I never thought I’d be the kind of person who goes to a meditation class. I’d done it before, many times, the breathing in, the exhaling out, but always cloistered away from people, alone. I walk into the Unitarian Church past the security guard who barely looks at me. Large hallways, a courtyard, many rooms. I find my way to Starr King, across from another room where young people are rehearsing a play. I see shoes lining the wall, take mine off, sit in a metal chair. Meditation cushions are strewn all over the floor, some already occupied by shut eyed men and women, angelic looks of bliss on their faces. An older guy with long wavy hair is speaking loudly. When I was on a retreat at Spirit Rock I felt the everything of the oneness, but I struggle with it here in the city. He talks the way I remember early cell phone adopters, hopeful that everyone will notice him, acknowledge his quest for enlightenment. I try to close my eyes, but I’m too curious. The room fills with men and women, mostly older, very few wearing wedding rings. Many look haggard, one woman has a small dog with her, she’s clearly a regular. Some smile brightly, not at me, at everyone. I can’t tell if their joyous contentment is part of the pretense of the evening. Would they be the same on a public bus with a drunk touching their hair? I wonder. The teacher rings a chime, calls us to attention. She looks poised, ready for some serious meditating. The online description said 45-minutes, I try to meet her upright posture with my own, gearing myself up for the quiet communal moments. After everyone shares their name, she gently says close your eyes and start with a body scan, beginning with the top of your head. Body part by body part we are told to bring awareness to our entire anatomy, until we feel our feet rooted to the ground. I’ve meditated 45 minutes before, but never in one sit, 20 minutes here, 25 minutes there, this like a 10k run for a jogger. The first minutes go well, I’m with my breathing, not peeking, not too focused on the honking horns outside. Then my head starts to itch, I want to reach up, scratch, but then see the unimaginable picture of a Buddhist monk clawing his bald head, and think, no, the urge will pass. And it does. Minutes more and I find myself focusing on congestion, not mine, some man on one of the cushions, his breathing is labored, he snorts to clear his nose. I want to look at him, identify him as the guilty party, the disruptive meditator who should have stayed home. Around the 30-minute mark my left eye starts to tear up. Is something arising from within? Why am I leaking? I let the wetness streak down my face; imagine it slowly drying as I stoically sit for many more hours without wiping it away. More breathing, then the chime sounds, we open our eyes. I find myself doing the math, how long was I really meditating for? How long was I just sitting thinking about crap? It is impossible to say, but I feel more relaxed and focused than I did when I walked in. There is a short break before the instructor provides a Dharma talk related to Buddhism. I get tea, meet a woman named Kristin. She looks into me like I’m an ocean, a galaxy, a painting. Her eyes emanate pure love, Mother Teresa I will save you from dying on the streets kind of love. I avert her gaze, look at her cheekbones instead. She tells me that she went on a 6-month silent meditation retreat in India, has been practicing for years. I feel like kid holding a basketball meeting Larry Bird. There is nothing phony or false about her, she stands in front of me like some kind of celestial being. She’s not flirting, not evading, not making small talk, she’s simply present, like she might really be a bodhisattva. The Dharma teaching connects mindfulness to the environment, focuses on interconnectedness, preserve the earth, preserve humanity. 9pm, we walk out, drop a donation in a box. Outside the church ragged men are rolling out blankets, getting ready to sleep in the cold next to the house of worship. I take a deep breath, the guys are homeless smoking cigarettes, but in this moment, I see people struggling to be closer to God.
Have you ever listened to an album 100 times, 200 times, maybe more? Reward of repetition, entering the Inverted World, like when a coach says, be the ball. 2004, I’m fleeing the west coast in a white convertible Mustang, top down, girl inform me, all my senses warn me, lyrics that disappear into the nothingness of Nevada. As the Sagebrush State gives way to Utah, top up now, the lyrics refuse to leave, they surround me. But your lips when we speak, are the valleys and peaks of a mountain range on fire. Vocal poetry with instruments, landscape, a main character, me. The sunset scene, doing 80mph, bottle of Mountain Dew between my legs, volume as loud as it will go. I lie in Motel 6 beds at night, the road still with me, in motion, music still playing in my head. Every 200 miles or so I need a break, push in the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ CD, Californication, temporary fix, can’t replace The Shins. I was happier then, with no mindset. My thoughts wander back to an old Kevin Costner film, A Perfect World. He’s driving with a kid in the car, points ahead, that’s the future, points out the back windshield, that’s the past, then says, this is present, enjoy it while it lasts. Costner’s right, I’ve escaped, I’m in a time machine, as long as I keep pressing play.
In San Francisco all food is Mexican food. My son only eats black beans and rice. I exaggerate, but not by much. We have our ritual down at Little Chihuahua. He runs to a seat while I wait in line. Everyone knows him, his order, beans, rice, side of guacamole, chips, mixed with pico de gallo. Sometimes I talk philosophy with Cary at the register, he’s working his way through a master’s, reads Plato in Greek, has a book stashed among the wine glasses for the slow days. I mention Seneca, Ingratitude, Cary always seems at peace, big smile, bright intellectual eyes. For months the place only played Black Sabbath, ambiance music for toddlers, kids, baggy-eyed parents. Burritos, enchiladas, pozole, made by brown-skinned, t-shirted, Spanish speaking men. They move with deliberation, like high-speed tai chi masters, their rectangular kitchen, a well-rehearsed stage. Sustenance arrives steaming in small red and yellow plastic bowls. Hudson waits for me to stir it up, then attacks with animalistic hunger, drinks half a cup of water and we’re done. My son is the tallest kid in his class, I’m raising him, but he’s built by Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato.
I never thought I’d be killed by a 1500-pound cow, but looking up all I see are udders, hooves, and blue sky. Ecuador is adobe bricks, hardened mud homes, no electricity, the smell of burning trash and chicken soup with feathers floating in the bowl. My partner Scott and I sleep on cots, plant trees, dig latrine holes, smoke Lark cigarettes at night to pass the time. Scott rows crew for Andover, is tall with dirty blonde hair, has an intensity for work that I lack. We stay with Don Emiliano and his wife Lucia and their children Rosa, Hilda, Aurora, Armando and Alberto. Don Emiliano, part Quechan, is about five-foot three, kind, hard-working and dark-skinned. He has a forearm that juts out unnaturally; it had been broken and never properly reset. Before we finished our family’s latrine, we took dumps in our designated locations in the cornfield a few dozen yards from the house. Scott went to shit row, I went to shit haven. We both kicked the chickens to get them to quit following us, but inevitably they still ended up eating our liquidy crap, then days later we would eat them.
We saw things die in Ecuador, two dogs from poison, and a woman. We didn’t actually see the woman die, but we ate greasy rice and eggs sitting next to her dead body. The Garcia family kept her lying on the wood table for a few days to let people pay their respects before burial. It should have freaked me out more, but it actually seemed normal, her rigid body, lightly draped by a see through veil. I could have reached out, touched her closed eyes. She was dead, but at the dinner table, a physical reminder of how it ends for all of us. I would stare at the outline of her face while shoveling forkfuls of the inedible rice into the grease-stained pockets of my red windbreaker. I didn’t want the family to think that I didn’t appreciate the food, I dumped it out later for the chickens. When we aren’t working, we play soccer games with the kids, teach them baseball with a bamboo bat and a taped up rock ball.
We are in Ecuador to combat poverty, disease, flies landing on poo, spreading typhoid, cholera, dysentery. We build the makeshift bathrooms, plant fruit trees, the villagers rotate as hosts, take turns feeding us. Maria Lopez and her husband Juan live the farthest away, maybe a mile and a half from Don Emiliano’s place. Juan makes guarapo for a living, a moonshine-like concoction made from fermented sugar cane. He just calls it traiga. We trudge up the single file trail that hugs a mountain on our way to the Lopez house, our skinny bodies weak from diarrhea and eating too much yucca and rice. Far above the path, precarious steep grazing pastures, where Don Emiliano’s milk cows roam. Dirt trail, kicking the toes of my Merrell boots, long views of mountain ranges in the distance. Suddenly above us we hear a sound like Chewbacca, a cacophonous squeal-like moan. I look up and see the cow’s underbelly, I squat like a football player doing a drill, like a soccer goalie guessing on a penalty kick. Moving to my right a few feet puts me off the mountain, a two hundred-foot fall. I’m frozen in time, three seconds, the fear doesn’t hit before I see the black and white shoulder smash against the ground first, legs, ass, and tail tumbling after. Writhing, it tries to get up, but only the head moves upward, body pinned, broken. Screaming now, high-pitched pain, a fellow mammal suffering, dying. I find a large rock, more like a large brown cube, maybe 25 pounds, awkward to hold, it makes my wrists ache. Afraid to walk directly over and bludgeon the poor creature, I take aim like a two-armed shot putter, heave the mini-boulder at the head, and miss. Less than a minute later the death knell ceases, the silence of blood trickling from the cow’s nostrils.
Scott runs off to tell our family, several minutes later Don Emiliano returns to skin the cow. I want to help but don’t know how, the incision opens the cow up, lets the heat of stench out, a sauna of smells, guts, milk, blood, excrement. Poor cow, Don Emiliano says in Spanish, It was worth much more alive. I don’t know how many more cows he owns, but the whole family looks gloomy, almost ready to cry. Before walking back to the house, I look at the ground, red and white rivulets, blood and milk, mixed on the ground, like death and life commingled. Later, Don Emiliano butchers the cow, hangs a huge hunk in front of our light bulb-less room. They sell some of the meat, start eating the rest. That night I get up in the pitch black to pee, my face smacks into the bloody thigh, I feel it dripping down my forehead. No fridge, no plastic wrap, no USDA Choice, no ground beef, just the taste of flesh on my lips.
I’m in the backseat, we must be going 75 mph, reverberating Berber music like Salat, ritualistic Islamic prayer with drums, voices, sintir strings plucked, boom from the car’s speakers, permanent Sahara hair dryer heat fills my nostrils. We left Merzouga earlier in the morning, before that, the Atlas Mountains, Azrou, Fez, Tangier. The road is gone, only sand, like after the first inches of snow have fallen. We stop at the edge, no billboards, no little tourist kiosk, nothing, only a thousand miles of granular fragments, beaten down quartz, dolomite, calcite, silica pixels. I touch its wildness, primitive, uncontainable, not a Tonka truck home, not the domesticated box from my childhood backyard, it looms, immense with dry waves of undulating silence. We walk into it one by one, like swimming past the ocean breakers, together, apart. Speechless, it has absorbed our words, sun pulsating, the desert almost asking us to quietly join it, forever. Human shadows elongate, planet rotates, heat ebbs, darkness, then stars. They appear, first one by one, little white births, souls of the night sky. Then a torrent, a blanket of speckled light, countless orbs above, total blackness below. I think of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust, children who died. Never thought much about heaven before, alone, surrounded.
I don’t pray every night, but I probably should. After baths, books, conversation with wife, I usually drift into writing, creating, rearranging words on a screen. Mind a whir, could journey depths until dawn, but the clock of calculation, of sanity, of sacred sleep, tells me to stop. I go into my daughter’s room, turn down her light, I love you, I say to her curled up slumber. I meditate in my son’s room, the sound of his breathing, my pew, my stained glass, my sanctuary. Seated, darkness, air in, carbon dioxide out, first minutes filled with brain bouncing from thought to thought, the earlier, the tomorrow, the could happen. Then sometimes the indescribable now, when I’m nowhere, everywhere, witness to all time, and no time at all. Emerge a short life span later, pray for my colleague, that her malignant tumor retreats, allows life, hers to continue. It feels like I could stay forever, talking to God, to no one, to everyone.