What follows is the book I am writing for my six year old grand daughter to read when she turns thirty. I will be long gone by then and I want her to have a credible source to tell her what she might need to know for the next part of her life. I want to give her the irreverent reality of an aging woman and I am hoping rather than dreading it she can look forward to it. Even though you are not my grand daughter I am sharing it with you in case you also find it helpful or amusing.
Here is what I wrote the first morning after Zencarceration at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe. I ducked out of sight during a rest period and climbed on my little bed to write a blog. It was about 3 in the afternoon on January 16th. It was just above freezing at around thirty four degrees and I didn’t know how to work the heat in the room. It was turned off.
I was trying hard to sound strong and certain but the cracks in my thinking are all over the blog. I spent most of the night with the covers over my head rolled in a ball weeping. The writing is troubled. My stomach was swollen and painful. I couldn’t go to the bathroom, and I desperately needed to, but my body couldn’t release. So I sat cramped on the little, hard bed they assigned me releasing clouds of gas. I tried opening the window but it was January in high desert and the cold was so bitter I couldn’t do it. There was no coffee that I could find (I later discovered the blessed stash) and I had missed lunch and couldn’t get my head around breakfast with its rituals. Of course I couldn’t have eaten if I wanted to in that condition.
I wanted a hot shower but didn’t know if I had time for one since the schedule still mystified me. Also there were buckets to catch the water in the showers and I didn’t know what to do with them so I didn’t shower and washed in the sink instead. My head had a permanent drum beat in my ears because I could hear my heart thumping and the vein by my left eye that swells when my head is in critical pain created a vine like appearance across my temple. I had a room mate who looked at me like I had infiltrated from some enemy camp. (I later found out she was in danger of being dismissed and thought I was planted to spy on her. The laugh we got about it weeks after almost made it worth it.)
The clothes I tried hard to make sense of before coming there, I stacked in piles under my bed because there was no dresser. My underwear had migrated somewhere to the back of the floor under the bed and it was too dark to see them so I went without them in knit pants. I kept my hands folded in front of me in case my crotch showed. Add to this that I couldn’t find my toothbrush or toothpaste which was a loss of self esteem and a sentimental tragedy as my daughter bought me a new little package of both for my trip. I missed her so much that her picture and that of my grand daughter had to be tucked away or I’d break apart. I was afraid to breathe through my mouth for fear of my breath smelling sour so I locked my chin and took huge puffs of air in through my nose to calm myself.
I was not to speak as we were in silent meditation and everything made me afraid. I had already cried several times in those first hours of the morning and afternoon and felt pretty sure I had ruined my life. At the time I wrote this I was questioning my sanity. I wondered if I had made all these changes because my mind was unstable or if I was such a “fey” person, as my mother in law once called me, that I was incapable of good decision making. Fey has many definitions but none of them sound quite functional. One describes a person destined to be doomed and die. I think my dad would have just called it mashugana or bat shit crazy. I started believing their versions of me. I cataloged the relatives in my life by sane or crazy and found the nutty gene running rampant. Still, I set my laptop on a cardboard box I found laying by a dumpster and made a makeshift desk and banged out this blog.
I imagined that the people in my life who cheered me on in this adventure wanted an update and I owed it to them. I knew some might be worried so I wanted to say something. In this republication I’m not cleaning it up, which pains me but I think you should see it just as it went out to get a sense of the time and place. You may notice how I’m using generalizations about spirituality and culture to steady myself. It’s clear I had no idea what I was saying but I tried to sound like I did. In reading it now it seems I was trying to convince myself. If I had a return ticket or money I would have left before this blog was ever written.
“So my half day at Upaya Zen center began yesterday. Really it began months ago when on a grey morning, not the weather but me because I was grey having the color rung out, I decided to come here. It was a decision made on a whim and also with careful consideration. I knew I needed to do something radical. I did not know exactly what but having been attracted to Buddhist beliefs and also knowing the power of meditation it seemed like a plausible idea. It was also a whim because I had never been here before and knew nothing more about it than the flyer on line. Getting to Upaya turned into a series of stops and starts and airport delays until finally I stepped out of the shuttle bus and into a tiled and wooden office to the face of a young woman sitting at a small wooden desk; “Julie? Oh yes, welcome.” In her twenties with a small nose ring she had heard I was coming but had not received instruction about where I might stay. She rushed off to find out. I was deposited at the priests office before she dashed off to sort me out. He was kindly yet firm and his sentences were direct and brief. Meantime the young woman had found a room with wide windows letting in the famed Santa Fe light in all directions, scrubbed tile floors and an inset fireplace. Against the wall a small bed with room for one. A white blanket and pillow. One closet. A small shelf for personal items. Nothing more. Perfection, yet confusion. I packed for three months, three suitcases full. What do I do? I shoved the bags in the closet self aware that for this environment I had over packed. First balloon popped. I thought I had done well in simplicity. Yes, a work in progress, I am reminded yet again. The priest whom I briefly spoke with showed me to my room. He appeared to be young but it’s hard to say for certain his age, nothing about him easy to pin down. He is white, tall, very thin and wears a blue robe. His head is shaved to a shiny baldness and his ears jut out from the sides in explosive funnels as if to point out he hears everything. He is wearing tan, wool socks and he looks absolutely at home. He smiles easily and speaks casually about life at Upaya. He reassures me I’ll be alright. Throughout the afternoon many break their silence long enough to let me know this. I am lost. There’s no hiding it. I continue through the day not knowing where to be or how to be and since I arrived in “winter practice” there is not a lot of discussion. Noble Silence is practiced at this time with just necessary talk. Loneliness and isolation can add to the sense of being lost and confused. I tell myself this is part of the process and I know that it is. When no one speaks it feels as if maybe they’re angry at me, walking by without saying hi or my room mate who sorts her things this morning noisily but still not speaking sends twinges of insecurity. It’s important to allow this stage and I know it but even that is not exactly a comfort. Frankly, I’m not sure if talking to you now is okay or not. I saw my room mate on her cell phone and also the shared computer so I get the sense it’s accepted, I’ll find out more later today when the priest has time to break it down for me. He’ll be explaining Zendo (that’s the temple or church here) etiquette, walking meditation, (which I tried last night and felt utterly confused as we circled the temple in small steps for some time before returning to sit) and what my job will be on “campus”. The campus itself is a handful of adobes, almost a Santa Fe cliche’ for which I am grateful, with Terra Cotta tile, dark wood and deeply set windows surrounded by rounded, built in stucco, the ceilings are beamed and alcoves are everywhere. The stars are as bright as I suspected and the cold more bitter. I’m glad all of that panned out. I am without direction and have no idea what I will be giving or receiving here yet. I just now it will be some things which I need. Over time I’m hoping to lose the discussion of me so much. That may be why “Noble Silence” is noble. Perhaps that’s my answer about talking to you–am I doing it for me? Am i shifting out of my loneliness with a reach across the wires? Should I be? Soon, in minutes now, I will be in the Zendo sitting. Perhaps answers will come or perhaps they will not. Whatever the case I will be in a blanket of silence under a Santa Fe moon seeking, still seeking and kindness will come in whispers and insight. Faith is still present in all manner of belief. It is what we share across cultures and time.”