Partly by happy accident, partly by sad choice, I live in a monastery. No, I’m not a monk–far from it–but I have found a home in an apartment adjacent to a Buddhist temple, or zendo. Summer before last, fresh from a marriage that had served my mate and me well but finally outlived its usefulness, I called a realtor. She told me she had a unique place for a tenant who would not be put off if they walked out one morning and found someone in a robe meditating in their yard. I teach world religions, and Buddhism is one of my favorites, so I said, “I think I’m your man.”
Both my brothers worked like champs to help me move in, hefting my desk and bed, groaning under the weight of two 50-gallon fish tanks, and mourning all the while for the home, the relationship I was leaving. They didn’t understand why I was moving, but they helped and were careful not to ask. None of us could have known then that my ex-spouse and I would be better friends now than when we were together.
So I sit squarely in middle age, and this is the longest I’ve ever lived alone. It’s a scary prospect, because there is no one harder to get along with than my own recalcitrant self. But I am determined to face down my demons and learn to care for my own body and soul before asking another human being to risk loving me.
The apartment has only two rooms, but they are huge, with high red pine ceilings supported by dark exposed beams. There is a small kitchen area and tiny bathroom with a shower but no tub. My fish tanks divide the main room into two, and because there are plenty of windows, I never feel cramped. My brother Frank’s paintings hang on every wall, and I am surrounded by my books, which are precious to me beyond the telling. The sweet smell of an old paperback can bring a tear to my eye, and these books have enabled me to escape my longest-standing addiction, to the modern-day Cyclops, television. Cable is not an option here in the country, but my VCR lets me watch an occasional movie. A red liturgical altar cloth with a yellow cross and crown, held in place with a railroad spike, covers the TV screen like a talisman to ward off evil spirits. I figure if the cross of Christ can’t protect me from the temptation of the tube, nothing can. I also try to keep a good crossword puzzle handy for when the brain just can’t sustain any thought longer than a dictionary definition.
Atop the entertainment center holding the television, VCR and my CDs, I have assembled an eclectic collection of religious icons. There is a small totem pole, an alabaster bust of Nefertiti, a Cherokee arrowhead, a large chunk of bright blue turquoise, a tiny bird’s nest and a dancing Shiva in bronze. Alongside these sit several meditating figures, the most striking of which is a wooden sculpture about the size and shape of a large coconut, its muscles gnarled and face hidden in outstretched hands. I call it the Weeping Buddha. There is no piece more precious, however, than a smudge fan I have made from the wing of a hawk found lying dead by the roadside, which I took only after thanking her for bestowing such a gift on me. Not a night goes by that I don’t light candles, and the shadows of these sacred beings dance along the walls.
I could not live without music. My mom gave me her old stereo system, and my brother loaned me an ancient pair of Bose speakers. More times than I can count, my sagging spirits have been buoyed by the tender strains of Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending;” Beethoven’s Ninth, one long, solemn cry of yearning; and the mystical music of my youth: Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks,” Hendrix’ “Band of Gypsies,” the Allman Brothers’ “Idlewild South.”
For meals, I sit Oriental-style, cross-legged on the floor at a low white pine table my mom’s husband made for me. When I am fortunate to have a guest, she and I pray for strength to walk honestly and courageously through every moment of our time together and apart. With the exception of breakfast, which was always my father’s one kitchen offering, for the first time in my life I’m learning to cook. The food is always simple fare: black-eyed peas seasoned with bacon drippings, soft and steamy baked sweet potatoes, shoe peg or cream-style corn, sometimes a tuna melt or fried salmon patties and pinto beans. Bread-and-butter pickles garnish every meal. There are cooking disasters, to be sure, but I have it on good authority that I make a mighty mean cornbread, and I finally mastered my mom’s rough-hewn biscuit recipe–a handful of this, a spoonful of that–a family kitchen ritual stretching back many generations.
My bedroom has become a family shrine, where I’ve hung childhood photos of my mom, my dad, my brothers and me. I sleep in a century-old cast-iron bed as sturdy as a ship to carry me across the troubled waters of sleep. Beside the bed stands a delicate bedside table built by my father’s own hands in high-school shop class, and above it hangs the faded mirror before which his own mother brushed her dark hair.
Just before the recent cold snap, I brought my plants inside: creeping vines, snake plants and my beloved shamrocks, such gentle silent creatures and so full of green life. Like children, they prefer being outdoors, but I enjoy having them near me. Their leaves and blossoms bring much color and life to a room, and like my fish, though utterly quiet, they make good company.
My Buddhist hosts seem an odd and gentle people, which is to say, we are a good match. And they are not exactly rowdy neighbors. The only time I hear them is when they ring a bell, fashioned from a gas cylinder imported from Germany and left over from the Nazi reign of terror: swords into plowshares indeed. After seven years in the city flinching at the stutter of automatic gunfire almost every night, I know the zendo is a sanctuary, a tranquil place where deer are not afraid to tread.
During a recent ceremony installing Taitaku Pat Phelan as abbess of the zendo, she compared the practice of meditation to walking along a stone path in the dark. “We practice by stepping forward, trusting our foot to find the next stone.” She gave no indication of light, only of trust, and of moving ahead. So I sit here in the midst of my things, wrapped as in a warm quilt by all my worldly possessions, knowing they could disappear just like that, stolen away by a spark of lightning, the sudden roar of a tornado, the sustained howling of the next errant hurricane. Those who care about me give me the space I need, even as they call me forth from my self-imposed exile.
I wait in patient silence for the future, for the inevitability of love. “What is the most miraculous of miracles?” a Zen master once asked. “That I sit quietly by myself.”