Free Read! The Narrow Way, Chapter 4.

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 4

Diagnosis

“Christopher-Michael-Lemig-Jr.!”

The serrated voice tears through the air, up the stairs, into the private world I am building there and I know that I am in trouble again.

I put on my mask of rock ’n roll and screaming for vengeance that hides all my fear and trembling. These days, at fourteen years old with a pack of Lucky Strikes hidden close to my skin, I sneak hard liquor from the dining room cabinet. With shaking fingers I pull the bottles from the back, oh so careful not to clink them together in the still night. Then I smuggle them out in the folds of denim and leather, one by one into the woods behind the house, where the little sips of scotch and gin burn just enough to sooth the pain that gets worse every day.

Have I been forgotten as the storm of confusion and hormones and growing up different rages on in me and around me? The only calm is out there in those tangled woods of barbed briars and sumac where I hide from divorce, from remarriage, from the homophobic racist stepfather who has moved in calling himself Lord. Out there, by the cool spring that bubbles up pure and clean, I listen for some faint whisper: that it’s ok to be me, that it’s ok to like boys more than girls.

But the spring never speaks. It just bubbles and babbles and I think: oh well, at least it never runs dry.

I tumble down the stairs now, and when I turn the corner my mother is standing in the kitchen five feet tall and terrible. My mother, once the source of all my comfort, now the source of all my fear.

“What are these for?” she asks.

There, in her open palm, rest the two wrapped condoms I had hidden safe and secret like precious coins: the fare for the ferry boat that would one day take me across the wide river to the shore of the real thing. I had quaked and shivered all over when my best friend, Mike, dropped them onto the bed between us and I gasped in wonder.

“These are for sex!” I thought. And as I picked them up, the revelation was a heavy, holy grail right there in my two little hands.

But now I am silent and the glossy plastic rings shine before me even as I try with all my will to tear my gaze away.

“Is Mike gay?” comes the wrong question that we both know the answer to. Her eyes smolder and I shudder and I know that it is the worst thing a boy can be.
“No, no, no!” I cry. While the yes, yes, yes! echoes inside then fades away, even as the budding new part of me that I’ve been grappling with, alone in the dark, cries to get out. All my daydreams of dressing up in stockings and high heels and rolling around in laughing little games with my boyhood crushes flash in front of me. But I am so afraid and I think: oh my god, she can never know, she will never understand. So I tell myself that these daydreams belong to another boy, some strange boy from far away, and the moment slips by.

And so with a shake of her head she sends me back to my room with her sobs following behind me as I trudge back up the stairs and quietly shut the door.

 

A day goes by, then another and another. They are all dark days filled with a shame that seasons the steely blood that flows in my mouth from biting my tongue. The question has been asked, however obliquely, and I know now that no one really wants to know the answer.

There is no need to say it anyway. You see, my family doesn’t communicate in words but instead, by directly transferring thoughts from mind to mind. My stepfather has this power too, so when I see him and my mom eyeing me darkly across the dinner table, I can hear what they are thinking.

“What is wrong with him?” they say.

“I’m gay,” I tell them. But they never listen.

Then comes the day I come home from school and my mom is crying in the living room. Her new husband, the Lord, is there comforting her with her head buried in her hands while the tears drip, drip, drip through the cracks of her fingers.

“There, there dear, everything will be ok,” he coos.

Then he turns and looks me up and down with hatred and disgust that makes me wish I could disappear into the walls and the wood and never come back out.

“I’ll deal with you later you filthy little pervert,” he tells me with his mind.

I run up the stairs to lock myself in my room, my sanctuary, but when I get to the top and push open the door the blood drains out of me and into the floor. My bed is overturned. All my dresser drawers have been tossed around and emptied. My locked file cabinet, my treasure chest of adolescent mysteries, has been pried open and all the secret, sacred contents looted. Everything has been found: the cigarettes, the liquor, the pornography, the dildos, the stockings.

It’s not me, it’s not me, it’s not me, it’s not me. But when I open my eyes again the mantra hasn’t worked and nothing has changed.

But then the panic subsides. I take a deep breath. I relax and let go. Now they know. They must know. Now I am transparent and all of my longing is known to the world. There is nothing left to hide.

They are standing behind me now and they take me by the arms, march me down the stairs, out into the light of day where the neighbors wonder and whisper behind closed doors and tightly pulled curtains. For a moment, when the sun hits my face, I think that they are going to set me free, to let me flap my wings and finally fly high and away into the clear sky. But instead I am only being led to another cage.

In the silence of the back seat of the old blue Pinto, the shadows of oak and maple flutter across my face. We twist and turn through the winding country roads until we leave the comfort and shelter of home and enter the big city of New London. There is concrete here and crime and drugs and poverty. There are psychiatrists, too.

My psychiatrist waits for me behind a windowless door in a pre-fab office building that smells of fresh paint and carpet glue. His name is painted on the door in gold letters: Dr. Gary Greenburg, PhD. But in 1984 on the eastern shore of the United States it may as well read “witch doctor”.

I am naked and exposed in the florescent light of the hallway as my mother knocks on the door. I am humiliated and powerless even as rage boils in my belly. I cannot breathe. The pressure has nowhere to go. I am going to implode.

The door opens with a swooshing and sucking of air from the hallway. It draws the air out of me too, and I breathe again with a sudden gasp. Dr. Greenburg is smiling on the other side as he holds the door open and waves us both in. He is skinny, frail, with pale thin arms and a narrow face. His wispy black hair falls into his eyes so he has to brush it away when he turns his head. His eyes are nut brown and warm. He is no witch doctor that I have ever imagined and when I look at him I feel safe.

“Thank you Mrs. Lord,” he says. “I’ve got it from here.”

We leave her, befuddled and dumfounded, in the waiting room and he points me to a comfortable chair. He pulls up a seat right in front of me and kicks off his shoes. Then he crosses his legs and looks at me with those dark brown eyes, wide and friendly and full of care.

“So, what’s going on?” he asks.

With a great exhale I let down my defenses, open the gates and let him in. I divulge. I confess. But it is confession without guilt, without penance or remorse. There are no sins here, only the beginnings of trust and truth. I don’t know where the words come from, didn’t know I had so many words dammed up inside me, but they flow out now like a river and all the confusion of my young mind takes shape right before my eyes. Dr. Greenburg does nothing. He just listens, holding up a mirror so I can see it all, so I can see who I am without the judgment and the fear and the self loathing that have already become reflexes, taut and fine tuned.

When the session is over, I am smiling. There is nothing wrong with me after all. Dr. Greenburg slaps me on the shoulder and I laugh for the first time in a year. But when he opens the door and I see my mother waiting outside with deep lines of worry on her face as she waits for the diagnosis, my heart sinks into darkness again.

 

It is appointment day and I am looking forward to my third session. The resentment and the stigma of going to the doctor are gone. In only two weeks he has become my psychiatrist and I even brag to my friends about where I go every Wednesday after school. Maybe today he will ask me about being gay, I think. Maybe today I will tell him the whole truth. That is what I really want, someone to just come out and ask the question, point blank, like a gunshot or a sucker punch. I would welcome it.

“Well, are you gay?” they will ask. “Yes,” I will say and be embraced again, and loved. No more innuendos and awkward avoidances. No more shushing up the obvious; no more uneasy evasions. No more mind reading. No more silence.

I come down from my room and find my mom pouring over bills and letters at the kitchen table.

“Well, are we going?” I ask pretending that I don’t really want to.

“No,” she says.

I wait for more, some reason or explanation, but there is just the wide gap of silence between us. I can hear the scratch of pen on paper, the cat clawing at the screen door behind me, the mail truck idling outside the open window. The warm air of late spring carries in the scent of honeysuckle and sea that used to fill me with joy, calling me and my little brother out to play boyhood games, simple in their rules and enjoyment. But now I just feel nauseated and recoil as I look over the edge of this new cliff.

“Why?” I whisper.

She slams down her pen, huffs and puffs before blowing my house down.

“Oh c’mon!” she says. “We can see you have Dr. Greenburg bamboozled just like the rest of us!”

I see. I am a liar now.

And that is that. I have tried to tell the truth; was forced to tell the truth. But it was not the truth that anyone wanted to hear. The message is now seared in my mind: To tell the truth is to lie; to lie is to tell the truth. So I give up on the truth and I seal myself away. My little secret self that everyone now knows but denies is even there will be routed back to the forest and the dark. I will be silent again. I will speak to no one. I will forget the passwords that let even friends through the gate and I will be alone.

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Free Read. The Narrow Way, Chapter 3.

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 3

Homecoming

It is mid afternoon in Dharamsala. The hills are shrouded in mist. It is dreamtime and mystery weather in one of the wettest places in India.

I have come here to find clarity, to follow the calling in my heart, to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama, to spend time in retreat, and to use this place as a stepping off point for my pilgrimage of ten thousand miles. But only two days off the plane from the West, and I am already disoriented and bewildered by the barrage on my senses. Everywhere I turn there is noise, poverty, pollution, disease. Families cram into three walled shacks on the sides of the road. Women make fuel for their fires out of patties of dried dung and straw. Oxen carts loaded high with bales of hay and cloth lumber down the freeways while the trucks and cars barrel by. Lepers with missing fingers, toes and limbs reach out for alms. The gritty air tastes like diesel and smoke while the heat of it burns my lungs.

All of these sights, sounds and smells assault my tiny, sheltered world view, a world view shaped by years of stubbornly shutting all of these things out, of stomping my feet and beating my chest: No one suffers like me! I am the most miserable of them all! But now the reality of the world sweeps that little me away and I have to wonder: who is left?

So I am fresh and new as I take my first steps out of Green Hotel and onto Bagshu Road. I curl my soft, pink toes in close as the wheels and feet and hooves crash by. I could lie down end to end twice and be at the other side but still, on this narrow holy highway, half the world has gathered. It is lined with the marketplace of heaven and earth: a cornucopia of silk and fruit, malas and beads, Buddhas, vajras and bells. Monks and nuns with cell phones and laptops hurry from end to end, speeding up the illumination of the world. The air is filled with a great communication of howling, honking and haggling. The poor, the wealthy, the newly born and the dying all push and tug and grab at my sleeves, and I pull away as I push deeper into the throng. A thousand faces blur across the field of my vision, and in this waking dream they are Indian, Tibetan, German, Israeli, Chinese, American, English and Dutch and I smile at each one with a goofy, toothy grin.

“Well here I am!” I want to say. “I have arrived and now we can meet again for the first time. Now we can become fast friends just like we were meant to be!”

I think we are supposed to rejoice now and sing together because we have all come here, finally, to take our first steps on the spiritual path, to once and for all wake up from this terrible dream. Why else would we be here? But no one seems to remember this but me and so instead, they all look through me like I am some apparition of a stranger, just another foreigner who doesn’t belong.

But I am not afraid. I am hard and fierce in my resolve and I keep going, out of the center of town, leaving the crowded streets behind until the road turns into nothing more than a footpath. It takes me through the Himalayan forest, through groves of arthritic pines knotted, twisted and bent from the winds of a hundred monsoons. I make my way up until I come to a high archway topped with two golden deer facing a brilliant wheel that shines like the sun and I pass under them.

The Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts. This is the first stop on my long list of things to do, places to see, adventures to have. It seems an easy first step, a primer for things to come. I have been here many times already, watched myself in my dreams come up this forested hillside, find my way to the theater and sit down next to forgotten kin from a dying land. I have sat wrapped in joy and wonder as the lamas danced out the long dream-stories from the past that they will never forget. I have wept at the operas of love and loss that all soar ultimately to climaxes of spiritual triumph. I have been mesmerized by the costumes of turquoise and pluming red and gold. I have watched the human story unfold in a language I have never heard, yet somehow, have understood it all.

But today it is quiet and grey. The open courtyard is almost empty except for a handful of young Tibetans in ripped jeans and Kurt Cobain t-shirts. They practice their instruments, bulbous lutes with fat, sinewy strings that wobble and warble and drone. They sing a few bars of traditional songs and the melodies drift up over the tops of the trees where the wind catches them and carries them north over the mountains and back home.

They do not notice me as I scuttle from building to building, jiggling locked door handles until finally, one of them opens. Inside a draughty, dark room a young Tibetan woman sits behind an old, warped desk stacked high with envelopes and papers. She does not look up.

“Are there any performances scheduled this month?” I ask.

“Nothing for the rest of the year,” she says to the desk. The bright dream of dancing lamas pops like a soapy bubble in my face and the spray and the shock of it wakes me up.

Where am I? How did I get here? I rub the sleep out of my eyes, back my way out of the office on tiptoe, back into the courtyard. It is still and deserted now. The students are gone if they were ever there at all. There is no dream music, no performance, no story unfolding. All is silent and I am alone.

Little waves of panic wash over me. What am I doing here? Who do I think I am? I am no hero on pilgrimage, no Basho, no bodhisattva on holiday; I am just a tourist, naked and naïve in a place far away from home. My knees turn to jelly and as I run for the archway it only seems to get further and further away.

The mist has turned thick and heavy, and now it sheds fat drops of cold rain that soak my hair and stream down my face. I hurry down the hill hoping that I will make it back to my room before my tears outnumber the raindrops.

I trip in a pothole and grab at the air to catch my balance. Up and to my left a group of homeless lepers, unconcerned by the rain, watches the curious westerner, lopping down the path, looking sad and lost. One of them leans on a makeshift crutch. He only has one leg. Before I can turn away our eyes meet. I wonder if he can see into the very heart of me, if he sees all my anxiety and worry. I want him to judge me, to slap me hard across the face and shock me out of this bout of self-pity. But instead, he holds my gaze and offers me a wide smile. Then he brings his hands together in the gesture of blessing and prayer.

“Namaste! Be happy, sir!” he shouts over the thwapping din of raindrops while the light in his eyes flashes like lightening.

I am struck dumb and all I can do is give him an insincere smile of my own. I am not ready to believe that life can be this good and simple, and so I flee back to my hotel to retreat and to hide.

I burst through the door, throw myself on the hard mattress. The walls of my tiny damp room that reek from fifty years of monsoon mildew close in around me. The noise from the street outside my window turns into a deafening symphony of cows and dogs and rickshaws all honking and snarling and mooing in seven different languages.

“I am here! I am here! I am here!” they all say.

I wrap a pillow around my head to block out the noise and close my eyes tight, but the reality of India cannot be held at bay with a stuffed sack of cotton batting. The cacophony is an all-pervasive hum now, and as I force myself to drift off into an uneasy sleep, all I can see in my mind’s eye is the one-legged man smiling at me in the rain.

 

When I wake just after dawn, I am still in India. I have not been miraculously transported home. I do not rub my eyes and see all the familiar shapes of my old room coming into focus. Instead, I see the yellow walls, damp and crumbling. I feel the hard cotton mattress cutting off the circulation in my hips and the cold stone floor under my bare feet. It is the dream that is real and I have no choice but to face this day.

I look for my resolve that was swept away by the torrent of yesterday’s culture shock, find it only a little way downstream on a sandy bank. I pick it up, brush it off, see that it is still shiny and good. I put it in my pocket for safekeeping and remind myself not to let it go so easily next time.

I pull out a slim, brown notebook from my pack. Across the top, in fat, black marker pen, I have written a title. The Golden Thread. It is my handmade book of hours, a collection of quotes from a year of study back home. They are messages in bottles and breadcrumbs to lead me out of the maze of my own fears. The Buddha has sprinkled little gems here and there, some of them no more than a few words. There is pith advice on meditation and staying in the present moment. There are gentle reminders to think of others, especially if all I’m thinking about is myself. Lines of wisdom from His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other great masters of India, Japan and Tibet are woven in with the poems, prayers and ringing insights of Henry David Thoreau, Joseph Campbell, Walt Whitman and Saint Francis of Assisi. These are my new heroes and as I read a few verses they reach out to me from the thin pages to lift me back to my feet.

“Do not quit!” say all the Buddhas and those who have come before me. So I put on earphones and music and sing to myself. Then I dig out a real needle and thread, sew on an old button that dangles off my pants. The mundane victory is enough and once again I am standing on solid ground.

The sun is shining today and the retreating monsoon is nowhere to be found. Gone are yesterday’s mists and rain, and I prop open the door to my room, taking in a deep breath of the cool morning air. Rich smells from the Green Hotel’s kitchen waft up to my balcony and my stomach rumbles. I haven’t eaten in over a day. So I sling on my shoulder bag and skip downstairs to fill my belly with tsampa, a kind of Tibetan barley porridge, honey and milk tea.

Now I dive back into the bustle of McLeod Ganj refreshed and fortified. Lepers still line the sides of Bagshu Road but now I don’t look away. Instead, I drop a few rupees into each of their hands, some of which have been gnawed away by their disease into smooth stumps, and we exchange warm smiles. They are not the other anymore. They are just people. Potential friends.

At the bus stand I take a hard right onto Tushita Road, a winding alley ravaged by years of torrential rains that leads up into the hills. The way narrows and steepens and soon I am sweating and short of breath.

After twenty minutes, I reach the outer gate of Tushita, the Buddhist retreat center that I will soon be living at for ten days. The hill, densely wooded with pine trees, is swarming with monkeys. They leap from tree to tree and sometimes break out into violent skirmishes. A young monk in red robes hovers tentatively at the gate, pacing back and forth. I wave to him but he doesn’t wave back.

“Are you going to Tushita?” he asks.

“Yes,” I say.

“Good, good. We should walk up together then. The monkeys will be less likely to attack two of us.” He stoops down and picks up a handful of small stones and hides them under his robes.

As we walk slowly up the steep, winding steps, I try to block out visions of bloody carcasses being ripped to shreds by packs of rabid primates. We keep our eyes down, trying not to make eye contact, especially with the large alpha males who watch us too closely. When one of them makes a sudden rush towards us, crashing through the limbs of the trees above, the monk pulls out a stone and throws it into the forest. It ricochets loudly through the branches and the aggressor backs off. For the rest of the way we are left alone, and we soon leave the tribe behind to forage and preen in the growing warmth of late morning.

We reach the top of the stairs and I am suddenly in a different world. The air is crisp in these high foothills, fresh from the previous day’s rain and scrubbed clean by pine needles. A circle has been cleared on the top of the hill that overlooks the wide, rolling plains to the south. Sturdy dormitories and administration buildings with fresh coats of red and white paint form a crescent around the clearing. In the middle of the complex is a giant gompa, a meditation hall two stories high, surrounded by gardens and flowerbeds and green lawns. Gone are the trash, sewage and debris of the town below. Gone too is the noise and the silence shocks me into the present moment.

Stillness, serenity, solitude. These are what I have come here for and I breathe it all in and close my eyes.

Besides my monk friend, only a few figures move quickly and quietly from one building to the next. But then, with a short wave goodbye even he leaves me, hurrying around a corner and out of sight on his unknown errand.

But I don’t mind being alone, not here. In this place, I feel immediately welcome and at ease. I fold my arms around my back and begin a slow, reverent walk around the gompa. With each step I begin to feel light and free. I have made it. It is a small miracle, but after traveling halfway around the world, I have found my way with nothing but a vague map and a guidebook to this tranquil hillside retreat.

Around the south side of the gompa, the grounds open up into a terraced yard with wide stone steps and flowerbeds. A Tibetan pole flag flaps in the wind, its edges frayed from years of sending out prayers of love and compassion to all beings. Down below and to the left is an ornate stupa sitting serenely and majestically on the green lawn. It is a monument to the Tibetan teacher who founded this place over thirty years ago. I am overcome with emotion at the sight of it and I stumble over to the gompa steps to collapse. I am stunned awake and I can’t believe my eyes. I have been in this place before.

Suddenly, everything makes complete and perfect sense. All the jagged pieces of the puzzle that is my life now slide together with ease. I have been led here, drawn here by some magnetism of the spirit, by some force that I can’t see or touch or feel, but that I know resides right here before me. I am certain, beyond all doubt, that every step since my birth has been on the path to this very place. All the years of addiction and suffering in the closet were necessary side journeys and pit stops along the way. But now, I am exactly where I need to be.

“I am home,” I say. “I am home after being lost for so long.”

Time slows, then stops altogether and I sit here with the warm sun on my face for a little moment of eternity. All the effort that I’ve put into getting here has been worth it and it feels like I’ve set down a heavy load. I let out a long, quaking sigh before taking one last look around.

I find my way back to the path and start the long hike down the hill. The monkeys are gone now and the forest is quiet. I pull out my mala, a string of beads for counting prayers, and start saying the only mantra I know. Om Mani Padme Hum. It seems like such a familiar thing to do, like it’s something I’ve done a million times before. But I haven’t. Not in this life anyway. So I recite that mantra over and over as I walk back into town until the melody resonates deep in my mind. I say it out loud even as I pass travelers coming up the other way. I chant it softly to myself as I come back around the corner into the middle of the lunacy of the bus stand. I say it while smiling at the lepers and the monks and the tourists I pass along the road. I say it all the way back to the Green Hotel. I say it as I climb up the stairs to my damp little room. I say it a hundred times, a thousand times, like I’m making up for too much lost time. I say it like there’s no time to lose.

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Free Read! The Narrow Way Ch. 2.

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

Chapter 2

First Love

Hey Lover!

Is it ok if I call you that even though we never kissed? I hope so because that’s what you were to me. I can finally see that now through the clear lens of time polished by the fine grit of too much anguish and suffering. We should have been together, should have shared so much more than we did, but the circumstances of time and place just wouldn’t allow it. It’s ok though. Time has closed the gap between us. At least in my mind.

Look at me, I’m rambling like a blushing schoolboy, just like I promised myself I wouldn’t. But what am I supposed to say to you after all these years? How can I make you understand how important you were to me, even though nothing ever happened?

Do you remember that day as clearly as I do? Probably not. Maybe it wasn’t the pivotal moment that I’m making it out to be. Maybe all this will only awaken in your mind a flash of light and memory, and maybe you’ll smile and call me silly for making so much of it.

It was the beginning of fourth grade I think, and after four years we were still not used to the itch and scratch of starched, blue Catholic school shirts and ties. We clawed at the collars after kickball at recess and tore off the plaid nooses as soon as the last bell rang.

Billy came bursting into class that day and the commotion snapped all our heads up from the burning concentration of long division. He was panting and laughing and could barely contain himself. You came in after him with red cheeks too, grabbing his shirttail and trying to stop him in vain. I could see your fear, could see that you had been begging him not to tell all the way up from the damp basement lavatory, up the three flights of ancient steps, crying “please don’t tell, don’t tell, don’t tell…”

But he was bigger than you, a sports jock even then, and faster, so he just laughed and sang as he taunted you up the stairs, “I’m gonna tell, I’m gonna tell, I’m gonna tell…

And then I saw your shoulders slouch in defeat as you stood there on the stage as he rang out the proclamation that would call me home.

Two years before, in the high noon of East Coast summer when the air wrapped itself around me thick and hot, I had my theater debut. It was acting camp and it was the first time I had been pushed out of the nest on my own. My mother handed me off to a young woman of sixteen years and left me there bewildered and teary eyed.

“There, there,” the young woman said and ushered me into the auditorium filled with the strange offspring of unfamiliar neighbors who wore funny clothes and smelled like Vienna sausages and wet dogs.

The workshop teachers, in bellbottoms and ponytails, divided us into groups that just made me feel more alone and afraid. I couldn’t understand why the other children seemed so happy as they imitated the instructors, making animal noises and burping sounds and funny faces on cue. Every time my turn came, I just sat there silent, covering my face and wishing I would disappear.

But I didn’t disappear and before I could protest one of the instructors stuffed a little white card into my hand and pushed me, along with all the others, into the long line that led up to the stage. On the card was a single word written in thick black letters and it felt heavy in my hands as I waited for my turn.

“You just get up there and act out the word for us,” the young woman said. “And remember: Don’t tell us…SHOW us!”

When she pushed me out from stage right into the glare of unwanted stardom, I froze. I looked down at my word, then back up at the hundred little faces that stared at me with wide, expecting eyes. But nothing came. I knew what I had to do but I couldn’t do it. The image of the pose I should make burned in my mind’s eye, but I was so choked with fear that all I could do was stand there hugging my sides, rocking my self back and forth while I looked down at my dirty sneakers and giggled.

“Shy!” a little girl shouted.

“Laughing!” another voice came.

One of the actors, a tall, deaf, bearded Jesus, came to pull me off the stage and out of sight. He was mute and so signed to me what to do. With a happy, encouraging grin he pushed me back out into the light. But still I stood there frozen, more afraid than before, terrified of being laughed at, of getting it wrong, as if even then I was afraid of being found out, as if even then there was some terrible secret that I was keeping from the world.

I felt the mass and heat of a body behind me. It was Jesus and he firmly grabbed my hands by the wrists and lifted my arms up until they were curved and flexing.

“STRONG!” came the cry in unison and they laughed while I cried as I melted back down into the crowd.

But I didn’t feel strong at all, not that day and not the day when Billy burst into the classroom shouting:

“Jonathan just kissed me in the bathroom!”

A chorus of twenty ten-year old voices pealed with laughter, reveling in your shame as your arms dropped to your sides and your head hung down.

“Quiet, quiet!” shouted the nun, darting in and out of our desks like a one-woman riot police. But there was no controlling us. We all knew what Billy meant; we had whispered the word a hundred times in hushed giggles on the playground and pointed out who was and who wasn’t. Now it was out and the class laughed and pointed their fingers at you and so did I. Better you than me, I thought.

I want to tell you how sorry I am about that. I’d like to say that if I could, I would travel back in time and trade places with you. I would do every thing I could to take away all that humiliation and embarrassment. I would take you into my arms and lead you out of there, away from the catcalls and the firestorm of shame. And then I would squeeze you hard and wipe away your tears and tell you over and over until you finally believed it:

“It will be ok, don’t you worry. I promise. Everything will be ok.”

 

Two years went by and finally we graduated from old Saint Mary’s. Then it was off to public school, junior high and the real world for us. We stayed in touch for that first year, but gone were the sleepovers that you and Billy would come to on hot summer nights. Do you remember those? We camped out in the attic of Dad’s garage, daring one another to show it. But no one ever did. I remember how you smelled, the sweat of your armpits both revolting and enticing. I remember too, watching you breathe in the moonlight after you fell asleep, wanting so bad to pet your soft cheek without knowing why.

But then the day came when I realized what that feeling welling up in my belly had been all about. It tore and clawed at me to get out as I rubbed and rubbed against anything and everything within my reach: shag rugs and blankets, plush animal toys and trees. I tried to hump the world, humped it raw all to the tune of the visions of all the girls I’d come to know, imagining them in all their soft and bumpy glory. But nothing ever happened, and all I ever got was chaffed and sore.

Still I kept at it, diligent to the end until one day the memory came flooding back. There you were in the dark damp basement of St. Mary’s with Billy standing at the urinal, whistling with his fly unzipped. Then, as if possessed by some mischievous spirit and in some fit of uncontrollable glee, you leaned in and kissed him, wet and warm on the cheek.

I saw him in my mind as he pulled back in shock, and as he did I came full of force and pleasure and golden light. The revelation that boys could love boys came in the form of a tidal wave that flooded over my bed sheets, and I didn’t know whether to jump up for joy or run away in terror. When it was over I cleaned up that glistening and mysterious pool of me, head still spinning from the mad delight of it all, knowing that once and for all I was a different creature.

I don’t mean to embarrass you but I thought about you every day after that. As the months went by my crush became an aching and it threatened to squash me like a bug. I had to do something. So one summer day I picked up the phone, palms sweating and body shaking. When you answered I could hardly move my lips and the air leaked out in a thin, squeaking “Wanna come over?”

“Sure!” you said and my heartbeat went rat-tat-tat like a snare drum tapping out the staccato rhythm of lust.

It took you almost two hours to ride your bike all the way from New London, and I spent the whole time staring out the window, waiting for you to roll around that corner. By the time you arrived I must have looked a terrible mess: pale, sweating and trembling with fever. You let your bike fall into the fresh cut grass and walked towards me through the thick air of summer that was filled with the love song of birds and wind and ocean.

“Wanna look at some dirty magazines,” I blurted.

“Sure,” you said again and I thought “This is it; it’s really going to happen.”

So up to my room we climbed with me holding your hand, and I pulled out the stash of Hustlers and Penthouse that I had long ago pilfered from my Dad’s closet. We lay out on my bed and flipped through the glossy pages together. You sneered a little in disbelief that people’s bodies could really do things like that. Your naiveté filled me with a surge of confidence, and I was sure that you would do anything I asked.

“Do you know how to masturbate?” I finally said in an overture of love. It was a great leap into the unknown, and I waited, afraid to move or even breathe, as the birds and the grass and the ocean and the wind all leaned up close to my window and waited too.

“No!” you said with your face twisted into a contortionist act of disgust. “That’s a sin!”

Did my face twist then too? Did you see my watering eyes filling slowly with disappointment and disgrace? We were on stage again, but this time it was me that everyone was laughing at, pointing their fingers and crying, pansy, pansy, he’s a little pansy in that singsong revel that every generation learns anew.

My heart broke right then and there. You weren’t gay at all. You didn’t want to have anything to do with me. And so it was you that stood by me that day as I took my first step into the closet and it would be years before I saw you again.

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A New Chapter

I’m switching over to a new website (this time for good, I swear!).

It’s a Buddhist blog, vlog, and news sharing site called “monkle at large“. I hope you enjoy it.

I’ve been wanting to do something a little more flexible and dynamic for awhile now and I think I’ve finally figured out what that looks like.

In any case, I’m very excited about this new project and am looking forward to seeing how it grows and evolves over the months and years to come.

I’m going to keep The Narrow Way site up and running for a while. People still visit it pretty often and tell me that some of the posts are useful. But I’m not going to write any new content for the time being.

Instead, starting today, I’m going to post a chapter of the book in installments over the next year or so.

If you haven’t gotten yourself a copy yet, please take a look here.

And so without further delay, here we go…

Chapter 1

Apogee

Space flights are merely an escape, a fleeing away from oneself; because it is easier to go to Mars or the Moon than it is to penetrate one’s own being. ~ Carl Jung

It is three years before India and I am not going anywhere. Instead, it is four in the morning and my eyes are wild and bloodshot as I pick through the carpet, searching for tiny pieces of crack cocaine that may have sizzled off the end of my pipe. My roommate sits on the bare floor of her room cooking up a fresh batch on a tarnished, blackened teaspoon but I can’t wait to get another hit. I try to smoke what turns out to be the clipping of a dirty toenail, and it fills my mouth with the taste of burnt skin and rubber. Unfazed, I get up, light a cigarette and anxiously pace around the empty room. There is no furniture, no pictures on the walls; there are no mementos of vacations or framed photos of loved ones. Anything of any value has long ago been sold or traded for drugs. All that’s left is a pile of bedding laid out on the floor next to an old lamp, its bare yellow bulb burning out like a dying star.

“This is gonna be a good one,” Sarah says. I flop down cross-legged in front of her in childlike anticipation.

Out of a thin paste of cocaine, baking soda and water she has cooked off a dime-sized nugget of homemade crack. It’s enough for three or four hits and she breaks me off a piece that I load into my pipe like there’s no time to lose. I wave the flame back and forth until the rock starts to melt. I draw tiny puffs of air through the metal tube, careful not to suck the hot, molten goo through the wire mesh screen. The rock hisses and pops as it vaporizes and I pull in the hit as deep as I can.

“That’s it. Hold it. Hold it. Just like that,” Sarah says.

When I can’t hold my breath any longer, I exhale a huge cloud of billowing white smoke that fills the space in front of me. It’s at this moment that the high grabs hold of me, and it’s like nothing I’ve ever felt before. My eyes roll back into my skull as my mind fills with the gong of an enormous bell. My body is flooded with the warm, golden tingle of a chemical orgasm that radiates through my belly, my head, my limbs. This is the soft oblivion I have been seeking, and now I am released from all my pain and doubt. My history is erased and it doesn’t matter any more if I’m gay or not gay. Here, I don’t have to face the truth of myself at all. I can drown the real me in the rush of the high, hold his head under the waters of it until he just quietly slips away. Here, all I have to do is wait for him to stop struggling and finally let go.

“Greg, Greg! GREG!!!” The scream from the living room below tears me out of my high. I peel myself off the floor, stumble out into the hall and down the dark stairway. I turn the corner to see my second wife slapping our lover hard across the face. He doesn’t flinch. Instead, his body falls limply onto the moldy, beer stained couch. She props him up again and slaps him even harder.

On the coffee table, the sputtering light of a single candle dances on the face of an empty bottle of vodka. Long, thick lines of cocaine stand out white and sharp on a little slab of grey marble. A hundred pills of Xanax, Vicodin and Oxycontin, neatly twisted into a clear plastic baggie, look like Jolly Ranchers and gumdrops and I lick my lips at the sight of them.

“Is he breathing?” I ask.

“I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know,” she says biting her fingertips and sobbing.

I push her aside and lean in close to Greg’s face. Through his nostrils I can hear a slow, thin wheezing. It’s a relief. Even though we’ve been sleeping with him for months, I don’t really care whether he lives or dies. All I really want to do is to keep getting high. I don’t want to worry about ambulances or police or a lover overdosing on the couch in my living room. I stand over him for a few minutes until I can see the rise and fall of his chest. When I’m sure he’s not going to die right then and there, I turn and walk away, back up the stairs and back to my pipe.

 

The months go by like one long day that will never end. Today I am drunk at a Thanksgiving dinner party when a friend gives me a tablet of methadone, the drug they give to heroine addicts who are trying to kick. But I am not trying to kick anything. I am trying to kill myself. The days of pacing myself are long gone so when ten minutes go by without any effect, I pound a bottle of wine then start in on the beer and shots. Soon I am a semi-conscious rag doll twisting, babbling and rolling around on the floor.

When I finally come to, I am standing in the middle of my own living room exhaling a huge hit of crack cocaine. I don’t know how I got here. All I know is that every cell in my body is vibrating with pleasure. Then I seem to shatter open until I am weightless, without a body, mind or soul. There is no pain when there is nothing there to hurt.

The metal pipe is red hot and burns my fingers and lips and I pass it to my left before realizing there is a party going on. Then I come back to life, laughing, singing, dancing in circles and now and again collapsing on the floor. I take another hit, hold it deep in my lungs then kiss the guy next to me, blowing the smoke into his mouth.

When the drugs run out I turn to my stash of valium: six green pills that I take all at once, chewing them in my mouth and washing them down with warm beer. Soon I am cross-eyed, still wired from crack, but mellower and in a few hours I am again drunk and stoned enough to pass out into an uneasy sleep.

The afternoon sun intrudes through the sheets that I have duct taped around the windows. The drugs still stream through my veins, but it’s no longer a pleasure buzz, just a jangling, grinding anxiety. Every muscle is taught and tense, ready to pounce. I force myself to stay in bed for another hour but all the things that I have to do, that I’m not doing, that I’ll never do, roll through my head like an endless reel of a silent movie. Finally, I can’t take it anymore and fling off the covers and head downstairs. I rummage through the overflowing ashtrays and find a half a cigarette, light it and inhale the stale smoke. I grab a beer out of the refrigerator and drink it in two gulps.

The buzz is coming on again when my wife comes home through the front door, and without a word she heads upstairs to our room to pass out. I hadn’t really noticed she was gone but now that I do I am furious. After a half an hour of pacing around the house, guzzling beer after beer, I charge up the stairs. I find her already under the covers hiding her head from the bright Colorado sun, just trying to get a few minutes of sleep before she has to go to work.

“Where the fuck have you been?” I scream.

She throws back the covers wide eyes and naked. A sickening pleasure fills my belly like thick, sweet syrup that I swallow down with a great glug, glug, glug. I want her to be afraid. I want her to suffer. I want her to be ashamed. I need someone to blame. Someone who I can point the finger at for all my suffering, all my denial, all the injustice of my life. So I march around the room in a self-righteous fever, swinging my arms as I conduct a symphony of insults and abuse that I know will tear her down. Every intimate moment, every secret we ever shared, every confession of weakness, I dredge all of these out of my memory and throw them in her face. I tell her that she’s no good, that she’s worthless. I call her a liar and a cheater. I tell her that she can’t take care of herself and that she wouldn’t be anybody without me. With my eyes bulging out of their sockets and the spittle turning to foam at the edge of my mouth, the pitch climbs higher and higher towards its mad crescendo.

Finally, I call her a whore and tell her to get up and get out of my house. She looks at me like I’ve just stabbed her with a dull knife and twisted it in, smiling all the while. Somewhere deep inside I know that I should be falling on my knees and begging for forgiveness, but instead, my heart hardens completely and I just scream louder.

“Get out, get out, get out!”

She leaps out of bed, grabbing her purse and a handful of clothes. I follow her, still cursing and screaming. She trips down the stairs to the front door and when she turns to look back confused, hurt and broken, all I do is glare at her from the landing high above until she finally walks out.

Muttering, staggering, slurring I make my way to the kitchen downstairs. There is a bottle of vodka in the freezer and I begin to drink it straight in huge gulps that make me gag and spit up little mouthfuls of vomit. I walk back upstairs and knock on the door down the hall. Sarah is awake. She has heard everything. I pretend to cry on her shoulder for a while, pretend that I’m sorry for what I’ve done. Then I remind her that she owes me fifty dollars. She laughs and digs into her purse, pulling out a handful of crumpled bills and tosses them into my lap.

“You want me to call TJ?” she asks.

“Fuck it,” I say. “Let’s get some shit.”

The drugs are delivered within the hour and I can’t wait for the dealer to leave so I can lock myself in my room. It is late afternoon, but the sealed windows create the illusion of perpetual twilight. I load my pipe again and again while the soft moans from a porno ooze out of my television. The floor is covered with piles of dirty laundry, empty beer cans and cigarette butts. This is my life: a climax of disappointment thirty-five years in the making. I haven’t even hoped for anything better for this in over a year.

I take a hit and inhale into oblivion, letting my eyes roll back until I forget who I am, who I was, who I might be. I hide, deny, evade and make another attempt at this futile escape. But there is no escape. Even though I have changed my name and moved once a year for the past eighteen years, even though I have changed my story and lied through my teeth, the truth has found me out every time. It tears through my body and mind like a chainsaw, unrelenting and agonizing.

I take another hit and feel a stabbing pain in my chest.

“This is it,” I think. “This is the one that’s gonna do it.” And so I close my eyes, exhale and say a little prayer for the end.

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At The Feet Of The Bodhi Tree.

I’m in Bodhgaya, India for the 26th annual Nyingma Monlam, a prayer festival that has drawn almost 20,000 people to the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment.

Dawn at the feet of the Bodhi Tree.
Dawn at the feet of the Bodhi Tree.

So far my time here has been amazing. For starters, I’ve been inspired to the point of awe by the faith and devotion of all the pilgrims here. They spend their days in constant practice: making offerings, reciting mantras, and doing prostrations. Many are here accumulating as many as 100,000 full prostrations, a gesture made all the more potent and beneficial by doing it at the feet of the Bodhi Tree.

In the past two weeks, I’ve had the good fortune to attend teachings by His Holiness the Karmapa and other great masters. And now, for the next six days, I’ll have the privilege of sitting and chanting prayers with my brothers and sisters from monasteries all over the Himalayan region.

I often find myself wondering how I’ve found my way here. What luck or chance has led me to such a fortunate place?

My teacher, Anyen Rinpoche, would call it “merit”, the accumulation of positive actions, aspirations, and auspicious connections with the Dharma stretching back over many lifetimes.

Now, I don’t remember my past lives and I certainly don’t remember doing any of those kinds of things.

But still, the point hits home for me. What you do with your life now really matters. Your actions have the power to set you on a trajectory that is either positive or negative.

You don’t have to go on long, difficult pilgrimages to find this out (though these certainly help!). You don’t even have to believe in past and future lives. You can simply cultivate positive actions every day of your life. You can be generous, ethical, patient, and kind. You can treat others (human or not) with the repeat they deserve.

And little by little, amidst all the strife and struggle, I think you will find yourself feeling that your own world, and maybe even the world at large, is a better place.

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A New Year’s Vision.

I was never a big New Year’s Eve guy but ever since I started looking a little more closely at the Buddhist views on impermanence and death, I’ve thought the holiday to be, at best, a little depressing.

I mean what are we really celebrating here? Another year has gone by and it will never come again. And on top of that, we’re 365 days closer to our inevitable end. (This post gets more upbeat in a couple of paragraphs, I promise…)

"We're all just gonna die anyway."
“Nice party. We’re still all gonna die.”

Most of us (including yours truly) let life go by without giving these kinds of things too much thought. The sun rises and sets, day after day. Sometimes things go according to plan. Sometimes they don’t make any sense at all.

But that doesn’t make life meaningless (or hopeless). Life can be as meaningful and purposeful as we want it to be. It’s up to us how we view it and how we use it.

A few years ago, my teacher Anyen Rinpoche, began encouraging his students to keep a yearly journal that he calls a “Dharma Vision”. It’s a way we can keep track of our life’s overall spiritual direction. It’s a time to check in with ourselves and make sure we’re staying on the course we set out on.

I’ve been keeping a Dharma Vision for a few years now. I usually work on it around this time of year. New Year is a good reminder to me that time crushes on. It’s not going to slow down for any of us.

What I’d like to do today is share a few of the questions that I ask myself each year. I usually spend a day or so working on them, taking the time to really reflect and writing out answers as honestly as I can.

So without further ado…

Question #1 How do I view impermanence? What examples of impermanence can I recall from this year that really hit home for me? Is my understanding and acceptance of impermance deepening?

Question #2 How’s my spiritual practice going? Have I kept all the commitments I’ve made? Am I consistent in my practice or do I only do it when I feel like it? Have I cultivated any insights or seen any signs of progress? (If not, that’s ok! Progress doesn’t always wear a name tag.)

Question #3 How am I doing with lessening my attachment? One of the main aims of Buddhist practice is to see things realistically. We often view objects, possessions, and even people as sources of our happiness. But that’s not really true. Even though we may be able to enjoy external objects for a time, the experience of that enjoyment is always going to pass.

Question #4 How am I doing with anger? This is the flip-side of attachment. Am I learning to view my anger for what it is: an impermanent emotion that comes and goes? Am I more mindful when it arises? Am I able to work with it skillfully or do I fly off the handle?

Question #5 What is the overall state of my mind? Do I look at the contents of my mind on a regular basis? Is my mind settling down or is it still wild and unruly? Again, don’t worry too much about “progress”, just be honest.

Of course, these questions are all pretty specific to the Buddhist path. You can come up with others on your own and tailor them to fit your specific needs.

The point is that we spend a little time honestly reflecting on what we’re doing with our spiritual lives. If we do, at the very least, we’ll get to know ourselves a little better and hopefully make our lives a little richer.

So give this journal a shot and let me know how it goes!

If you’d like more detailed instructions about Anyen Rinpoche’s Dharma Vision, check out his book, Dying With Confidence.

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Looking Back, Looking Forward

To be honest, I’ve been a bit overwhelmed here in India as I adjust to my new life as Tibetan Buddhist monk. Still, it’s turning out to be another chapter in an amazing journey.

I’m slowly getting used to the robes and my daily routine. I’m making good friends, too: men and women of all ages who have held the vows for a while. They’re turning out to be great role models and a wonderful support as I take my first steps on this new path. 

Today I was reflecting on how I got here. Hard to believe that it was only 2008 when I got on that plane for my first trip to India. What a ride it’s been ever since!

So as a way to honor journeys and life’s ever unpredictable twists and turns, I thought it would be nice to share the opening of The Narrow Way one more time.

I hope you enjoy it!

By all accounts I should be dead. But instead, through some miracle of chance or karma, I am alive. I do not pretend to even begin to understand how I came to wake up from my long and nightmarish sleep. Instead I just smile, a little dumbly and serenely, in the midst of the crowded airport as I wait for the long flight to India. In three hours I will head off on a pilgrimage, a spiritual quest that has been almost a year in the making. That leaves me plenty of time to think and wonder about this new arc that I am on, this upward spiral that for so long had sent me soaring down, down to a hard and hopeless bottom.

My old life comes into clear focus now. The free fall of eight thousand dark nights and blinding days. Countless hits and drinks and drags. The suicides, the self-sabotage, the shame. Twenty years of hiding, alone and afraid, and in the end all I had to show for it were the jagged shards of broken bonds and promises and dreams.

Was that really me? Was that my wake of destruction that I left behind? Would I ever be able to truly change and make amends?

Yes. It was me and I have already changed. As for amends, I will just have to wait and see.

I shiver and shake the memories off, safe on the firm earth for now. I look out the window onto the tarmac. The plane has already rolled up to the gate and the ground crew buzzes around like a stirred up hive of bees. They execute their synchronized dance of cleaning, restocking and refueling and my heart thumps louder and faster as I realize there is no turning back now. This is it. The moment of departure is at hand.

We are to fly up and over the top of the world, across Greenland then the Netherlands, arcing steadily over the brow of the earth until we roll down her eastern cheek like a tiny, shining tear. Fifteen hours from now New Delhi will come into view and I will press my nose into the glass like a ten year-old boy until it is mashed and sore. The lights of the city will fan out into the night and the humid air will be thick with the smoke of a million campfires. Still, the air will be good there, just as good as it is here and I will breathe it in, in great gasps fueled by the excitement and the shock and the fear of being in that strange place.

Then the air will turn thin and cool as I make my way up, up into the Himalayan foothills and the home of the Dalai Lama. It will feel good on my skin, chill and damp at night, and I will take it into my nostrils as I breathe slowly and surely in Dharamsala, learning again how to watch that simple thing, learning how to watch the breath.

I will wake in the early morning, in the cold and the dark, light candles and let myself be swept away by the spell of the melody of the deep mantras of the monks. I will walk in lock step with them for a pace or two on the path to liberation and I will see the goal clear and bright, so close that I will reach out and almost touch it.

Refreshed and renewed, I will make my way back down into the hot plains of great mother India and she will open her arms to me. There, I will follow in the footsteps of the Buddha. I will walk where he walked and see what he saw. There will be guides and signs and portents. There will be magic and mystery and illumination. Everyone and everything I come across will be my teacher. And though there will be hardship and I will cry for days, it will wring my heart free of all its toughness, until it becomes soft and pliant and I can finally put it to good use.

I catch my reflection in the glass and see that I am trembling now. Then I smile warmly at the new me and think: it’s OK if none of this is true.

“We will now begin boarding flight two-nine-two with direct service to New Delhi,” the attendant calls over the loudspeaker. The voice blows through my fantasies and daydreams and they collapse like a house of cards. It is real now. Whatever is to come is out of my hands. I feel the earth under my feet, solid and real. There is no time to waver, no time for remorse or even hope. It is time to take that first step. It is time to answer the call…

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Adopt A Turkey Today!

As Buddhists, we try to remember that ALL living, sentient beings wish for a life of happiness free from suffering. Just as we do, they hold their lives dear and don’t wish die. In this way, we can consider ourselves to be in a state of equality with all of our furry, scaly, and feathered friends on this planet.

Wild Turkey strut

It’s estimated that 45 million turkeys are killed in the U.S. every Thanksgiving. I don’t mean to preach. The choice to eat meat or not can only be made by each individual.

Still, I humbly offer the link below (to my favorite T-Day charity) for your compassionate consideration.

Save a life! Adopt a turkey today!

http://www.farmsanctuary.org/giving/adopt-a-turkey/

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A Day In The Life Of A Monkle

I’ve been a Tibetan Buddhist monk (my niece calls me “Monkle Chris”) now for about 3 months. I’m down here at Namdroling in Bylakuppe, South India, continuing my quest for fluency in Tibetan Language.

A friend of mine recently hit me up on Facebook wanting to know more about what a typical day at the monastery looks like.

So at the risk of putting you all to sleep, here we go!

6:00am My alarm goes off. Notice I did not say “I get up”. Many of the monks here are up and about by 4 or 5am. Some, like yours truly, find that to be a bit little extreme (i.e., crazy). So after a couple of rounds with the ‘snooze’ button, I’m up and at ‘em…

6:14am Ok, let the fun begin! I get up, put on some coffee (yes, monks drink coffee), do some morning practice of making offerings, saying prayers, that kind of thing.

7:00am Time for coffee and my morning ritual of writing in my journal. This one’s in English-thoughts, musings, petty complaints, as well as notes for a future book about how on earth I ever decided to go through so much trouble to be a Buddhist.

8:00am Now we really get cooking. Tibetan study time begins here. I start out warming up with practice writing of a new (to me) cursive script called Khyug. I do this for about 30 minutes then switch up to reciting and memorizing a famous poem called The Great Living Tree. It’s a super-condensed collection of verses about the basic rules of Tibetan grammar. It’s about three pages long and after 5 and a half weeks, I’ve got two pages down cold (well,  tepid at least). This is huge for me as I suck at memorizing things. Another couple of weeks should do it.

Tibetan Khyug script. It's really kind of soothing to write it.
Tibetan Khyug script. It’s really kind of soothing to write it.

9:00am Conversation class. I’ve got the huge fortune of having two hours of private tutoring time. This hour is focused on casual conversation. Mostly we just talk about the weather but sometimes foray into more advanced topics like the World Cup, politics, and American Pro-Wrestling. Good stuff.

10:00am Reading practice. Here, I just read out loud (emphasis on “loud”) until I can’t stand it anymore.

11:00am A little break, a walk around the monastery, and an early lunch.

 

The plumbing stinks but the view's not bad!
The plumbing stinks but the view’s not bad!

12:00pm Rest time. There’s still quite a bit to come…

1:00pm Now we get into the nitty gritty. For the next hour, I study Tibetan grammar. The text I’m using these days is a 500 page monster. It’s in English, but I’m finding it’s really helpful to have the basic (though always maddening) elements of the language spelled out clearly. I’ve been working with it for about 5 weeks and I already see huge improvement in my understanding of the written language.

2:00pm Reading comprehension. This is a fun hour. I just read Tibetan folktales and stories, teasing out the meaning little by little. At least, I think so. The one I’m working on now is supposedly called “The Urinating Jewels”. True story. Anyhow, it’s getting easier.

3:00-5:00pm Translation. Working with two books right now. One’s a collection of transcribed talks by His Holiness the Dalai Lama called “The Peaceful Mind”. This one’s tough as it’s chock full of very technical Buddhist terminology. His Holiness is one of the most highly educated people in the world, so of course he speaks very well. As a result, it’s kind of like a second-grader (I’m being generous here) trying to translate MIT lectures on astro-physics. Still, it’s a good exercise. After that, I work on some short prayers and verses. Sometimes they’re easy, sometimes not.

5:00pm Tibetan journal writing. My least favorite activity of the day. Tibetan spelling is confounding to say the least. I’d be pulling my hair out if I had any (that’s a monk joke). In almost two and a half years, I still have no clue as to the rhyme or reason of it. The only way to learn it is to use it. So I just do the best I can. Though I have to admit, I sometimes “forget” the time, and just kill and hour or so checking what’s going on with Facebook.

6:00pm Kora time! Kora basically means “to circle”. It’s a devotional practice as well as a kind of walking mediation. It’s practically instinctual for Tibetans to walk around holy objects and places, reciting mantras and saying prayers. It’s said that we accumulate tons of merit (the causes for ultimate happiness and enlightenment) by doing this practice. It’s also pretty darn relaxing, too!

7:30pm Conversation class, take 2.

8:30 Time to start winding down. Not that my life is all that stressful. But still, learning a new language takes a lot of mental energy. Sometimes I’m pretty wiped out. So it’s dinner time (if I have dinner), then an hour or so of a Tibetan-dubbed soap opera I’ve become addicted to. Then some reading and off to bed.

And that my friends, it the life of a monkle!

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Stepping Stones (Taking The Monastic Vows)

“…I will finally see that the path, just as it’s always been and always will be, is right there in front of me.

That’s how I ended my first book, The Narrow Way. It was meant to be a teaser. A hint at the grander things that I hoped would come. The thing is, I really had no idea where that path would ultimately lead.

But then again, maybe I did.

From the beginning, all the way back to that first trip to India in 2008, there was a part of me that knew that someday I was going to become a monk. I’m certainly not clairvoyant, but I remember a clear vision of myself, as clear as an open-eyed dream, of some not-to-distant future.

I was dressed in red robes, head shaved and shiny in the sun, sitting (I remember green grass and clear sky) legs crossed and smiling. I looked genuinely happy.

I always held that picture in my mind as a carrot at the end of a stick. A goal to look forward to as I took on the sometimes daunting tasks of writing books, trying to cultivate some understanding of the dharma, and learning a new language. All of that in-between hopping across the oceans, to and from, India.

But for the longest time, I kept the “vision” mostly to myself. I would whisper hints to my close friends and family from time to time. But always I’d end with a shrug of my shoulders and a coy “Yeah, but we’ll see…”.

I think I just knew how serious of a choice it was. I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t a fleeting whim. I mean, I was talking about taking the monastic vows, after all. Promises to commit myself to the Buddhist path, to see it through to its ultimate end. I didn’t want to take them lightly.

Seven years past. I flip-flopped from time to time, thinking that maybe I would wait until retirement to take the vows. Or maybe I would just wait until some future life.

But the feeling, the pull, the longing (for that’s what it was and more), kept coming back.

“You must become a monk,” a voice kept saying. “It’s the only way to make the best use of this precious human life. Anything else will just be marking time.”

And as I thought these kinds of things, I would realize that my lips were turned up in a smile. The same smile I imagined in that vision of my future self.

So back in March I made up my mind to finally ask my Lama, directly and decisively, for permission to take the vows of a novice monk, also known as Getsul vows.

He looked around the room as if he were thinking. Then he asked me to think about when I wanted to take the plunge.

But there was no need to think.

“As soon as possible,” I said.

There were some ups and downs after that. Quite a few downs actually. Was I making the right choice? Would I be able to uphold the vows? Would I ultimately fail?

But these were just echoes of my fears. Some old, some new.

In the end, I went for it. I can’t be too particular about the details of when, where, and how. Politics, ya know?

It was beautiful, that much I can say. It had been raining for days. Snowing in the high mountains even at the end of August. There had been magic and mystery a plenty on the trip so far, but for that hour, as I sat in front of my preceptor reciting the promises to spend the rest of my life (and more) on the path of liberation, there was just stillness and waiting.

And then it was done. I was a monk. Easy as pie.

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It’s been about a month now. I’m almost comfortable getting dressed in the morning. The robes are tricky things to learn how to wear. My hair is growing back from that first shave but I’m already looking forward to cutting it again.

I’m down at Namdroling Monastery in South India now, taking the first few steps on a journey of deepening my understanding of this new life I’ve decided to live. I will be resuming my study of Tibetan, as well as learning how to be a monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

But they’re just stepping stones really. The real lessons I think, will be in learning to let go of myself, my fears, my personal agendas and desires. All the things that keep us bound and tied.

In any case, and as always, I’m looking forward to sharing the journey.

 

 

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