Yours in the Dharma:  Essays from a Buddhist perspective by Sandy Garson

This blog, Yours in the Dharma by Sandy Garson, is an effort to navigate life between the fast track and the breakdown lane, on the Buddhist path. It tries to use a heritage of precious, ancient teachings to steer clear of today's pain and confusion to clear the path to what's truly happening.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Losing It

  I have reached the point where I am forgetting so much, I don’t remember what I forgot. I just learned this from a zipper. Since someone who knows California apparently got a message to Rain Down This Drought Now, I’ve had to spend a lot of time in the shiny green Gore-tex raincoat I’ve had for about 15 years. For nearly a week, that green slicker went from my body to the bathtub and back on my body. Until the morning last week I put it on, pulled and, damn, the front zipper wouldn’t zip. Even when I went and got my glasses to thoroughly examine the situation. Even when I put a flashlight on it.  As the Karmapas like to say: Nothing happened.

This broke my heart. I have trusted that raincoat for years. It has flapped, zipped pockets and inside mesh pockets, a hood, knee length, water repellancy--everything you need to be singing in the rain. I didn’t want to replace it with today’s shoddy flimflam.  I didn't want to not have it anymore. But I didn’t want to get soaked wearing a raincoat that kept flopping open. So on the morning the downpours and high winds ceased for a second, I trotted the seven blocks to the Chinese tailor, hoping she had the magic to replace the zipper. Or at least know whether a shoemaker could.

I was so happy to see she did pretty much what I did: try to hook the bottom pieces together a few times, reach for her glasses and try again; put it under stronger light and try anew. Then she did something I did not do: she looked further up the zipper. Apparently she was able to remember an up and down zipper that wants to work both ends against the middle has two connectors. She found the top grip, the one with the pull, the one that has to click into two pieces at the bottom so it can glide to the top. It was up at the neck. “See,” she said brightly, zipping it down, “you put that into these two. Now fine.”

You would have thought I was Ms Holiday Spirit herself, standing there with a red face and a green coat. I had been a ditz in public. Here I thought these lapses were only happening in the privacy of my own life where I have been trying to control them.  I Google the line of lyric that haunts my head to find song titles I forget (spoiler alert: you can actually find the li li li li song there…). I use an old red leather pocket address book to get phone numbers I suddenly can’t remember, numbers I don’t remember I forgot to enter as Contacts on my iPhone. I take the kitchen timer with me anytime I have something on the stove, which, when I don't go to another room and forget about it too, has saved a few pots from burning to death.

I also make lists. Faithfully I write down what I must remember to do each day. Only now rather fatefully,  each day when I go out to do it, I do not remember I forgot to take my To Do list with me. And I do not even remember that. Some days when I come home, I’m even surprised to discover I actually made a list because nothing I was just so busy doing was on it.

At least only I knew that. Now others are finding out that I am losing it, which is like having your slip showing. Yesterday I didn’t remember I forgot to put a stamp on a holiday card. Actually, I am not sending greeting cards this year. On purpose I didn’t buy any. But I did have two left from last year, and the minute after I opened a very expensive card sent by a childhood friend, I dug one out. I absolutely had to send her one to prove I wasn’t totally over the edge because last month for the first time since we were kids, I missed her birthday. Entirely. I remembered that when her holiday card came. I had to do something. I wrote a lovely long message on my leftover card and sealed it up.

I gathered up her card with two bills I’d sealed the night before and went down the block to the post office, which has four mailboxes out in front. I was maybe 20 yards from the first of them when I noticed her card had no stamp on it. Another lapse! Immediately I turned around and starting walking home.  I’d gone maybe 10 yards when a voice popped up in my head: “Idiot! Why are you taking the stamped mail back? Just put those two in the mailbox and then go home.” This made me hesitate, stop, turn around, turn back around, take a step, turn around and walk back to the mailboxes where I dropped the two bills, making extra effort to cling for dear life to that unstamped card.

When I turned to walk home, I noticed a middle aged man nearby. He had watched my little backward forward ballet. He had a chary look on his face and a disbelieving pity in his eyes. He smiled knowingly before he walked the other way.

What I am getting for Christmas is dread. What I am getting is so out of sync with the season’s joy to the world, I want to convince myself I should just loose a hardy Ho Ho Ho at being so MIA. I should dismiss my failings with a big belly laugh and embrace ditzhood. It’s so… now. 

On the other hand, in this age when failure is not supposed to be an option, I could just fahgettaboutit. I could stop caring and worrying about being Mistaken in Action. I could just try to be more like our elected President  and all the people around him who don’t have to worry about their mistakes or even learn from them because they never acknowledge they make any. Ha ha.

It doesn’t help to remember my grandmother was 93 when she first completely forgot a phone number past all recall. It sent her into quite a tizzy.  “You have to help me!” she screamed, obviously able to remember my number. “You have to come here and do something. I’m senile now. I just went to call Gladys (her niece) and couldn’t remember her number. It’s happened to me. I’m senile. Do something!” 

At the time I was laughing so much I could barely get words out. “Nanny, calm down. Just calm down. You’re fine. Trust me. If you really were senile you wouldn’t know that. You wouldn’t know you forgot a phone number or even whose it was. You’re just fine.” Now I don’t see one bit of ho ho ho in there.

I definitely did not laugh last weekend when I couldn’t find my favorite little utility knife, the 3” serrated one with a black plastic handle. It has been my reach for snack slicer (fruits, cheeses, hard boiled eggs, pastries) for at least a decade and suddenly it was gone. It wasn’t on the knife rack, wasn’t in the sink, wasn’t in the plastic utensil bin of the metal drying rack on the counter. It wasn’t even on the floor under the stove or in the recycling bin. That’s how hard I searched. What kind of loony tune would break into my apartment, leave everything perfectly neat, not touch the computer and just take a 3” serrated knife? Really. That is what I thought. The world’s gone mad, and everybody’s looking for some attack weapon or other, so they took my little knife. 

How else to explain my knife as gone as a sock in a washing machine, as lost as America’s democracy, due diligence, dignity, decency, derring-do and downright honesty.

It really hurts not to reach what you always reach for. Not a good kind of emptiness. I’ve had to adjust to another new reality. Learn to make do in reduced circumstance. The old steak knife stuck in oblivion on the magnetic bar cuts apples, cheese and fig cake just fine, but I missed my favorite knife, like I miss living in a can-do country that can always cut it.

This morning I reached for the rubber spatula in my canister of cooking utensils and discovered I had two things in my grip: the long handled white spatula and my 3” serrated knife. There it was! Ms Ditz had somehow put it not in the usual and therefore wrong place where she didn't think to look.

Right there, I had to stop doing anything and everything. I had to sit down with a cup of tea. How worried should I be that I am really losing it? Of course I did remember I had that knife. I did remember I lost it and I did look for it in all the usual places. I did finally remember I forgot my friend's birthday. When my friend Joan’s mother was diagnosed with true dementia, the doctor told her a diagnosis of real dementia is made like this: did she just forget where she put the soup spoon or did she take the entire silverware tray and put it in the trunk of the car thinking that was the kitchen drawer.

You better believe I immediately ran to check the trunk of my car for the nail clippers missing three days now. Thank Buddha they were not there. Still, they are not in the medicine cabinet, not in any of my travel pouches, nowhere in the crannies behind the toilet on the bathroom floor. I got down and checked. They are nowhere to be found.  Honestly, I just cannot for the life of me imagine why a thief would break into my apartment, leave everything in tact, not even touch my computer or iPad and just take an old pair nail clippers. Has the world gone that mad or is it me?

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Needy: A Selfie

My mother never let me open a Christmas present without first reading one of the famously published Neediest Cases.  That's probably how I developed what Buddhists call habitual tendency to think of this annual moment as Neediest time. And that's probably how I suddenly got focused on the whole idea of neediness. And straightaway of course got focused on me.

What a gadzooks this has been. I always thought a big part of Buddhist practice was keeping my mind on a diet, so I would reduce my life to its Zen: essentials only. I have tried. Egads, have I tried. I have let go of one spending opportunity after another: a movie, a membership, an airplane trip, a pair of shoes I really really wanted. I have passed up, passed by and passed on (tiz the season for Goodwill). Sometime back I turned into thrifty with a hint of miser--except when other people honestly need a little help. I am no Scrooge.

 I thought I was fit enough by now to be extra vigilant in this post turkey season. I was secretly jolly about my lack of folly. I thought I could definitely handle the uphill slog, the cold swim against a storm tide. After all, everybody knows gobble day launches all out gobbling up, i.e. the spending season. Get out the tree ornament, wrapping paper and compassion time is get out the wallet time. And just in case there's an ET around, hints and cues for what Buddhists call real letting go bomb from every direction. You just never know how needy you are until December. Got chestnuts roasting on an open fire?

As I said, I was sure long exposure let me build immunity to these inflections and no longer be among the needy. My practice ha been to--ahem, pardon me, Buddhists --not detach from my money. Perfect that nobody was expecting Christmas gifts from me, except perhaps one four-year-old. Good that I didn't feel I had to rush to replace the two juice/water glasses other people broke. I was not getting suckered into the jaws of shopnado. Not me. So that me has been shocked, shocked to discover my wallet is hemorrhaging and my credit card is feverish. 

It took me a week to write this, dumbfounded as I am by how infected by neediness a determined not needy person can be. I needed shampoo, conditioner, sensitive dry skin face cream, sensitive gums toothpaste, laundry detergent, clock batteries, a garage door remote battery, wood floor cleaner, mop to replace the missing, and food to eat at the same time I needed to buy my godson's newborn a gift and replace a lost pair of reach-for gray wools socks. I needed a new bath rug to replace the five-year-old one that was badly frayed, torn and stained--if I didn't want to fall on the marble floor. I needed a haircut. I needed new pads inside the yellow leather sneakers slightly too big without them. I needed toilet paper and Kleenex.  I needed to replace the old metal towel ring that finally fell off. I needed more jars to seal my quince jam in. I needed tins for my annual bout of spiced walnut and pumpkin seed production--gifts for the year to come. I needed gas in my car and coffee in my pot. I needed to pay for the dinner I ate out meeting an old friend. I needed to mail a birthday package of homemade goodies to a young friend. I needed a new water filter in my Brita pitcher. I needed more food to eat. I needed a little dry cleaning. I needed... needed ...okay, wanted at least one set of towels that wasn't thin, scratchy and water-resistant after ten years of constant use. 

If you need an end to this story, you need to know there won't be one. Recent research, mine, (see above) reveals needs are endless. That is the gadzooks. Evidently, those of us not among the neediest cases are nevertheless still among the needy.

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Thursday, December 04, 2014

More Well Chosen Words You Can Quote

 "Change is possible at any second because change is happening every second." --Ringu Tulku

"If we have no regard for inanimate objects, our neglect will expand to our dealings with other sentient beings." ---Traleg Rinpoche

"The only real meaning we can give to our being born on this planet — and in particular being born as human beings on this planet — and the only really meaningful result that we can show for our lives is to have helped the world: to have helped our friends, to have helped all the beings on this planet as much as we can."  --Thrangu Rinpoche

"We often hear what we want to hear, or even what we are afraid of hearing, because our receptivity is so intermingled with our fears, desires and expectations. ...There is often a tremendous gap between what a speaker intends and we we actually hear... ." --Traleg Rinpoche

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Friday, November 28, 2014

Thanksgiving Talk

I am in a waterless retreat cabin on a mountainside in Northern California with three statues to meditate with, four sadhanas to practice and a three books to study in between. While my mind is calm and my eyes are reading, certain sentences in those books jump off the page and stare me down. Since I've noticed lately that almost everything people post on Facebook and on simpleton sites like Beliefnet are quotes they think makes their life feel better, I thought I'd share my harvest of the last 48 hours.

"The concept and the reality are quite different. Often we mix these up. Concepts are in the head, and experience is in the heart.  That is why it is sometimes said that the longest journey we take is the journey from the head to the heart."   Ringu Tulku

"...we may occasionally not feel much devotion to what the guru looks like or how he behaves or talks. But the object of trust in ths relationship with our guru should actually be the teachings that he gives--the Dharma--that are no different from the teachings of the Buddha. The effectiveness of the teachings does not depend upon the guru's looks or what he does or how he speaks."  Thrangu Rinpoche

"By recognizing that we put ourselves through more unnecessary turmoil and suffering than anybody else could ever possibly inflict on us, we will respond to whatever other people subject us to in a more relaxed and effective way"   Traleg Rinpoche

"One important thing to remember about obstacles is that they are not permanent." Ringu Tulku

"The reality of our mind may seem very deep and difficult to understand; but it may also be something simple and easy because this mind is not somewhere else. It is not somebody else's mind, it is your own mind, it is right here; therefore it is something you can know." --Thrangu Rinpoche

"It is not true that we only develop when we feel loved, cared for, appreciated, respected and admired; we also grow when we are despised, belittled, held back and denigrated. If we use our own intelligence--the Dharma type of intelligence--we will find a way to grow through these situations."   --Traleg Rinpoche

"We need to go beyond our past, because otherwise it is all too much and we feel overwhelmed. We cannot resolve each and every thing that ever happened to us, even if we could remember them all. If we could see all the unconscious baggage we carry around with us, even a big garbage dump might not contain it all. We can't work on all these problems one by one. What we need is a total transformation."   Ringu Tulku

Friday, November 21, 2014

Now Uber Alles

In case nobody else has told you yet, the antiques business has died, victim of the highly contagious Wow Now virus spreading unchecked across America. Friends who've spent 40 years patiently purveying six and seven figure 18th Century pieces of American perfection described their most recent shows as "dismal", "disappointing" and "devastating. Nobody wants what we have."  On the opposite side of the country, a friend in the business of selling Asian folk antiques for 25 years said the past two years have been "dreary and discouraging. What am I going to do with all this stuff?" 

I feel their pain. I can't get rid of my great uncle's complete set of 19th Century gold rimmed Limoges china or sell the gold and gemstone jewelry my grandparents paid part of their fortune for. I can't even find a taker for two Cambodian sandstone statues that were supposed to have been "an investment." So much for the new sharing economy.

You may be thinking: My my, so what? No biggie. Who cares about antiques? That's so...old. I am thinking: this is huge. This is so new. Now what? We are drowning in hoopla and hyped up happiness about a new sharing economy that's going to revolutionize everything, and nobody tells you it's pretty damned picky and choosy about what you can share. Mostly just the stuff teenage boys want: a sleeping couch, a ride, elbow grease, and home delivery for everything, so they never have to deal with real people. Nobody wants to say to real people with wisdom and treasures: "Thank you for sharing."

America's obsession with shiny new has run amok, trampling the past and turning age into a leper nobody dares to touch. People are so afraid of being infected, the botox business is booming. Plastic surgery is the highest grossing medical profession. The hippest words of the day are baby talk: hoodie, wheelie, selfie, my bad.   

It's come to this: computers are allowed to have more and more useful memory, but grownups aren't welcome to have any. Haven't you noticed the only Beatles song you never hear replayed is I Believe in Yesterday. Really, who does that anymore? Everybody is too busy avoiding yesterday's ideas, heroes and arts like toxic waste. Remember how last month, Democrats couldn't bring themselves to utter the letters FDR or JFK. You can see how we are so over precedent and predecessors in all those recent Supreme Court Decisions. Last week the University of Maine announced it was axing its American and Franco-American studies programs to save money. Well, I will bet you this is the last school to toss history in the garbage. I know because I watch Jeopardy. I see how all those under 30 wunderkinds who instantly buzz for the name, label or title of every pop song and movie of the last decade or two are totally silenced by far more famous events or personalities before 1980. It just flabbergasts me how clueless those so-called smarties are about General Westmoreland, Walter Winchell, Fred Astaire and the OSS. 

Let me put this situation in terms I really understand: food. Our culture is propelled by the sort of people who refuse to eat and throw away leftovers. Leftovers! Often the best part of the meal!  Silly me who hungers for a leftover that's been on the table for 2,600 years. I spend 27 years trying to fathom that old Buddha's teachings, trying to adapt myself to authentic meditation practices, hand-me-downs in Tibet for at least 1,200 years. It's been a formidable struggle and now I discover a 30-something former fashion magazine editor and makeover maven spent a meditation week with Oprah and a month of mindfulness, and immediately morphed into a "spiritual entrepreneur." No sweat. She simply adapted the Dharma to herself, to have it her way like a hamburger--I'll take mine with ketchup and no onions-- and opened a drop-in, Buddha-free, time-sensitive meditation center where type As can calm down. It's in LA and it's called Unplugged. She sees it as the first of a chain. 

Well, I'd also call that unplugged.  Definitely. She has pulled the plug on the millennia of lamas and gurus and Rinpoches fiercely devoted to making sure we were handed down unpolluted Dharma. I see that as the end of a chain.

Don't get me wrong. I am Buddhist. I believe in Now. I try to live in the moment, carpe diem and all that. But Now has gone wild. I don't think the Buddha meant living in now as a child's tantrum against hand-me-downs. He didn't teach people to get obsessed with innovation, novelty, youth, freshness, interruption and disruption for its own sake--all new all the time.

New Age seems to mean nothing is allowed to last. Everything has to have an inviolable expiration date. Food, credit cards, drugs, warranties, operating systems, marriages, that Asian antique Shakyamuni Buddha. Sometimes expiration dates aren't stamped on stuff; you're just supposed to intuit. How embarrassing, one of those highly manicured and polished department store cosmetic cuties scrunched her face into a big Ooo after I confessed my lipstick was probably a year or two old. "You can't use that!" she exclaimed. When I scrunched my face into the big Ooo of Why?, she smiled brightly. "Because ... well,'s so old, it's probably no good any more. You need to change it every six months before it gets too full of germs and stuff."

Well, I am going to share something: as a Buddhist I appreciate impermanence, but since it hasn't killed me yet, I use the same germy lipstick 'til it's used up. I'm even okay plugged into the original Buddha's instructions. I am so old age, I drive my tech genie bonkers by working on a six-year-old computer that he considers antique. Worse, I refused to upgrade my IOS from 6 because it was working just fine when the new IOS 7 was busy crashing everybody else's iPad and phone. I didn't even jump right up to 8 when it was introduced. Hell, my iPhone is 2 years old and six weeks ago, I was due for an upgrade, but why rush to ditch something familiar that works just fine on trusty old IOS 6?

I know in this age of short term profiting, long term thinking makes me a freak. So pity me, please. I suffer from a handicap. I grew up when things were built to last. I came of age when tomatoes weren't the only acceptable heirloom. Mad Men era revelations about planned obsolescence unleashed culture shock. Who suspected Chrysler was making cars doomed to die at 60,000 miles just so they could sell more of them? Who knew that would lead to cosmetic counter clerks dissing my lipstick just so they can manipulate me into buying a new one.

Of course, you could say: Ho hum, no biggie. Planned obsolescence was not exactly a new idea of the '50s and already 2600 years ago the Buddha taught impermanence. You'd be right. My eyes are failing and my hormones have evaporated. That's planned obsolescence right there. Impermanence was in the original Mom and Pop business plan and it's worked out so well, Mother Nature and Father Time are still turning out products not carelessly made in China. For instance, me. I am the result of long term strategy and antiques. My parts that broke down lasted 50 and 70 years. They may be gone, but I'm still here, running smoothly. I was built to last a lifetime.

Or so I thought. With all these antique hating newbies so busy disrupting, instead of a lifetime, instead of the high life or the good life or the examined life, whatever you want to call fourscore years and ten, I now have a shelf life. Old is the New Fat. I saw that headline. My eyesight is not that bad. I saw: Old is the New Fat. Here's the story: Being grownup is dreadful; don't go there.  Everybody is ducking from dignity and running from anything that indicates age, because unless you happen to be a bottle of wine, being old makes you contemptible. You are so not Now, nobody wants to be seen with you. You are just a fathead.

Well, what to do? I have gained experience, added huge amounts of memory and pumped up my perspective. And now people dread having to sit next to a fathead like me in the ever shrinking coach cabin.

The eye doctor says I have cataracts, and I see them ruining my night vision. But cataracts are not blinders. They have not clouded my long view or blocked my wide angle perspective. I see context-- the fat. That makes my thinking nowhere near so thin or nearsighted as a 25-year-old's. I don't have a problem with that, but apparently twenty-five-year-olds do. The new young male editor of the Internet daily I used to opine for passed on my proposed piece showing fashionably novel and highly trumpeted services like Uber and Airbnb to actually be nothing new, just iterations of traditional ways to solve the age-old "servant problem."

What to do? Twenty-five-year-olds don't want me to share the news that they're not unplugged after all. They're just another moment in a continuum, not sky splitting, Earth-shattering special creatures after all. When tomorrow is now, they're going to be antiques.

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Monday, November 17, 2014

Happiness Express

I want to share most recently heard words of wisdom about the sort of happiness you can't get with a credit card or find under the Christmas tree.

From Thich Nhat Han: Success and happiness are not the same thing. People often become the victim of their success but nobody ever becomes the victim of their happiness. 

From Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche: If one can benefit one sentient being, then there will be great appreciation and delight. If one benefits another being, then again there is delight and joy. In this way it becomes an endless ocean of joy. Compared to this great happiness, it is not that enjoyable to reach liberation just for oneself. 

From Ringu Tulku Rinpoche: There is an old saying in India that goes something like this. If you want to be happy for an hour, have a beer. If you want to be happy for a day, go on a picnic. If you want to be happy for a week, find a project to work on. If you want to be happy for a month, get married. (Everybody loves that line.) If you want to be happy for a year, pile up some money. If you want to be happy forever, take the Dharma teachings to heart and practice them.

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Highway as the Path

With precision that was really freaky, I pulled into my driveway in San Francisco with the clock in the exact position it had two Fridays before when I pulled out of my driveway in Maine. I had gone the distance. It included breath biting moments of stomach churning panic, most memorably in the sleet and high winds both outside Chicago and just inside Colorado when I needed to get around speeding double barreled semis whose rear trucks could not stop fishtailing. Also hairy moments when the gas tank icon  flashed and not one sign of civilization beckoned over the horizon. But mostly the zigzag 3,500 mile crossing from sea to shining sea was flawless: no car break-in or vandalism, no speeding ticket, no fender bender or call to AAA, no soul scorching drive across the vast emptiness with Jesus signs that is Kansas. Nebraska was far less mind numbing. Instead of Jesus billboards, it offered rest stops with toilets.

The beauty of a home run like this is never having to go through an airport. Still, as the French say, "il faut soufrire pour la beauté." Even before I pulled out of my driveway, every cell of me dreaded crossing the interior of this massive continent knowing it involves crossing menacingly long, scary swaths of twilight zone with nobody out there. Nothing warm, cozy, familiar or inviting. No fresh food or good coffee. Just eerie desert emptiness garnished with an occasional battered pickup truck or Gas'n'Go whose idea of sustenance is every kind of chip, soda and candy in existence. 

America's flat out soulless stretches can make a woman afraid, very afraid not just of car trouble and foul food, but terrified to the core of all variations of lonesome road macho and that unique American version of highway robbery known as civil forfeiture. (Read all about it.) That terrified me when one remote highway in Nebraska suddenly sank from a 70 to a 60 mph speed limit, because I was convinced  I was in a cop trap. Any minute my car and all my things packed in it were going to be confiscated by a nasty predator in police clothes.  What to do? Stay at 70 praying hard to get out of there, or slow way down and sit in the car worrying--and waiting for a toilet-- longer?

I get why we call this alien world a flyover zone. I tried flying through it in my car. Truth told, I am a speed demon, a daredevil hellbent on exceeding limits. The sign says: 70; I say: ok 79. You'd think I'd be zooming through Samsara toward Nirvana the way I charge to appointments, parties and provisioning, determined to get where I am going and get going. I am a notoriously impatient driver who has made passengers scream in panic.  On this trip, I sometimes scared the hell out of myself, like when I discovered I was hurtling over the flat brown wasteland called Nevada between 95 and 100 mph.

I like believing my good luck in never being stopped, hit, robbed, waylaid or wetting my pants before I saw a restroom sign means the Force was with me. I like believing it rode sidesaddle to protect me because I chose to start this journey with a karmic reboot: a weekend of teaching and prayers at the monastery in Woodstock. There I was surrounded by dozens of people aged and teen, male and female, manicured and not, Indian and African and Chinese, who like me had driven for hours to get there and get from a visiting Rinpoche more of the Buddha's prescription for eradicating unhappiness. In the dining hall, I met an astonishingly well read, retired teacher from west of Toronto (a seven-hour drive); an every weekend Dharma teaching somewhere Chinese-American who drove five hours from the DC Beltway; a stately tall, gray haired woman from Boston's north shore, and an art history sylph from Vassar who had stubbornly dedicated five years to her dream project: combining her two passions into an about to open special exhibit featuring representations of Chenrezig/Avalokiteshvara/Kwan Yin, the great pan Asian deity of compassion.

The monastery experience of sacred outlook and shared aspiration for the secret of happiness fixed my focus for the rest of the journey. I kept noticing how everyone I came across was groping in their blind way away from discontent toward their illusion of happiness. It wasn't just silly me pushing myself through a grueling road trip because I feel insanely happy in Maine except in winter when my health gets threatened so I have to get out. There was the bony, middle-aged waitress at the farm to table bistro in Reno who, hearing I'd just driven over 3,000 to eat that wood grilled cauliflower, confided she'd moved there only a month ago to get out of Seattle's endless rain. "Finally, sun!" she said, turning her face toward the sky.  I smiled knowingly at the retired military officer in Colorado who was putting aside his Corvette and packing up his Airstream to spend time in Death Valley.

Then there was the Lake Michigan BnB owner who posted rules everywhere to regiment her guests' behavior to her liking. Guests were only allowed to arrive between 4 and 6 PM. Breakfast was served only at 9 AM and was what she chose to prepare--even when I couldn't eat most of it. Nothing was without a rule. The small bathroom sink had two posted: "Don't use the dark towels if you use cosmetics or toothpaste that contains peroxide." "Don't use the white towels when washing off makeup or lipstick."  I would have had to stay an extra day just to read every sign she'd put up.

A lone woman traveling long distance, a stranger in a strange land (how else would you feel when in Nebraska Caesar salad means iceberg lettuce with tomatoes, cucumbers and packaged croutons?), actually relies on the kindness of strangers. At almost every restaurant dinner, empathy translated into extra good service. The young waiter at an airport Doubletree Hotel Restaurant was so pleased I liked the roasted red pepper soup, he brought me a huge chocolate chip cookie. The chef/owner of a Midwest farm to table restaurant came out of the kitchen to sit with me after his waiter told him how amazed he was I knew the Robouchon potatoes were named for famed French chef Joel Robouchon.

The young woman in a silly pigtail Halloween costume behind the front desk of a downtown Des Moines hotel was so moved when I told her how back achy and weary I was after a 7 hour drive, and why i won't eat roadstop food, she left a gift bag of goodies at my door with this note: "I know you have had a long trip so we put together a little bag for you to have a good night and safe travels tomorrow."  The man with the pregnancy paunch standing in front of the elevator in Salt Lake City when I was going down to check out, asked if I'd had a good sleep. "Yes, thank you," I said. "Well that's good to hear," he said, "because making sure everyone in this hotel gets a good night's sleep is my job. I'm the engineer here. Is there anything I could help you with before you leave?" 

I caught myself reaching out to grasp at the one known in the middle of nowhere: voices on the radio. Twice or even three times a day, I frantically fiddled with the dial, desperate not to get cut off from my "friends."  "This is NPR news. I'm Lakshmi Singh." "I'm Robert Segal and I'm Audie Cornish."  "I'm Terry Gross and this is Fresh Air." I listened to the same rerun of Car Talk twice in a row because I had to change stations at state lines. At night, I clung to my iPad, surfing from one familiar newspaper to another, trying to feel at home thousands of miles from it. 

I felt a little less alone. But of course I was totally alone, hurtling along mind numbing interstates, connected to nothing and no one, affecting no spin of the universe, not mattering a whit in any way. Funny enough, that's exactly how the Buddha described reality for every one of us: all lone strangers, nomads blinding wandering the path to death by chasing our delusions.   

Midway through my 3,500 miles of driving, I began to realize road signage is actually an expression of politeness, a basic decency. Road signs are a guide to the unfamiliar. You don't realize how crucial this kindness of strangers is until you are at an intersection or off ramp and don't know where to go. Iowa showed especially great compassion with bright, simple signs almost everywhere for just about everything including how far you had to keep going downtown to get to the interstate. It was profound comfort to find somebody cared whether or not I got where I wanted to go. It was epithet deleted road rage to be in Colorado, the Rhett Butler state that frankly doesn't give a damn. Colorado can't be bothered posting detour directions at temporarily closed highway ramps, of which there were at least a half dozen. Perhaps even nastier, it posts signs for interstate rest areas and off-ramps just after you have passed them.

In spite of Colorado, I got where I was going, on time and without obstacle. Of course that was a happiness, yes indeed, until I came inside and put my altar back in place. That's when I realized my long, lonely fear strewn journey between two delineated points wasn't just a momentary car trip. How fast I flew down highways to get to the other side of the country; how slowly I poke along the Path to get to enlightenment. What a huge Yikes!

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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