[Warning that unpleasant depictions of human and animal deaths follow.]
It is last weekend and my wife is asking me to kill a snake. A decent-sized garter snake has gotten bound up in netting we'd thrown over a volunteer blackberry vine she found in the backyard. It is cruelly contorted and mostly dead. Flies are gathering.
I take it into the side yard and fetch a shovel and a five-pound sledge. I lay it where it can feel the sun one last time. I pick up the shovel and recite the Five Remembrances of Buddhism:
I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
I place the shovel tip directly behind its head. It isn’t moving much, just the occasional shake of the last two inches of its tail, the sum total of its body that is still free.
I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape having ill health.
I stomp down on the shovel as hard as I can. Its body convulses once and stops.
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
I worry that the job isn’t completed, so I use the sledge to drive the shovel deep into the ground to be sure.
All that I hold dear and everyone I love is of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
I toss my tools aside and squat over the snake to be sure the job is done. It looks to be free of its pain.
My actions are my only true possessions. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.
I tell the snake goodbye and apologize for such an ugly end.
It is the night before I will kill the snake. I am reading a 20th anniversary edition of Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh. Thây says this:
There is a deep malaise in society. We can send email and faxes anywhere in the world, we have pagers and cellular telephones, and yet in our families and neighborhoods we do not speak to each other. There is a kind of vacuum inside us, and we attempt to fill it by eating, reading, talking, smoking, drinking, watching TV, going to movies, and even overworking. We absorb so much violence and insecurity every day that we are like time bombs ready to explode. We need to find a cure for our illness.
For less than a year now, I have been studying and practicing Buddhism. It is a path I did not consciously choose. I appear to have tripped and fallen into the arms of its inevitability.
It is barely 2014 and I am tired. I am tired of feeling wrung out. I am in a United Methodist Church I do not wish to belong to but continue to attend out of a sense of family duty.
I have been reading essays by writers like Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction and Russell Brand and Roger Ebert. I have watched an opening monologue that Craig Ferguson gave after Britney Spears' public breakdown. These people are sharing their addiction recovery stories. I am paying attention.
Ebert knew a woman in his home group whose higher power was the radiator in her apartment. Brand writes of the experience of walking around every day with a voice in your head that wants you to die. I have been collecting their stories, turning them over and over in my hand like river rocks.
I am burned up and burned up and burned up and longing for it to end. But I am starting to feel less alone.
And it is here, in this church I don't want to be in, on this day. This is the final notice. Today the pastor shares her story. She tells the tale of how her father went from being a pillar of the community to eating out of garbage cans.
I am in the soundbooth at the back of the sanctuary, looking down at her from on high, and from my vantage I can see my path to those same garbage cans with clarity. I can see every step toward ruin, every tear. I am finally able to admit that I am an alcoholic. It will be a number of days before I will introduce myself to a roomful of strangers as such, but I now know that it will happen. And I am relieved and terrified.
It is February of 2014 and I have dragged myself through the door of my first recovery meeting. I am shaking and my eyeballs are dogpaddling. I sit next to Alfred. Alfred is wearing cufflinks, which I didn’t expect to see, but the cufflinks are less of a surprise than the laughter. I hear the laughter and I realize that I don’t know what is going on, but I want more.
Brent is the first person to give me his number. He will become my sponsor and lay a lot of the foundation for what is to come.
It is 2017. I have been sober for over three years and Patrick and his wife have invited us to dinner. Patrick is a fellow alcoholic and asks me if I'd like to tag along to eat dinner on Wednesday nights with his friends before going to the evening men's meeting. This question will come to touch every millimeter of my existence.
It is last spring and I am walking the dog with my wife. I tell her that I need exercise, but I want to do something I can incorporate into my spiritual practice. Something to help me practice mindfulness of body. She invites me to join her and the kids at Unity Martial Arts, a dojo that teaches Cuong Nhu, a Vietnamese martial art. Vietnam is the country that gave birth to Thich Nhat Hanh and nearly killed my father.
I start taking classes immediately and am sideswiped by a loving community of practice I had not had eyes to see during the years I had been driving my son there. My ritual had been to walk him in, sit at a table, and wait out his class while reading a book and listening to white noise through my earbuds.
Now I am standing in the dojo, wearing a gi that needs hemming and self-esteem that needs letting out. I learn one block, one hold, one correction at a time that this is a community largely built on touch. There is an intimacy to this place that has been lost to much of the modern world.
It is 1963 and the Bodhisattva Thich Quang Duc assumes the lotus position in the middle of a busy intersection in Saigon. Other monks pour gasoline over his body. He lights a match.
This is not an act of suicide. It is not even an act of protest. He is trying to turn the heart of Diem, South Vietnam's Catholic president, who has been persecuting the majority Buddhist population. If Thich Quang Duc cannot achieve this, he hopes to start a conversation about love and compassion and human rights.
He burns without moving or making a sound. He is dead within minutes. People prostrate themselves before his charred corpse, which has toppled backward into the street.
It is 1966. Thich Nhat Hanh has been exiled for trying to bring peace to Vietnam without taking sides. He will not be allowed to visit his home for 39 years.
It is 1967. My father has been drafted and will be sent to Vietnam. He marries my mother in a hurry.
He will later return home to a country that worships the gun and speak to me often of the heroes he served with who would not fire one. He will not often speak of the death he waded through.
It is 2018. I am sitting in the small room next door to where I normally attend recovery meetings. It is a dingy, badly lit room with a reminder on the whiteboard not to leave food out, because there is a rat problem. I have described this room to my wife as the sort of place where a person can get the DTs without worrying about bringing down the general aesthetic.
Patrick is there, and so is Lance. I have loved them for a year now. We are doing a step study, and we are recording our talks. There is urgency to our task, because Lance is leaving for Texas in the fall.
Lance is talking about his ego, his carefully constructed identity. I have a flash of insight that the idea that we call Lance, the ideas that we call Patrick and Matt, do not exist. They are mere concepts.
Later that night, I walk my dog and have an experience of emptiness of self. This experience is not hollow. It is not the emptiness of the void. It is a glimpse of who I am when I set aside the story of Matt. It is the emptiness of a room cleared in anticipation of a gathering, a party. It is an emptiness of warmth and light, an emptiness that is full. I do not know it, but it is the moment I become a Buddhist.
I have full awareness in this moment that this is only a glimpse, one given by grace. It exists to point the way. It fills me with the most curious mixture of longing and peace. Like a good addict, I will chase this feeling like yet another fix for quite a while before I realize that I've missed the point.
It is 2016 and I am discussing my spirituality with my wife. I am not yet a Buddhist, but I tell her that I haven't really been a western-style monotheist for a long time, that middle age has found me largely pantheist, maybe, or I don’t know what.
"Yeah, me too," she says.
"Wait, then why exactly do we go to church?" I ask.
"Can you name me one other community organization where people of different backgrounds and beliefs come together to discuss things that are really important, and to help each other out and hold each other up and learn from each other?"
"Yeah, sure," I say. "AA does that."
"Well, I'm not an alcoholic," she says. "What am I supposed to do?"
It is 1995, the year Living Buddha, Living Christ is published. The Dalai Lama has publicly identified the 11th incarnation of the Panchen Lama, the second-highest position in Tibetan Buddhism. He declares the new Panchen Lama to be a six-year-old Chinese boy named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima.
In three days, the Chinese government will arrest the boy and his parents. They will never be seen or heard from again.
It is I don't know what year, sometime before 2014, during the blur and blackout of it all. She is standing before me as I sit in my chair with my whiskey and my laptop. She is all but pleading for me to let her in. I am wishing that she would go to bed and leave me in peace.
It is 2017. 150 Tibetan Buddhists have self-immolated like the Bodhisattva Thich Quang Duc in the past 8 years. 86 monks and nuns have burned in 2012 alone.
The Chinese are not satisfied with taking Tibet’s land. They know that Tibet is a boundless community, so they have been striking at its heart. 150 people have burned themselves to death to try to stop it.
It is a Sunday and I am in a mostly empty sanctuary. Our church, which was already in decline, has been poleaxed by a scandal that wiped out a decent chunk of the ministerial staff and half the congregation.
This scandal, and the destruction left in its wake, have left me fully dedicated to a church for the first time in my life. My theology is not theirs, but I cast that aside as I later would that shovel and hammer. I know a community of the damaged when I see one. These are my people.
The UMC has assigned us a new minister. He is yet another older white man, and I have my doubts.
Two days before, I was reading a book by Sri Ramana Maharshi that Lance recommended. Sri Ramana told me that the language that the great Self speaks is silence.
Pastor Roy steps up to the pulpit for his first sermon. "The language of God is silence," he begins.
It is late 2014. I am nearly a year sober and finally understand how fully I had left my wife and children in the cold. I realize that I had everything I needed right in front of me, the whole time. More importantly, I realize how much they needed me.
My wife's heart is vast. Her back is strong, and so are her arms. And I couldn't see them.
I am gutted with shame. But it is not the shame of before. I don't whip myself with this shame. I make it into a vow. For her. For my children.
From now on, I am for them. I am them.
The shame will be my guide on this path. My sentence is to carry it, to learn how to transform it. For them. I begin looking for a way.
I am so sorry.
It is a few months ago and we are driving home from Unity Martial Arts. I tell my wife that I am thinking of dropping Sensei Paula's power class. She is surprised. I explain to her that I am the only man in the class, and I worry that the mere fact of my presence changes the dynamic. I worry that the women are less at ease with me there. She says this:
"You are a grown-ass heterosexual white man with a job and a family, and every Saturday people see you come to a class taught by a woman and a fourteen-year-old girl. They see you call that woman and that girl 'Sensei'. And that matters."
It is September and Lance is leaving for good. It is my wife's birthday. Patrick and his wife invite us all over for dinner.
I am mourning, and I am worried for him. Moving sometimes kills alcoholics. We've all heard stories or seen it ourselves.
We talk as I have learned to talk, as Lance and Patrick have taught me to talk. We talk about fears and resentments and love and compassion. We talk of surrounding ourselves with others. They have been teaching me how to transform my pain into love.
But the waves of this pain are big, and my anchors are my family and my recovery. My wife encourages me to keep putting myself out there. Patrick jokes that if I move away, he will stop making new friends.
Three months later, he tells me that he is moving to New Orleans.
It has taken me 15 years to make friends with whom I can speak like this. It is hard for me to get out of my own way. So I am not just mourning their loss. I am wondering if I will ever make a local connection like this again.
It is 2019 and Dean is taking me under his wing.
It is 2019 and I meet David, who is the only other Buddhist I know in this town, and the only Buddhist alcoholic I know on the planet other than Lance.
It is 2019 and I’m finally connecting with Marc, who is trying not to die of cancer.
It is 2019 and I am realizing that these people and countless more were already here.
It is four weeks ago and I am at Unity Martial Arts, and Sensei Paula is concerned at a lack of new white belts coming in. New people are not just important for business; they are also important for the life of the community. She is asking us for ideas.
I realize that I have an instinct for joining communities that are struggling to grow.
I am paired off with Terri. We have been told to do pushups face-to-face while complimenting each other.
"I love that you come to class with painted toes," she says.
"You have helped me feel at home here," I say.
It is one day after I began writing this essay. It is a Sunday. The sermon topic is "Our Oneness". The offertory hymn is "In Christ There Is No East or West."
I am beginning to have a deeper appreciation for the openness and subtlety of Pastor Roy.
It is the fourth of July, and I am at another early morning recovery meeting. I am looking at old text files on my phone.
I find a suicide note that I don't remember writing. A suicide note composed in a blackout.
The pain is sudden and vast.
But when I regain my breath, I am grateful. Because I know what to do with it.
I am going to tell people about it.
It is last Saturday, and my father is helping me load Patrick's U-Haul truck so that his family can make their final journey south and leave Arkansas behind forever. Experience has given me faith that I will not lose touch with them, and so I am at peace. I am able to focus on what is best for them, rather than what is best for me.
Two members of my Wednesday night recovery group show up to help, Tim and James. James is my sponsee. He has nearly four times as much sobriety as I do, but he asked me to be his sponsor. This request has floored me.
I am glad that Dad gets to meet James and Tim. I love it when my family meets my family. We hug and laugh and share our stories of the week. Before we leave, Patrick holds me tight and asks me if I know that I am his brother. I tell him that I know, that I love him, that he will carry me with him to Louisiana.
Afterward, when we are back at my house, sweating and tired, Dad asks me if any non-alcoholics have ever joined the group.
"You mean like faking alcoholism to join?" I ask.
"Yes," he says.
"I've never witnessed it personally, but it does happen. Kurt Vonnegut had an uncle, I think, who faked alcoholism most of his adult life so he could be in the program."
My heart leaps at learning that my father has entertained such an idea. I would not wish my disease on him for anything, but I long for him to know this kind of fellowship almost as much as he does. He's hungry for it. Most men are. I start trying to figure out ways to make that happen.
It is now. I am reading Thich Nhat Hanh. I have been wondering what life as a monk would be like. I have already made vows, vows to my wife and children that I would never want to break, but I wonder if, in a different life, I would be making refuge vows.
On initiation into a monastery, a Buddhist monk or nun vows to take refuge in the Buddha, to take refuge in the Dharma, which is the teaching of the Buddha, and to take refuge in the Sangha, which is the monastery and the community of other Buddhists.
Thây says that practicing mindfulness in everything is nearly impossible outside of a traditional Sangha. The pull of the world and its practiced distraction is too much. He says that at home they have a saying, that when the tiger comes down from the mountain, the villagers will kill it. I think of the snake, twisted into a geometry of agony by a net whose only intention was to keep the birds off the blackberries.
But Thây also tells me that I am not to leave my existing community of faith. He tells me that this is my Sangha, my roots, and that I must never abandon my roots without cause. I have already come to this conclusion, but it is good to hear it from my teacher.
I know that I have at least three Sanghas now: My family, my recovery family, and my church. I wonder if the dojo is a fourth. Every step down the path of the bodhisattva, the path that chose me, has been one more blow of the sledge, driving me deeper into their soil. I know almost no other Buddhists in any of these places, but these are the places where I am needed. Lives are quite literally at stake.
I cannot become a refugee elsewhere. I have to build the refuge where I am.
I have no idea how. It is likely that I will fail.
I think that I am going to try.
I am disposing of the snake's body. Like a good alcoholic, I am second-guessing every choice I made. I am trying not to wonder how long it choked in that net.
I walk upstairs, forgetting Thây's instruction to practice mindfulness with every step up.
My son is in the dining room. He looks relieved. "Thank you for doing that,” he says. “I bet it wasn’t fun."
During my time in recovery, I have had a few moments of speaking without being conscious of what I was saying until it was done. This is to be the first time I experience one of those moments with my family. I think I say this:
"Actually, I'm grateful I got to be the one to do that. That snake could have been caught in a lot of people's yards. Most of them wouldn't have cared, or would have been disgusted. Some of them might even have been amused. But it got caught in our yard, and so I got to be the one to end its pain and wish it well. I think that that is a sacred duty, to let the living live and to help the dying die. Killing that snake was painful. But it filled my heart."
I am not surprised to be saying these words, but I do not recognize them as coming from the same man who wanted to be left alone all those years ago. I think of everyone who put those words into me, starting with Alfred and his cufflinks, and Brent and his business card.
My son is not yet twelve. I think he hears me.
It is two Sundays ago, and I am feeling very serene and fulfilled. I am grateful for the people in my life, for the places my path has taken me, for the communities that have taken me in. I am driving to Kroger to do the weekly shopping.
I pass a woman slumped on a bus stop bench, bags around her feet, soaking her t-shirt in the 90-degree heat. Her face is slack with exhaustion and dread. She is alone.