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.

Saturday, January 27, 2007


I recently stared down another birthday and tossed a glass of champagne at it. You could call that my 21 done salute. Everyone else in America thinks aging is scarier than a terrorist attack, because odds are they will escape that. But now that I am up there, as others say, where the view is aerial, when I dare look back and see the only white face in the back alleys of Nairobi, the only woman in red on the boulevard of communist Kiev, the only one who got away from an armed mugger in Manhattan, I terrify myself. What was I thinking? Or more accurately: Was I thinking? I see the merit in what the late prize fighter Joe E. Lewis said at his retirement: “No, I don’t want to be 25 again. I don’t have the strength to be that stupid.”

So, I am not adverse to birthdays. I just think of every year after 40 as value added tax.

Actually, I feel proprietary about the day I call my own, especially when I have to wait 364 days to get it back. I stubbornly want it to stand out from the ordinary ones spent in a cubicle or having the brakes checked. A Tibetan monk once complained to me that Americans make too big a deal over birthdays. I did not remind him that other people around the planet celebrate his guru’s with long life prayers and cake too because birthdays matter. Even to Buddhists.

I think birthdays are a big deal because they are the deal. They’re the anniversary of our coming out, and that moment of our debut was no haphazard accident. It was the first show of the take-out karma we brought with us and are stuck with as our own weapon of mess destruction. Ask the Chinese, the Greeks or Google 5,000 years worth of horoscopes and astrological predictions. A Capricorn is not a Gemini, a Monkey is not a Pig and Type-A has way too much nervous energy to be an old soul. I am always stunned –no, make that frightened-- by the pinpoint personality accuracy of the late Joan Quigley’s Astrology for Adults. Did you know those born under the influence of planets around 1942 were destined to make music? Think Dylan, Joplin, Baez, Hendricks, Garcia, Rowan, Streisand, McCartney, Jagger, James Taylor, Beachboy Wilson and iPods full of et al.

Birthdays also seem to arrange cosmic feng shui or maybe they’re just magnetic pull, because looking back, I see my life’s most influential events all clustered in the immediate vicinity of mine. Days before or after it, I bought my two most life-changing houses, met all three great loves, first went to Asia, had my first encounter up close and personal with Dharma. Plus, I seem to know a lot of people who have birthdays around the time I do.

The mystical Hebrew Kabala says if you meet someone who shares your exact day and hour of birth, they will bring you a message. Since I first heard about this, I have tried to be a heat seeking missile that would strike my cosmic twin. Alas, I am still striking out, because most people don’t know what hour they were born. Even when they do, the whole confusing algebra of time zones is impossible to reckon with, and determining the simultaneous moment seems key. My day and year birthday mate, the handsome Venetian Renzo, only left messages about where to meet him after work. The saleswoman Janice, born in Minnesota in the very blizzard of my debut in Pennsylvania, called only when my size came in.

As a teenager I used to wonder if there was a message in being born on Elvis Presley’s birthday when he soaked up so much attention. But as I aged, I realized the message was: I have discriminating wisdom. Having come out as quickly as I did, I spared myself being born after midnight and stuck sharing my day with Richard Nixon. For everyone, my birth day was the happier one.

Happy is the point of birthdays, isn’t it? Everyone is supposed to give you presents or take you to lunch. Friends flood the mail with cheery cards. Employers give you the day off. Restaurants feed you for free or at least send out a surprise cupcake with a candle in it. This year the gate agent for United, hearing my flight had been cancelled without warning, treated me to First Class on another one. For one brief shining moment, everybody wants you to be happy. Happy birthday to you.

Of course, happiness, like everything else, changes. My first birthdays just needed ice cream and cake or not losing at musical chairs to be happy. It helped at six to get a doll coach big as a baby’s. Sixteen needed the spice of glitz and guys to go with a driver’s license, twenty-one a drink in public without worry about being carded. O to be carded now! My 30s had some trips south to a palmy beach, 40 was a family affair and the big five uh-oh was celebrated at a round table surrounded by my oldest friends, people who knew me before I was 21 and had not cried uncle yet. By then, almost everything in the world had changed except those familiar faces, so celebrating loyalty and longevity made me happy.

This year, I went off to spend the first half of my day with two remaining older family members, my maternal aunt and uncle, married almost 65 years. My uncle is on the cusp of 90 with two new knees and, although she still shows no gray hair and dresses fashionably, my aunt is en route to 86. I interrupted their schedule: yoga, email, a two-mile walk, a university class, an appointment to upgrade computer skills. “You have to keep moving,” my aunt warned, “mentally and physically.” This made me recall her mother, my grandmother who died days short of 98, warning me never to look back but always forward to something new. Seeing my life’s most familiar faces one more time, and looking forward to maybe having such resiliency, resourcefulness and genes made me very happy.

I spent the end of the day with a man and a woman half my age—two of my favorite human beings. An older friend once confessed his mother advised him to make younger friends so as he aged and his contemporaries disappeared, he’d still have people to be with. He’d stay in touch. As he sadly reminded me recently, except for me, he didn’t follow the advice, but I sure did. These two thirty-somethings met each other through me and have since become such close friends, together they planned an evening for me at a restaurant they decided I would like. That they volunteered to be with an old lady when they could’ve been more with it made me very happy.

So I was dismayed to come home to find I would now have to share my day with a 15-year-old from luxurious Marin County who chose it to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge and kill himself. The belated front page headline said: Parents reflect, schools mobilize to curb suicide, High achieving teens often don’t exhibit typical warning signs. It followed the front page headline: Fatal jumps from bridge rise sharply. Psychologists said when young people have it all, all includes a secret plan to commit suicide. The death graph went inexorably up like my age.

Unhappiness appears to be the new plague but I don’t think we should rush to blame the planets. The next day the page two story claimed 80% of 18-25 year olds think getting rich is life’s top goal. Several paragraphs down the title of a professor’s new book was mentioned: Why Today’s Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before.

The good news--in time for my birthday--was in the paper of record, coming from the other coast. The economy that exists to find a need and fill it-- the people who brought us harvest gold appliances, six gazillion thread count sheets, A-lists, e-commerce, iPod, Oprah and UTube -- is now going to bring us happiness. There are life coaches working as happiness trainers (You vil be happy!). An accredited university offers a seminar called Happiness 101 and a board certified shrink is figuring out algorithm-like formulas guaranteed to produce it for you every time, like a web page. Or you can just wallpaper your room with Smileys.

The Buddha was of course the original life fitness coach who understood that every human being is a missile desperately seeking happiness. But he was very clear it wasn’t going to be found in the phone book. “No situation can become favorable,” a guru said, “until you are able to adapt to it and don’t wear yourself out with mistaken resistance.”

As it happens, life is a situation. On my actual day of birth a diamond was bought for me and I was carried “home” to a mansion that had cooks and maids and a chauffeur polishing the Cadillac in the garage. That house had Waterford crystal chandeliers, a paneled library, marine paintings and all the accoutrements today’s nouveau riche so lasciviously acquire. We dined in hotel ballrooms serenaded by gypsy fiddlers. My parent’s little house even had the first TV set on the block. But none of it made me or us happy. Anyway, I don’t have any of it any more. My circumstances are greatly reduced. Yet because I’m not young or stupid enough to confuse net worth with self worth and feel worthless, my birthday was insanely happy.

Along my way beyond 25, the happiness of my birthday changed from things to beings: being the connection to others which makes me happy to be alive, and being unsqueamishly my age and thus alive. Frankly, it has to be a miracle or at least a message that I survived myself and am still here—unabridged, unpreserved and unbridled to boot. Every birthday means I am closer to winning the real reality show of survivor.

And so champagne. Nothing extraordinary happened on my birthday but it was extraordinary. Others remembered I am still here and volunteed to show this matters through phone calls, emails, dinners and birthday cards. How they ever found great cards mystifies me. My shopping safari never yields treasures like these:

The height of cleverness is being able to conceal it.

May your day be as special as you are.

Happy birthday to a wonderful friend.

A diamond is a chunk of coal that made good under pressure. Happy birthday to a real gem.

No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”

It’s not where but how you celebrate.”

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Monday, January 15, 2007


For most of my life I have been the extra woman, the one who does not belong to anyone. I have no mother, no husband, no children, not even pets these days. I did not plan to grow up to be superfluous any more than some men I’ve encountered planned to grow up to be the total twit they are. I don’t think any little girl dreams of being the third wheel on every wagon, the tire by the side of the road. But karma propels and circumstances pile up until a pattern emerges. I was born with Virgo rising and so it has. Ecce donna, the woman alone with nobody's name and phone number to list in event of emergency.

The extra man is of course more familiar and comes favorably wrapped. He is de luxe, connoted in tuxedos and camel hair, dinner parties and gossip columns, Nancy Reagan and all that cotton candy vanity. A widower, a bachelor, a playboy is the poof kiss, the glamorous trinket of an arm passed around like an after dinner mint. Men find security in numbers, women in men and flattery is always in demand.

Nobody finds much in a spinster or childless widow. The unattached woman might as well be buried in a burqa, she is so invisible. Certainly nobody creates ad campaigns or products for the demographic. Nobody brags about a maiden aunt or widowed friend; people more likely sigh about her as a crutch to bear. The lone woman alone is forced to take care of herself, to come to grips with self-sufficiency.

The extra woman is also so stigmatized by negative nomenclature, a Hungarian noblewoman I once knew pushed her daughter to get married because being a 30-year-old divorcee would make her far more attractive than being a 30 year old maid. But that doesn’t really change much because nobody invites an extra woman to a dinner party, eagerly like the extra man, for fear she will morph into something worse: the other woman.

I have been that, although never as a dinner party pickup. I got the role because I came first and he came back. So technically, I was not the other woman. I was the first, reduced from the lead to a cameo role, truly a supporting player. Once too, when my childhood friend was dying at the age of 35, she proposed I marry her husband so I could raise her children. I said no. But I did keep a promise to be the other woman who helped the children.

I have also been overtly fashioned into the other woman by spouses whose marriage teetered like a tot on a two-wheeler. Both seemed to need the third wheel balance of validation or expiation, novelty or a referee or maybe just plain safety. Whenever one was out of town, they wanted to be sure the other went out only with me. Whatever, the husband and wife behaved better in public and to each other when I was between them.

I have been pitched into action as the would-be daughter, a young woman whose demeanor, manners and lifestyle were acceptable to people of my mother’s generation when their real daughter was an embarrassment or impossibility. I could be shown off, trusted, taken into the empty nest. I have also been made into the other woman as a beard: the cover-up “date” for a gay friend secretly coupled or just plain secretly gay. It’s the sort of social work that gets me invited to dinner parties where I get to show off table manners.

My childhood classmate, the late Laurie Colwin, in her sparkling short story, The Lone Pilgrim, created a diplomatic, self-effacing and chameleon-like houseguest who seemed to exist to compliment and complement her hosts. Her coming and going from the mannered houses that contained their tortured lives somehow made them feel better. Her character was not me but could have been, for I immigrate into lives as a guest worker, then go into exile when they are up and running.

As a lifeguest, I have been the barometer that registers fog with a chance of pain, cloudiness, blunder and frightening, all the suffering central to samsara. I have been in the thick of that, because people totally happy with each other didn’t need me. But when going goes flat, everybody seems to reach for that spare tire.

And so, like any survivor of contagion, I developed antibodies, noticeable immunity that keeps me afloat. Before I became a Buddhist, I became the eye of storms who learned to stay calm amid human suffering, who also learned a little about how to cope with it.

This turns out to be fitness training for a major role recently illuminated: the mother superior. When I look at my calendar and phone bills, I realize I have maybe three or four heart children for whom I am the designated grown-up and maybe another four for whom I am the maternal understudy. I go on when Mom is far away or too far out. I am the woman nobody is related to, yet the one younger people actually want to relate to. I think it's because my genes and dreams aren't so vested in them, I see them for who they are. I don't want them to be mini me but whoever they want to be. I am a stepping stone to that.

The role requires a knack of all trades. During the past month, I have been called upon to find a runaway dog, evaluate a real estate possibility, teach the tactics of a formal New York wedding, approve a new apartment and advise on a career move. I have had to ameliorate the upcoming death of a business partner, console two who can’t find a life partner, coach over that speed bump known as toxic parents, send cooking instructions, commiserate to instill confidence, consult on a reading list and give a birthday party.

The mantra of the marketplace is: find a need and fill it. Evidently, I have done so. After I started composing this essay, by auspicious coincidence the local paper featured news that research shows, despite all our flaunted and vaunted improvements in instant messaging and social networking, Americans are sorrowfully lacking in confidants. Apparently Dr. Laura, Dr. Phil and Rush don’t do it, for most people claim there is nobody out there to talk to.

This is not news to me. That sort of solitary confinement defined my life from its beginning. I was born into a family of cannibals whose needs were so great they consumed my own. I did not exist. When the physical support of my spine and neck showed premature debilitation before I was 50, healers asked if I’d grown up without support, for evidently holding myself up had overtaxed my system. I know too well the unbearable despair of having no one to turn to.

But I also know what it means to find sunshine in that darkness, how it feels when someone sees you. My much widowed and childless great aunt, the extra woman in her own right, always put herself out for me, making me feel worthwhile. She came, she sewed, she fussed. She fought for me, shared everything with me, including her experience and thus advice, which was basic but infallible. She also gave me jewels to signal I was one. She thought they, like her advice, would buoy me when she was gone. She died over 38 years ago and I never remove her heirloom wedding ring from my finger.

Like flowers, we humans are heliotropes who will always turn our faces toward the sun. Many foundering lives have been righted as mine was by the extra woman: perhaps a house maid, nanny, old maid sister, widowed aunt or stalwart self-effacing secretary. She didn't have to do much more than be there. That was enough to be the vital difference between being lonely and being alone.

Life is an emergency for which we all need a listed name and number. “A man don’t mind if the stars grow dim,” Kurt Weill wrote for Lost in the Stars, “just as long as the Lord God’s watching over him, keeping track how it all goes on.” We all want somebody to be out there bigger than us, checking on us, looking after us, helping us be us. Whole civilizations depend on the extra woman: Athena, Tara, Kwan Yin, the maid of Orleans, and the so-called virgin, Mary— extraneous to the trinity much less beloved.

All I did was to be for others what I so fiercely wished others had been for me and circumstances piled into the alchemy of turning lead into gold. In the past month I've not only been many times the other mother. I've been the other woman, other daughter and beard to boot. Supplying demand to be everything an extra woman is asked to be makes me feel like a whirling dervish. I seem to belong to no one yet everyone. Over my birthday weekend at different meals, three of my heart children volunteered that when they have their houses, that house will have a suite for me. It makes me think the French are onto something when they say: le superflu est le necessaire.

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