Monday, June 16, 2008

The Winter of My Deep Content

During my youth I was in the habit of letting important decisions make themselves, with as little interference from me as possible. So when my wife and I left Argenta in search of gainful employment, we had a decision to make when we got to Revelstoke: go west toward Vancounver or head east toward Calgary. Both sounded appealing. We flipped a coin. The toss sent us east toward Calgary.

When we got to Calgary, the Calgary Stampede was still on, and there was hardly a bed to be found. A kind-hearted hotel clerk put us up for a night on a couple of air mattresses in a hallway near the kitchen, and the next day we headed south for Lethbridge, Alberta. Within a day, I found a job working on a dairy farm. The work was hard, and the pay was awful. It was just the sort of thing I was looking for.

The farm work lasted until December. The Canadian immigration authorities sent my wife back to the USA for medical reasons in September, so I was on my own as I faced my first Canadian winter. Work proved to be very hard to find. I headed back to Lethbridge and got a cheap apartment in a dark and depressing basement. It seemed like a perfect place to write a novel. So I did. Writing a novel proved to be just what I needed to think through the jumble of thoughts and emotions that were blowing through my heart and mind like an Alberta blizzard. The cold, the loneliness and the tedium of having no job were hard to take, so I took to drinking hard. (That, I learned, is a Canadian solution to many a problem. I've heard rumors that Canadians are not unique in seeking refuge in this particular solution.)

Fortunately, before going too far down that road, I got an unexpected call sometime in early 1968 from a man named Larry I had met briefly as he was passing through Argenta in June. He had heard I was in Lethbridge and might need a friend. He invited me to his home for a meal and told me I'd be welcome to join the handful of Quakers who met in his home for meetings for worship. A lifeline was thrown to me, and somehow I managed to catch it.

Larry knew I had too much time on my hands, so he invited me to join him as he made calls connected with his work. He worked for the John Howard Society, an organization that helps people just released from prison find suitable housing and work. By attending him on these calls I met several remarkable people who had been imprisoned for various crimes. Most of them were First Nation people, because, as I learned, native peoples make up a disproportionately large percentage of Alberta's prison population. White people tended to be given suspended sentences on first convictions. Native people tended to be sent to prison on first convictions. (There is a book entitled The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison that chronicles how social class is correlated with sentencing in the USA; the same pattern exists in Canada.) The more I saw of Larry's world, the more I saw that there is not much justice in the justice system, and the more I saw that prison does not do most people who go there much good. A few people manage to acquire skills that they can eventually use for honest work, but the majority come out worse than they were when they went in. About all that more will be said in other posts.

Living with Larry's family was an old man known only as Duke. Duke had had a stroke and could speak only with great difficulty. He read everything he could get his hands on. I got into the habit of going to Duke's room after meetings for worship, and he and I would spend hours together. He wanted me to read aloud passages from books he found inspiring. As time went on I learned that Duke considered himself a Buddhist, although he pointed out that Buddhism teaches that there is no I, and therefore it is, strictly speaking, impossible for a Buddhist to say “I am a Buddhist.” Like me, Duke had also dabbled in Communism. He fancied himself to be an artist, a painter. I fancied myself to be a novelist. We both knew we were destined to be unknown. We had a lot in common.

Another thing Duke and I had in common was that we both loved the Quakers we knew, but we both felt uneasy about their Christian roots. Larry quoted the Bible quite a lot in conversation and obviously spent much of his time reflecting on the life of Jesus. Duke and I approved of Jesus; he was, in our minds, a sort of honorary Buddhist. We liked the Quakers we knew, because they seemed to be trying hard to live as much like Jesus as they could. They helped the poor and the weak and the downtrodden. They worked in every way they could to remove the root causes of systematic violence, such as is provided by the military and the criminal justice system with quite a bit of help from taxpayers. Like Jesus, the Quakers won approval from Duke and me for being very much like Buddhists.

Conversing with Larry, spending time with Duke, and going to Quaker meetings for worship helped me shape a novel, and writing a novel helped me make sense of my life and got me started on the road to making sense of religion. Duke lent me a book on Buddhist meditation, and I taught myself to do mindfulness meditation and loving-kindness meditation. Despite being allergic to labels, I begin to think of myself as a Buddhist. And a Quaker. A Buddhist and a Quaker. I wondered what Jesus would have to say about all that.

One night, one very cold night in the dark basement where I spent the winter of 1967–1968, I had a troubled dream. I awoke from it full of terror. I was afraid to go back to sleep, for fear of having another nightmare. As I lay there in that state of being neither fully awake nor quite asleep, I sensed a stirring in the room. I bolted upright just in time to see a man in white robes walking through the closed door of my bedroom closet. He came toward me. He placed his hand on me. He said everything would be fine. I recognized him. He was the honorary Buddhist that men call Jesus. No sooner did I recognize him than he was gone.

I can never be sure that I am not being a complete fool. Like everyone else, I take my chances. That night I took a chance on interpreting that dream, or vision, or hallucination as confirmation that Jesus took no offence at Duke and me for making him an honorary Buddhist, a bodhisattva instead of a Christ. I also took it that he thought it was just fine that I continue practicing Buddhist meditation and going to Quaker meetings for worship.


Just Zazen said...

I had a similar experience with Friends, except I never had a vision/dream about Jesus. Feeling that I was being inauthentic to both Buddhism and Quakerism, I left the Quakers. I enjoy your writing! Peace and gassho.