THE WANDERER'S GUIDE TO SAMSARA
since the day after he was born. That was in Virgo and maybe because I have Virgo rising, which means I am destined to become his type, we have always been extremely close. He now lives a few blocks from me, an entire continent away from his mother, my sister the ditzy and glitzy Gemini.
I did not always describe personality with astrological signs but on my 24th birthday, two years before my boy was born, my Manhattan roommate laid a Zodiac book on the birthday table. She wasn’t the type to believe in Mercury retrograde, having banked her faith in designer clothes and men with provenance. But this was the ‘60s so karma ingredients corporate capital couldn’t cook up were served as raw marketing triumphs and she, ever fashionable, bought astrology. When I put down my fork and looked up Capricorn, I saw myself so clearly reflected, fright almost took the dinner out of me. I kept glancing anxiously at the coq au vin for the unseen spy who knew the me nobody knows.
What a relief that was! I was born into a family more anxiously focused on faults than all the geologists in California and I seemed to be their San Andreas: forget the A in French, look at the D in gym and why isn’t your skin better? Why are you so reserved, not perky? What’s wrong with you that you worry about your friends so much and why didn’t you take Finance instead of Creative Writing and shouldn’t your skin be thicker? How could you drop out of law school when I so wanted you to be a lawyer? (I am in my fact writing this only because none of them is standing by to grab the pen and push me outside to play ball and stop being weird.) Crippled by the weight of heavy criticism and feelings of failure for not meeting expectations, I developed breathing difficulties and leg pains, paralyzing aches where confidence should be and thoughts of suicide because it’s hard to grow without sunshine. Now here was the Sun Sign saying I hadn’t failed at all. I was just what the universe ordered when it called for Capricorn.
My friend moved onto a life where there is always something to go buy. The Zodiac launched me into a life where there is always something to go by. It’s the real world where gravity will keep pushing you down and younger people will keep pushing you aside and Scorpios will be far more likely vengeful than Pisces. In it the sun will come up even if you don’t meet the sales quota or do wear last year’s look and every being with any inkling of consciousness will go to any length to avoid pain and any expense to hang on to what pleases them. The Tao which means the way or Dharma which means all knowable phenomena or astrology or Greek mythology are some of its road maps.
The energy that governs this world is the same that animates and governs us and while you may think: “aha chaos theory!” my teacher says it’s here to help you. My friend Nancy who doesn’t believe in anything not headlined in TIME magazine reminds me during front porch chitchats that when she gets confused or brought up short, I promise her the universe provides and now that I've taught her to notice she can’t get over how it delivers. Better than Domino’s. I wanted to buy a small cottage back in Maine but the owner of the one I wanted refused to bargain, which so turned me off I gave up. But eventually I turned the search back on and found a cottage four houses away that was so much better situated and came out to be cheaper. I am still stunned that months ago when my friend Iris got upset by the collapse of a deal struck to move into an apartment because her house had not yet sold, I said there must be a reason the universe is protecting you; then ten days ago her younger sister abruptly died the day before she would have had to move.
There are of course business class ticket holders who believe in Will and Superman and Ayn Rand, take charge types certain what they see and touch is all there is and they can work with that because God is dead and they are in charge now. Sometimes I think the whole ‘60s cultural tug of war was a very raucous argument over what hands are on the steering wheel: will or grace by which I mean destiny and higher power. My grounded goddaughter tells me she’s in therapy because it’s good to have someone see your shit and call you on it. I agree. I do not know how much she pays an hour for doodoo dingdong, but for three shiny pennies the Book of Changes, the ancient Chinese I Ching, with candor and cheekiness does it for me. When I asked about a new man with whom I was out of control in love, it told me I wasn’t going to like the answer, which was that I would always be in second place and that is exactly what turned out no matter how I tried to get it my way.
The real world doesn’t seem to be exclusive like a private club, operating on either or, like nature or nurture, will or fate. It seems to favor “ands.” A young friend recently told me he is in therapy because he has expectations, maybe aspirations, not being met so he feels powerless and depressed. I told him how a dozen years ago another young adult friend came to stay on his way out of college. He had in his baggage a mighty stubborn ambition to get hired by a specific investment bank and kept going there high on expectation. But its rival was the one that offered a position. “What should I do?” he asked anxiously. “Stone walls are red lights you can’t run,” I said. “And you get big headaches butting into them. Doors that open are the go ahead signal. The universe is giving you a green light. You must flow with the Go.” And so he put his will on fate like a jockey on a horse and magically sped along to dizzying heights of professional success, meeting a woman along the way who is now his business and life partner.
At start my boy was easy going and crazy about animals. I would find him at 4 on summer mornings lying on the floor hugging my dog, quietly singing as though she were his confidante. When at 7 he saw a family of seals dive into the water as our boat passed their sunning ledge, he burst into hysterics, terrified our churning motor was now going to chop them up. No BB guns for him, just crayons--he had a knack for graphics. At 12 he loved browsing bookstores and seeing foreign movies and swim racing, even if he didn’t win. His sister, not quite two years younger and a Gemini as outer directed as her mom, was the self-proclaimed winner who hated books and Harvard Square films and fashion not up to the minute cute. She brazenly assured me she was “a material girl just like Madonna” and indeed she consumed everything the culture served on MTV and Gap shelves, shrieking at my comparing her-- when her manicure prevented helping with the dishes--to a Barbie doll. In my sister’s house, my niece had a frilly souvenir stuffed room of her own upstairs; my nephew lived in a windowless space down in the basement.
My boy grew up to be so handsome MTV producers stopped us on a San Francisco street and made him offers he refused, insisting he was not interested. He did not have the confidence to be much interested in anything except perhaps long distance bike riding or sitting in my house watching movie after movie on the excuse that he was going to be a moviemaker soon. So many times he broke my heart, so many times I did not know what to do I broke my own. When he was six or seven, my boy’s father—a man I warned my sister not to marry because he seemed bizarre—revealed psychosis that perfectly matched his own father’s and slammed the door forever on his son. My boy came to stay with me and I picked up the drawings he dropped as he fell asleep at night, each started: Dear Daddy. That was all.
My boy grew into a creative type: he has worked on movie sets in art direction and analyzes scripts. He has patience galore with children. He loves jazz and treasures literature. He aspires to save the whole environment while his new girlfriend is busy saving trees around Lake Tahoe. He doesn’t have much income. His sister, who described her own house to me as “6,000 square feet” and peppers conversation with the saucy “hottie”, complains he is such a loser; he doesn’t hang with happening people. My sister says he’s over 21 now so he’s no longer her problem and anyway she’s busy. His grandfather insists there’s something wrong with him because he’s not trying to get rich, which was my father’s dream. And of course it’s my fault so I should fix him. The Tibetan translation for samsara is korwa which means to go endlessly around and around, blindly spinning.
When a long time meditator asked our teacher why she couldn’t interest her grown children in Dharma, he said: “They haven’t suffered enough.” Who am I to argue when way too much of it including many funerals and the collapse of my orthopedic support system drove me straight to Buddhism. I was out of alphabetical order the evening I took refuge, a confirmation ceremony, having volunteered to be the ears of an L who was hard of hearing. As best as I could detect while the line progressed to G, the lama was naming everybody Karma this and Karma that and the woman I was helping got Karma something also. Then I bowed my head and he said: Pema Chuchi. I was too stunned to move. Somebody gently pushed me and the Rinpoche resumed his Karma litany. During the tea party I learned Pema Chuchi means the flower that blooms from the energy of Dharma. I still don’t know how Ato Rinpoche knew what he was doing. Capricorns are described as the evergreens of the world, the scrawny bedraggled saplings who—unlike those quaking aspens of June-- have the strength to survive the worst of winter and eventually tower, unshakable and forever green.
The sublime poet Mary Oliver says the world calls to you over and over announcing your place in the family of things. When I visited a friend in Vancouver about eight years ago, she was using a book that blends the Chinese annual energy cycles with our monthly Zodiac to spy on the place of the young women her son was dating. Of course I had to look up me and the mirror-like portrait of the conflicted Capricorn Monkey unleashed that birthday déjà vu again. I freaked out yet felt better for it must be true that I picked up take-out karma on the way here. A Capricorn Monkey is, if you don’t believe me, supposed to be creative and know how to tell stories that are very emotional and can make suffering quite moving. That is why my perky Gemini Pig sister is one way, perhaps a buttercup, and moody me is quite another, a slow, steady late bloomer—like Autumn Joy.
Last December my niece had a baby, the next generation. My boy flew across the continent to the 6,000 square foot house two different times and came back the last one to confide that with all the anxious fault finding, bickering and busyness he observes, that boy is “definitely going to be screwed up.” I could see he felt sorry for that little boy the way I felt for him, the way I think the bodhisattvas are supposed to feel for all of us down here because they can see how we fashion so much suffering.
I could also tell my boy was finished being sorry. He had started to see there never was anything wrong with him at all. With the laying on of diaper hands comes the laying on of expectations, opinions and fault finding that feed the egos that make the fashionable world spin around. He was waking up just like the Buddha said to find in the sunshine of actuality the guy under all those opinion clouds was quite okay and very workable to boot. He got a job, he got a girl, he got a less defensive tone in the voice on his answering machine. Last night reading a book by my teacher on Buddha nature or the natural perfection that lies deep in all of us, I came upon this question: “Is there a special way to deal with everyday problems?” and Rinpoche’s answer: “…What ordinary beings do is try to fulfill their own wishes and to do so they have to harm other people. That’s just the nature of ordinary beings so that is how we should expect them to behave. That way our expectations will be met and we won’t suffer.”
The two of us just had dinner to celebrate his birthday, after he went kayaking to stay in training. A while back he took up this new extreme sport called Adventure Racing and evidently made himself a name in it. He has sponsors and pictures in the newspaper and a dynamic website he masterminded to the envy of professionals. I never ask him for details because I don’t want to know my boy ran, paddled and rapelled a three day marathon in the 115 degree desert around Moab, Utah. But now that he was talking with uncharacteristic triumph, I had this funny urge to ask him just what it is he does. “It’s exploration,” he said. “Lewis and Clark type stuff. You get to Start and they tell you where the finish line is and then it’s up to you to find your way there.”
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