Meditations for People Who Buy Too Many Gimmicky Little Books
by Mike Sugarbaker
All through freshman year I was hearing about Laura, only in snatches, from Nancy at Cal or from Aubie at Riverside, usually repeated information. Laura was at UC Santa Cruz, an institution described by another friend of mine as "the best five, six, possibly 12 years of your life." I've forgotten the details; a bad roommate, I think, in a bad dorm and lots of "fucked-up shit" with her parents. I don't know what went wrong between them. Probably just living issues, moving issues, control issues. Laura's mother is a voice teacher and opera singer, with an overclayed face and hard red hairdo. Her father was an engineer and never seemed to be around, but when he was around he was one of those men who look like Jim Henson. Laura herself is uncommonly beautiful and can't be convinced of this. She has wavy brown hair and wears flower print dresses. So I kept hearing these fragments of sorrow and empathy from mutual friends who were closer to her than I was, geographically and emotionally. I could imagine the whole mapped world of depression she could easily sink into - in senior year she constantly carried a thermos of coffee to keep her going, or she would come late into English Lit after lunch with a big cup of mocha; by Fridays she would start to look yellowish from all the caffeine.
I worried about her and occasionally I tried to call. One time Aubie told me she had gone to a monastery, just for a weekend retreat, it wasn't anything he understood but as college students are wont to do, I was looking into "Zen stuff," and I had a flyer from the nearby Zen monastery that was pretty major and had lots of similar retreats. I finally reached Laura once I was home for winter break, calling her one night from the den with the door closed and the lights on bright, while my father and stepmother cleaned dinner up and discussed work politics, and my stepsisters turned up the blaxploitation sitcoms. I was calling her to invite her to my annual VCR-fest, which she never makes it to - she was always one of the busy ones, when I try to get her to do things she's either working or not feeling well enough - but I also wanted to ask her for details on her retreat. She told me it was actually a Catholic monastery, some slightly weird California order, located 20 miles outside Salinas, in the part of the state that isn't really north or south, and it was in the woods somewhere, inland, not quite in the valley but not quite in the hills. "It was really beautiful there, like, the abbey. It wasn't a real big place, you know, it was really oriented towards being a monastery. But it was stone and they had the windows, and then they had a sort of residence hall where people on retreats and such could stay.
The monks, um, wore the robes, you know, the same kind of robes you'd expect but they don't wear those little round haircuts anymore." The retreat was organized around some specific religious weekend, which I've forgotten. All actual services were optional for visitors. "I went to the vespers, in the evening, there was some singing, and it was just really beautiful. Then on the second day I went out for a hike 'cause it was really pretty out, of course, but I found out later that I wasn't supposed to do that. But mostly I... got some quiet, you know, thought about things a lot, and it was really... nice."
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A set of circumstances brought us to where we are in our lives. Whether by fortune or by consequence, these circumstances came to be, and although they are in the past, they have still helped to make us the people we are. We often hear "forgive and forget," and we may think it an impossible act. Sometimes this is just because we cannot forgive ourselves for our role in the creation of these circumstances.
What have I forgiven myself for? What have I not forgiven myself for? Why have I or haven't I forgiven myself for these things?
Adam got into a Buddhism class I didn't get into, and his class took a field trip to the same Zen monastery further upstate that I'd been reading about. 25 people went in about ten cars. Adam rode with two girls. "The one whose car it was was really pretty, but the other one had some kinda slight weird deformity in her face, like people sometimes have, you know? But we wound up in the same car, and it was weird because we didn't have three-person conversations. You know, we'd just break off and have two-person conversations for a while, then switch people. It just sort of worked out that way. Anyway the pretty one had a boyfriend, and wasn't really very interesting anyway. The... mutated one, I dunno, she was actually really nice, so I overcame some of my fear of weird-looking people, which I know I shouldn't have, but I do."
Adam skipped over the part where they all arrived in Mount Tremper and found the monastery, the part that must have included the slow accumulation of all the students' cars in the parking lot, maybe a waiting outside and an en masse invasion, or more likely a gradual trickling-in. In any case I know the place somewhat from brochures and video footage: one building, practically right off the highway, gray stone exterior. "We all kinda waited around in the common room, which is just one really big room that they use for all sorts of different things, services and meditation and everything. We waited around there for a while and the monks were just talking to each other mainly, you know, so we were sitting around being nervous, then they rung the big wooden bell, and it sounds exactly like it did in the video we saw, it's just so cool. This little short Asian woman with her head shaved came along in monk's robes to shepherd us off into a different room, cause they were starting the real ceremony in the big room, but at first I thought this woman was a little boy. Cause all the monks have their heads shaved and I couldn't tell. She was about, like late thirties, but she looked like a little boy. So we all went into the separate room and sat on our cushions and this woman gave the intro talk, which was also pretty much like the one the head guy gave in the video, except this woman talked a lot more about the hara, you know, about keeping your energy down in your belly-button or so. But mostly it was just really funny, cause while she was talking none of us could really figure out whether she was just talking about things or if she wanted us to actually do them while she talked. Like, she said things just ambiguously, so we couldn't get a handle on that. So while she was talking about postures and stuff, we all sat there and moved ourselves into the postures, and like closed our eyes and everything, but she just kept talking, so we all looked around and got nervous, cause nobody knew what was going on.
"Finally she did actually tell us to do it for a while, and we meditated for like, four minutes maximum. It was really kind of a joke. Then she finished up the talk and said that normally they'd be going to bed about now, but since they generally had visitors on Wednesdays, they stayed up and chatted with their guests and had some cookies instead. Isn't that cool? So I talked to that one guy, you know the guy with the glasses who came down and gave a talk last year? Really handsome guy? Mainly I was just talking to him. He said he used to play guitar, and was like, actually making some money and starting to get noticed at it, but he was doing Buddhist stuff even then. But when he started to get in range of like, almost being famous, he thought, This is really dangerous, I don't know if I want this. And he became a monk. Hasn't played the guitar since." Adam grinned, shook his head, and glanced at the guitar resting in the corner of his room. "I don't know, man."
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Our parents may be the focus of much of our worrying, anger, or feelings of inadequacy. Nearly everyone has minor complaints about childhood that they may feel immature or selfish for expressing. Sometimes we need to give voice to these complaints so we may move beyond them. Of course, many people had major problems with their family, including alcoholism or abuse.
What issues come to mind first when I think about my parents and my childhood? Which issues are the most important to me?
My older brother Allan took me, our childhood friend Brian, and Allan's old high school friend Joe out to Muir Woods on the other side of the bay. I wasn't really sure why, it didn't seem like Allan's kind of place but I had seen the pictures of him and Joe doing their regular-guy stuff by the state park signs and huge redwoods. We went in Allan's 15-year-old beige German import. Allan and I are both well over six feet tall, Joe is a good size and Brian has gotten to be almost as big as Allan and I, even though we still see him as little. He always wears his big overstuffed blue jacket, the one that started Allan and Joe calling him "Vampire Smurf." We all crammed into the compact, soft-drink-can-cluttered car and drove via the Golden Gate and Sausalito's tiny roads and old, quaint rich-people buildings. We passed into Mill Valley and the roads started to take on that tone of state-park-highway unpretentious eventfulness, well-maintained and woodsy. We stopped at a Seven-Eleven for snacks and more large drinks. We rolled the windows down.
We got to the top of a yellow hill and there were at least five forks in the road, counting the one we were coming from. We followed the brown sign that pointed to the visitors' center. The park itself was at the floor of a canyon, so the road down was long and narrow and twisty and got more shadowy as we wound our way down the side. Finally we passed the visitors' center and two full parking lots before we found a space. It was hot and families were out spending quality time with their largely perplexed kids. Allan and Joe and Brian and I wandered around the log-bordered paths, not saying much about the environment, just doing our usual things, making jokes at each other. They were doing some construction on a bridge over one of the creeks, and we went twenty feet up the path that goes all the way up the hill and looked down, pretending to narrate a nature film about the miniature bulldozers. "The mother sow senses the threat to her young, and charges suddenly," Brian said in a bad British accent as the larger of the two trail-sized dozers moved toward the other at about two miles an hour.
We did the park and wandered back to the car. One paved shady path lined all the parking lots, and tourists and families and random people just like us wandered back and forth. Someone had a little table set up for an environmental organization. I gave a dollar, signed a petition and got a "Save The Rainforest" button. Just before we got back to the car I handed it to a brown-haired girl who apparently didn't speak English. We played a little game with someone in a Lexus looking for a parking space by walking the long way around the parking lot. It was hot enough and we were full enough of Big Gulps that we weren't in the mood for heading back up the same Carsickness Drive we came down on, so Allan took the alternate, flatter route to the south. Mostly it went past what looked like either open fields, closed fields, or the carefully hidden homes of rich people who feel like living interestingly. We couldn't get anything on the radio. The road started to bend back up to the left, skirting the thickest of the woods, and just as it was becoming clear that we were headed back to a different fork of that same crossroads at the top of the hill, I looked out the window to my right over a green field, a good hundred feet off from where we were. It came complete with distantly small people working in rows, wearing light clothing. Then we came up over another hump through another flurry of branches, and ahead of us was a driveway leading down off the road, and a wooden sign right past it that just read, "Zen Center - Green Gulch Farm" in white Gothic letters. I got a glimpse of the small, shingled buildings in the sun at the bottom of the driveway. I couldn't easily identify any of them as residential buildings, but I knew this was the famous Green Gulch, one of the three major branches of the San Francisco Zen Center, the daddy of them all. They still had the Julia Morgan-designed brownstone in the city, and Tassajara Hot Springs, the former resort, about an hour and a half south of the city. But this was the third center, designed to accommodate families and residential concerns. I said something to the others in the car, basically the sort of things you say when you see something you recognize for some reason and nobody else knows what the hell you're talking about. So I tapered off my comments quickly and just made some mental notes. It wasn't as though I needed to note anything about the place, I had no plans that would concern it, I had been to my first Zen sitting at a house in Berkeley a month and a half before and hadn't gone back, but I said to myself, "Okay, I know where it is." Meanwhile we sped off to the next thing on the itinerary.
© copyright 1998 Mike Sugarbaker