GENITALS AND LOST FAITH

 

 

Zen Buddhism. It has been a constant source of strength for me since I was 19 and so frazzled by anxiety that I didn’t think I would survive my own mind.

Alan Watts, an openly hedonistic part of the Beat Zen scene in northern California, was my gateway “teacher” via a book called The Meaning of Happiness. I can remember where I was standing – in the bookstore of the University of Richmond – when I saw and bought the book. I had dabbled in Zen via existentialism and absurdist art, notably the work of playwrights Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett. But with Watts’ brilliant explanation of Zen, my path was a little clearer and perhaps a little less bitter than the existential angst of Sartre and Camus.

I became a Zen tourist, making pilgrimages to this or that workshop, learning meditation from Roshi Philip Kapleau who wrote The Three Pillars of Zen, and from one of Sasaki Roshi’s senior students, Genro, when I came to New Mexico in 1976 and went to the Rinzai-ji Zen Center in the Jemez Mountains.

For a few years, I veered off into the Tibetan-flavored Buddhism of Chogyam Trungpa, until I could no longer sit with his devoted students’ support of a teacher whose alcoholism and womanizing were sad and blatant contradictions to the Buddhist precepts. At one point, when I was challenging one of Trungpa’s senior students with the logic of his teacher’s hypocrisy, I got pushed into a clump of bushes.

Back to Zen, where I thought at least dishonesty and bullshit are less likely to occur in a path so fiercely dedicated to experiencing reality. Unfortunately, it is also fiercely and persistently dedicated to a Japanese patriarchal mythology.

When I finally made the commitment to take on a teacher, I went much more intensely into practice, attending sesshins (Buddhist meditation retreats) and even considering ordination as a nun. I was appointed to the board of my teacher’s center, which eventually meant that I had to participate in firing that teacher. One woman and then others came forward to claim that he had engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with them.

The list of Zen teachers in America who have engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct is long – ridiculously and pathetically long — as long as the list of Catholic priests who messed with little boys and politicians who fathered children with women other than their wives.

For me the list of lying, horny, predatory Zen “masters,” ends with the latest allegations against Sasaki Roshi, whose organization Rinzai-ji  oversees the Zen center I’ve been sitting with on and off for the past 35 years. The details have been in the The New York Times recently and are playing out in a sickeningly familiar battle involving lawyers, outraged students, and strident devotees.

What is thoroughly disgusting about this to me is the senior students and inner circle of devotees at Rinza-ji and their zombie-like defense and enabling of their “master” for 50 years in America. Most of them men.

I think that some of those monks actually admire the old man for his sexual manipulation of women who came to him for spiritual guidance — women he would select, women who would be brought to him in a room where he lay ready to have his genitals attended to. I think that some of the men who continue to support this 105 year old Jabba the Hut’s status as an enlightened, albeit “retired” teacher, consider his sexual exploits to be part of his greatness, though they will never admit that.

And then there are the women who willingly and eagerly have affairs with these predators, some of them being the initiators of such encounters, despite the fact that they are victimizing the teacher’s wife. Some of these women are teachers themselves now.

This is all bullshit. Pure and simple.

One of the most obscenely irrational arguments in support of these primate shenanigans is that the teacher is showing us that he is human.

Really?

Well, I think a fart or sneaking out for donuts, or maybe even one affair might do the trick.  I know a lot of humans who don’t set themselves up in the role of spiritual guide and then sexually molest people. I don’t need them to go that far to show that they’re human.

Happily, I continue to do the practice, to do zazen and feel its power. Happily, I believe in the wisdom of the precepts, including the one that calls for “right sexual conduct.”

Sadly, I am unable to tolerate the lineage crap and the rituals that go along with it, whether the teacher is a man or woman, just as I am unable to believe that the Old Testament is a scientific explanation of the development of species. Sadly, I have no faith left in the institution of Zen Buddhism, especially in America, where the intoxicant of hierarchy gets teachers drunk on power, including financial and sexual power.

Sadly, people will continue to seek refuge in religious institutions that are traps. Those lured in will find themselves asked to financially support some teacher’s lifestyle, whether it be humble or require Rolex watches, a new S.U.V., and include a sexual addiction.

There are enough books on Zen meditation and philosophy to help someone begin a practice of zazen. There are enough fellow practitioners to form group meditation support. And any teacher, anyone who is kind enough to share his or her experience on this path, should see him or herself as a servant, not a master, as a person who drives a bus or practices law for a living and teaches as a voluntary effort to help others who want to sit down and shed their delusions.

The emperor of American, maybe all, Zen Buddhism as an institution with boards of directors and marketing experts, has no clothes. This emperor is telling you he’s got a fine set of robes on that can help you find bliss and freedom, if you’ll only just stroke the cloth a little, you know, just to feel how fine it is.

When your own eyes and your own brain tell you, “This guy is naked,” you’re on your way to a fearless confluence with the truth.  And that is Zen.

 

Solitude

Think of the stereotype of people who are alone– the depressed woman in raggedy house slippers, t.v. on, some cats sprinkled around the room.

Or the teenager who’s too fat or too skinny or too weird and sits alone at the end of a cafeteria lunch table.

Or the paranoid man peering out of the peephole of an apartment door afraid to go out or let anyone in.

Or someone on facebook with one of those blank blue silhouettes and maybe eight friends.

It’s hard to imagine that there are people in this world who actually enjoy being alone sometimes, phone and computer off.  I’m one of them.

I’m not sure why – maybe because of some in utero mishap or lack of proper socialization – but I have always treasured, sometimes a little too desperately, my alone time. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a sweet bedroom all to myself, where I could read and dream and listen to music and pretend I was in tune with all kinds of profound stuff.

I didn’t (and don’t) want to be alone all the time. But when I’m around people for long stretches of time without any solitude, I start to feel creepy.

A few friends were golden pals throughout my girlhood. We conjured adventures together, stayed outside until dusk on summer nights, imagined treasures and elves and later true hippie love as we made gods of the Beatles and Bob Dylan. My best memories are of one on one connections and spacious moments of reflection. When I was ten years old, I saw the 1962 movie version of “Hamlet” with my friend Bitsy and her father. I watched him in the dim light of an ornate old movie theater in Richmond, Virginia, as he recited the lines along with Sir Lawrence Olivier. Mr. Perry died when I was in 7th grade; I think of him whenever I try to impart my love of “Hamlet” to my students.

In high school, I went straight from the margins of the preppy world to hot hippie chick. But my favorite times weren’t at the parties where I drank too much and flirted passionately. My favorite times were when I came home to my room, by myself, buzzed, and listened to music or lay in bed thinking about some guy.

I only lasted six weeks at Boston University with a roommate in a skyscraper full of people. Before dropping out, I often borrowed the single room of a girl across the hall, who got that room by convincing administrators that she was mentally messed up.

That must have been me – a mentally messed up person who yearned for a base of solitude.

I tried mightily to be a wife – three times.  It was not meant to be.

For years, decades, I’ve felt envy and shame around “everyone else” being able to cohabit, travel and party in large rollicking groups; to endure and ignore the constant noise of others in their space; to live nonstop for and with their families: always busy, always with projects.

Then at my friend Steve’s wedding, the Zen priest read a line from a Rilke poem: “in marriage we protect each other’s solitude.” Wow.

“…we protect each other’s solitude.” I can think of nothing more intimate and generous.

There are certain people in my life, loved ones, friends and family, who respect that notion. They are with me. I am with them. Even when we are alone.

Now the phrase, “I need my space,” isn’t a break-up line; it’s an explanation of how a relationship can work for me, and it wasn’t until I realized that and accepted the same insistent desire for autonomy in the man I live with that hope for a genuine partnership began.

Zen practice is a perfect manifestation of shared aloneness: people together in fervent isolation. We are all sitting in the same room, not speaking, sharing a private effort to get to the kind of solitude that includes everything and everyone.

I still have some envy of people steeped in a life with large and boisterous families, but I can take only so much togetherness before I have to drift away for a while.

And I don’t think I’m alone in this.

 

 

Open Letter to the Taliban

Dear Taliban,

If your fear of women and their freedom compels you to kill, kill me. I’m a sixty- year-old American woman. I probably consume too much of the world’s resources, and I’ve had a chance to live six decades. Plus I’m a Buddhist, and I know you hate Buddhists, because you’ve  destroyed irreplaceable and magnificent Buddhist art in Afghanistan.

I understand that you are cowards and like to attack schoolgirls, but consider my offer. If you have the urge to shoot women who want an education, I’d be a good choice. I have a Ph.D.

Young women like Malala are just beginning their brilliant lives, already wise and with years ahead of them to acquire knowledge and skills to brighten the world. I understand that they scare your pants off.  In your dim mind you know they’re already smarter than you are. But really, you’re wasting your time trying to kill all the girls in the world who want to be free, who feel their intelligence ready to bloom like a strong flower. You are far outnumbered by them. They will prevail.

So the suffering you’re imposing on these eager and innocent lives is intensely and horribly ignorant.

You do not represent Muslims; you do not represent Arabs. You are ignorant and inhumane destroyers of life and hope, the same thugs we’ve seen throughout history, those of us who have been educated about history – the thugs who use religion and ideology to support their insane agendas.

Tolerating your policies is not political correctness; it’s cooperating with the most dangerous combination there is: stupidity, fear and violence.

May all your daughters go to school! That is your only hope.

Sincerely,

Kate Horsley

 

Authors Foreword from New Book

[Below is a copy of the foreword to X&O: Short Works by me, Kate Horsley]

 

This collection of short works comes from and is about vastly

different stages in my personal and creative life.

 

“Rat” is about my childhood world in Richmond, Virginia, and

some of the major events that haunt me still.

 

“A Day at the Beach” is fictional but based on my experience

of the post-hippie world when idealism had pretty much gone

down the drain, leaving hedonism behind like the somewhat disgusting

crap left in the sink after the dishes have been washed.

 

“The Flight of the Luna Moth” was written in the same decade as the previous

two, the 70’s, but has been updated and is sadly still relevant in

terms of the tragic hardships children suffer due to adult stupid-

ity and economic shenanigans.

 

My adult life is starkly divided between the before and after of

my son’s death in April, 2000. The last six pieces in this col-

lection are from the “after” period.

 

“The Oracle: A Short Play” was one of eight plays selected in a national competition staged

at the Vortex Theater in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for its

2010 WomensWorkx production.

 

“Marla in Empty Space” cannot be explained.

 

“One Dentist, Many Frogs” was published in the online literary

magazine Pif and has been chosen for an anthology of its best

short stories.

 

“X and O: A Short Play” was written under an ongoing influ-

ence of theater of the absurd, including Beckett’s plays. I enter-

tain myself just thinking about this work.

 

“Stories for Leroy” was composed amidst horrible sickness

and raucous laughter as I hung out with Leroy, a patient in the

University of New Mexico palliative care program.

 

“The Buried Life: An Excerpt” is a work in progress based on

my relationship with a woman who died in 1921.

 

I want something in this collection to entertain you, the reader,

as my side of a conversation we should have about all the

absurd and poignant aspects of the human condition. I haven’t

figured it all out yet. Have you?

 

 

 

THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS

Remember Blanche Dubois in the play “Streetcar Named Desire”? Okay – maybe you don’t. Anyway, she says at some point, in her southern drawl, “I must rely on the kindness of strangers” – as though it was the most pitiful thing one could do.

Poor woman, she didn’t have a man to rely on. So sad.

Well, recently, I was traveling on my own to the East Coast. I didn’t have my man with me, and I was not feeling very strong or functional.

The first stop was Boston, where I got to hang out with two friends I have known for about 45 years. These are among the dearest people in my life, and we know each other very well. In fact, they have heard my angst – pretty much the same angst but with different details – for a long, long time, over and over again.

At some point, even I can hear myself telling the same story, tediously, like I’m a bad Beckett play where the second act is just like the first act, with the same scrawny tree on the stage, the same futile desire to change things without really changing things.

I had some great distractions from my tired script, thanks to my research in the Massachusetts Historical Archives on some awesome women who worked in a nursing corps during World War I; and thanks to my dear friend Catharine taking me for a swim in Walden Pond, among other things, and her super fine brother Vernon giving me a cello lesson. All great.

But then I would go glum, scared of my life as a sixty year old woman who felt frail and alone and like a burden.

I almost could not make a scheduled departure from my friend’s cozy home nestled in a leafy cul-de-sac. She practically had to hold my hand as I got on the train at the South Boston station.

More excellent distractions ensued, including a walk along some river in Connecticut with my nephew, his wife and two little boys, and a joyful golden retriever who leapt into the water, paddling fiercely to get that stick, yeah – get that stick, no matter what, get that stick. Ahh, to be so focused and sure.

Because once I was back in my beautiful guest room, the bed full of big pillows and sunlight, I was telling myself those stupid stories again, the same ones that I did not want to yammer on and on about to the people I loved. I gripped my cell phone, but did not open it.

Various relationships back home seemed to be disintegrating. My partner and I had had one of the worst blow-outs I can remember in a long list of blow-outs. My band was splitting up in a bitter confrontation that I felt responsible for. People I cared about were in depressive seclusion. All, all of it because  — I AM A BAD PERSON.

That’s the basic theme of all the stories that may initially go on and on about how cruel or stupid someone else is,  but inevitably teeter hysterically on the notion that KATE IS A BAD PERSON, SELF-CENTERED, WEAK, FUCKED UP. (It’s all about me, me, me — see how awful I am????!!?!!?)

I managed to get myself from Greenwich to Grand Central Station in New York City – a train station that starts off as a metaphor for a dark maze of filthy, noxious vapors because you get off the train in a dark maze of filthy, noxious vapors. And then up into the street, full of strangers. Nothing but strangers for as far as the eye can see – walking, sitting against buildings, trotting across streets, running up and down subway stairs, hundreds and thousands – even millions of strangers. Including the Senegalese cab driver who said, “Sure I can take you to Brooklyn.”

Now, the cab driver whose wisdom changes your life has become a cliché. This isn’t quite like that. It’s more about forgetting my shit because here’s somebody who has some shit, too, only he’s happy. And he tells good stories – not about how mean his wife is or about how much he struggles in life and is getting nowhere. No – his stories are about not taking the night shift because he wants to be home with his wife and kids. He even has a story about some good New York City cops – amazing and miraculous all by itself – cops  who helped him out when some drunk lady he took to Brooklyn said she didn’t have any money and couldn’t pay him. The cops found $250.00 on her and gave the cabbie $100.00 – a lot more than the fare, for having to put up with her shit and then sit around dealing with it while he could have been picking up more customers. When they asked him if he wanted to press charges, he said, “Let her go. I don’t want to go through the hassle of filling out reports and all that.”

“Poor lady,” he said. “She was just drunk. She didn’t need any more trouble.” Kind of like Blanche Dubois, I’m thinking.

He also told me about some old guy from Jersey years ago who told him he was in New York for the same reason he always came to New York – to see the Yankees. When the fresh from Senegal cab driver asked him “Who are these Yankees,” the old guy told him to pull the fucking cab over, threw what he owed through the driver’s side window and said, “I ain’t driving with no fucking cabbie who don’t know who the Yankees are.”

Speaking sometimes in French, which I love to do, we declared our faith in Obama and how fine it was that the Supreme Court upheld his health care plan. We discussed the NBA finals and how it was too bad the Celtics didn’t pull through.

By the time he put my luggage in front of the flat I was staying in, the world seemed a lot bigger and a lot more interesting than my repeated tales of, “And then he said ….and I don’t think I can handle…..”

This stranger had safely taken me from the dark maze of filthy, noxious vapors to the funky refuge flat in Park Slope that I stay in whenever I come to Brooklyn.

Right there on the sidewalk, in a city full of strangers, I hugged the Senegalese cab driver I’d only known for about twenty minutes. Another crazy fare. But he patted my back and laughed softly.

He was just doing his job efficiently while sharing stories about the somehow endearing madness of life, with its drunk ladies and pissed off Yankee fans from Jersey, with its Justice Roberts surprise votes for the right side, with devotion to wife and children, all this while letting me believe I could actually speak French. He didn’t know about how bad I was or about the band and the traumatic fight with the boyfriend. And I had no compulsion whatsoever to tell him.

All this was a simple, subtle but immense act of kindness, in no way pitiful.

 

 

The Religious Assault on Women: Enough Already

 

Morally weak heterosexual men have two strategies for getting laid: rape and religion.

Rapists are straight-forward worthless criminals.

Men who use religion to justify their control of women are delusional lunatics and/or diabolical bullshitters able to create entire cultures.

Take Joseph Smith for example. He was alone in the woods when an angel came to him and said, among other things, that polygamy was not only okay, but God recommended it. Joseph was really happy to hear that, and so were a lot of other men he told his story to. Though upstanding members of the Church of the Latter Day Saints now rebuke the idea of polygamy, there are large numbers of Mormon men who have not forsaken Joseph Smith’s original inspiration to have God-sanctioned access to as much ass as possible.

But I don’t want to just pick on the LDS.

All Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), as well as many others, such as Hinduism, are righteously patriarchal and lend themselves to the blatant notion that women need to be controlled by men. This is a very convenient dogma for guys who, before DNA testing, hated that women were the only ones who could be absolutely certain that they were the parents of their children.

Males are hardwired to want certainty that their genetic stuff is going to thrive.

To this end, a chimpanzee basically gets buff, fights off other males and then waits for the females to bend over willingly for him. Chimpanzees don’t quote scripture to ensure their dominance.

Men who concoct religious support for satisfying their libidos don’t like the idea of leaving their success up to women. They spout righteous reasons to control women’s choices, including biblical stories about women being reckless and evil. They’re evil because they look good, forcing men to want them; plus, the whores just might have sex for their own reasons and pleasure. So, husbands, brothers and fathers need to have exclusive access to them and make sure they don’t have the freedom to go around being evil and reckless.

But not in America, right?

Good Christian men in America are now slithering out into public view — in this nation where women are doctors, lawyers and political leaders – to question a woman’s right to have access to birth control; or to mandate that women undergo vaginal penetration with ultrasound probes against their consent before they can exercise their legal choice to abort a pregnancy. And there’s no doubt that many men in the religious right end of this country want to reverse Roe v. Wade, making abortions illegal. All of this without input from women themselves.

And is it any coincidence that the urge to impede a woman’s autonomy over her own means of reproduction is manifesting publicly at a time when the number of women choosing to have children without having husbands is increasing, steadily and shamelessly?

There are seriously sick consequences to the systemic, religiously based, support of men’s desperate desire to control women’s sexuality. Here’s a partial list: female genital mutilation, stoning an allegedly adulterous woman to death, using women as property – selling and trading them, throwing acid in the faces of girls who want an education or dare to refuse a man’s proposal, marriage and fornication with 12 year old girls; and this is a list of activities that go unpunished and are in some cases openly legal.

Women are not victims of this assault because they are weak; they are targets of it because of their strengths. Women have the potential, given control over their reproductive lives, to frustrate the hell out of men who want them to put out on demand, not run a country or focus on raising a limited number of children well. Women have the potential, given control over their reproductive lives, to clean up this sorry world that patriarchy has trashed, and motivate men to join them in bed and in running the world using intelligence and integrity.

Women are not weak. Women have a lot of power that they too often fritter away on buying shoes, checking their hair for split ends, or talking about their neuroses. Women need to realize that the assault on their reproductive autonomy could branch out to limit the number of shoes they get to buy and to a mandate to cover up their hair and get the hell out of law school.

Women who buy into the very religions that support their subjugation have sometimes been able to use scripture and Mother Mary to dance around the patriarchal premises.  But the power of women, which is badly needed in our world and clearly under attack, is greatly shackled by dogmas created by and for men who do not want women to believe in or use their strengths and wisdom.

In the 9th century the Catholic Church outlawed women being warriors. Too bad for the men they’d been fighting beside. And in subsequent centuries, strong women got branded as witches to be used as fuel for public fires.

Women were brutalized for insisting on their right to vote in the early 20th century.

But guess what? There are women who fight beside men; there are strong women whose wisdom is put to use for nations; and women have the vote, birth control and the right to choose to abort a pregnancy.

Let’s not lose ground; let’s not let religious propaganda take away one of the greatest hopes we have for a saner world: autonomous women.

Why Not to Commit Suicide

 

About eight years ago in November, a man I valued very much as a friend and colleague stepped outside his car and shot himself on the asphalt of an emergency room parking lot.

His standards as a teacher had been high while his heart was large. When he became my boss, he advocated fearlessly for academic freedom. He regularly visited teachers’ offices to loan us the latest novel he felt passionately about.

When I could not understand the stunning loss of his vibe in my world, his wife gave me William Styron’s book Darkness Visible to read. She said she believed that if her husband had read it he might still be alive. The book chronicles Styron’s near fatal depression and how he saved himself by asking his wife to drive him to the hospital one night when he felt horribly close to killing himself and some part of him didn’t want to. Styron said it was a huge relief to admit how dark his depression was, to finally be “out” as someone in deep psychological pain. He could finally at least stop faking that he was having a good time.

A year or so after reading the book, I asked to be driven to the hospital for the same reason. I was thinking that what my friend had done made perfect sense, and I was ready to put an end to irresolvable grief and self-contempt. I was going to get in my car and buy a gun. I knew I was ready to do that, and I didn’t want to.

If you ever want to jump the line at the ER, just say you think you’re going to kill yourself. Apparently, there’s a well thought out policy not to tell potential suicides to have a seat and watch television for an unknown length of time amongst people in various stages of unattended to pain and trauma.

Once you’re whisked into the back, you’re trapped. Keys and any dangerous meds you have are taken away. And since you can’t very well off yourself on a gurney by the nurses’ station, the staff can take their sweet time getting to you.

After a couple of hours of lying in fetal position under a thin blanket, I felt someone’s hand on my shoulder. A sad-eyed nurse sat with me and told me that her only child had died, too. She gave me information for a support group for grieving parents and checked up on me until it was time for her to go home to a dim and empty house.

After about six hours in the main thoroughfare of the emergency department, I got transferred to the mental health unit.  A doctor there gave me some Trazodone and let me go home.

Trazodone is a nasty drug that I took a few times before deciding that I didn’t need to be in a nauseating stupor. But over the years I have circled back to suicidal feelings, which is one of several good reasons not to own a gun.

People who don’t fall that deeply into depression may not understand the mixture of profound discomfort and shame that traps you between not wanting to be alone and not wanting to impose your crazy dark self on others; sullenly slumping in the corner of a holiday party or announcing as you sob that you are incapable of coping with something supports your image of yourself as a fucked up individual — not worthy of comfort or joy.

My depressions are almost always attached to a physical ailment, some chronic pain that either triggers the downslide or is a manifestation of it. A malfunctioning body just seems like the proverbial last straw. Often, treating the physical problem relieves the depression, but as I age there are more ailments arising, more opportunities to lose faith in something as simple as being comfortable.

But I don’t want to do what my friend did. I don’t want to disappear forever and not be around to add to the voices that root for compassion and wisdom.

What helps me enormously are the people who give me affection — even a kind stranger á la Blanche DuBois. Even better are the people who gladly receive my affection, who help me to feel that I have something worthwhile to offer.

Buddhism is the core of my survival. It sets the bar beyond ego and its suffering. I haven’t reached that bar, but knowing it’s there is tremendously important to me. And yoga is a big help, too.

And then there are those who, for whatever misguided and delusional reasons, see me as a role model, the way I saw my friend and colleague as a man to follow for his great mind and listening heart.

My students, the kids next door whom I held right after they were born, my grand niece who at nine is already an amazing person — these are reasons to suck it up. I don’t want them to wonder for one second if the woman they looked up to had the right idea when she put a gun to her head.

The holidays are especially difficult for people who deal with depression. The worst, absolute worst, is feeling compelled to join in festivities that either have no meaning for you or seem like cruel shams. Some of us want to live through this season without bringing others down or without betraying ourselves with false joviality.

I wish my friend were still alive, and I hope all the good people in the world — the ones whose hearts and minds are open, sometimes too open — will stay with us for as long as humanly possible. We need more, not less of that.

WHY I MEDITATE

All kinds of crap happens. To all of us. I can’t think of an extended period of time in my life when crap didn’t happen.

In the past, when I wasn’t meditating and crap happened, I was a drama queen; I was a hysterical drama queen, and there are plenty of ex-boyfriends and ex-husbands who can attest to that. I’ve done such things as walking catatonically out into a winter night barefoot and in my nightgown, hitting myself in the head with a shoe while crouching behind a Christmas tree, fucking men I shouldn’t have even shaken hands with, and consuming copious amounts of Jack Daniels and valium.

I think I was influenced by old movies about insane women – women who grabbed their hair in their hands or got drunk and slutty or rocked back and forth in the corner of some insane asylum; (see “The Caretakers” and “The Snake Pit” for examples). The message was that these women were very, very unhappy; messed up things had happened to them that they couldn’t talk about. I wanted people to get that about me, but instead they legitimately saw my behavior as disturbing and self-centered, and anyway I really didn’t want to be put in an insane asylum.

I’d always dabbled in Zen Buddhism, but about fifteen years ago, I started doing zazen (sitting meditation) with some regularity. I actually did meditation retreats, getting up before dawn and meditating for at least six hours a day for seven days at a time. I thought about becoming a Buddhist nun. Okay – that was more drama, another extreme in my case, because I am honestly not cut out to be any kind of nun. But in that time I developed a daily practice, and every morning I do at least 25 minutes of zazen.

And that has made all the difference, to quote Robert Frost.

When real crap hit the fan eleven years ago and my son died, I immediately thought of a line from a Yeats poem: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” There was nothing to do. And that is all I could do – nothing.

The very morning after I learned that my son was dead, I went through the pre-dawn darkness to the zen center and sat. And every morning that week, I did the same, participating in the chanting rituals for grieving. The chanting was just something to do, but it was the zazen, the doing nothing, that seemed most appropriate, most honest.

Because zazen reminds me that ultimately, we can do nothing to stop crap from happening. We are not special; we are not picked out to be punished; we are – everybody is — subject to the pain of impermanence and loss.

I’ve done zazen when I was faced with cancer. A lot of my sitting practice has been taken up with paranoid attention to some part of my body that hurts or I’m afraid will have to be lopped off. And still I don’t think this is a waste of time, because at least I’m just there with the fear and the paranoia and not burying it to crop up later in some crazy acting out, like hitting myself in the head with a shoe or dragging the cat out from under the bed by the tail to comfort me.

Zazen is just facing reality. That’s all it is. Facing reality without distractions, without falling asleep, without slumping. I sit up straight and breathe and whatever is happening is happening.

Just the act of sitting alert and straight in the midst of whatever crap is at hand is a statement of faith in one’s ability to handle it, faith in reality. It’s not like rocking in the corner of an insane asylum, announcing with all your might that you are falling apart and consumed by weakness.

And after a few minutes of focusing on something as mundane as your breath going in and out, you get calmer. Calm enough to get up and grieve or play or eat a peanut butter sandwich or go in for surgery without causing more problems for yourself and others with some dysfunctional drama.

I can still put on the costume and become a lunatic; there are still things that hook me. But I don’t indulge in the craziness so much; I at least know how useless and self-defeating becoming a lunatic is.

Sometimes I pray – to the great mystery – to compassion and wisdom in whatever form it may take. Maybe I’m praying to myself or to whatever sparks the void into the dance of time and space and consciousness. I’m praying for grace: the strength and wisdom to be serene and clear in the midst of any crap that may come along.

And that’s what meditation is all about for me, the effort to have a clear experience of reality, of what is, a genuine connection to everything, from excruciating loss to a good cup of tea.

 

I “HEART” DRUNKS

I’ve started to go to al-anon meetings again. For those of you not in the know about the 12-step world, it’s like Alcoholics Anonymous, only for the family members or companions of addicts – the enablers and such.

My father was a functioning alcoholic – well, functioning in the sense that he made a good living as a doctor, played golf at the Country Club and was an upright member of the Episcopal Church. Oh, whoops – he also sexually molested his daughters and probably some of his patients, and treated his wife like crap. He couldn’t even stay in the room with her as she was dying. He was a big baby.

Getting high relieves people from the duty of thinking clearly and developing grown-up wisdom and compassion.

My father’s drinking was an acceptable part of the white middle class world of the 1950’s and 60’s. He had two, often three stiff drinks every day after five, and after noon on Sunday when he switched from Scotch to martinis.

That’s a lot of liquor.

Nowadays the drunks I know are more into fine wines and Belgian ales. Consuming a good French Cabernet or a few pints of micro-brewed pale ale seems civilized. Chic. Cool. Even when they start to talk a little too loudly or announce to their dinner party guests that their husband can’t get it up.

When I was a drunk, starting in high school and careening through college and into grad school, I drank whatever would get me high. I drank to get drunk. I’d finish a hard week of paper writing, report giving and test taking and take a well-deserved vacation in the local bar. Playing pinball, shooting pool, flirting with men who smelled bad, downing shots of this and pitchers of that, I’d often stumble outside when it was still daylight. I thought this was normal!! And I’ve been thinking this it is normal, fun behavior to get high on a regular basis for most of my life. So even if I wasn’t doing it, I thought it was uptight and unlovable of me to want other people to stop doing it.

Boring people stay sober. Weirdos. Bland weirdos who are not with it.

Two things saved me from becoming a full-tilt alcoholic: getting pregnant and not wanting to damage my baby, and developing a horrible physical reaction to alcohol consumption – ripping headaches that come along with even the slightest buzz. But when I was drinking, promiscuity, drunk driving and other behaviors I deeply regret went right along with the alcohol.

Drunks think they’re partying or relaxing – having a good time, being cool. But when you’re drunk you’re more likely to hurt people, physically or emotionally, than you would if you were sober. I mean , DUH!

And if you find yourself friends or lovers or partners with or parents of someone who drinks a lot you know how reliable those people are in terms of being there when you need them, showing up when they’re supposed to, remembering things, finishing what they start. You know how they can say devastating things that linger like a rancid fart.

You know how chronic drinkers often talk about not feeling well and blame it on the bacon they had for breakfast instead of the four beers they had the night before. “I think I have a flu or something.” Yeah, right.

As someone who abused the hell out of alcohol for a good swath of my life, I know the delusional realm in which drinkers live. The fuzzy fun-filled world of the buzz seems like good clean fun until you notice that your life has a few too many dysfunctional dramas in it.

As someone who seems to seek out drinkers and enmesh myself with them, I finally realized that despite my aversion to all the God talk at 12 step meetings, I was powerless over alcohol and what a mess it created in my life, and I needed help.

Functioning alcoholics, or, if you prefer, chronic drinkers who don’t seem to be causing any harm, inevitably behave in juvenile ways that hurt themselves and others.

And people like me who play a leading role in their dramas end up being a burden to loved ones who have to hear about those dramas, the same ones over and over and over again. I cry. I talk, talk, talk. I’m a pain in the ass.

I have noticed that the people I know who have fucked up royally in some way are more than likely drinkers. And I’ve often been the one they could come to for a good dose of enabling – even taking them out for a beer while we talked about their big messes and persistent lack of achievement or contentment.

As someone who practices Zen Buddhism, I see the 12-steps as a process of detachment from the ego-centered behavior of enablers like me. We toggle back and forth between wanting to change and control the drinkers and wanting to buy them a round to show how cool we are. We want to be needed, liked. And we often end up hating the drinkers and ourselves for being caught in such a tawdry cycle of self-focused fear and anger.

Yes, there are other evils out there besides alcohol. And yes, there are assholes who aren’t drunks. And yes, a glass of wine, a couple of drinks at a party, a pint of Guinness in a pub  – these are not the sure signs of addiction.

But hello my name is Kate, and I have been in the familiar world of chronic drinkers for too long. It’s a huge waste of time and energy, and whatever was comfortable and entertaining about it has expired like a carton of lumpy milk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

STRESSED OUT

I’m on vacation. I’ve been on vacation for almost three months. And I’m stressed out. Basically, I’m ruminating too much.

Most of the respectable people I know have home projects. They never have enough free time to do all those projects – remodeling, painting, gardening, putting things in color-coded plastic bins. My domestic ambitions are minimal. I make the bed every morning. I vacuum occasionally; I dust if guests are coming. I clean the bathroom. It’s a small house. Most of it has the same paint job it had when I moved in 14 years ago. I have planted one tree; the rest were either there when I moved in or popped up in my yard because they wanted to.

Cooking bores me – my own cooking. I love other people’s cooking. I don’t sew, knit – okay, enough of all that.

I suppose if I did any of those things I would have some worthwhile distractions from the stress that fills the vacation vacuum and from the inevitable suffering that is the result of being human.

Here’s how the external world could help me out.

First, my society could give up capitalism as a failed ideal that fosters greed, violence and gross inequity.

Capitalism creates a world in which health care is run by people who want to make money and suffered by patients who cannot pay for medical help. Capitalism is brutal; unregulated capitalism has given us a corrupt and bankrupt system run by corporations who somehow get protected by patriotic propaganda while taking jobs to others countries so they can exploit workers there and put more money in their own, not their country’s, coffers.

Second, my world would give up religion as a failed ideal that fosters stupidity and blind obedience to lunatics.

Religion – any religion – taken literally, whether it preaches about a paradise with horny virgins, an angel promoting polygamy, or a devil who causes a holy man to buy crack-cocaine from a gay prostitute, is popularized psychotic delusion. It creates a world in which people can be convinced to blow themselves and others up, mutilate their daughters’ genitals, write 1500 page manifestos before killing children at a summer camp, and on and on and on.

When put together – capitalism and religion – these failed ideals have created a stressful hell on earth. Capitalists sedate or whip up the masses with religious propaganda that miraculously supports the system in which they thrive and most of the world struggles. In order to do this, capitalists promote belief rather than thinking, temples and churches rather than schools. Education encourages logical thinking, which does not go with a literal belief in some holy book or a a belief that it’s okay for a few guys to make billions of dollars while there’s a growing category of people called the working poor.

There are pockets of peace and sanity – some of them personal, some of them global. My cat, for example, is amusing and neither a Democrat nor a Republican. Music – no need to explain. Friends and family when politics and religion aren’t discussed. That person — a doctor, a clerk at Walgreen’s – who helps you out and is both smart and kind and not thinking about how much money he or she can get out of you. And it’s comforting to imagine that even if human beings destroy their own species as a result of greed and ignorance, there will still be the Grand Canyon and the Himalayas and the Amazon River, and they’ll thrive without those names we’ve given them and without human pollution. We may take a few other species down with us, but the Earth will survive.

But how sad to think that all this – the cat, the friends, the clerk at Walgreen’s and the Amazon River =– have been here all along to be cherished by us, and instead we go for imaginary gods and a brutal continuation of primate lust for the most ass and the most bananas.

We can do better. I’m sure of it. And that’s why I keep writing and will be glad to get back in the classroom where I’ll ask my students not what they want out of the world, but what kind of world they want. I’ll just ask, because I am hopeful that one or two of them will look for an answer.

And I think that in a moment of wisdom, most people would say they want a world that is intelligent and compassionate, and logic dictates that religion and unregulated capitalism do not make such a world.