Anywhere but Here

Photo by B Tal via Flickr

I first wanted to be a Buddhist when I was a hip seeker in 1960s Berkeley—a world of street mystics and ragged seers that was anti-matter to any dogma, whether political or religious. Raised in a Southern Baptist family, we were nomadic, following my father’s forestry work, in exile from the South. I hid my fascination with world religions. After all, I was the only liberal from generations of Republicans and teetotalers. Mix that with my father’s Native blood and I had no genetic tolerance for alcohol or acid. I either fainted or fell asleep. So my drug of choice was meditation.

I didn’t know I was meditating. I just thought everyone had a daily capacity for rapture—ecstasy over the eucalyptus tree’s healing fragrance, wonder at the fierce backyard cougar so tenderly carrying her kit, awe at a flying squirrel. But my natural buoyancy sank during my sophomore college summer at the University of California, when my father triumphantly marched our whole family from Berkeley to Georgia as if returning to the Promised Land. He told me, “If you want to return to the University of California . . . please make sure this summer that everyone is happily settled here in Georgia. It’s up to you.”

It seemed a Sisyphean task. Having moved around every other year, I’d never been a popular girl. But I’d tried to adapt to wildly diverse fashions, dialects, and customs. If I didn’t find a way to pass here, I would be trapped in this Georgia purgatory. Miserable, I tried to both hide out and fit in.

But everyone in this Southern theocracy was holy and righteous and on the lookout for lost souls like me. I was a suspicious sinner from a sun-drenched West Coast where Vietnam draft dodgers and easy love were sure signs that The End Times were upon us. To my Georgia neighbors, I was a hippie, with tiny dark blond braids and pierced ears. I had overly bright blue eyes that even my Berkeley friends said looked like I had dropped acid and never come down. Plus, my best friend in Berkeley, Kit, was a Jewish/Kabbalistic/Buddhist who was “going straight to hell,” according to my mother, “unless you can save her.”

My salvation was in great books, not the one and only Great Book. A teacher had suggested that I might be “a bit of a Taoist” because “first and foremost, it’s a philosophy of nature and humor.” Or maybe, she suggested, I’d be drawn to Buddhism. After some informal study, I decided that    Buddhism resonated with me best. I had witnessed enough hungry ghosts in the Haight-Ashbury to believe in all those bardos. But on the other hand, I was particularly taken with the concept of the soul’s transmigration—more a Platonic, pagan, or Hindu notion.

All that summer in Lilburn, Georgia, I believed I was enduring a “realm of woe.” I was in such cross-cultural shock, so deeply disoriented that I hid my favorite spiritual text, The Book on the Taboo of Knowing Who You Are, under my mattress. I was afraid that Mother would discover this sacrilege and I would be forever exiled from my beloved Berkeley. If I had to transfer to the University of Georgia, I believed my nineteen-year-old body might spontaneously combust.

I was already halfway there in the suffocating heat. At night we had to sleep with wet sheets wrapped around our burning bodies. No wonder hellfire and brimstone are so vivid a threat in the Deep South; it might as well be the weather report. I began to consider that the Buddhists got it right in their Niraya realms—their hot and cold hells. How could the Buddha have believed that being incarnated as a human being was fortunate? Had he ever been to Georgia?

My only escapes that summer were swimming in the nearby Yellow River and grocery shopping. The Winn-Dixie was an oasis of cold air and many choices. I would loiter in the aisles, scanning shelves until I fell into a cool and meditative calm. It was during one of these reveries that I had an epiphany that offered a chance for a virtual flight: What if I could transmigrate my soul into some other unsuspecting shopper?

I could become a happy person who skimmed by believing what everybody else around me did. Chameleon-like, I could assimilate spiritually and not be so odd. Isn’t that what satisfied shoppers did? They followed the Blue Light Special to a nirvana discount; they didn’t worry about the suffering lingering in the side aisles.

One afternoon in this labyrinth of groceries, I finally found my spiritual target: A young, well-dressed mother with her toddler cooing away in his cart seat as she scanned the Bird’s Eye frozen vegetables. She held a tiny clicker device that counted off the prices of each icy package she tossed into her cart: creamed corn, okra, and french fries. How sensible she seemed. How normal and certain of her path. This woman must exemplify the Buddhist belief that we are lucky to be born human. She was obviously not a misfit or wanderer like me. I bet she never got lost in the supermarket like I did.

With all my might I willed my soul to lift out of this renegade body and drop into the young mother’s blissfully ordinary life. I had read about “walk-ins”—those souls who swooped into other people’s bodies. So I would be a “shop-in.” She would get two souls for the price of one. And I would no longer have to suffer being myself.

Buy the book!

Maybe it was the jittering trance induced by the fluorescent lights or the frigid whoosh of the frozen foods glowing off glass doors—suddenly there was a shimmer between me and the happy shopper. For just a nanosecond, I seemed to hover above the aisle, gazing down on a teenage girl in tie-dye t-shirt with a peace symbol necklace; next to her was the Georgia housewife with tidy bouffant and a madras pleated skirt. Perhaps it was simple disassociation, but I felt my soul floating freely above my body. I believed that I might succeed in this supermarket transmigration of souls.

But then the happy shopper astonished me. Violently she shook her head as if fending off a hive of invisible bees; she stomped her feet on the linoleum. She tore up her grocery list and threw her handy clicker-counter on the floor. Her toddler began to holler. Not just the hiccup-studded cry of babies, but a ghastly, banshee wail.

A loudspeaker announced, like God, “Clean-up on aisle five.”

Stock boys arrived with mops and a sloshing bucket of suds. But how could they clean up tears? The young woman was weeping inconsolably. In Berkeley, as the designated, clean-and-sober driver I had seen acid trips and peyote journeys gone bad; but this woman’s despair was so deep, so real that it shook me to my senses. Abruptly, I was plopped back into my body there in the frozen foods.

Quickly, I was at the woman’s side. “It’s all right,” I said in the softest voice. “It will be all right.”

“How do you know?” she demanded.

She was right. I didn’t know. I didn’t know anything.

Both she and her baby were howling now like some ancient tribe singing those ululating shrills, like speaking in tongues. These were sounds of pure grief, pure loss. Soul loss.

I understood then, that the first rule of the Buddha was true: Everybody suffers. My Buddhist friend, Kit, must also be right. There was no way out but through the suffering. Our high school pecking order had taught that to Kit; this supermarket breakdown revealed it to me.

Right there in the Winn Dixie, I would have become a Buddhist, except for this bewilderment: Had my soul actually transmigrated into that happy shopper to ignite her own misery? Or was it just a coincidence that we both suffered simultaneously? Perhaps my Buddhist friend was right and this was some dharma practice—to see my own and another’s suffering as a call to compassionate action. And I should have committed to work for the benefit of all sentient beings. But I did nothing.

At the end of the summer, I did get back to Berkeley because most of my family had successfully settled into the church and the culture. I was free to go. To this day, they all still live in the South.

But these three decades later, I’ve happily made my home in the West, specifically the spiritually fluid water world of Seattle. I still wonder about that Georgia supermarket encounter. I never did succumb to Buddhism, though recently I joined 55,000 other seekers in welcoming the Dalai Lama to our Seattle football stadium for the “Seeds of Compassion” conference; but I’m still uncomfortable with any priestly hierarchy.

I have never really fit in or found refuge in any one spiritual group or tradition. Instead, I remain a Taoist rambler, a Buddhist sympathizer, with a hint of pagan and animist—born to always go between. Yet I have found faith in one Buddhist tenet that endures for me: be here now. Gratitude for this life has become my religion.

This piece is adapted from Peterson’s new memoir, I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth.

Brenda Peterson is a novelist and nature writer, author of 16 books, including Duck and Cover, a New York Times "Notable Book of the Year." Her memoir, I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth, (Da Capo Press 2010) was chosen by independent booksellers nationwide as an IndieNext "Top Pick." Please visit her website