… a resolving of the conundrum I had felt life to be…The nub…in my ribcage that had been with me as long as I could remember, which I identified as the source of the writing, full of angst and hope, yearning and pain… had gone.
Click to read Part 1 – if you missed it.
Often I felt my body hadn’t been made for this world at all. I was born into burning skin, a nettle shirt. At school we learned about the mythological beast Typhon who lived under the volcano Etna. That was me. I lived in a volcano. Or else a little Typhon lived inside me, belching sulphurous steam that worked its way out through my skin.
They called it eczema, which meant “boiling out.” Bubbles appeared under the dermis and epidermis, broke open into the air, and the itching, weeping, bleeding and so on followed. When my family was living in Oxford, the doctors often sent me to the Radcliffe Infirmary, where I’d lie in crisp sheets through days of lonely relief, feeling numb and safe. When I was home, the district nurse came daily to lay me on a towel and bathe me in antiseptic solution, which smelled like toffee, then wrap me in coal-tar bandages of gray, wet clay, which smelled like chalk.
Because of those old poets of Tang Dynasty China, I decided I had to be a writer. By nineteen, by hook or crook, eczematous or not, I had written my first book. By twenty- four, after a minor breakdown, after a series of “cutting-edge cures” for the eczema— goat milk, chamomile tea, marigold tinctures, kinesthesiology, bioenergetics (the more maverick the cure, the more scientific-sounding its name)—all of which had resulted in immobilizing body-wide flare-ups of the affliction, I was lost in a labyrinthine PhD thesis on Homer and was simultaneously slowly dragging myself through revisions of the book.
Eczema doesn’t only mark the skin. It imprints the psyche. The shame runs deep, clever at reinforcing itself. A stranger’s glance across the street, a brush-off by a teacher— shame looks for shame. The despair can be intense, because in spite of the doctors’ predictions, the disease never seems to end. Year after year you keep passing the landmarks by which it should have left. Every time you think it’s withdrawing, back it comes. And the inaction, the repetitive dead-ends, the self-thwarting that seems to make a kind of sense when your skin is so sensitive and unhappy, when the very air you breathe makes it seethe and convulse—eventually they take their toll. I got depressed.
But finally, out of desperation, I found my way to what really lay behind the old Chinese poets’ lives and work: meditation. A number of them, including Han Shan, had practiced Chan, or Zen. They sat still each day. They let their minds dissolve into the clouds, empty into the river. A bit like Speedy said he had done.
By then I needed it. I got myself trained in transcendental meditation, hoping to follow their example. And it actually started to help. Gradually the daily sitting calmed my nervous system, cleared my mind, and in the stillness, the internal ravages of the disease began to dissipate and release themselves. The slow growth of inner well-being began to “knit up the raveled sleave” of my skin. It’s a long story, involving healers, therapists, doctors, and some wise masters, but I learned and healed enough to finish the original book, land a contract for a second, and get out on the open road as the traveling writer I had wanted to be.
For the best part of two decades, I traveled and wrote. And meditated. Move. Write. Sit. Travel books, poems, articles, novels, novellas. It was awesome. The books never became bestsellers, but prizes and awards came, and the publishers kept offering optimistic advances that bankrolled my strange life. Seven books later, deeper in meditation than ever, married, the momentum of roaming finally easing up, settled in New Mexico, while teaching at a college for Native American students and training under a live Zen master (Joan Rieck Roshi), something else happened, outside all calculation, that didn’t fit at all with my plans.
It had only been a matter of time. I hadn’t realized meditation was a time bomb waiting to go off. It’s a story for another day, but I dropped into the fringes of what those Zen masters and poets of long ago had found. “Body and mind fell away,” as one old master put it. “I fell into the midst of all things,” as another said. Personal agenda evaporated, the drama and story of “me” sloughed off, and a new kind of life emerged, born of a wide silence that pervaded the world, in which all things fizzed with a great peace.
Not all of us want or seek “awakening,” and it was an accident that I stumbled on a path toward it, but when I had a small taste of what it might be, the relief was indescribable.
The sense of freedom, joy, love, the concern for others—all were a kind of sanctuary, a resolving of the conundrum I had felt life to be, worth every ounce of effort to find. And at that point, the writer in me vanished. The nub or node or burr in my ribcage that had been with me as long as I could remember, which I identified as the source of the writing, full of angst and hope, yearning and pain, from which the phrases came—it had gone. And I didn’t miss it. For the first time, I didn’t have to write. That simple fact was like a soft rain falling in a dry land.
I got myself trained in hospice care and started tending people in their last weeks of life. I drove down to the prison on the edge of Santa Fe, where I live with my family, to lead inmates in meditation. My masters appointed me a junior Zen teacher, and a different way of life began. Somehow I had morphed from a troubled, restless writer into a—well, a less troubled meditation coach. Peace became a way of life. I never could have imagined such a possibility, yet here it was.
It was several years down the road that chunks of prose started appearing during my morning sits. Instead of letting them float by, I kept a pen and pad at my side and scribbled them down, mostly as a way of deflecting them, I thought. An old unease stirred: was this a book coming? Was I going to get caught up in all that again—sales, shortlists, the literary pecking order, the elation and despondency, the servitude to a demanding muse? Silence was better, kinder. But the prose kept coming, and one day I mentioned it to a friend, who asked to read it, and without thinking I let him, and he passed it on to an editor, who told me I had half a book and when could she read the rest. And it dawned on me that even a book could be done in a new way, not the old. Instead of being part of a general craving, it could be an offering, a gift, a contribution, not really my own anyway.
As a kid there had been few things I dreaded more than writing thank-you letters. The sense of reluctance, of drudgery, was so intense it made it hard to think of anything to say, even about gifts and treats I had relished: somehow the pleasure there ought to have been would drown in duty. But when I realized what this new book really was, it became the most joyous task, worth trying to do as well as I could. It turned out I did have something more to say, and here was my chance to say it. Many remarkable people had cajoled and coaxed me along the path over the years. The manuscript turned into 300 pages, but really it was all just one word, for them: thanks.