Unemployed Again

Unemployed Again

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Gun To My Temple

I was fast asleep, dreaming the dreams of the innocent. I was 13 years old.

But something interrupted my dream. I awoke when I felt a cold metal object being shoved with some urgency into my temple.

It was a gun.

I have always been an extremely light sleeper. With even the slightest unwelcome sound, I can go from a dream state to completely alert in a flash. A simple sigh in the corner of my room can startle me. So feeling icy steel press against my temple awoke me with a start.

I had never seen a gun, much less felt one, but somehow I knew for certain that it was a gun being pressed against my head. I was utterly frozen with fear. I laid there with my eyes closed, my breathing was shallow. I tried not to swallow; I tried not to make a sound.

I heard the gun being cocked. I recognized the sound from television; that horrid lifeless click that readies the gun for release.

I opened my eye into an imperceptible slit, and I could see a man’s pinky finger hanging languidly next to my cheek. It was adorned with a bright gold ring that sported a jewel of some sort; possibly a diamond. It was a man’s hand, of that I was sure. I had never seen such a fancy ring on a man’s hand before. His other fingers were curled around a metal handle. I could see a finger on the trigger.

The steel was shoved harder into my temple. I could feel my heart beating in my throat; I was certain that my pulsing veins were visible. I prepared myself for death, or even worse; torture.  I waited.

I had always been a weary child; I was terrified that one day I would be kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. I would run from a car if I saw a man driving it; and black cars especially terrified me, because that was the color of the car of a kidnapper who took a child in my neighborhood, when I was five. Black cars and strange men spoke to me of unspeakable horrors; and I vowed to do what ever I needed to do to never get caught in a predator’s web. Each day when I came home from school, I would check the entire house thoroughly; I would check behind the shower curtain, in every closet, and in every possible hiding place for an intruder. It was a ritual I did every day before I could settle down in my own home. It was as if I had always known a terrible time was coming, and here it was.

Suddenly the man bellowed with laughter. I sprung upright and leapt from my bed in an instant, and saw my sister’s boyfriend standing in my dark bedroom, a revolver in his hand. The gleam of the silver pistol looked luminous in the moonlight and only that and his teeth showed up in the dark. “What are you doing?” I choked. While I felt relieved that I knew my midnight intruder, I hardly felt safe. I didn’t trust this man, not even a little bit. He laughed again.

“Do you like my gun?” he asked me.
“No,” was all I said. I was shaking like a leaf.

He flicked on my bedroom light. “Check it out baby. It’s a Ruger Redhawk, cocked and ready. Pretty cool, huh?”

“No. You scared me.”

“And check out my new ring baby!” he said, wiggling his pinky in my direction. It was the same finger I had seen dangling near my cheek when he held the gun to my head. “That diamond must be a carat at least. Ever seen anything like it?”

“No. Where did you get it?”

“Get up! Get up!” he screamed excitedly, “You’ll want to see this.” And in a moment he was hollering and shouting and turning on all the lights in the house. He was bellowing for my sister to wake up; she was still fast asleep. Unlike me, my sister slept like the dead. He entered her room and started shaking her, while singing a Rolling Stones song as loud as he could. Finally I heard her sleepy voice, asking him what he was doing. He could hardly contain himself; he sounded like a little boy on Christmas morning, anxious for us to share in his bounty from Santa Claus.

It was only my sister and I in the house; there was no adult supervision. When I was close to being a teenager, my Dad decided he couldn’t tolerate living with two girls in their teens. “I know what goes on with girls your age,” he would often tell us, and frankly I didn’t know what he was talking about. It felt as though he was accusing me of doing something I wasn’t doing; it was as though we were suddenly bad girls, and he could no longer tolerate us. My father decided to build a new house for the family, but this time he built two houses; one for my mother and him, and the other for my sister and me. They were completely separate units, with a courtyard in the middle.

Our unit had no kitchen, but most everything else we might want. We each had our own room, and shared a living room and bathroom. It was the early 70’s, and the room had a water bed that served as a couch, a black and white television, and a good stereo. The rug was a thick white shag carpet; a popular look in the day, and we had a hanging wicker chair, and multitudes of hanging plants in macramé plant holders.

I never felt safe there. While I was only in 8th grade, my sister was a senior in High School, and once her friends caught wind that we had our own place, it became the hang out for seemingly every young person in a ten mile radius. Since we never locked our doors, the kids would gather there even if we weren’t home; and I would often come home from school to a living room filled with older kids, smoking marijuana and drinking beer. There were days I would long to come home to an empty house; perhaps turn on the television and have some cookies and milk. But instead I was faced daily by a rowdy scene; raucous music, drinking games, and unruly behavior.

One of their favorite things to do was to torture our pet rat. They began by blowing pot smoke into his cage, until he went insane; he would no longer stay in his cage and would roam the house looking for marijuana. If he found a bag, he’d eat right through the plastic baggy, seemingly addicted to the stuff. They also liked putting him in the freezer and leaving him in there almost too long, or putting him in a hanging plant, and twisting the macramé around and around until it was wound up tight, then releasing it and laughing as the rat went for a dizzying ride. I hated it. Even more, I hated that we had no parents present to stop some of the behavior, especially when it seemed dangerous to me. And it often did. But I never let on how afraid I was, and began partying with the older kids, which was much too soon.

My sister’s boyfriend had begun to have his fun with me on a daily basis. His favorite game was to lie in wait for me in the bathroom. Everyone knew that I got up several times in the night to use the bathroom, and he would hide in the shadows; usually behind the shower curtain. And when I’d come in sleepy with my eyes half shut, he would pounce on top of me, and would do everything he could to feel me up. His hands would be everywhere; down my pajama pants and up my shirt. If I were to complain, he’d shove me up against the wall and put his hand over my mouth. Then he’d whisper deep into my ear, and the sound would make me cringe. “You don’t want your sister to hear us, do you? Don’t you think it would hurt her feelings if she knew how much I wanted you?” He would hold me there until I nodded, and then he’d release me. Then he’d laugh silently and allow me return to my bed.

This became a nightly ritual. I was very developed for my age, and I began to wear bras and panties to bed, underneath my pajamas. I would do anything to create one more barrier between his wandering hands and me. But that didn’t stop him. Eventually I began to go into the back yard to go to the bathroom. But he was a light sleeper too, and the minute he heard movement in my bedroom, he’d find me. My sister, on the other hand, slept through anything.

One night I was sneaking out to go the bathroom. I opened the front door as quietly as I could, and I dashed into the night. I hovered in the darkness, looking for a corner of the yard in the shadows, when I felt his arm grab me by the neck. His breath was in my ear; it smelled of beer. “I love you, don’t you realize that yet?”

“Please, please, please leave me alone.”

“I can’t. You’re all I think about, night and day. I want you so bad. But you can’t tell your sister. You don’t want to hurt her, do you?”

“No. Please let me go back to bed. I won’t say anything. Please.”

He let me go.

He terrified me. So on the night he held a gun to my head, I really couldn’t be sure of what his intentions might be. And even by the time my sister finally awoke and crawled out of bed, my heart was still thumping loudly in my chest. I had never seen him as erratic as he was that night, turning on every light in the house, and yelling excitedly, as he began to move a large array of items through our front door. I walked into the living room and watched him; he had radios, stereos, jewelry, records; I can’t remember all that he had, but he began piling it into the center of the room, all the while talking excitedly.

“Look at this stereo, baby!” he said to me, patting its sides. “Is this a beautiful machine or what? Huh?”

My sister emerged from her bedroom, rubbing her eyes and hardly conscious. It always took her forever to wake up and I could tell she wasn’t really registering what was going on. She finally asked, “What is all of this stuff?”

“We ripped off a house, baby, we ripped off a house! And we scored BIG time. Look at this ring; that’s a diamond. Check it out! Man, it was a rush. What a night! We cleaned those suckers OUT!”

My sister stared dumbfounded. Then she woke up. “ARE YOU TELLING ME YOU ROBBED A HOUSE?” She yelled this, and I felt relieved; she was the closest thing to an adult that I had. I needed some guidance; I needed a firm hand. I needed someone to yell.

“Yeah, baby, don’t get all uptight on me now,” he said, and then he went over and languidly kissed her neck.

She pushed him away. Hard. Unlike I could ever do.

“DON’T TOUCH ME,” she screamed. “And I want this stuff out of my house NOW.”

“Hey baby, where am I supposed to take it? My Dad is a COP,” he said laughing, appreciating the irony of the situation. “I have to stash it here for awhile.”

“NO!” my sister screamed, and her voice meant business. “YOU’RE TAKING IT BACK.”

“Taking what back?” he asked.

“YOU’RE TAKING IT BACK TO THE HOUSE WHERE YOU GOT IT FROM,” she said. By now she was fuming.

“But look at this stereo! Is that fine, or what? I was going to give it to you, baby!”

My sister walked over to where the stereo was lying in the middle of the floor. We both stared at it. It was stunningly beautiful; the owner had encased it in a striking wooden case, which had obviously been handcrafted. Each detail was perfect. My sister broke into tears.

“Someone made this!” she sobbed. “Someone made this wood case! Someone spent hours and hours on this! They made this with love! And you just go and STEAL it? YOU MAKE ME SICK. You take it all back or I don’t want to ever see you again!”

“How can I take it back?” he asked. “You want me to break in again? I was lucky I didn’t get caught the first time!”

“Then leave it on the porch. Leave it at the front door. I don’t care, but YOU’RE TAKING IT BACK RIGHT NOW.”

I had never seen him look so sheepish. And he did take it all back. In my life, I have often wondered what it must have been like for those people; to come home to find everything valuable they owned on their front porch.

I was mesmerized by how she handled the situation; she had a force that I did not have. She had a strength that I did not have. And that night after he returned from taking back his loot, I heard them arguing for hours in bed, and he doing everything in his power to charm his way back into her good grace. And eventually he did.

After that night, he seemed to change his tactics with me. While he still told me he loved me daily, he began to treat me more like a big brother might, or even a father; he began to pay an inordinate amount of attention to me. He would always ask me what was going on in my life; he would listen to me drone on and on about all of my problems, and he always seemed interested and willing to help. I never really trusted him, but I began to confide in him little by little, and just like my sister, he began to charm himself back into my good graces.

I was very much in love with a young boy in my class, named Barry. Our relationship was innocent and sweet; and even at that tender age he was romancing me. He brought me a dozen red roses to class one day, and had recently even bought me a gorgeous opal ring. Up until that point, I had never really trusted any man. But I trusted Barry with all of my heart, and although I wasn’t ready for anything too sexual yet, we had begun experimenting a little. My sister’s boyfriend would press me for details, and would warn me all about young boys and their hormones, and what they REALLY wanted. “He loves me,” I’d tell him. “He would never pressure me. Besides, neither of us is even CLOSE to ready.”

“Well, if he does pressure you, you come and tell me, okay? And I’ll put him in his place,” my sister’s boyfriend would say. I began to believe that he really might have my best interests at heart, and since my step-father never spoke to me in a protective way, I began to crave what I believed was love.

It was a few weeks later when we were all at a party a few blocks from home. Our friend Kim didn’t have much adult supervision either, and on this night a rather wild party was going on at her house. I was sitting in the backyard when my sister’s boyfriend came over and began talking to me.

We were joking and laughing, and he was trying to wrestle with me. I never enjoyed when he’d become physical with me; he was a huge boy and on the football team. But on this night, he wouldn’t stop.

Suddenly he picked me up and threw me over his shoulder.

I didn’t want to make a fuss, so I laughingly asked him to put me down. But he didn’t. He headed out of the back yard and started walking down the dimly lit street. I kicked and screamed, still laughing, but as he continued his march down the street into the darkness, I became afraid. “Put me down,” I said sternly. “I mean it.” But my commentary was only met with silence, which filled me with dread.

“PUT ME DOWN, LET ME GO!” I wailed. But he was like an android, marching every forward, without ever acknowledging me at all.

The beach was only a block and a half away, and soon I could hear the crashing waves and feel the salt on my lips. He climbed over some rocks that blocked our entrance, all the while holding me in a tight grip, and not saying a word. When he reached the sand, he threw me down and climbed on top of me. I began to sob. “GET OFF ME; LET ME GO BACK TO THE PARTY.”

Still he said nothing. He put one beefy arm across my neck to hold me in place, and with the other hand ripped off my jeans with such force that he broke the zipper. I had borrowed the jeans from my sister that night, after much begging. “I don’t want you to wreck them,” she had told me.

“I won’t wreck them! Please!”

And this is the only thing that was going through my head as he began to rip at the rest of my clothes. I screamed as loud as I could, and he took his hand and covered my mouth. Then he raped me.

I don’t remember much that happened the rest of that evening. All I remember is going home, and going into my parents unit. My father wasn’t home, and my sister was in bed with my mother crying. And I got into bed with them and started crying too. I had assumed that somehow my sister knew; and it was too painful to talk about. But she really didn’t know. We never spoke about it again; not at least, for many years.

Then I went into my room and grabbed a pen and paper. Grabbing a pen and paper was something I did almost on a daily basis in those days; as I was constantly writing poetry. But as I stared at the blank sheet of paper, no poetry came. Only one sentence came to my mind, which I scribbled down. I wrote, “I am still a virgin.” I stared at it, and the words helped me somehow. This didn’t count, it couldn’t count. I wrote the words again. “I am still a virgin.” And then as tears streamed down my cheeks, I wrote it again and again and again. And soon enough I needed a second piece of paper, which I filled up with the same sentence, written ad nauseam.

I broke up with my boyfriend Barry the following morning. We had been whispering sweet nothings in each others ears for so long; we had decided we would lose our virginity together, sometime later down the road, and eventually we’d marry. That dream was now dead, and I couldn’t face him. I broke his heart.

My sister’s boyfriend continued to prey on me after that, always threatening to tell my sister if I ever told. I had decided it was my lot in life to do what he said, and to carry that shame. When I was 15, I fell in love and once my new boyfriend caught wind of it, he told him in no uncertain terms that if he ever laid a hand on me again, that he’d kill him. The abuse, finally, stopped. But it took me years to realize that none of it had been my fault.  And even more years to realize that the gun he held at my head that night was symbolic of my entire relationship with him.

I was an adult before I connected to my sexuality again. To me, it was something you did like an actress on a stage, because that’s all it had ever been for me; a game of pretend. Instead of learning how to fight back, I learned instead how to take it. Men could hit me, men could lie to me, men could rape me; but they could never touch my soul. And whenever a man treated me badly, I’d rise above it, and I would say to myself, “go ahead and give it to me. This doesn’t hurt me. You can’t touch me. The only person this hurts is you.”

Of course that’s not true. It’s a defense mechanism we learn in order to cope. And I suppose I’ve developed many of those in my journey through life.

But the secret of shame is always stamped upon your soul; a faint, indelible watermark. My child will always be face down on the floor; a little unstrung puppet, kicking to disappear, her face red with panic, her tiny fists bloody from pounding on a cement wall. The sheets still grow heavy with the thought of a lecher’s kiss; and the sin, the sin, flicks on and off like a nauseating fluorescent light, outside of the dive bar of my mind. There will always be a permanent smell.

I know life deals us blows. But I know that every morning when I wake up, I’m still singing. I’m still laughing. I’m still dancing. There is a place inside of each of us that is untouchable. It is where the angels swim, and the stars swim too.  And sadly, where indifference swims as well.
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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Homeless in Panty Hose

I was homeless, once. For six months. I was 24 years old.

I will understand if that statement causes you to have a particular image of me. I think most of us create a picture of what we perceive a homeless person to be; perhaps someone who is lazy, or simply chooses not to work or be productive. Perhaps you imagine frail, dispossessed bums sleeping under plastic bags in subways and doorways. Perhaps you imagine beggars who reach out a shaky hand for coins, or the insane screaming out profanities while searching through dumpsters. I suppose those are the obvious images. But I promise you that there are homeless who walk among us we would never recognize.

I was one of those. I thought of myself as homeless in panty hose.

I left my husband in the middle of the night. The truth had finally come out that I had fallen in love with another man, and my new relationship was controversial to say the least. Hardly anyone approved, and I was seemingly ostracized over night. It had been an exhausting weekend; my new lover and I met with parents, siblings and friends who screamed, shouted and cried about our choices, begging us to come to our senses. But there was no going back for either of us; we were in love.

This emotional spectacle culminated Sunday night when I went home to tell my husband. It was a draining marathon of heartache and arguing, and I was so exhausted from emotional stress that I wanted nothing more than to get into my marital bed and fall asleep. It was about midnight; I had come in earlier and awoke him to tell him my news. After hours of tears, my husband was still in our bed, covering his face with his hands. As much as I wanted to suggest that we continue the discussion in the morning, I knew that it would be cruel to prolong his agony. I opened the closet and pulled down a suitcase, hurriedly stuffed it with clothes and toiletries, zipped it shut, then softly said “Goodbye.” I wanted to tell him that I loved him and that none of it was his fault, but the words never came. I waited for a moment to see if he’d respond, but the room was quiet. I walked out the front door and never looked back.

I used a joint credit card to fill my tank with gas as I sped away from town. It was the last money I would use of the funds I shared with my husband; I left with only my clothes and nothing else. I never fought for 50% of our assets, and I signed off on property that we mutually owned. That night after I filled my gas tank, I cut all of our credit cards in two. Then I put my key in the ignition, and when the engine came to life, I felt I had sprouted wings, and that I was flying to freedom. I had no idea where I was going. But soon I had turned up the radio loud, and I was singing.

The future was unknown, and I was excited to begin a new life. The only problem was, I had nowhere to sleep and I had to be at work by 8:00 a.m. And I had no watch.

That first night of homelessness is as clear to me as any other memory of my life. I parked my car at a rest stop at the beach, and then sat for a long time on a chilly precipice, staring out over the ocean highlighted by a blue tinged moon. I had no idea the time, but I knew it was very late. If I wasn’t so exhausted that first night, I don’t think I would have ever fallen asleep. But I climbed into the backseat of my car, rolled some clothes into a ball to serve as a pillow, and covering myself with a jacket, I soon fell asleep.

When I awoke, it was daylight. I jumped out of the car and started going through my suitcase, hurriedly looking for my work clothes. Soon I was sitting on a rock; the sand blowing in my face, and the ocean crashing loudly beside me. It was cold and the wind was whipping through my hair. But I laughed as I realized what a comic sight I was. I was struggling to put on my panty hose; one foot at a time, and trying not to rip them as I stood on the rough terrain of the cliff.

In those days I wore skirts, hose and heels to work; it was what was considered to be appropriate business attire. I detested panty hose with a passion, and the heels would make my feet ache by the end of every day. But on this morning, it was more disturbing than usual, I remember, trying to crawl into them on the beach. I was homeless in panty hose.

I turned on my car engine and the radio, praying that they would announce the time so I had some idea as I slipped into a business suit. It was later than I had thought.

Needless to say, I was late for work that morning, as well as other mornings thereafter. The ironic thing was I had always been exceptionally prompt; but waking up in a car without a time piece made arriving at work on time somewhat difficult. When my boss called me in to his office to complain about my tardiness, I spat back that I was homeless and living on the beach. He was a lot more lenient after that. It was my first accounting job, and I worked in the Accounts Payable department. Earnings were meager, but I was saving every available penny I could toward first and last month’s rent for an apartment of my own.

Well, not every penny. I made a very important allowance. On weekends, I would meet my new lover at hotels. It was a big expenditure, but a necessary one, as it was the only time I was able to shower. It was also a reprieve from my every day existence, which was more than surreal. For two days I would have love, luxury and soap, and for that brief time I could distance myself from my cruel reality. But Monday morning would come too soon, and my new boyfriend would return to his family home, where he still lived with his parents. I would go off to work, and once again become the lonely waif sleeping in the salt air by night, and working at a job I despised by day.

My dinner routine was the same most evenings. Down the street from my office was an upscale bar and restaurant. They featured a fabulous happy hour, which featured a complete spread of delicious appetizers. I would order water with lime with a straw; so no one ever suspected I was eating for free. I realized that looking well dressed and coifed offered me many advantages that other homeless people did not have. And I took advantage of it whenever I could.

But that wasn’t the only way I got food. I remember one painful night when I spotted a group of patrons leaving a pizza parlor with nearly a half of a pie left on the table. I watched them through the open door of the restaurant, still certain that they would end up packing up the pie and taking it home, but they all got up from the table and just left it there. I wanted that pizza so badly; I think I could have done nearly anything to have a slice of it. I was literally salivating at the thought of a hot meal. It was a moment of truth; I knew I wouldn’t have long to take it before the waitress cleared the table; but doing what I was contemplating doing was mortifying. At the last possible moment I dashed in and scooped up as much pizza as I could in a napkin, and skulked out the door like a thief in the night. I disappeared into an alleyway to eat my score; and it was so hot and delicious I couldn’t eat it fast enough. At that moment I didn’t feel that different from the homeless that search the dumpsters. The only difference is that I had a camouflage, and could sneak into an establishment without raising an eyebrow. I think that was my first real lesson in compassion.

Although most of my family and friends had washed their hands of me and my choices during that period, I had a few friends that stepped up whenever they could. My best friend at the time was planning on going to Europe for a month and offered me her room in her flat in San Francisco. She lived with two roommates I had never met; both gay psychiatrists. It was a difficult decision for me, because she didn’t offer me her room for free; I would have to pay her share of the rent for that month, which would delay my saving up money for own apartment, which was a priority. But I was so desperate to have a bed, shower, and a kitchen, that I took her up on her offer.

The first night that I arrived, I was shown to my room by my new roommates. Being that they were both psychiatrists, I was excited to meet them; and I also felt it might be soothing to be in the bosom of trained professionals who would understand my stress, and maybe even help me. But I was wrong. “We know what is happening in your life, and frankly we don’t approve. So we know Sheila is your friend, and you’ll be here a month, but we want to see the least of you as possible. Tonight we’re having a party, and we don’t want you to come out of your room. So if you need to buy something for dinner, we suggest you buy it now. There’s a market across the street.” Their words stung me to my core.

“Is there a television I could borrow for the evening then?” I asked. I thought a television might make it somewhat tolerable. I felt on the verge of tears.

“No,” was all they said, and with that they turned a very effeminate heel toward the door. That evening was painful, as I sat on the bed trying to read some silly magazine I found in her room, with the sounds of frivolity right outside my door. I was starving and didn’t have fifty cents in my pocket. I wondered what delicious appetizers might be displayed in the next room. I would have loved nothing more than to have a cocktail and mingle with people and laugh and forget. But it wasn’t to be.

The first two weeks in that house were a nightmare. But it all changed the day my biological father called me there. He asked me what my address was, and after I gave it to him, he informed he was coming over to kill me.

I suppose on most levels, I knew he wasn’t going to kill me. He was a passionate Sicilian after all, and he was angry with me. But I still didn’t know him very well at that point, and there was a modicum of doubt that crept in my psyche. I burst into tears.

The two doctors overheard me, and for some unknown reason, they were suddenly gushing with empathy. They sat on either side of me on my temporary bed, and flung their arms around me; and they told me it would be okay. They urged me to open up about my side of the story; why I had left my husband, and the controversial relationship I was now involved with. Because my new relationship was unusual and rather taboo, they related their own experience of being chastised for being homosexual to mine; and we talked long about prejudice. And by the time the three of us heard a hard angry knock on the front door, we had become the best of friends. “We won’t let your father kill you!” they announced, and ran down the stairs to confront my father. They protected me like fierce kittens; and wouldn’t let my father inside the house until he agreed to behave himself.

I had two weeks more in that house, but after that, I was back on the street for several months in a row. I remember I had one delicious respite in all of that time, and that was the evening that my friend Linda offered me her beach house for one moonlit night. She and all of her roommates were leaving on an overnight trip; and she gave me the key to her house. It was a lovely sprawling home; sitting right on the cliff, with the ocean crashing against the enormous picture windows that lined the living room. She had left me a series of notes all over the house, leading me on a virtual treasure hunt of delights. My first note was on the dining room table next to a bottle of red wine, a corkscrew, and a glass. It read, “It’s time to kick off your shoes and transport yourself to a world of tranquility. Begin by enjoying this wine.” Next I was sent toward a group of candles and a box of matches. “Light these candles, sip on your wine, and listen to the ocean.” Following that, I was instructed to turn on the stereo, where my favorite artist was playing. My hunt then led me back to the kitchen where a gourmet meal was waiting for me. “Pop this in the oven at 350 degrees, and enjoy. There’s a salad in the fridge.” The last note led to my bed. I laughed when I entered the bedroom; I encountered an enormous bright pink velvet bed; something you might find in Cinderella’s castle. It was piled high with pink silk pillows. I felt like a fairy princess, and I didn’t much care where I’d left my glass slipper. The crashing of the waves sounded very different that night than they did when I slept on the beach, and I learned a lesson that night about gratitude. But when I awoke the next morning, my carriage had turned back into a pumpkin, and the only bed I had was the back seat of my car.

My last reprieve came after about five and a half months. Another friend had a room that had become vacant, and she said I could move in for awhile. For free.

I was thrilled with this opportunity. I was so close to saving up enough money for my own place, and this would give me the last push I needed. I decided I was going to be the best house guest ever; I would leave my room every day as if no one lived in it, with the bed made and my suitcase hidden in the closet. I would arise before my friend, have my coffee and leave no trace, and allow her the morning to herself. On weekends, I would disappear entirely, to spend time with my new lover. I behaved the way I would want a roommate to behave. As if they weren’t there.

But interestingly, she wasn’t pleased with me at all. She had wanted me to move in with her to be her girlfriend. She wanted a gal pal to drink coffee in the morning with, and to share our trials and tribulations. She wanted a friend with whom she could spend evenings cooking dinner and weekends hitting the bars.

I sensed that she was unhappy with me. But at this point, I had possibly saved enough money for first and last month rent for a place of my own. I knew I wanted to live in Mill Valley, about an hour away, and I scoured the Marin newspaper as often as I could.

That week, I came down with an illness; I was sick and dizzy and had a terrible sore throat. I was lying on her couch covered by a blanket, making phone call after phone call, answering want ads for apartments. At last I found something I could afford. It was a one-room “tree house,” or at least that is how the ad billed it. I was intrigued. Coughing and gasping, I talked to the landlord that evening. I told her I was very sick; could I come and see the apartment the following evening. She agreed.

But I never would wait until the following evening. My friend came home that night and said that her mother had been helping with her mortgage, and she had said that unless I left that evening, that she would cut her off. She apologized vehemently, and she felt even worse that I was sick, but I had to pack my bags immediately. I called the landlord up again and said I had to leave my current residence that evening, and would it be possible that I see the room that night, and hopefully rent it immediately. I think she took pity on me and agreed.

That night I packed up my suitcase for the last time, and armed only with a roll of toilet paper for my leaking nose, I thanked my friend and stumbled into the darkness, for a long hour drive toward my new home.

I’ll never forget climbing the stairs to my tree house that first night. It was difficult to see, and it looked like the stairs led straight up into a tree. She flung open the front door, and switched on a light. And there it was.

It was tiny. Much smaller than a hotel room. It had enough room for one double bed, but not much else. The kitchen went against one wall; and there was a separate bathroom and shower. But it was charming; all wooden and nestled in the trees; the kitchen cabinets were beveled decorated glass; and I found it to be very sweet. “I’ll take it.”

“The phone works,” she told me. “But it will be cut off this week, so get it transferred into your name immediately, okay?” I nodded.

When she left, I called my half sister. I told her I had found a place, and I was located only about a mile away from her. I was deathly sick; and I needed some comfort. “Could you bring me a blanket and a pillow?” I asked her. She agreed.

When she arrived, she was also carrying a bottle of wine. I had no glasses, so I remember us both guzzling it straight out of the bottle. That would be the start of many gatherings in the tree house, which we later dubbed the cubicle. I had a sign near the front door that read, “Cubicle sweet cubicle,” and I eventually got a free couch that folded out into a bed. When I was alone, I would leave the bed out; I could make a cup of tea in the kitchen while sitting on my bed. And when people came over, I’d turn the bed back into a couch, and we’d all sit on the floor, drinking wine and being perfectly happy in this little square that we could call our own. Being homeless had taught me that I would never need much in this world. And I’ve always been grateful for what I have.

I lived in my cubicle for three years, as I once again saved money for first and last on a larger home. I was grateful every day; for the warm bed, and the heater. My boyfriend stayed with me on the weekends, and I always felt like we had our own private haven, a sanctuary far from the noise of judgmental friends and family. I was happy.

I saved my money in a little box that was on the shelving that was built in on one wall of the tree house.

In retrospect, I realize it was very foolish to save money that way; I had a bank account; but I didn’t want to know exactly how much money I had saved. It was a little game I’d play with myself; shoving every spare dollar I had into that box; but never really knowing how much I’d saved. After a few months I’d count it and would be delighted with the results.

One night I came home and there was a note on my door from the landlord. “Your toilet broke and I had to let myself and the plumbers into your house today.”

My toilet wasn’t broken.

I immediately sensed that something wasn’t right. I walked into the cubicle and went directly to the bathroom. I kept a dizzying array of decorations on the back of my toilet, and I knew at first glance that my toilet hadn’t been touched. It would be impossible to work on it, and not disturb everything I had surrounding it. I felt something else in that room; something smelled of a lie. I immediately ran to my box on the shelf. I opened it. It was empty. The money was gone.

I took a deep breath. Every instinct I had told me that my landlord had stolen it. She had decided to snoop in my house when I was gone, came across the money and had created the plumbers as a diversion, and as the possible thieves.

I marched down to the main house and told her that my money was gone. She feigned sympathy; she was beside herself telling me what a terrible thing it was; and that it must have been the plumbers that stole it.

“May I have the name of the plumbers you called?”

She gave me every excuse under the sun as to why she couldn’t give me their number, but I wasn’t listening. Because I already knew there were no plumbers. I went back to the tree house and called the police.

I never did recover my money. But the police gave her an exceptionally rough time; I could hear her screaming and crying below. “Do not call me a thief in front of my kids!” I heard her cry, and I felt glad. The police told me that they believed it was her, but nothing could be done. I had been kicked back down to square one, with nothing to show for myself but an empty box.

The next chapter in my life wasn’t much easier than this one. But I embraced my hardships gladly, as I was living truthfully and following my passion. I no longer felt like a fraud. I was wildly in love, and that relationship would endure happily for sixteen years. And as I had always known, the difficulties made me more and more prolific; I was inspired to create poetry nearly daily. I had absolutely nothing. But I was still living my dream.

I had always known that suffering opens our minds. When things come easily, we only learn a fraction of what we learn when they don’t. I know that the more possessions we want, the less freedom we will have. I know that the more we can bear, the more fearless we become. And I wanted to be fearless. I wanted to be a bald eagle surveying the countryside from the highest peak, and then I wanted to spread my wings, and to dive into freedom. I still feel that way.
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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Instant Karma

When I was 13 years old, I decided to become a Buddhist.

That decision lasted about three months.

I was raised in a household that didn’t believe in organized religion. My mother was a staunch atheist, and while my father was a spiritual agnostic, he made no secret of his disdain for most holy convictions. Of course, with regards to my religion, it was always my decision. My parents took me to at least a dozen different churches, to expose me to them, and encouraged me to follow one if any took my fancy.

I found these sojourns into various churches utterly fascinating. Each was unique; from the baroque seriousness of the Catholics, to the festive exuberance of Gospel; from the glazed serene looks of the Born Again Holy Rollers, to the dancing and chanting of the Hare Krishna’s. I still remember one hippy church that used the 60’s “God’s Eye,” a weaving of colorful yarn over branches laid in a diamond shape, as their focal point. It was odd to “pray” to something I had hanging all over my bedroom at home. Flower children danced up and down the church aisle to folk music. And part of the church was making art. I enjoyed it. But I had no idea why I was praying, or to whom.

I was baptized Catholic when I was 11 years old, but this was only because I was embarrassed to be the only child in school without a faith. Most people I knew were Catholic, so I just blindly chose it. But what they said seemed illogical, and shortsighted. When they told us that on judgment day that everyone who hadn’t accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts would go to hell, I knew their outlook made no sense. Surely, I thought, the entire country of China couldn’t be sentenced to eternal damnation, because they didn’t worship Jesus Christ. I decided a genius such as God must be would never commit an entire population to burn for eternity.

I loved the church field trips with my parents, but I never felt the need to embrace any of them. I did, however, listen to all view points, and the subject of religion fascinated me.

My friend Linda told me about a Buddhist Group that had just started in our neighborhood. She had already attended one meeting, and had found it intriguing. She urged me to join her, and I quickly agreed. I have always been hungry for new experiences.

I immediately went to the library to study this creed, and could find none of their teachings to be contrary to what I believed. Buddhism seemed to be more of a philosophy than a religion; and a viewpoint that I could support. It seemed to avoid the usual dogma and theology of other religions, and instead centered on the discipline of continual awareness. I could find nothing wrong with teaching myself to be more aware; especially when no one dictated what I should be aware of. I enjoyed the teachings of Karma and Dharma; of non-attachment and humility. Even better, Albert Einstein, someone I idolized and had pictures of in my bedroom, thought Buddhism had the “characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future.” It sounded like a religion that transcended the undeveloped ideas of sin, shame, guilt, and the rest. I was prepared to go.

That evening I told my parents about the Buddhist Group, and asked permission to stay out past my bedtime. It was also a school night, so I had to discuss this with them first. I thought for certain that they would support my decision to go; but it was quite the opposite. “This sounds like some sort of a CULT,” they told me, their eyes large with fear. “We don’t want you to go. They’re going to try and brainwash you.”

I did everything I could do to argue with their decision. I told them how I had been studying Buddhist doctrine, and that it intrigued me. I told them the location of the meeting, and that I wouldn’t be going alone. But most importantly, I assured them that I could never be brainwashed. I was a thoughtful, curious child, and not easily coerced. I just wanted to go and listen, I told them, with an open mind. And at last they agreed.

Linda was friends with an older boy; he must have been at least 19 years old at the time. It was he who had told her about these meetings initially, and it was he who agreed to pick us up and drive us to the meeting. My mother had assumed a parent would be picking me up, and when she learned it was just a teenager, she followed me out to the driveway to have a word with this boy. It was one of the most animated times I can ever recall my mother behaving; she grilled him on everything, from the Buddhists to the mechanical safety of his car. She was clearly concerned about my welfare, which made me begin to rethink my decision. Exasperated and embarrassed, I begged her to return to the house, and soon enough we were on our way.

The meeting was held at the home of a slight fragile woman, who was introduced as the Leader. When we arrived, we were asked to remove our shoes and take a seat on the floor. There was a strange shrine in the front of the room; I noticed a piece of parchment paper covered in Japanese lettering which sat center stage, surrounded by a variety of offerings; fruit, evergreens, incense, and candles.

The room was filled with guests. Our Leader picked up a stick and hit a large metal disc that was beside the shrine, and the sound echoed through the room and carried for a long time. When the endless note withered away, finally into silence, she spoke. She uttered words I had never heard before, and she said them slowly. “Nam myo ho ren-ge kyo.” I heard a collective sigh from the group, and soon they all joined in with this strange chant, and the room filled with sound; low tones from the males, high notes from the females, all blending together in a mesmerizing harmony. Nam myo ho ren-ge kyo, Nam myo ho ren-ge kyo, Nam myo ho ren-ge kyo. The incantation that filled the room was beautiful, and soon enough I found myself joining in. It was akin to singing, which I enjoyed, but this mantra went on forever. Eventually I began praying it would stop. The incessant hymn must have gone on for forty-five minutes.

I was thrilled when the leader eventually rang the bell again. The followers said one more round of the chant, but very slowly, holding out the final “kyo” until they had no more breath. It was over, thankfully. The Leader looked around the room beaming; I believed she was trying to appear serene and at peace, but it didn’t ring true for me. I pinched Linda’s knee so that we could share a giggle, but she looked stoically forward.

“Good evening,” the Leader said at last. “I welcome you all here tonight, and I especially welcome the two young girls that have joined our fold,” she said, giving a nod to Linda and me. “You will need to see me after the meeting so that you can purchase your prayer book, beads and other items you will need, okay?” I hadn’t realized this enterprise was going to cost me money, and I was immediately put off, but I only nodded. I had no desire to be singled out.

“At this time, I would like to hear from the group about all the benefits you received this week from chanting. As we all know, as we recite the precious words Nam myo ho ren-ge kyo, we are to focus on a wish that we have for ourselves, our loved ones, and our lives. And those of you who practice this discipline religiously know that your requests are always answered. Who would like to start?”

A woman behind me was flailing her arms excitedly, beseeching the Leader to choose her. Her exhilaration was a tad over the top; so I was assured that I was about to hear philosophical musings about how this discipline had led to something important; a new awareness, or inner peace. Perhaps she had wished for something to benefit her fellow man; or had learned how selflessness leads to the greater good. I spun around so I could see her as she spoke. “I chanted for a new pair of shoes!” she squealed, “and I got them. We really couldn’t afford them, but after I spent a day chanting, my husband came to me and told me to go ahead and buy them. Thanks Buddha!”

I raised an eyebrow in disgust. And I fully expected that her trivial selfishness would be rebuffed by the group, and looked around, expecting to see narrowed eyebrows of distaste. But on the contrary, the room was beaming; just as our Leader had been when she began the meeting. And to my horror, the crowd began to applaud, and a few yelled out “way to go,” and that sort of nonsense. It was all so painfully ridiculous to me that I wondered if I was on Candid Camera.

The room filled with cigarette smoke, which was perfectly normal at that time. Even at that tender age, I too, smoked—and I asked a young man beside me if he had an extra. Unfortunately for me, however, my quiet request was overheard by the throngs, and as the man handed me a cigarette, the Leader broke into applause. “Our new friend just received a benefit! She wanted a cigarette, and after chanting this evening, her request was met immediately. You will see that chanting effects big change in your life; it will create miracles!” Her speech was met with a round of applause, and several congratulatory rubbings of my shoulder. I wondered if my parents were right; that this was some sort of a cult. I began to think they were all a bunch of dolts.

But I didn’t quit.

Most of us, when we are young, haven’t yet learned to set appropriate boundaries for ourselves. And following the meeting, when Linda and I were brought to a back room and given a list of items we needed to purchase; some mandatory, and others optional, I agreed to make the purchases. I only had enough money with me for one item; a small blue Buddhist chanting book. Inside was one long chant that went on for pages. “Please begin memorizing this immediately,” I was told. “And next week, bring enough money to buy the rest of the mandatory requirements.” I only nodded, but I felt I had gotten myself involved with something that was a bit more than I could handle. Strangely enough, I can still recite that entire prayer, syllable for syllable, to this day.

I did return the following week, and I brought enough money to buy the items required. And I returned the week after that, and the week after that. And although I was highly skeptical about all that went on, I tried to keep an open mind; I was willing to wait and see what transpired.

The Leader informed me that to have full effect from the chanting, that I would need to be baptized into the religion; and once the ceremony was performed, I would be given my own Gohonzon.

I had learned all about the Gohonzon; which was a scroll of rice paper, covered in Japanese symbols. This was what sat in the middle of everyone’s personal shrine; and it what the followers hung on their walls at home and sat in front of to chant.

When you looked at the front of Gohonzon you would see the characters of Nam myo ho ren-ge kyo. But if you turned the Gohonzon on it’s backside it was blank. “Nam myo ho ren-ge kyo is the written law,” we were told. “But you can't see it. You can't point to it, or identify it. It is a power that exists. Gohonzon is the mirror of your life. When you look at a mirror you think you are looking at yourself, but it is only an image of your physical self that you are looking at. You can't see inside yourself -- your thoughts, your spiritual aspect. Gohonzon is the mirror of your heart--the mirror of your life. You need a mirror so that you know what you look like in your heart.” I grasped the concept of the Gohonzon. But what I didn’t understand was why my fellow Buddhists didn’t seem to mirror or grasp what Buddhism was all about. They were like children, begging Santa Claus for a plethora of unneeded toys.

But apparently this piece of paper was very important. “You can not receive full benefits until you receive the Gohonzon,” the Leader told me. “And you cannot receive the Gohonzon until you are blessed officially into the church.” And with that, I was taken in the back room, and I was scheduled for a baptism.

The following Saturday, I was driven in a van with other worshipers to a church somewhere far away. I was thrilled when we finally arrived, and stared out the window at the huge modern building that rose from the parking lot. The temple was called “The Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” named after a popular novella written the year prior; a fable about a seagull learning about life and flight, possibly reincarnation; and a homily about self-perfection. The book was extremely popular, but I giggled to myself over the name. It struck me as trite.

The church was large, and to my surprise, filled to the rafters with parishioners. And as I tried to find my seat, many of them seemed to barrage me; beaming that familiar smile at me, offering me everything from candy to illegal drugs. I didn’t want to judge anyone, but many of them seemed a bit off-kilter to me, and there were multitudes of homeless, addicts, and the like.

The service quickly got under way. It began just as the smaller meetings did, with the familiar strike on a metal disc, but at this church the disc was enormous; it was a large gong, and it was hit with something the size of a baseball bat. Immediately the congregation broke into the familiar, “Nam myo ho ren-ge kyo,” but this time the chant was sung by a group of hundreds; and the effect of so many voices together was stirring.

The chanting always went on for too long, for me, a child of 13. But on this night, I didn’t mind, because I had been instructed that immediately following the opening ceremony, that the baptisms were next on the agenda. I dreaded it.

Soon enough the chanting ceased, and the Leader asked that all people who were being baptized into the church that day to line up in the back. I obediently made my way there, and was pleased to see I wouldn’t be alone; I joined a half a dozen other people who were to receive their Gohonzon that day. Suddenly, music filled the large hall; strange, eerie music. “Get down on your knees!” I was instructed.


“GET DOWN ON YOUR KNEES. You must crawl in humility to receive your Gohonzon.”

Well, I didn’t much want to crawl on my knees for anything. But with a hall filled with people watching, I did just that. I crawled. I crawled all the way down the aisle on my hands and knees, and rather than feel humble, I felt humiliated. At the end of the aisle, a man in robes spoke a chant over my head, and then lastly, handed me my Gohonzon. It was rolled up in a scroll, and tied with a narrow red ribbon.

But the humiliation I suffered that day was nothing compared to what happened a week later.

After receiving my Gohonzon, I was instructed to leave it in scroll form until members of the temple could come to my house and help me to set up my shrine. There were many regulations regarding this altar; it had to be housed on a Southern wall, it had to be encased in wood, and it had to have a way to close shut. I was told a wooden fruit cart would even do until I could find something better, and a makeshift cloth could be fashioned to serve as a curtain that could be closed. But regardless, this process had to be supervised, and it had to take place only in conjunction with a ceremony.

The last thing I wanted was for these people to come to my house. But they were so persuasive I felt I had to relent, so I agreed to the following Saturday. I have never regretted anything more.

My family were all at home; my parents, my sister and her boyfriend. Imagine my horror when suddenly we all heard the chanting of a dozen or so people coming down the street toward our house. They were loud, and everyone in the neighborhood could hear and see them walking toward our house. My sister’s boyfriend found the whole thing utterly hilarious; he opened the front door to our home and laughed in their direction, pointing to the group and snickering. I looked out the window and saw them; they were coming to my house; they were chanting loudly and with earnestness; I could see my neighbors across the street peek out of their windows to see who had created such a ruckus; and I had never felt such embarrassment as I did as this troupe walked right up my own driveway. I wanted to disappear.

They knocked on the door, but the chanting never stopped. My mother opened the door, and without an intelligible word, the worshipers swept right by her, pushing her aside, then found me and encircled me. My mother was mouthing to me over their heads, “I want these people out of my house,” and I could only give her a look as if to say, “What can I do?” They stood around me in a circle, chanting louder and louder; and at this point my sister’s boyfriend was on the floor, giggling and pounding the carpet. Then the Leader whispered to me that I should lead them to my bedroom.

I began to walk and the group followed me; their chanting getting ever louder. My sister’s boyfriend was in hysterics, yelling out slurs and calling them names, making fun of everything about them. The Leader whispered that I needed to chant as well, but I was too embarrassed. Instead, I pretended to have a coughing fit until all of the church goers were safe in my bedroom. But I wasn’t safe in the slightest; the laughter never stopped.

My Gohonzon was enshrined in a wooden box and nailed to the proper wall of my bedroom. The church people brought fruit, incense, candles, flowers, and everything I needed for a proper alter. I continued to feign a coughing fit throughout; if only to block out the laughter right outside the door. My face was hot with mortification. I wanted them to leave.

But the final nail in my Buddhist coffin came about a week later.

While at our weekly meeting, we were told that we were going to go knock door to door that evening in an effort to coerce more sheep into their flock. We were also supposed to ask for money.

I walked several blocks with the church goers as we knocked on door after door. I let the others give their speech; I usually hid behind the nearest stick of shrubbery. All I could think of was the countless times we’d encountered the Jehovah Witnesses on the other side of our own door, dressed in their black suits and white shirts, carrying stacks of the “Watchtower” and preaching about their version of God. If we saw them walking toward our door we’d hide; and if we accidentally opened the door, it often took at least twenty minutes to get rid of them. I always thought what an imposition it was; I’ve never enjoyed solicitation in any form. And now, here I was with my brethren imposing the same brand of nuisance.

When they knocked on the next door, I hid behind the garage. And then I walked away. I walked until I couldn’t walk anymore, until I found a phone booth and called my mother to pick me up. “I’m done,” I told her on the phone.

“Thank God,” was her answer. And the irony of her reply was not lost on me.

As my mother chastised me in the car ride home, telling me that I was gullible, I hardly listened. Because I hadn’t been gullible; I had been open-minded; something that she wasn’t. But I decided on that car ride home that while I would always seek spirituality, it would never again be in an organized way. I would form my own church called the Church of One, and I would be the only member.

The concept of Karma followed me to my Church of One. I find that when I smile, people often smile back; it seems true that what you put out is what you receive. I know that I choose to live this life with love. And in turn, I am loved.

I don’t know what God is. But if there was an artist who designed the Universe, I stand humbled before him, and thank him for the purple mountains, the sunsets like scoops of sherbet, and the gushing green muscles of the ocean. It is nothing short of magnificent.

I don’t what God is. But I do see repetitions in nature; such as the marijuana leaf that is repeated on the shell of a sand dollar; the branches of trees which resemble our own veins, or the atoms and molecules which are replicas of the solar system. When I notice these patterns, there seems to be order in the chaos. Sometimes I think God is order in the chaos. Sometimes I think he might be a mathematical equation.

I don’t know what God is. But I know there isn’t a place with pearly white gates, and angels with harps sitting on fluffy white clouds. And I know there isn’t a spot where men are tortured with fire and brimstone; a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth for eternity. These concepts are too rudimentary for an artist creative enough to fashion something as inspired as the cosmos. But I do know there is heaven and hell on earth; in every single moment of our lives and in every single choice. Everything is a compilation of Yin and Yang, half black and half white. And the notion of heaven and hell can only be a metaphor and fable, for the dichotomy of being alive. Along with everything positive, comes an equally powerful negative.

I know that science explains much of the mystery of our world. But I also know we don’t know everything. To believe that we do is arrogant and supercilious; it is hubris. We only have a piece of the puzzle, of that I am sure.

I know that the only perfection is in imperfection.

I don’t know what faith is. I don’t trust much of what I see around me. But I have faith that I will never know. I have faith that I will die.

I don’t know what miracles are. But my body is a miracle. My heart pounding in my chest is a miracle. I marvel to be awake every day, and I honor that gift with being as aware as I can.

I know that whether or not there is an afterlife, or some sort of eternal existence, is not the point. Because I am certain that we have to live this one as if it’s all we have, regardless of the truth. To forfeit what is right before you for some blind faith as to what might be in front of you, seems irrational. We need to live as if there are no second chances; as if there are no rewards or retributions. Heaven and Hell are right here, right now. We have our gifts and we have our punishments, right this very moment.

I know that Judgment Day is today.  You be the Judge.
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Me in Kindergarten

Me in Kindergarten