Monday, April 13, 2009

Misery, Inc.

-- for Mark

Of all the world's religions, Buddhism made sense to me in its fundamental idea that suffering (dukkha) forms the axle around which the human condition rotates. The purpose of life, as I came to understand it, is to take action every day to eliminate desires to cling to things. I once thought that the principle applied only to material possessions, but later realized it also referred to clinging to other people or to expectations for the future, the wellspring of my own misery. But, that's now.

Eerily enough, when I was in treatment for addictions in 1991 I heard the message for the first time, although I perceived it as a shaming remark. In recovery, you assess your life up to the moment, listing things that people had done to you, the things you had done to them, the things you did to yourself, and all the things in-between that you only imagined took place. The latter of lists held the greatest number of items.

At the end of my stay, I was to share my discoveries, along with my deepest secrets with the treatment center priest. I had never deliberately taken my soul secrets to a priest in my life and, aside from accidentally working my way to the front of a communion line at a friend's funeral service only to escape ahead of the ritual, I had never even spoken with one. But I craved for the fresh expanse of a new beginning, so I told the priest everything.

"You decided at a very early age to be miserable," he said, summing up. He shook my hand and that was that.

If you don't know the location of the source of your misery, you can spend a life rummaging around your mind in search of it. The mind likes this, since it helps preserve the illusion that the mind is the remedy. And as I walked the verdant lanes of the treatment center after my housecleaning, I fumbled insanely for the magic bullet to remove the blood stains from my hands.

Avoid the deliberate manufacture of misery, says the recovery literature, based on Christian doctrine. Nirvana, the Buddhist tradition says, is the act of blowing out the mind like a bad holiday candle so that the wind of eternity can waft through. It is in dying to self, St. Francis says, that we are reborn. It felt as if every faith I encountered prescribed the same solution.

What a rub. After treatment ended, I drove back over the Cascade Mountains to my little cabin in the Olympic forest and pondered my navel. My brain rushed forward with useless remarks. I was so troubled, I couldn't stand my own flesh. I planned a trip to the coast.

The road to La Push spun out of the Quimper Peninsula beneath the snow-capped peaks and wild river valleys, flattened across the Sequim highlands, dove into serpentine loops around Lake Crescent and the darkened lanes where loggers had clear-cut the old growth forest, leaving a few rows of pines along the highway to block the view of stubbled fields.

I stopped along the way to sit beside Ray Carver's grave overlooking the Straights of Juan de Fuca. I had come to love Carver after all. His later stories contained a gracious expanse of love that burst from the mean figures of early prose. He had found recovery, too, during the last years of his life before cancer claimed him. A small temple bell fitted into his headstone jangled in the wind as I sat quietly viewing his last poem, etched into the concrete:

Late Fragment

And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.

I couldn't sit more than a moment, my thoughts racing. I looked at Ray's grave. I said some things to him. I asked him to help me learn some things. I looked out where a freighter from the Far East turned into the center of the shipping lane. I looked across the straights to the whited strip where Victoria lay on the belly of land. Then I said goodbye to Ray.

At the coast, I took the turnoff to the second beach at La Push. There was a wood-plank trail through towering, dripping old growth forest, ferns that seemed to burst out green and wide, and white fungus clinging like bright ears to the sides of trees. And then descending the wet stairwell to the beach, I gazed out at the mist where it spread between the hanging branches. Red and purple sea stars held fast to the sea mounts and kelp drifted freely in the surf.

I walked without stopping the length of the beach to where it narrowed into spray at the southern end where the rocks blocked the way. Then I turned and walked my way back, my heart pounding, and took the steps back into the forest, gasping for air at the incline, wiping the light rain from my forehead. And then, finally at the parking strip, I climbed into the car and sped home.

I had driven several hours to get to the coast, spent less than an hour walking, and several hours driving home. There was no way I could sit quietly at the coast with all that brain noise and, back in my cabin, I lay in the sleeping loft, listening to the wind in the trees and the critters stumbling around outside in the dark until I finally drifted off.

It was Easter morning. And when I rose, I blew on the coals to get the wood stove going and boiled water for coffee. Friends had invited me over for supper after the noon recovery meeting. I had no sense of what Easter was about after the burying of eggs and the people who dressed up and went to church and the ham afterward. And I really didn't want to fit in. It was all fine the way it was.

But I set out for my morning walk along the Egg and I Road, heading north toward West Valley Road and the wide fields of horse farms between the ridges of fir and madrone. The road was wet and icy in patches and my breath came out in frosty pillows. I wore my blue mittens that I had bought in Fairbanks.

When I came to the bluff, I looked out at the Beaver Valley with its quilt of trees and fields dotted by cows and horses, and the whited crests of the Olympic peaks beyond in the sharp rising sunlight. You'd hardly know people lived here, save for the string of telephone lines that came up behind me and dropped down the long hill into the valley, then stretched out across the valley and up the hills on the other side.

They looked like so many crossed tees to me, strung up for all the ills, the black thoughts I had entertained for so many years, the lies, the rage (and I'd be damned if I'd buy into any of that Christian symbolism), but for a moment it all made perfect sense to me that I didn't need to call it anything if I let my mind drift away and welcomed the warm thrill that started around my knees and spread out like wings across my chest.


Char said...

I guess though I have problems with a lot of organized religions, my best thought is everyone should take comfort and joy where they can find it. If you find it there nirvana, right? Now I may or may not be surprised when I die...but I would rather live like I'm entitled to a good surprise than a bad one. :)

Mark R. said...

Hey Gabby, It's been a while since I have been up all night, so I thought "what better way to spend time than catch up on reading Gabby's Blog"? As always, I love hearing your tales, whether here on this forum or in person. Actually, I'm sure you know that in person is always better, but I consider the ego thing and don't want your head to burst. I love you man and always enjoy reading your writing, no matter the subject. Me feels sleepy now, as reading in the dark always makes me feel, so I'll say good night and maybe call you in the morning.

tangobaby said...

You were right... I did love this. More than love it, I understood it and was glad you invited me to share this memory with you.