Category Archives: contemplation

Get Thee To A Nunnery

I’m not a particularly religious person, but there have been times when, sitting the cool, darkened, Frankincense-scented silence of a church, I have instinctively understood why a person might choose to opt for a life of contemplation within a convent, seminary, ashram, or the like. In these moments, I consider what it might be like to turn one’s back on the often-uphill climb of everyday life, with its bills, bosses, and buses, its exhausting search for a soulmate to partner up with, its grocery shopping and credit scores and performance reviews, its dog shit and mortgage lenders, and give it all up for a small room with a chair and a bed, a simple schedule of prayer and housekeeping, some peace and quiet from the endless buzz and noise of the secular world.
There is an invisible, inviolable wall between the world outside the doors, with all its worries and countless petty annoyances, and what feels like a serene simplicity inside, where one need only be concerned with connecting to the Divine. I close my eyes and dream, for a moment, of a life tending roses in a nunnery garden, chopping carrots for a dinner to feed dozens, hours spent slipping beads worn smooth through my fingers, mind still and all other concerns gone, set sail on the ship that was my life outside the walls.

I don’t believe this sentiment unique to the Catholic church. I would wager it’s likely palpable within any religious community that offers the opportunity for sequestering oneself from the pressures and pains of our mundane lives. I can particularly understand why women of eras past would have chosen the convent after a lifetime belonging to a man – father, husband, brother, or son – choosing instead to belong to a long-dead prophet who won’t come bleating for a beer or pork chops or a clean shirt. To be relieved of the chattering demands of family, the crushing poverty and cruelty of the external world, the worries of getting by in those viciously misogynistic times, could prove too alluring to resist.

Of course there is the bloody Jesus thing. The resurrection thing, which I’ve always found problematic. Those power-mad bishops. The corruption of the hierarchy (and I don’t just mean the Vatican; I think pretty much an organized religion – any organization, really – gets pretty grimy at the top) and it’s dirty secrets. The inequality of the sexes. The working one’s fingers to the bone for nothing, the ripe potential for exploitation. So, yeah, there’s that.

And I know I’ve already got too much skin in this game, am much too of this world, to turn my back on it. It makes me tired and often it makes me cry, but I’m in. So I wrap up my grandmother’s rosary, light a candle and place it as close to any status of the Virgin Mary as I can find, and I walk out of the quiet dark and back into the chaos, the noise, the everyday search and destroy missions of this life.

City of Angels

Coming down from the sky LA begins as a trickle of houses on the mountainside and then explodes into what looks like a glowing yellow motherboard from 37,000 feet. I am fascinated by the grids within grids; the massive boulevards and freeways that stretch on without relief until the whole thing tumbles into the sea. But I don’t see the sea yet; all there is are roofs, black ribbons of road, cars crawling like beetles everywhere, and as we descend a football field with Crenshaw
ougars
 emblazoned in the grass.

As it is when I travel by train, I find the poorer neighborhoods more interesting. The houses are small, boxy, with postage stamp yards in front. Most sobering of all are the large blocky apartment complexes, places where I imagine there is little respite, little relief. There are no pools. I begin to see huge industrial campuses, not pretty at all; giant Lego warehouses and Soviet office blocs and I think, people actually work there, and are glad to, and suddenly I’m overcome with gratitude for the beautiful mid-Century building I work in, nestled in a valley surrounded on nearly all sides by trees (but let’s not forget, its own hellish, permanently-clogged black artery of a freeway, too). As we head west the houses expand and so do the lawns and then come the inevitable aquamarine jewels dotting the landscape. Swimming pools, some of them drained, which makes me think of skaters from my childhood.

My best friend, R., and his man pick me up and we pull off the Harbor Freeway and go eat at Mercado La Paloma, trying desperately to choose between Oaxacan, Thai, or American. We have steak. Rice and beans like you only get in LA.

And I buy R
la5.’s man his first ever Thai iced coffee, which he loves and ends up completely jacked on. As we drive home we fly down the wide streets, strangely free of traffic, De La Ghetto’s Es Dificil, which I’ve never heard before, blasting from the speakers. Everything – the breeze, the music, the slanted gold light that you find only in LA – crystallizes into overwhelming emotion and R. turns back towards me and as
ks why I’m crying and I answer I’m so happy, and I am.

We get home and they leave to go see Pink Martini and I’m alone in the huge blue house. I try to read but I’m too tired. Sun going down and the last hint of light in the sky, I go sit on the balcony. Downtown lights glittering, the peacocks, now seasonally free of their heavy tails, roosting in the telephone poles. I take a few photos, text a friend. I’m so tired my bones hurt. I lie down and sleep, waking up near midnight and suddenly everyone’s home.

1am five of us pile into the Jeep and head west on Sunset towards the grocery store. Five carts, each with a list, and we’re all done in a half hour. Like all kids who grew up in hard times, we buy too much. We stop for Mexican takeout, machaca-style, please. I feel joyous at the life on the streets; people everywhere, even in the middle of the night – I miss this. We get home and begin prepping, Didi grinding up her Dominican marinade for the steaks. Finally at 4 I barely manage to fall asleep, on the floor, looking at the downtown lights through the sliding glass doors.

Sunday morning I’m the first up as always, brewing the French Press and reading about the Kennedys. Slowly the dead arise and then we’re all machines: no one is washed, we’re barely caffeinated, but tla2ogether we are a heat-seeking, party-throwing missile. Driving on the freeway to Fontana to pick up R.’s Mami, putting together salads, fueling up the grill, skewering meat, coming in with more bags. We are ready.

The people we love start coming. Mami comes in and almost starts to cry, telling me she thought she would never see me again. The house and garden smell like Jamaica, mon. Azara, 17 months, dressed up in skeletons and smiling big. We smoke, unapologetically. Hussy makes a pitcher of Southern Kisses and we all get kissed. Then Didi makes her mojitos and R. adds strawberry soda (ghetto! but I love it!) and it’s on. There’s too much food and it keeps coming. Chips, salsa, pita, hummous, pasta salad, fruit salad, green salad, cucumber salad, steak, chicken, shrimp, burgers, dogs, veggie burgers, corn, it never ends. The smell of clove cigarettes and discussion of how they’re about to be illegal. So much laughter. The birds overhead and the ants under feet.

Night comes. We herd inside, try to play board games, but it’s futile. We are a box of firecrackers, set off and sparking every which way. Eventually we all trickle away and it’s just me and Didi and Hussy catching the last episode of Project Runway. I can’t keep my eyes open and soon it’s morning and I’m up with the French press again. Didi comes out and we have our one on one time on the patio. I have missed her so much, and I relish getting her to myself for a minute. I pack up and she drops me off at Olvera Street. The Virgin of Guadalupe weeps on me, or at least I want to think so.

I spend every last dime in my wallet. Earrings, a cross, a bracelet, a lot of little gifts. I eat my ritual shredded beef taco, the delicacy thatla3 all exiled Southern Californians grieve for. I stand at the foot of Olvera, across from the Chevron and the train station, and watch the flood of people go by. A lot of cops. A woman says she loves my earrings. Guys in their grey sweats, just released from jail, carrying plastic bags of their belongings, yelling to one another across the boulevard, going somewhere, going nowhere, going back again. Soon.

The ride to the airport is quiet. We listen to Seal: ‘Everyone says you’re amazing, now that you’re clean.’ The houses back up right to the freeway, the signs are endless, there’s no green relief. When the boys drop me, R. embraces me, his vanilla-musk scent a cloud around me, crying hard.

Herded through security, I get pulled over and patted down again, like I did coming south. The plane is tight. The ride is fine. I suck down airplane coffee and read the story of Sarah Palin’s daughter’s baby daddy dishing about the reality of the Palin household. Scandalous. Landing at SFO, I notice a really pretty girl in a cute print dress getting off the plane with me. As she’s walking ahead of me I think her skirt’s maybe a wee bit too short and on the escalator behind her I get a full view of what she’s got beneath it (commando!). I consider telling her but figure this is not a sisterhood moment.

In the car, up the road, the fog comes on and then I’m going slow down Skyline, barely able to see. I stop in the City, at the ocean, to say hello. Everything is wrapped in cottony mist. Once over the Bridge, the fog lifts and I’m not really happy about it. I notice how our freeway, brutal as it can be, is lined with dark green trees. I pull off my exit. I am home, but not sure I want to be.

The Sea Of Samsara

Years ago I worked for a nice Jewish doctor. His wife was an Irish-American Buddhist and so his Judaism, and his science, were both greatly colored by her spiritual discipline. One day we got to talking and laughing, with one of our Chinese-American grad students, about the affinity that the Jews and Chinese seem to feel for one another.

“It’s simple,” I said, “both are cultures that assume life is suffering and that happiness is not a right or a given.” His big Ph.D., smartypants-neuroscientist eyes opened wide and he bellowed a great laugh.

Ask your random person on the street what they want out of life and I’ll bet you twenty bucks the answer is something along the lines of, ‘I just want to be happy.’ I can’t think of anything more antithetical to the American experience than to not just desire, but to feel entitled, to happiness. It’s enshrined in our Declaration of Independence as a right – what other nation can say that?

I thought about this at 6 a.m. today as I walked through my bucolic suburban neighborhood in a deep blue funk. My best friend called me in breakdown mode a few nights ago and said everyone he knows is ‘in their own hell,’ and that goes for the two of us, too. So it’s ironic – here we all are banging our heads into the wall trying to achieve some amorphous state of happiness yet running up against the essential truth of the human condition – dissatisfaction, ennui, alienation, and disappointment (just for starters), all of which are unavoidable and comin’ at ya like a Mack truck just by virtue of being a breathing human being.

It’s as though if we fail to float through our day with a sense of well-being, achievement, and satisfaction, we are failures as people and as Americans. How are you supposed to feel when you’ve done all those things you’ve been led to believe will bring you happiness – made the money, bought the house, traveled the world, had the kids, driven the German-engineered car, whittled the waist, written the book, whatever (not to mention if you haven’t) – and you’re still being eaten away by a vague sense of is that all there is? Think about it; all that pressure from our not-just-a-right-but-almost-a-duty to pursue happiness cultural ethos – where does that leave one when finding oneself adrift on a sea of samsara, trolling the inevitable lows that accompany the equally-reliable highs? It’s almost unpatriotic to be bummed in this land of milk and honey.

We beat ourselves up for not being ‘happy,’ and ‘happiness’ seems to elude us no matter our station or achievements (or lack thereof). Who doesn’t feel like a jerk when mooning about what’s missing when we’re obviously so blessed – but who can help it? It’s in our nature. Perhaps the only true peace we can seem to find is knowing that along with the ebb comes the flow and that the unavoidable dark hours we walk through are just as much our birthright as the bright spikes of joy that relieve it.