Life is a catastrophe. This is a quote from Mark Epstein, author of a book about the confluence of Buddhist philosophy and Western-style psychology. What he means by it is that sooner or later into each of our lives, no matter how blessed, no matter how ordinary, real trouble comes. Someone we love dies, or leaves us. A child becomes sick and the doctors cannot save her. The unthinkable happens and we learn what it is to really be in pain. Epstein have given us a modern recapping of the Buddha’s First Noble Truth:
Life is suffering, death is suffering, decay is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; not to get what one desires is suffering.
My first encounter with Buddhism was not so much discovery as recognition. The First Noble Truth was confirmation of something I already believed. The world was not a good place, and people, even those who meant well, rarely helped each other. In this pessimistic view, I felt alone. Most people my age were at a time in their lives when they felt young and strong. The world belonged to them, and unlike me, they were enthusiastically engaged in making their own futures.
A man needs only to be turned around once in this world to be lost. I remember copying this quote out of a book in boarding school. Much later, I found it again, shoved in another book. It seemed to capture the way my life had gone upon entering adolescence. Everything was going fine, then I took one wrong step and plunged into an abyss through which I never stopped falling.
My life before my parents’ divorce I remember through colors. The green of our lawn, careening, so sharp and bright it cut into me when I looked at it. The white of our house, a grand old Victorian with a mansard roof and China-red door. Now, at the age of 40, I can remember only moments: a bump in the Taconic Parkway on the way to skating on Mohansic Lake that made my stomach lurch; a time when I realized that my mother (she was a public health nurse, cheerful and endlessly energetic) needed me; a long afternoon during which I wandered our large house, reading the titles of my father’s books (Ada, Pale Rider, The Unconverted) puzzling over them. My father, a writer, spent most of his time locked up in a study with glass doors where my younger brother and I could see him working and were admonished not to bother him. My father was the kind of man who spoke so seldom that conversation with him felt like a privilege. Because of my academic achievements, it often seemed that I was the one in the family he was most interested in and I held this special position like a treasure. But by the age of fourteen, having my parents’ approval wasn’t enough for me anymore and I rebelled. I grew my hair long, took up smoking and found a boyfriend of whom my parents disapproved.
My father’s reaction to this was violent. At first there were the fights and accusations. Once, when he smelled incense burning in my room he accused me of smoking pot and would not speak to me for a week. When he discovered me hanging around the parking lot of the local A&P with some of the high school’s less savory characters, he insisted I see a therapist. Finally, when I got drunk, raiding a bottle of brandy from the liquor cabinet and going off to a school dance in a crazy state, my father decided on a more permanent solution to the disturbance I was causing. I would be sent away to boarding school. They could not handle me anymore, my parents told me. It would be better if I was away.
In my imagination, this wasn’t what would happen when I tested them. Instead, my parents would decide that they loved me anyway, even though I was no longer an A-student, the same girl who wrote plays and tried to be helpful around the house. But that didn’t happen and when my parents left me on the crisp green lawn of the New England boarding school they picked out for me, driving away in their tan Pontiac, I wept.
On that day, my childhood ended. Not a full year after I was sent away, my father announced to my mother that he was leaving her for a twenty-four year old. Maybe it’s because of what came after that the divorce means so much to me; the way, after my father left, our lives were dismantled. First our house was sold. As time went by, it became clear that a college education, a privilege my brother and I had taken for granted, might not come so easily. In the ten years that followed, I became used to people telling me that I seem depressed.
In the ’80s being a child of divorce was almost more common than not being one, and I knew plenty of people my own age who had been through it. Why I couldn’t put my own family’s break up behind me was a thing I couldn’t explain to anybody, much less to myself.
“Get over it,” my boyfriend would say contemptuously when he became frustrated with me. I would shout that he didn’t understand, didn’t know what it was like, what I’d been though. But even while I argued with him, I’d ask myself the same question: Why couldn’t I get over it?
I guess that’s why I was attracted to Buddhism. There was the First Noble Truth, the idea that the world is an unhappy place. There was also the promise of salvation. The Buddha, my teacher told me, was the one who had “conquered himself.”
I began to study Buddhism when I was twenty-four, one year out of college. My first teacher — I will call him N. — had a long white beard, a hawk nose and deep-set piercing blue eyes. He came to class in jeans and hiking boots, a red bandana tied around his neck. He had been to Asia many times and studied with a Tibetan geshe, or head monk, who lived in the U.S.
In class it was common for him to get students’ attention by winging chalk at them and confronting them with questions that seemed unanswerable. “Give me an example of Pure Speech.” “Why do they say if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him?” Sitting in the back between two middle-aged ladies in pleated skirts who liked to ask questions about the art N. showed us, I tried to be invisible. I was terrified and at the same time riveted. I was used to distinguishing myself by studying hard, reading all the books, doing all the homework. But this class didn’t work that way, and I sat warily in the back of it, trying to blend in.
In N.’s class, it was clear, anything was to be expected. So the day he shoved a manuscript in my hands — it was a novel he had written, he said, he’d like me to read it — I was surprised, but it also seemed natural. When I gave it back and told him I liked it, he asked me whether I’d like company on my walk to the subway after class. I accepted, and that was the start of a weekly ritual.
It was four or five blocks from school to my subway stop, a walk of fifteen minutes. During this time, N. mostly talked and I mostly listened. He was an artist, it turned out. He worked as a high school art teacher in Westchester, where he had a family. Since the late ’60s he had had a kind of unofficial career as a Greenwich Village Zen master, his classroom a mecca for those seeking answers to the mysteries of life, or just some entertainment.
We didn’t talk about me. At that age, I was so shy that I faked headaches to avoid going to parties. Around N., I was dazzled, but I didn’t want to appear so; it would reveal too much of me. N. was a man who lived in the limelight, and I didn’t want to be pulled into it. If I were, the cracks in my mask might reveal themselves.
As the year wore on (I took two classes with him; one in the fall, another in the spring) he began to pay more attention to me. He invited me to a free lecture that he gave in the Village once a month; gave me books — Zen Flesh, Zen Bones; The Songs of Milarepa — arranged for me to attend a performance of Tibetan folk dance.
I was shocked the day he suggested I take my dress off. We were alone in the apartment of a friend of his, ostensibly to watch a video of Chinese folk tales N. wanted to show me. N. asked whether I would like a footrub. I blushed, I remember, and inched away from him on the bed. When he suggested a backrub, the intent was unmistakable.
“I don’t think we should be doing this,” I said.
“Come on,” said N. briskly. “Just a backrub.” He gestured to the green dress I was wearing. “Let’s see what’s underneath that dress.”
I didn’t give in that day — the idea was still too new to me, too shocking. But it only took a month or so before the idea of sleeping with my teacher began to seem too interesting to forego.
For the most part, he was a mystery to me. He appeared to me out of the subway at the corner in the Village where we met to make the walk to his friend’s apartment, make love, get dressed and leave again. When we got back to our starting point, he disappeared into the subway again, an apparition. He existed in another realm, parallel to the world I lived in, but apart from it — sizzling with energy and the excitement of his lectures, the sense that, from where he stood, the usual rules did not apply. To think that he might be in love with me was enchanting.
I was most swept up when he talked about how, right from the start, he had noticed me; picked me out of the crowd.
“You should have seen yourself in class,” he said to me one afternoon when I was perched above him naked, in the middle of lovemaking. “A statue. Poker faced. I didn’t know if I’d get through. And look,” N. opened his eyes up wide. “There’s a person underneath.”
“I was always a person, ” I protested shyly, but I knew what he meant. I was a wallflower, and wallflowers are grateful to be rescued from the background they inhabit.
The things he said to me — once, that I had Buddha qualities, I was both sweet and tough; another time that I should nurture my talent as a writer, I had a way with words — were small enough, but I feasted on them. I wrote poetry about statues and secret identities and Buddha qualities on the back of art postcards and sent them to him, tried on different outfits in preparation for my meetings with him, imagined conversations between us that went on endlessly. My own happiness spilled out of me, a giddiness. Looking at myself in the mirror, thinking about the secret I now lived, I often laughed out loud.
The first blow came after we had been meeting for several months. In that time, I had begun to notice that during the sessions in his friend’s apartment, we did not really talk. We came, stripped off our clothes, rocked together in wordless light, but were not friends, did not get glimpses into each other’s lives. This had been all right in the beginning but was not enough anymore. In my time apart from him I had discovered a kind of running monologue in my head; I poured out every minute of my life to him, and it made me realize I was lonely. I wanted companionship. I wanted him to know me.
I guess that’s why I decided to tell him about the Esquire article. Written by my father, the article, called “Father Love,” told the story of my parent’s divorce. The thrust behind the article — that men loved their children too, that the bias toward mother was a myth and an unfair one — seemed to be a hot new topic in men’s issues.
My father included the story of my adolescence in the article. Like me, he located the beginning of the demise of our family in my “change” and what came after. In his version, it was my fault. “Kate was born angry,” he wrote, a line that the editor pulled from the text and emblazoned across the page. When I read this, I was horrified. What had seemed so unjust to me — the weeks he wouldn’t speak to me; the way, in the end, he’d simply abandoned me — was now presented as my fault, a matter of bad character. His treatment had been bad enough; now he was telling the world a story that wasn’t true.
As angry as I was, what was worse was seeing how his version of events was different from mine. Knowing it was something we didn’t agree on, we’d avoided the subject most of the time, rarely talked about it. To see his version of the story in print was to know what he really thought of it all. It was proof of how differently we saw it, how far apart we were on the question of the truth.
When I started sleeping with N., I had just broken with my father. We had fought over some family issues, and he sent me a note that cut me off. I guess that’s why the Esquire article was so important to me. The front cover showed the picture of a young girl in a dress, smiling, with a man’s hat tilted over her head, her feet in men’s shoes. Clearly she was supposed to be me before my family fell apart. In the terrible silence that now existed between my father and me, the picture at least was evidence that there had once been something. You see, I was once cherished. You see, I was once loved.
I’m not sure what I thought would happen when N. heard the story. Giving him the article to read was like showing him a wound. You didn’t have to explain it; the ugliness, the aura of distress that hung over it, would speak for itself.
I chose an oblique way in.
“Did you know that I’m famous?” I asked, shyly. N. struggled with his shoe
“Oh yeah?” He was not interested exactly, but alert. Lately I’d been asking him what kind of relationship we had, and he had had to do some fancy sidestepping to avoid answering directly.
“I was on the cover of Esquire. An article my father wrote about me…about my family.”
“Oh yeah?” There was a sudden flash of interest in his eyes; fame…. “I’d like to see it. Why don’t you bring it next time; we’ll look at it together.” I felt, at once, an upsurge of lightness.
That next week, I prepared for my meeting with him, practicing the way I would cut lovemaking short and bring the conversation around, imagining what he would say, the look on his face, when he looked through the pages. I had fantasized constantly about us being closer, about him knowing me. Now, it seemed, he would.
When we met, two weeks later, he was grumpy; a mood that seemed to overtake him more and more often as our affair progressed. He walked me briskly down the street, muttering about a woman on the bus wearing too much perfume. My heart sank a little as we walked along — perhaps we would not get to talk this session. Perhaps there would not be time. N.’s grumpiness didn’t seem to affect our lovemaking, though, and halfway through the two hours that he usually spent with me, I told him “I brought that article I was telling you about. From Esquire.” He lay below me, swimming in light, his half-blond, half-gray hair spread out in a fan shape on the pillow, making him look curiously feminine. For a moment or two he looked at me uncomprehendingly, then his face cleared. I remember the gentleness on his face then, the way he shook his head.
“That? I don’t want to read that,” he said. “That’s just a story,” he shrugged. “Soap opera.”
The idea that N. would want to hear my story was the first of many illusions that broke, painfully, over the next few years. A few months later, he told me that he did not love me. I could sleep with him if I wanted to, he said, but I shouldn’t make too much of it. To my shame, I did sleep with him, meeting him whenever he asked at his friend’s apartment, telling myself I wouldn’t do it again, but always coming back. The less he seemed to want me, the more desperate I became.
It’s a sign of the strength of my attachment, I think, that when I broke with him, I had to do it completely. I told him I wanted no more contact: no letters, phone calls, invitations to events. I wanted to clear my life of him, take away any reminders that would make me think of him. For awhile this meant rejecting Buddhism as well. Buddhism was just a bag of intellectual tricks, I told myself bitterly. Enlightenment, the promise of a higher state, was just something N. had held over me, a promise he had made to keep me coming back. Saying these things made me feel strong, independent. I knew what I was talking about; I was in touch with reality. At the same time, it made me feel a little lost, a little sickened, as if I were betraying myself, clawing at something I loved.
It has taken a long time — ten years — for me to see N. differently. Although he exploited me, I’ve come to grudgingly admit that he also taught me things. How to take my own life seriously. How to face the loneliness and desperation that had made me fall in love with him in the first place.
Probably the most valuable lesson N. taught me was about pain. Years after I had broken with him, I remembered a phone conversation between us. It had been a week or so after he said he didn’t love me, that in this affair it was I who had the passion, and he was just along for the ride. This had happened around Christmas time. When I left my meeting with him, crying, I went home and went directly to bed. N. called a few days later, circling guiltily around the wreckage.
“I don’t know what to do with this pain,” I whispered at one point into the phone and N’s answer was prompt.
“Don’t identify with it,” N. told me firmly. And then, “it’s just the thing that’s yelling the loudest.”
At the time I ended the affair with N., I threw myself in earnest into writing. Writing was a kind of therapy for me. When I was engaged in it, I forgot about N. completely. After awhile it became addictive, and now I do it full-time. In the time since I split with N., I’ve thought often about his phrase, “soap opera.” I write mostly memoir; soap opera is what I’m engaged with: returning to the past; dredging it; trying to figure out what happened, or perhaps, trying to find a way out. As a Buddhist, or at least as a student of Buddhism, I live a contradiction. I believe implicitly in the doctrine of no-self (and hence no story) but at the same time I am immersed in an inherently egotistical activity: telling my tale.
Why must we tell stories? “To tell your truth,” one writing teacher said to me. She was one of my first teachers — a tiny woman who had written a novel with obvious analogues to her own life; a best seller, it turned out. When I asked the question she answered swiftly, without hesitation. I knew that, like me, she had spent many hours writing and rewriting, trying to find the story in the events, and that more than once she had asked herself: what am I doing here? Why am I sitting here, trying to make meaning out of my life? What makes me think I’m so interesting anyway? Who wants to hear my story?
To tell your truth. I understand the lesson N. was trying to teach me when he told me my family history was “just a story.” Buddhism tells us not to identify too strongly with our own stories, with who we think we are. But my instinct also tells me there was something wrong with N.’s response. There was a lack of compassion in it, a way of thinking, which, if I followed it, would lead me to reject myself. You think that’s you? You don’t even know who you are.
To tell our stories, I’ve come to think, is to believe in ourselves; to believe that, despite all the evidence, we might have something worth saying. Not to tell stories is to risk letting someone else tell us who we are. When I write I know this is partly what I am doing, trying to bypass what people have said about me. “Kate was born angry,” was the line emblazoned across the page in the article my father wrote — a wound of its own because in my worst moments, I believe that it’s true. When I tell my story, I am trying to heal myself, trying to transcend. If life is a catastrophe, it is also a dance; a conversation, an invitation to be.