometimes I look at the baseball bat that leans under the cash register.

“Any ‘a these fags tries to sneak into the booths together,” my boss said. “Ya give ‘em some of this.”

But I can never do that. I can never even think of doing that so instead I turn a blind eye to the cameras pointed down peep-show alley and let them all do what they want. After all, I know what they’re looking for back there in the dark, groping blindly and desperately, pressed against the sticky walls and tacky floors. And through the long nights I watch out of the corner of my eye and I’m never sure which is worse: the longing or the disgust.

 

I am spun on a little bump of speed that a regular gave me. He is a male prostitute and a heroine addict. He comes in high, after turning tricks in the parking lot and we kill the silent hours together. Sometimes he makes little passes at me but I always pull away.

“I just can’t read you,” he says and then he strokes my cheek.

But he is gone now and I am biting my nails until my fingers start to bleed when the phone jangles me out of my mind.

“Thank you for calling Downtown Books!”

There is nothing but silence on the other end and I am about to hang up when I hear a soft sobbing.

“Chris,” says the voice I haven’t heard in six months. “It’s your Mom.”

I remember the last time she called:

The government has been infiltrated by a global communist conspiracy that wants to impose a new world order of godlessness on all of humanity and FDR knew this and so does the Pope and everyone is in on it and it’s just that they’ve pulled the wool over our eyes and they put chemicals in our laundry soap that make us weak and compliant so I hope you aren’t using laundry soap to wash your clothes and your step dad is a bible scholar now and we are out here in Colorado because God has brought us here to help save the planet from evil and I saw a movie the other day and there was a scene in it that was approaching Lesbianism and it made me so sick to my stomach that I almost threw up and I had to leave the theater…” she said.

Then I hung up the phone and vowed never to speak to her again.

Now I just want to smash the receiver on the counter top until it is pulverized into a thousand shards of my broken life. I want to scream into the mess of plastic and wire until she goes deaf from all my confusion and rage. I want to cut myself into little pieces and shove them one by one into the mashed little microphone so she can taste the blood of my failure.

But instead I meet her for breakfast in a rundown diner after work. I stare across the table at an apparition from some terrible dream. She is thin and pale and shaking. She is weak and sick and she looks like she is dying but when she looks up at me with dark hollow eyes, they still cut deep into me.

“I had a nightmare a few days ago,” she says. “You were in a lot of pain and there were all these people around you. And they were naked and, and…”

I jab my fork into a piece of runny egg and shove it around my plate.

“Then I heard a voice as clear as yours or mine calling out to me: ‘Your son, he needs help. You need to get out there right away!’ So here I am!”

I can’t bear to look at her. I know in my heart that if she knew the truth about me that she wouldn’t be here at all.

But I play along. I pretend that I’m glad that she came. Yes, I need her help. I take her out into the beautiful day where the sun illuminates everything. I show her my life as it is. I show her the porn store and the fields that I sleep in. I take her to an afternoon keg party and get drunk and brag to her, while slouching over on a dirty curbside, about all the acid I’ve taken.

She bites her lip in fear and worry and I flash a devilish smile. Finally, I am winning. So I launch into a hundred thousand other war stories from the front lines of my addiction. I want her to see how far I’ve fallen, how helpless I’ve become. I want her to know that all of this is her fault. And from the curb I scream to her in my mind: Just ask the damn question!

But she still doesn’t hear me, or doesn’t want to. And for an hour, she just sits there next to me wringing her hands and holding back the tears.

I wake up hung over enough to not feel any shame. I poke my head from underneath the hotel blankets and see my mother zipping up her bags. Her bus back to Colorado leaves in an hour. I rub my eyes and groan.

“Ya know,” she says. “You can always come home to live with us.”

I throw off the covers and start to beat out the rhythm of a little tantrum.

“Ok, ok, I’m sorry,” she says. “But will you at least quit that horrible job?”

“Mom, I can’t just stop working.”

Without saying a word she pulls an envelope out of her purse and sets it on the dresser.

“Don’t open that till later and don’t ever tell your stepfather about it.”

We walk to the bus stop. The morning fog is just starting to burn off. We don’t talk about the night before. We don’t talk about anything at all. When the bus comes she reaches for me to give me a kiss and a hug but I pull away. I hand her her suitcase as she climbs up the steps while she looks down at me one more time. There are no more tears hiding in those eyes but I can see she is still sad.

As the bus pulls away I take the envelope out of my pocket. I unfold the slip of paper inside. It’s a cashier’s check for two thousand dollars. I read and reread the number again and again before I quietly fall apart.

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Free Read! The Narrow Way, Chapter 9.

Here’s the next installment of The Narrow Way. Don’t forget to check out my new website, monkle at large!

Chapter 9

Wandering

My neighbor showed me his hard on through his sweats today but at seventeen years old I still didn’t have the courage to reach for it, even with trembling fingers. He looked at me with a wink and how-do-you-do but I just shied away pretending it wasn’t there. Instead I took another sip of beer, another hit off the joint, another drag off my cigarette. Three little lies that I told myself to help me forget the embarrassment, the longing, and the shame. Then he just shrugged his shoulders and was gone.

So now I am home, drunk and stoned. I wobble a little two-step by the kitchen sink as I help with the dishes after dinner. The little wisps of steam dance in front of me and I laugh as I reach out to grab them.

My mother stands next to me and as I hand her the hot, wet plates I can feel her staring eyes cutting into me. She leans in close, catches the scent of booze on my breath.

“Have you been drinking?” she asks as the tears gather like dark clouds. But it is still the wrong question. Yes your faggot son is drunk is what I really want to say, already so good at calling myself names.

“Yes,” I answer instead with chest stuck out in my newfound, contrived bravado. I tell myself I don’t care what she says or does anymore. I am tired of all the hiding and the lies, tired of sneaking around in the dark, tired of playing this leading role day after day and night after night.

The dismay in her eyes washes me away in great waves of WHAT-IS-WRONG-WITH-YOU? and WE-JUST-DON’T-KNOW-WHAT-TO-DO-WITH-YOU. It sends me head over heels, tumbling down a stony riverbed and I smash and break against the boulders of her disappointment.

Yes, there is something wrong with me. Yes, I need to be fixed.

“We can’t take it anymore,” she finally says and now the weight of this moment is an unstoppable, moving monolith of stone. I plant my feet on the hard, slippery earth, try to heave it back up the hill of time but it pushes me ever forward into the fixed and unchangeable future that opens up like wide and hungry mouth.

“We think it’s time we send you back to live with your father,” she says finally and then the future swallows me whole right then and there.

I go to my room, pretend to pack, but I leap out the side window instead, down the old drainpipe slick with algae and slime. I slip into the street and run light footed and half-free through the shadows and the shade. I run all the way up the coast, five miles in the dark as the violent ocean cheers me on. I run to my only friend’s house and knock on the door.

“Sure, my Dad will let you stay here,” he says on behalf of his Dad who is never there. And then we throw a little party and get drunk to celebrate my long awaited escape.

No more cults! No more paranoia! No more lunatic mission from God!

Two months to graduation. I will make it, I say. I will go on to college. Far from the madness and the noise of home I will find out who I really am. I will make something of myself. And then they’ll see…

When the morning comes I go to school with my head held high. I find my seat in the classroom, pull out my notebook and pen. This is too easy, I think. I should have run away years ago.

I look up from my desk. The police are outside the door now. They have come for me. There is nowhere to run. They take me by each arm and their walkie-talkies crackle and hiss, breaking the silence of our long march down the high school halls. The heads of two thousand classmates I never knew whip around to watch me pass. Then, as the police escort me out into the bright sun, two thousand sets of eyes stare out the windows as they push me, naked and exposed, into my mother’s car.

No one says a word on the way to the airport. There are no explanations or final goodbyes. There are no tears either as we drive through the canyon, out to the highway and all I can do is stare in disbelief as the cactus and the sage and the coyotes fly by.

 

I am back in Connecticut. It is spring. It is 1988. Next week is graduation. Soon I will be out on my own but not in the way I imagined.

The letter rests next to the bowl of fresh fruit on the table. I pick it up and it is heavy with the juice and nectar of possibility. I think it even smells sweet as I bring it to my nose, taking in a great breath of its sweetness. I hold it in my shaking hands for a long while, though gently, like a precious newborn. My Dad makes pass after pass outside the kitchen window and the scent of fresh cut grass and gasoline waft through the fluttering lace curtains. It smells a little like hope as I tear the envelope open.

I have been home for a month now. But the deep old forests I used to play in don’t remind me of home anymore. They surround me now with too much green, too much teeming, squirming and chomping life. The locusts and cicada rattling and buzzing their mad little tune outside my window have forgotten the lullaby that used to send me to sleep on sticky summer nights. Even the faint smell of ocean up there on the high wind doesn’t fill me with nostalgia.

Where is home now? Where do I belong? I spend my nights and days longing for California but even that doesn’t seem like home anymore.

I unfold the letter and read:

Dear Christopher,

We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted for enrollment at California State University…

A wide land opens up in my mind and the rolling plains and sharp peaked mountains stretch all the way back to the Pacific. I spin and twirl on tiptoes, lifting my arms up high in a victory dance. I will go back to California after all! I will return on my own with pride and purpose. I will move into a little dorm room with nothing but a box of books and a reading lamp. I will get a part time job in the bookstore, take more classes than I can handle, drink too much coffee and smoke too many cigarettes as I cram for finals. I will make friends and plans and dreams come true before I finally graduate and head off into my bountiful future.

“Dad! Dad!” I cry. “I got accepted! I got accepted!”

I wave the letter like a million-dollar bill in front of me as I run out into the yard to meet him. I just want him to feel my joy, to give me a hearty slap on the shoulder and say, “Good job, son! You did it!” But instead he just lets the mower sputter and die as he takes the letter in calloused hands. He reads it slowly with a furrowed, sweating brow while he shoos away the mosquitoes and horse flies. It is quiet for a long time and I kick at a clod of wet grass that stains the tips of my sneakers with a black and slimy green.

“Where’s the money going to come from for this?” he finally asks.

I have no idea. I have never even thought about it. All I know is that there has to be a way. So I put up a short and valiant struggle. I throw up my arguments against taking the safe and sure road with plans and solutions and ways out. I will only need enough money to get there, I tell him. Then I will work and apply for loans. I will figure out a way. But all of my answers are just horse flies and mosquitoes and he wrinkles his nose as he swats each one down.

“Why don’t you just stay here?” he says. “Get a good job with good benefits.”

Finally, I break down. I give in too easily. The deep old forest closes in around me now, dark and unfriendly. No, there will be no school, no bountiful future. My Dad hands me back the letter. It is thin like rice paper now and as I crumple up my little dream to stuff it into my pocket, it dissolves and melts away in my sweaty hand.

 

Graduation comes and goes and I take the path well traveled. I follow my father’s advice. I get a job doing man’s work. I lift, I heave, I load, I dig. There are no gay men here in the lumberyard, out, proud and free. To the men who work here we are just fruits, dandies and queers.

“Whadaya queer?” the foreman sneers.

“Not me, sir,” I say. “Did ya ever hear the one about the two fags in the coconut tree?” And so it goes as I learn to hide myself and hate myself ever more and more.

I learn to drink like a real man, too, out there in the hard, frozen field after work. We drink big bottles of schnapps and six packs of beer. We chain smoke cigarettes and long joints of cheap brown pot until we are stumbling and drunk and spinning in the snow and the cold. We all hate our lives and all of us hide out here from wives and mothers, fathers and children. We drink till we can’t see straight, till we forget, till we puke big spots of steaming red and yellow in the field, in the snow. Then we drink a little more.

It goes on for days and weeks and months like this until one day my father calls me down from my room in the attic.

“I found this funny little reefer in your ashtray,” he says.

He spins it around on the kitchen table in lazy revolutions with the half-smoked joint orbiting around in the groove on the side. There is no denying it now.

“I think you have a problem,” he says. “I think it’s time you moved out.”

He is stern. He is unforgiving. He does not understand. I do not understand either. I do not see him twenty years from now, both of us different men, sitting quietly at the table talking deeply long after the lunch rush. I cannot see him reaching out his hand to me to gently squeeze mine. I cannot hear him say I’m sorry and I love you no matter what.

So for today, all I can do is walk up the dark flight of steps to my room, pack my things and go.

 

I am eighteen, a man in the eyes of the world, out on my own now and I am tripping. I forget what we have taken. Synthetic mescaline. Yes, that’s what they said it was. Little green gel caps that melted on our tongues and sing now in our young heads. Now it is cold and we are running fast through the woods and laughing, my roommates and I. Our voices echo through the old Connecticut forest and I think we are good friends and I’m so glad that we’ve found each other. We chase each other through the trees and I am whipped and cut as the branches slash my rosy cheeks. We pretend we are Indians and love this earth, our home.

But where are we? Where is home? Now I am lost. Where are the others? I am panicking on the inside but I don’t show it. No one can ever know. No one can ever know. No one can ever know. So she finds me there in the dirt and the moss holding my knees like that, rocking back and forth. There, there she says and mistaking me for someone else, falls in love.

Soon the pendulum swings back and I am laughing again. We find the others, find my van and pile in. I have made some funny joke and everyone is back on my side, friends again to the end. Are you ok to drive? Sure, I say and I turn the key. I can drive on acid, I can drive on this. The road home is long so I stomp on the gas and try to aim straight, with everyone holding on and rolling like jelly beans in the back.

Stop here! Stop here! Stop here! My friend is shouting from the back seat so I brake hard and park. XXX neon shines from plywood-covered windows painted black. We enter at our own risk, sticking close as the world gets strange. Porn on mescaline is nothing like Dali. Bodies gleam glossy on slick paper and I pretend it’s not sex, pretend I’m not turned on. We laugh and giggle like children holding hands as we sneak into the back to the peepshow booths and men in dark faces look away as we plunk our own quarters into the slots. Click through the channels and see it all for twenty-five cents. Every combination with a click, click, click. The other three laugh and laugh at the freak show called sex and when two men come on the screen, one of them taking the other hard and violent and furious, they squeal and point and cover their eyes. I try to look away too but I spread my fingers open instead, look deep into the screen and wonder how I can get to the other side.

But these friends, good as they are, won’t give me directions. They don’t know the way. I need a different map to a different country. But I can’t find it anywhere so for now I am lost here, and alone. Soon it will be time to leave again, to wander again, without a map or a compass or even a destination.

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Free Read! The Narrow Way, Chapter 8.

Here’s the next installment of The Narrow Way now available on Amazon.

Don’t forget to check out my new website, monkle at large!

Chapter 8

The Teachings

Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense. ~ The Buddha

Venerable Jampa Dekyi faces the altar in the gompa at Tushita and there is no doubt, no fear and no shame in her eyes as she bows. Before her is the massive golden statue of the Tibetan saint, Tsongkhapa. He looks down at us with wide eyes that stare out from the illumination we have all come here to taste. He is adorned in saffron silk robes and offerings of snapdragons, apples, incense and chocolates, all the bounties of this life, have been lovingly scattered around him. Other Buddhas hang in the form of thanka paintings on the high walls and I try to pick them out from my studies. My tongue gets twisted in knots as I sound out the strange Sanskrit names to myself: Maitreya, Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, Vajrasattva. I watch and wait as the nun prostrates herself to all of these, laying her body out full length and flat on the floor three times before taking her seat.

Oh how the sight fills me with awe and admiration! To believe! I mean truly believe! Twenty years now running away from faith and belief, trapped inside in the Temple of Me, following the rites and insane rituals of the Doctrine and the Church of Me. Where did it ever lead me? To more and more suffering. To hopelessness. To the needless punishment of myself and everyone around me.

But today I stand apart from the rest of the group. Today I am not merely a seeker. I am a Buddhist now. And though I am still uncertain, still kneading the tough heart of disbelief that stands on the edge of the great commitment, I am almost ready.

So when the teacher finally sits I begin my own bows. I bow to her with all the reverence I can muster, as if she were the Buddha himself manifest here before me now. I bow to the words she is about to speak, the Dharma, the teachings that lead to liberation. I bow to the Sangha, the community of those who have followed the words and attained the ultimate freedom from suffering for themselves. I bow with all my faults and shortcomings of the past, present and future, held out as an offering in my open hands. I bow for every unkind word I have ever spoken, for every piece of bread I ever stole, for every time I betrayed myself, abandoned myself, gave up on myself. Yet through all of this I bow without a trace of self-pity or loathing. I am simply me, faults and all, and that is good enough.

When I take my seat again I am filled with gratitude. I am here! I am alive! How many times did I wish for my heart to simply stop beating? How many times did I try to step into that great void? Too many.

But now I look up at the nun and the thankas and all the students sitting around me furiously taking down notes and trying so hard to understand. We are all trying so hard to understand. Suddenly I don’t mind the pain in my knees as much any more. The boredom gives way to a growing joy and I think that this would be a good way to spend a part of my life. To sit and quietly listen for a change. To devote myself to learning as much as I can. To slough off the arrogance and false pride of the addict and finally concede to the possibility that someone else might just have a few of the answers.

“When did your mind begin?” the nun asks. She smiles at us now the smile of an old Australian grandmother as her eyes sparkle through thick rimmed glasses. There is not a trace of arrogance behind them, only certainty. She has asked the question of herself many times before. She has spent long days and nights searching for the beginning of the mind and after shining the bright light of concentration on it has discovered that each moment of mind depends on a similar, previous moment. Tracing back the cause, she has found that our minds stretch far back into inconceivable, beginningless time.

I follow the line of reasoning myself, checking my own experience. I stretch my memories back as far as I can. Then, when I can’t remember anymore, I let my imagination take over. I go all the way back to the darkness and heat of the womb, all the way to the point of conception. But there, I stop. Where was my mind before that? What caused it to be in the first place? Was it the coming together of sperm and egg? Or did it just spring out of nowhere without any cause at all?

“Our minds are beginningless,” she says still smiling. “Our mind streams continue on and on, taking new rebirths again and again. In fact we have been born countless times in countless different forms.”

And so the old nun tells us a story with no beginning or end. She tells us the story of our minds, confused and deluded, grasping at phantoms and ghosts and things that were never even there. She tells us how we cling to a self that we believe is real. We cater to its endless desires; indulge all its petty whims. What’s more, we believe that this self is the body we inhabit. We cherish it and protect it and serve it with every ounce of energy we have. But then, without warning or notice, the body dies leaving the mind untethered and afraid. Desperate, we search for another body to be born into and in our great fear, it doesn’t matter what kind of body it is. It could be an animal, an insect, a fish. All we care about is finding some solid, permanent place where we can feel safe again and rest.

But there is no rest here in samsara, this endless wheel of cyclic existence. Instead we wander eon after eon feeling alone and lost, thinking we are unique and separate, thinking that we are the only ones who suffer, that we are the only ones who truly matter.

“I want you all to imagine something now,” Jampa Dekyi says. “Just assume for a moment that all of this is true, that you have been born countless times before. Let us also assume that there are countless beings in countless universes who have also been born countless times. If all of this is true then it stands to reason that each and every one of those sentient beings has been your mother an infinite number of times.”

This is the vast view of Buddhism and our minds collectively explode.

“Now let us meditate on the kindness of your mother in this life,” she says.

My teeth start to grind until I wonder when they will crack and shatter. My muscles tense. I thought I made peace with my mother before I came here. I thought I forgave her and asked for her forgiveness. I thought I had already sifted through the rubble of the past and found a new foundation to build on. But here, in India, ten thousand miles away, I find that all of that brick and mortar has not yet set.

So cautiously I meditate on the kindness of my mother taking careful, unsure steps into this old house. At first, it’s like poking the hornets’ nest of all my anger and resentment. Kindness? Mother? For years I never put those two words in the same sentence. It was my mother who was to blame for all the tragedy of my life and I had laid that blame squarely at her feet for years. She was not a source of comfort to me, but the cause all my suffering. She was the one who had made me hate myself. She was the one who made me ashamed for being gay. She was the reason I drank and got high and wanted to die. If only she had tried harder to understand. If only she had…

But I stop myself and return to the sound of the nun’s steady voice.

“Try to imagine the sacrifices your mother made for you all the way from the time you were conceived,” she says.

So here, I stop resisting. I stop playing the old loop that’s been droning on for so many years. I go back in my mind, trying to imagine what it would have been like: the sickness, the weight gain, the discomfort. I imagine her, night after night, trying to turn herself over in bed, unable to get comfortable. I imagine the kicking and the turning, the prodding and poking of the life inside of her. Then I try to imagine the pain of childbirth itself and though I come up short, I begin to understand a little. At least I know what pain is and I realize that I have never really endured it willingly for someone else. I imagine all the sleepless nights my mother experienced after my birth, how she got up whenever I cried, without hesitation or thought for herself. Then I remember that there was always food on the table and a warm, dry place to sleep. I remember her defending me against bullies and Irish setters, risking her reputation and even lying for me to protect me. Even when I rebelled against her and tried so hard to hurt her as a way to call attention to my pain, she still loved me and to the best of her ability and wisdom gave me all the care and support that she could. At the very least, no matter what her faults, no matter what mistakes she made, I am here right now mostly because of her.

“Now generate the wish to repay that kindness,” Jampa Dekyi says. “Even if you think it would take your whole life to do so, make that sincere wish.”

It is a tall order but I try anyway.

“Now,” the nun says. “Let go of all the limitations you think you have and apply that feeling to all beings, remembering that every one of them, every human being, every fish in all the oceans, every bird in the sky, every frog and every insect, has shown you infinite kindness throughout your beginningless lives.”

My heart opens and a little bit of light begins to creep in. I imagine the presence of all those limitless sentient beings around me, all my kind mothers of the past, present and future, all of them suffering in their own way. They don’t seem so much like disembodied strangers anymore and just by admitting this to myself, that there are others out there besides me, I feel a huge relief. Here is the purpose I have been seeking in a purposeless life! Here is the potential to be of help to others who are suffering just like me, who want happiness just like me. And what’s more, Buddhism claims to show me how to live this way.

The meditation comes to an end. We untwist our legs, massaging the knotted muscles and joints. As I look around, I see that everyone’s faces are glowing with crescent smiles and faraway looks and with a quiet, little laugh I realize that I am not so unique or alone after all.

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Free Read! The Narrow Way, Chapter 7.

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Chapter 7

True Believers

Listen to me now. You are fifteen years old. You are gay but you don’t want to believe it. You don’t want to believe it so bad that you push it deep, deep down into the dark center of your heart so that even you forget where you put it. Even when it rears its ugly head in fantasies that come unbidden in the night, you just plug your fingers in your ears and shut your eyes tight.

“La, la, la, la, la,” you silently scream. But no one is listening anyway.

Then you can’t sleep at all so you sneak out of the house to drink beers and smoke pot with your other lost friends. You get high and drunk until you are numb, until you forget your name, your life, your dreams. But at least it makes you a little bit happy. Doesn’t it?

Now imagine that you don’t have any gay friends at all, that you have no one to look to and say: Yes, that’s me; that’s got to be me. Instead the only gay boy you know is too pretty, too soft, too feminine and the other kids at school hiss at him through gnashing teeth and foaming lips.

“Faggot!” they say. “Fucking faggot!”

No, that’s not you. Not in a million years. That’s not you…is it?

But even when you sneak into your friend’s mother’s closets, pull out the prettiest silk and lace and dance around free for those few seconds that are like a dream, you are still trapped in the cage of denial. You come and then recoil in terror as you see the broken little bird writhing on the floor there in the tall mirror that never lies. And then a knock on the door and a stifled oh my god

Now on top of that, under that, through that imagine that you come home from school everyday, to the cult of home. You shut the door behind you and there is the Lord, ever ranting and raving, jabbing his finger at the Book, pointing with a growing fever to the proof of the Word. But it is not the word of God alone. It is the word of all gods. A crazy, clamoring confluence of words. Crystals and auras and chakra yoga. Time travel and the end of the world. Fruit fasts and the cleansing of your impure soul. Pyramid power and perpetual motion. Telekinesis, astral projection, mediums and magical thinking. Reincarnation and disembodied ghosts. Human potential and positive thinking. Conspiracies. Conjectures. Paranoia.

“Now I know everything!” cries the Lord again and again. “Now we can truly believe!”

And so you follow the Lord and the Mother, starry eyed now, down this thorny path of disbelief. It is a long, dusty pilgrimage to nowhere and along the way there are New Age carnivals and vision quests, Hare Krishnas and spiritual tests. There are lunatics and visionaries, witches and saints and every one of them beckons you to follow down dark alleys and secret stairs. You follow until your head spins. You follow until you can’t tell right from wrong, up from down, black from white. But always there are signs and portents leading the way. They hide in every number, every shadow, every word and the Mother and the Lord read them like bones.

“It’s ok,” they say in unison. “We know the way. We are on a Mission from God.”

But God works in mysterious ways and one day he comes to the Lord and tells him to read a New Book and it explodes in your lives like a volcano. At first it is all heat and light and wonder. This is what it has all come to. This is, finally and without a doubt, the Truth.

So the Lord baptizes you all in the new faith. He shows you the error of your ways. He teaches you the new mantras and the new prayers. He wakes you in the still of the night, in the dark, shaking you out of sleep to make sure that you’re dreaming the words. He cleanses and purifies, goes away on long retreats. Sometimes you even think (or is it hope?) that he might be gone forever. But always he returns.

Then one day he is standing in the doorway, a half-mad Moses, eyes shining with a terrible light. It is time to follow once more. Time to be brought before the Elders, time to be judged and finally saved. You shudder and shake. Will you be found worthy?

And so he takes you all to the Great Temple and everywhere is the face of the one true Prophet. His cold, blue eyes stare from every wall and they see all of your secrets. Everywhere His words are written in gold and the sound of His voice echoes through time and space. And even though He is dead and gone now for twenty years the true believers wait with open arms for his return.

Here at this great gathering of the faithful you all revel together in your new salvation and clarity. With glassy eyes and plastic smiles you chant and sing the Doctrine, the Method and the Way.

“This is the way to happiness!” you all cry. “This is the way to freedom!”

At first you just mouth the words but then you are forced to learn the melody of freedom and the others correct you with wrinkled scowls when you sing a little out of tune. All day you sing and dance for them as they clap in time. All day you perform with no food or rest.

Finally, when you are delirious with hunger and thirst and half asleep they take you to the High Priestess. She looks you and your brother and the Mother through and through. Yes, you are ready. You will do.

“Well, are you ready to be Free?” she asks.

You look to the Mother for some sign or cue but she is paralyzed by the powerful spell of the High Priestess’ gaze and doesn’t blink or move. You look to your brother as he shivers now, silent and scared. You look to the Lord, who stands behind you with bloodshot eyes, hanging on every word.

“Sure,” you say with a shrug and a voice that’s not your own.

And then the High Priestess claps her hands as she throws back her head and laughs.

“Good, good!” she cackles and cries.

And just like that your fate is decided. You will swell the ranks of the faithful. You will leave the world of confusion behind. You will be purified and set free. There will be no need for schools, or family, or jobs, or friends. You will have new friends now and a bigger family who will teach you and guide you along the True Way.

“Bring the children this way,” the High Priestess says to the Mother. “We will take it from here.”

But the High Priestess, swollen with arrogance, has spoken too eagerly, too greedily and now the spell is suddenly broken. You look over to your right and there is your mother, your real mother who you thought was lost, returned to sanity for just a moment.

“You’re not taking my children,” she cries. And with panic in her eyes she grabs you both and carries you out into the hall. You fly on tiptoe with the High Priestess chasing you down. You fly for your lives. You fly into the golden light of the setting of the sun, to the car, to the highway, to home.

And so your mother has saved you in the end. But it is too late. You sit in silence with your brother still shivering next to you in the back seat. You stare at the back of the head of the Lord that now hangs in shame. You look into the eyes of the Mother in the little mirror that never lies. No one speaks. No one is sure what has just happened. But you know.

You speed along the highway now. The window is open just a crack. The air blows into your eyes so they sting and burn from the smog and the heat. They are dry and red but you do not blink. For the first time in your young life you are seeing things clearly and though they are terrible and merciless, you cannot take your eyes away. This is the end of trust, you think. This is the end of faith. And there in the silence, you promise yourself that you will never believe in anything ever again.

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Free Read! The Narrow Way, Chapter 6.

Here’s the next installment of The Narrow Way now available on Amazon.

Don’t forget to check out my new website, monkle at large!

Chapter 6

First Love Revisited

Hey lover! It’s me again.

Do you remember the second time I saw you? It was years after we had parted and three thousand miles away from that time and place you let go of my hand and gently nudged me into my long hiding. You had changed your body and your name, but still, that didn’t fool me. I know, I know. This sounds crazy. But I swear to you it’s not. It was you, I’m sure of it.

You had become so beautiful then with long bleach-blonde hair and tight rocker boy jeans, strutting up and down the halls of Laguna High with your retinue of nymphs and dryads surrounding you like some flirtatious, golden Pan. I tried so hard not to stare but I couldn’t take my eyes off of you.

In a way, you were too beautiful, too cool and I thought, no wonder he doesn’t remember me. Day after day I would slink down the hill to the prison of home and languish away in the knowledge that you didn’t recognize me at all, that you didn’t even know I was alive. At best I was just some east coast hick with tangled red hair and pale skin that glowed like some weird lichen in the southern California sun. There was no way you would ever have anything to do with me.

And so, day after day, I stood on the corner with all the other outsiders, all the rockers and punks and left-behinds, and watched you and all the other beautiful people pass by. We’d sneer at you, resentful and jealous, feeling cheated and left out from the rest of the world as we smoked cigarettes and thin joints and tried so hard to look tough and cool.

“Hey, nice shirt,” you said one day as you slowed down in your yellow Porsche 911.

We all stood there in awe, forgetting the rule of cool for a split second, letting our jaws drop down to the sidewalk as I spun around bewildered to see who you were talking to. I looked down, saw my ripped Ronnie James Dio t-shirt, faded and black, and realized you were talking to me. Then you winked as you stepped on the gas and those fat tires left thick chunks of burning rubber sticking to the asphalt like breadcrumbs, all the way up the hill, all the way up to paradise.

I skipped down the hill that day, smiling for the first time in a year, like a whistling rainbow in the dark, down and away from the castles and palaces that sprawled across the hillside above. You had noticed me! I was alive!

Do you remember the next day when you slowed down by Stoner’s Corner and told me to hop in? It was like a waking dream! I slid into those black leather seats, hot and sticky from the sun and off we went to the Taco Bell. You cranked up Ozzie’s Crazy Train and we wailed out the chorus to the clear blue sky and rocked out the solos on our air guitars.

“You should come over sometime,” you said. “We can jam.”

My heart leapt into the air before it dove off the side of the coast highway over the cliff and into the sea. I didn’t even have a guitar.

But that night at home I blurted it out anyway. “A-kid-from-my-class-wants-to-know-if-I-can-come-over-this-Saturday-to-play-guitars-and-just-hang-out.”

I winced as my mom and the Lord looked at each other then back at me through narrowed eyes. They probed me with questions about you, where you came from, what you looked like, what kind of clothes you wore. They frowned and crossed their arms when I told them about your car and I gave up any hope of ever seeing you again. Then I waited in the stifling silence while they transferred thoughts from mind to mind.

“OK,” they said finally and I didn’t question the mystery of it at all as I slipped off to bed.

When Saturday came I couldn’t get away from home fast enough. I went down to the beach to meet you two hours early. The morning fog wrapped around my skin and by the time you pulled up, I was wet and shivering in the chill of Southern California December.

We sped up into the hills and I forgot all about the cold as I watched in awe as the mansions whooshed by. Pretty soon I lost count of all the Mercedes and Jaguars and Bentleys, of the wide patios with tall glass windows overlooking the Pacific, of the hot tubs and swimming pools of azure, of the sculpted jungle gardens of the homes of the gods.

By the time we came to your house my head was spinning. I looked over at you and I knew, plain and simple, that I was in love. We went inside and your mother shouted to us from the kitchen. She was tan and golden just like you, dressed in a flowing silk pool dress of turquoise and paisley. Her fingers were heavy with fat, sparkling gemstones. She called herself a Lady of Leisure and threw her head back in a rolling laugh as she poured us lemonade and sent us off to your room to play guitar.

I sat on the side of your bed, watched you sling on that cherry red Kramer Flying V, switch on your amp with a screech of feedback and tear into the intro of Crazy Train. My mouth dropped open. You were so good!

By the time you handed the guitar over to me I had forgotten the three chords I knew. I held it there in my hands while the amp groaned and hummed impatiently, waiting for me to do something, anything. I fumbled around the neck but my fingers didn’t know what to do on the narrow little fret board. All I could get out of it was a muddled mess of distortion and feedback. Then I handed the instrument back to you, defeated, and shook my head.

I came over again the next weekend. Then the next. The routine was always the same. I would watch you play with my chin in my hands and my eyes filled with love and lust. You’d let me play until neither one of us could stand it anymore then we’d listen to your records for hours. All the while we squirmed in the stew of hormones that boiled around us. Sometimes I’d catch your nervous sidelong glances and I knew what you were thinking. Did you know what I was thinking too? Either way, neither one of us had the guts to do anything about it.

Until that one day when you finally did. You had picked me up from our rendezvous point at the beach, and we drove in silence all the way to your driveway. I looked down at your bronze legs in your short shorts, swooning in a rush of heat and blood.

“So, what do you want to do today?” you said as you shut off the engine.

It was the question of the month, of the year, of my life but I just shrugged my shoulders.

“Well,” you said with a coy yawn and stretch of your arms. “No one’s home so…we could just go inside and beef each other.”

The sky opened up, music poured from the clouds above, my heart leapt into my throat and I burned with the thrill of the promise of sex. I felt your eyes on me, waiting for my answer, waiting for any sign of approval, rejection or even disgust.

“Yes, yes, yes!” I cried in my mind. But I wasn’t quick enough and before I could form the words on my lips and push them out, you started to laugh. I waited, with the yes that would have changed the world ready to leap off the end of my tongue.

“Just kidding,” you said. “Me and my friends at my old school used to joke like that all the time. Pretty funny, huh?”

Then you opened the door to your car and left me sitting there in sad and silent disbelief. We were so close, so ready to put aside all the confusion and doubt, to embrace who we were, who we could have been, to put to rest all the questions of am I or aren’t I or who am I? Then you shut the door and all I could do was watch as you walked away and up the stairs.

One day the Lord came to pick me up from your house. It was the first time he had ever met you. You stood there in the doorway with the sun shining on your long, blond hair and your short shorts. He looked you up and down with a sneer and a fake smile that barely contained his contempt. But you just went on smiling and so I smiled back too wishing that I could just reach out and hold your hand, right there in front of him, proud and defiant. When we got in the car my stepdad didn’t say a word for the whole drive home, he just stared straight ahead and never once looked at me.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to spend any more time with that boy,” my mom said that night.

“Why?” I asked.

“Well, David thinks he’s gay.”

I wanted to laugh and dance and cry all at once. I knew it! You were gay! How could I have ever doubted it? But then I started to tremble and shake as I realized that once again it was me that was being accused of that nameless crime.

I stomped my feet, ran to my room and slammed the door. I cranked up the stereo and screamed. I belted out the lyrics to all my songs of frustration and rage. My fists pumped in the air to the angry rhythm. I dove off my bed and bounced off the walls. I spun and twirled till I fell sweating and panting to the floor.

I laid there for a while till my head rolled off to one side and saw the wall behind my door. It was my secret shrine to my gods of rebellion, but now I saw that the posters of my rock ‘n roll heroes, snarling and sexy in tight leather pants, were all torn down. I remembered the ransacking of my room two years before and thought, oh god, it’s happening again.

Late that night I was ripped out of sleep by a violent shaking and a bright light in my eyes. My blood pumped full of fear. There was the Lord shining a flashlight into my face and gripping me tight by the arm. He was seething and spitting and so close that I could feel his hot breath stinking of cigarettes.

“Who do you think you are?” he hissed.

I was so frozen with fear that I didn’t even understand the question.

“Making your mother see that smut you hang up on your walls. You wanna look at pictures of men with cocks sticking out of their pants, you do it when you’re on your own, you got that?”

He pushed himself off of me like a trampoline, pinning my shoulder hard against the mattress as he stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him, leaving me to shiver there in the dark, scared and numb.

I didn’t see you for months after that. The best I could do was to hang out at our old spot where you used to pick me up and sit on the splintered old bench. It was there that I saw you finally in the middle of the summer. Even though you were far away, I could see her hanging on your shoulder and you were making her laugh while she playfully punched you in the arm.

I sat on the bench for a long time. There were no tears, no feeling at all, just the crash of the waves and the wind and the seagulls hovering above. As you got closer I shut my eyes tight and prayed. I prayed to become invisible, prayed that I would disappear, prayed that you would never see me again. I chanted those little mantras over and over until I felt myself growing light and translucent. The wind picked up and it seemed like it was lifting me up into the air, inland and over the mountains like the morning fog. When I finally opened my eyes I saw that you had already passed. The magic had worked. I was no one. I had melted into thin air.

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Free Read! The Narrow Way, Chapter 5.

Here’s the next installment of The Narrow Way available on Amazon.

Don’t forget to check out my new website, monkle at large!

Chapter 5

Silence

On a quiet night, mutely sitting in a temple,

Infinite silent solitude reveals myself in itself.

Losing futile thoughts,

Alas, here is the Buddha! ~ Zen Poem

Now I have come to the shore of great silence. The young boy who ran to hide in the woods all those years ago has traveled so far to come here. How much noise there was along the way! I remember screaming out loud to the deaf sea and sky, trying to drown it all out. I remember too, muffling the din with the heavy, wet blanket of drunk and stoned. Finally, desperate and hopeless, I even offered myself to be swallowed up by what I thought would be the final silence of death. But in the end I pulled back from those gapping jaws and now, in the relative quiet of sobriety, I have come here to finally listen to the sound of my true self. No more endless chatter, I say! No more telling myself lies and stories and half-truths. No more chasing the tails of thoughts that loop round and round, thoughts that go on and on without end or purpose.

Here in Tushita, I see there are other travelers who have followed the call of silence. They come up the steps loaded down with heavy packs in ones and twos, and soon there are nearly fifty of us gathered at the entrance to the retreat center. We catch our breath as we dab the sweat from faces and foreheads after the long climb. The clear, high voice of this place has gone far and wide across the earth and now we all gather at the top of the hill under the shade of cool pines, wide eyed and wondering. Why have we come here? What do we hope to find? The air crackles and sizzles with the electricity of our expectations.

As I look around at all these new faces, I realize that I am not alone after all and this makes me smile. It is good to know that there are so many others who want to spend time in retreat, to spend ten whole days of their hard earned leisure time at this course on meditation and Buddhism. I think too that I am glad that we are in a high place. All retreats should be in high places, or maybe by the sea. Either way we need to be close to the source of ourselves, far and away from the noise and confusion that always pulls us in a million directions at once.

“We’re going to begin the registration now,” a young Swiss woman calls out over the tops of our heads. We have been dancing gingerly around each other to the tune of polite introductions but now it is time to get serious and we all snap to attention. “Please be patient as you are a bigger group than usual. We will call your names in the order that you signed up for the course.”

I tense and stiffen, wait and worry. Is my name really on that list? Did I fill out the registration form right? Has there been some terrible mistake? I may be clear-headed and sober now, but the old me, the me that doesn’t believe in himself, is still there, still fighting to run the show.

“Christopher…LEEMEEG?” I laugh out loud. Of course I was the first to sign up, months before any of the others. I marked my calendar long ago, ticked off the days when sign-up would begin, set my alarm clock to India time so I would wake at that exact moment. I had left nothing to chance.

So now I head to the dining hall. It has been set up like an assembly line and we stop at one table after another. We sign waivers and pay fees. We drop cameras and cell phones and MP3 players into big plastic bags that are whisked away to be locked in the center’s safe, shedding the noisemakers like unwanted, dead skin. Then there are rules and regulations to agree to, rooms to be assigned, maps to look over.

“Does that watch have an alarm?” the young man behind the last table asks.

I squint at his nametag. John, it says. I hold up the fancy watch like a game show host.

“John, this thing will scramble eggs if I ask it to…”

He doesn’t laugh; he just blinks at me through his wire frame glasses then looks back down at the list in front of him. “Karma Yoga Jobs” it reads across the top and then I feel a little ashamed at my silly joke, like already I have broken the silence.

“Good, you can be the morning gong ringer then. Meet me outside the front of the gompa in an hour and I’ll show you what to do.”

The Gong Ringer! It sounds so important, so official! The shame I felt only a moment ago is swept away by the pride that swells over its banks, and I polish my knuckles on my chest as I follow the little map up the hill to my room. Only a year ago I was smoking cigarettes and drinking myself half to death, but now I am here in India and I am already The Gong Ringer!

My dorm room is on the very edge of the grounds. I slip the old skeleton key into the keyhole and pry the door open with a resounding creak that echoes up the hillside. The plain, unpainted room is crowded with four squat bed frames that my roommates and I will toss and turn on for the next ten days. Above one of them, on a corner shelf that hangs on the wall, is a tiny stone Buddha. He beckons me serenely from the other end of the room and as I sit down on the edge of the bed I laugh. It is a typical India mattress, a thin cotton futon that long ago had all the comfort squashed out of it. I smack it with a satisfying thwap and lay down. If it is good enough for the Buddha to watch over, it is good enough for me.

My first roommate arrives. He is from the States too, lives only a few miles from me in fact, and it takes a minute for the coincidence to sink in before we burst out laughing at the strangeness and the wonder of it all. Then the silence returns uninvited but welcome and we sit for a long while, both smiling out the door at the trees and the monkeys that squabble and scream out there.

At one o’clock my watch beeps softly. Time to learn how to ring the gong.

John is waiting for me outside the huge black doors of the gompa. He plants his feet firmly on the ground as he grabs a big iron ring and pulls hard. I follow him in, eyes glued to him, not wanting to miss a thing. He shows me where the bronze bell and cotton mallet hang just inside the great hall filled with the yellow light of the sun. Then he takes me outside again and shows me how to hit it just right so the warm, round tone resonates softly through the quiet of the retreat grounds. He shows me the other spots to do this. Three times a day for the next week and a half: for waking up, breakfast and the morning’s teachings. He tells me that this will be a way for me to not only be mindful but also to be of service to everyone else here on retreat. I look around and see all the other seekers learning their tasks. Some will sweep the floors, clean the toilets, wash the dishes, help with meals. I take the bell from him humbly now and try for myself until I get it right.

We all meet again inside the meditation hall. A great circle of well-worn cushions, zafus and zabatons, radiates out from the center. Kunpen, the young German nun who runs this place, is poised on one of them. For some reason she doesn’t look strange at all, this western woman in red robes and a head shaved smooth and white like an egg. She smiles and waits for the gaggle to settle onto the strange bulbous seats and we wiggle and wobble until we find our balance.

She begins with the certainty and confidence of a merchant ship’s captain as she starts to tally off the long list of rules and expectations. We have already read most of them but now, as the nun reads them off of a bulleted list, they sound more daunting than ever before. This is the real thing and there is no turning back.

We are to wake at six every morning and be ready for our first meditation session at six forty-five. Then a short breakfast of fruit, porridge and tea. Buddhist teachings begin at nine and will last late into the morning. There will be yoga and the stretching of tired limbs each day just before lunch. Free time after this should be filled with study and meditation, we are told. More teachings will follow until dinnertime. Then we will meditate until nine or nine thirty at night.

While we are here there will be no talking, no smoking, no drinking, no sex. There will be no lying, no stealing, no killing, not even of insects. We are to live as though we are monks and nuns in training and the thought of this gives me a little thrill. But as I look around at the other faces in the room I see watering eyes and gaping jaws.

Kunpen sees these too and she lets out a peal of laughter that sets us all at ease.

“Don’t look so glum,” she says. “It’s not as bad as all that!”

Then she tells us jokes and stories from past retreats and her eyes tell us to have light hearts, to have faith in ourselves, that we can do this.

“The silence will begin after dinner tonight,” she reminds us at the end. “Please take the vow of silence seriously; you will find that it is more difficult than you imagined.”

But the warning fades away as we file into the dining hall. Soon it is buzzing with conversation. Everything is all so new and exciting. Even the simple vegetarian meal of soup, bread and butter seems a great feast. The dining hall bustles with all of this as we take advantage of one last chance to speak to one another. But then one by one, we get up from the long tables and take our plates to the dishwashers. Our voices fade to a few scattered whispers then to no sound at all.

We meet back in the gompa, the new center of our lives, and find that the cushions have been set up in neat rows facing the great altar occupied by the images of a hundred different Buddhas. A man sits on a cushion just under all of these. He faces us, his cushion slightly higher than the rest. He is not dressed in robes, his head is not shaved, nor does he have a thousand arms or a halo around his head. He looks like he could be any one of us. But then I look more closely at his face. He is smiling and serene like no one I have ever seen before. There is no pretension anywhere to be found. Neither is the smile a mask hiding a half secret fear or contempt. He is completely present and in him I sense no wish to be anywhere else.

“My name is Tim,” he says in a rolling Dutch accent. “I am not a teacher but for the next ten days I will try my best to be your meditation instructor.”

His eyes sparkle and I like him right away.

He wastes no time guiding us slowly, gently through the steps of shamatha meditation. This is the practice of mindfulness that I have been playing with for the past year and I feel the pride swelling again as I recognize the posture and method he describes.

“Sit with back straight and legs crossed,” he begins. “Rest your hands in your lap, palms up, cradling each other with the left hand on bottom, right on top, thumbs barely touching. Relax your jaw and place your tongue on the roof of your mouth so you are breathing through your nose. Keep your eyes slightly open, gazing downwards…”

He speaks slowly. There is no rush to be anywhere or do anything.

“Now simply rest your attention lightly on the natural rhythm of your breath. Thoughts will come up. Sounds will come up. Sensations will come up. Don’t worry. Just notice all of these things and gently bring your awareness back to the breath.”

He rings the little bell in front of him and now forty-eight people sit quietly and unmoving, some for the first time in their lives. But this is not my first time. I sit with confidence, knowing what lies ahead.

So I settle in, wrap my knees in my warm wool shawl. I breathe in and out. My thoughts buzz and flutter. I am in India! I am on retreat! I have made it! But I take another inhale and just like I learned back home, I come back to the breath. Then the whole world takes a long, easy breath with me and is for a moment very, very still.

Five minutes pass and I realize that already my thoughts have drifted, though I don’t know when or how. Just when I am about to remember what I am doing, sitting here amongst a group of strangers, I notice the breath of my neighbor. It is a thin, high-pitched whistle through his right nostril. I smile knowingly to myself. Then I bring my attention back to my own breathing.

Eight minutes pass and the whole group moves like a slow, sloshing wave from one side of the hall to the other. Joints creak and crack as people shift on their cushions. But I do not move. I will not move. I have meditated fifteen minutes a day for the past twelve months and so I continue to sit with ease as I come back to the breath.

Twelve minutes. A cough, a sneeze, a sigh. I notice all of these and gently return once more to the breath.

But then, at sixteen minutes, I notice a burning, searing pain in my knees. Drops of sweat gather on my temples and one by one begin the slow descent down the sides of my face. Heat is poured on top of heat and soon there are no thoughts, no breathing neighbor, no silence, no cushion, no India, no meditation hall. There is even no breath now, only the ringing in my ears and the grinding of my teeth as I imagine someone driving long, sharp spikes into my kneecaps. I grab them, knead them, rub them. I rock and roll and shut my eyes tight.

Finally I let out a little gasp. I give in. I quietly uncross my legs and wait for relief. But there is no relief. The pain continues even worse than before and for the next twenty-three minutes I am Agony and Despair. Visions of nine more days of torturous sitting just like this consume me. I am not going to make it.

Tim finally rings the bell, long after I had given up any hope of ever hearing it again. We all groan together and I think we all want to cry.

Tim has not moved. Not one inch. His legs are still twisted up in the half lotus position, one ankle resting on the opposite thigh. He is comfortable, serene, even refreshed after forty minutes of sitting. He smiles at us now. He has seen all this fear, doubt and frustration before.

“It’s not too easy is it?” he says. “Don’t worry. Be patient. This practice is not to be mastered in a day or a few weeks. After twenty years you may find that your ability to concentrate has improved. That’s all for tonight. Get a good nights rest and remember: cherish the silence.”

We all file out of the gompa now, feet shuffling and scuffling into the dark Indian night. The quiet of the pine jungle around us seems forbidding now. I think I have made a mistake by coming here and as I look into the eyes of those around me, I know they are thinking that too.

We head to our rooms, one by one. We do not say goodnight. We do not say anything at all. We just awkwardly crawl under the covers, each with three people around us we have never met, and turn off the lights.

 

In my dream a figure in robes is walking along a winding stone path through the mists and the trees. It is a still moment, a perfect moment, and I think that the sun has just stretched his arms up over the unseen horizon. Out of this peace and silence I can hear the ringing of a great bell. It fills all of space, and it is pure and high and clear.

“What a wonderful way to wake up,” I think as the figure in robes comes closer.

The bell rings again, louder this time. I roll over out of sleep and pick up my watch.

6:06 it reads.

“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!” I cry as I snap up out of bed, knocking my head on the shelf above. The stone Buddha tumbles down into my lap but I do not see that he is smiling at me all the while. I put him back on the shelf, leap out of my sleeping bag and in one fluid motion I am in my shoes and heading for the door. My roommates stir out of their own dreams and try to focus through sleep-filled eyes. But I am already gone out into the mists and blue light of the real dawn.

I run down the slippery, moss-covered steps, straining my ears for the next ring of the bell. I come around the corner and there is John walking up the path towards me. His hair is tousled and he is still half asleep.

“Sorry, sorry,” I say breaking the silence again. I wince, waiting for some stern word or rebuke. But he doesn’t scold me or shush me or slap my wrist. He just hands me the gong and with a nod and a sleepy smile walks back down the path.

I stand still for a moment and laugh under my breath. It is so quiet up here in these hills. The only noise I can hear is the noise inside my head. But even that fades away as I take the gong and the mallet up to the last spot of the morning’s rounds. I stand there on the top of the hill overlooking the gardens and the gompa. I hold the bell high, swing the mallet. Then I wait and listen as the silence holds the ringing close in her arms like a mother who has called her one and only child home.

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