Updated: Dec 9, 2020
In past years I have, from Dec 1 – 8, sat this rohatsu sesshin and set aside talking and texting and emailing and being in society for much of those eight days. So that an abiding silence engulfs me totally. Until the final morning. This time, here I am. The pandemic of pain makes the container here a little more porous: I have to go out to the store; I may have to take a peek at an email or a text from a family member or one of my “brothers.”
For the first time in five of these sesshins, I am not obsessing about my own bad behavior, or about the status of a tenuous romantic relationship. That’s not to say I’m not thinking about that, or leaden with a round tight lump in my throat at this week's shift in a long-treasured relationship.
Maybe it IS time to wear this black outfit full-time and really renounce all the things that seem to bring more pain. Renounce in the sense of give up the things that make me keep struggling - and not in the way of Nat King Cole but in the way of The Ramones: note the wonder of the world again.
I am at the point of letting that kind of striving go into the wind, for good.
Even, yes, the striving and conflict around Saint David's School, though its assertion that it teaches boys "Where the good lies," rankles so much, since the phrase sounds to me more like "Where the 'good' LIES."
My cancer doctor called and left a message saying my most recent MRI looked good. That was a relief. (How about no more MRI's? No more heavy metal contrast dyes?)
It's about 1:00 AM?
Soon the zendo will begin to clear out. A few people will sit and sit. Maybe I will nod off in my seated position. Or make a bed out of my zabuton.
In the end, I lie in my bed with the computer screen facing me and I doze and remember, forget, remember, forget ...
... go beyond thinking and feeling ... time is finite ... healthy fresh quiet still upright awake, wisdom beyond wisdom... "Giving is letting go ... what are you letting go of? Narrow views."
“You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.”
It's time for me to find what I had once, the name of a place in Santa Fe, for example, called "Querencia."
And to remember my priorities in this life and how they have grown up so beautifully: my three kids here, seen 20 years ago.
As always, the children are on my mind. Breath by breath, step by step: they are never not there.
Look at those three beautiful kids. The ones in the very top photo: the boy in heels, the girl in the dress, the boy on the banana-seat Sting Ray.
Mitch Garabedian, a lawyer famous for protecting boys/men from Catholic priests in Boston earlier in this century, is quoted in the movie Spotlight as saying:
It takes a village to abuse a child because the perpetuation of child abuse is enabled by an abuser’s peers, community, and sheltering organization – the people or institutions that practice a code of silence, who refuse to speak, who won’t talk about the elephant in the room.
It’s, for example, the former and current teachers, administrators, and trustees of Saint David’s school who knew that rape of nine-year-old boys was happening in the 1970s, did nothing to stop it when it happened, and won’t talk publicly or otherwise about it now. Even if they themselves were children when the nightmares were being created, their responsibility, now, is to be guardians of the past too.
At this point, who cares WHY they won’t talk about it? Their reasons, however “good” to them, are irrelevant. Their silences is as immoral as the original crimes.
It takes a village to ignore anyone in pain: a collective turning-away.
WH Auden had it right years ago in “Musee des Beaux Arts", about Pieter Breughel's painting, Icarus:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Take a look at the photo collage again up top, with the skeleton (mine), the meditator, and so on. Are there any white legs disappearing into the green?
If it takes a village to abuse a child, it also takes a village to heal one.
In this country, most people buy the myth of the solitary, stoic cowboy who binds his own wounds and whose mantra is: “Man up! Get over yourself! It wasn’t so bad! You brought it on yourself!”
But can you imagine a doctor saying those words to someone who is brought into an emergency room whose legs have just been crushed in a car accident? Or to anyone who is brought in to see him/her?
Can you imagine an EMT saying those words to someone lying in a cold city street, hypothermic from winter? Can you imagine a firefighter shouting to someone trapped in a burning house, “Hey, idiot, get out of the fire!”
Yet we say stuff like that all the time to people who have been verbally abused, physically abused, and sexually abused. The profound injuries suffered by an abuse survivor are only different from those suffered by an accident victim insofar as they are less visible and sometimes seem abstract, sometimes seem like character defects or failings or lapses of judgment or “problems.”
Why do we judge an abuse survivor, while we tend not to judge a paraplegic? Why do we “blame the victim” of sexual abuse, while we have sympathy for the victim of a car accident?
It takes a village to heal a child. Again, think of a hospital ED: a patient is wheeled in and almost immediately is surrounded by a team of nurses and doctors.
That doesn’t happen to abuse survivors. Abuse survivors are largely told to shut up and go away.
Back to the beautiful children. Here’s where they are today (randomly labelled A, B, and C):
Child A: Has not suffered any grave illness or experienced any critical traumatic incident. Married to same person over 20 years. Stable job for many years. Same house in one town. Decent retirement plan. Owns two cars and three houses. Never been depressed or seen a therapist. Business professional.
Child B: Has not suffered any grave illness (various injuries excepted) nor experienced any critical traumatic incident. Married to same person over 20 years. Stable job for many years. Same house in one town. Decent retirement plan. Owns two cars (one Mercedes) and two large houses, plus a 60 ft yacht. Spouse reports Child B to have never been depressed, is always happy. Investment banker.
Child C: Cancer. Degenerative nerve disease. Experienced several other critical traumatic events. Two divorces. Other failed relationships. Fired from two jobs. Six or seven jobs over the past 20 years. Unemployed. Two car crashes. No retirement fund. Lived in five different states in the past two years. First-responder/artist/creative.
Guess which child was sexually abused at least twice, and possibly more? (And by the way, there is research showing a causal relationship between childhood sexual abuse and cancer, and other health issues).
This is all the surface stuff, because behind the scenes everyone has something going on. And this is not to say that abuse and traumatic events always and for certain cause challenges in later life. And it’s also not to say that IF shit happened to you and affected you, then you have to make a meme of that for the rest of your life.
But, it’s pretty interesting to note, isn’t it?
One wonders: did sexual abuse so deaden a child that he or she then went on to other things to feel more alive, such as drug abuse, alcoholism, sex addiction, debting, gambling, and smoking? Did he or she unconsciously seek out difficult work or social relationships, or engage in a kind of head-banging striving in romantic ones? Did he or she always seek to find someone to save them, to love them, to just BE with them, and fail?
Did he or she commit suicide?
Did he or see also choose all manner of risky behavior?
I no longer think about small numbers or acronyms like .44, .45, ACP, P238, S&W, 9, 17, 19, 21. That’s not to say they aren’t still there. But it’s a measure of survivorship, of having dealt with it for so many years, that I am still here. Rohatsu, in which one is so alone among so many, can, in the dark of night, bring those numbers back like constellations. So can the small dog yapping next door...
(fun as all get-out though, that G650GS)
The men from Saint David’s run the gamut, these dear men, from successful doctor/lawyer/farmer, to unemployed men; to healthy and married men, to the single and lonely; and to those who are alive because of 12 Step meetings, have been in hospitals and jails, but wonder if it’s worth it to be alive.
Every day this week I have prayed for them, and I have prayed for their persecutors. There is one man from my era who is rumored to have killed himself, as a consequence of being raped by a teacher at Saint David’s School years ago. I would not be surprised in the least.
That’s why it takes a village to heal a child.
One year ago next week, Saint David's had a choice. It sent its "community" one of these letters. Guess which one it did not send.
It takes group work: a community of healers – emotional, physical, spiritual, and economic healers. It takes a village: sometimes an actual place, a house, a retreat center, where a survivor can feel safe. It takes sympathetic people who can offer their unconditional presence to someone whose trust and body were gravely wounded. It often takes people who have been there themselves.
It makes me understand the Four Bodhisattva Vows and reminds me my skin is sometimes not as thick as it needs to be to do this kind of work:
Creations are numberless: I vow to free them.
Delusions are inexhaustible: I vow to transform them.
Reality is boundless: I vow to perceive it.
The awakened way is unsurpassable: I vow to embody it.
When we chant that at the end of the day, it is followed by the sesshin leaders “goodnight”:
Let me respectfully remind you,
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.
Let us awaken – awaken and take heed:
Do not squander your life.
In this rohatsu, that last line has taken on a new meaning for me. Previously, mostly I heard a kind of scolding and admonition: don’t waste time, don’t waste money, don’t spend your time on useless pursuits.
But this time I hear it a little more warmly, with fewer “should’s” implied. This time I am hearing: take good care of yourself. Don't overtax yourself.
In caregiving circles, there are many terms for what happens when a caregiver overtaxes him/herself, like burnout and compassion fatigue. Taken further, it's battle fatigue ... shell shock ... neurasthenia ... suicide.
I think "compassion fatigue" is not accurate. I don't believe caregivers lose their innate ability or skill or tendency to be compassionate. I also don't believe that it can be cured by "resiliency training," at least not in the hardest cases, and for sure not instantly. (Some caregiving institutions, for example, offer courses in resiliency to their staff, and then send them back to the battlefields, unprepared).
Saint David's has felt like a battlefield. And as I have learned, (1) the battle has been important to me (often consumed me) because of my own abuse and additional exposure to other traumatic incidents, with the earliest ones probably not yet "resolved," and (2) there may be a tendency in me to be drawn to situations beyond my control which engage an inner struggle in me that somehow appeals. (I don't really get this last idea, but it's floating around. Maybe I'm just trying, again, to explain too much, or to understand. As a good friend says, you can have your feelings and you don't have to understand them.)
I’ve had enough.
Over the past year, nearly every month, someone has come to me with their story of abuse. Men who had never told a soul since the abuse happened, 40 or 50 years ago.
There were days last winter when, alone in my office, I sat on the floor in a corner and wept.
With my past partner, in the two years leading up to December 2019, when we split, I would occasionally mutter to myself how Homer defined Odysseus' name: "son of pain." I saw myself often as sailing that wine-dark sea too, trying to get home, overcoming obstacles, monsters, seductresses, seeing my friends die along the way, crawling alone back onto shore, finally.
(Yeah: imagine much eye-rolling behind her signature Ray-Ban aviators, with good reason).
With that, I’m out.
They say that if you walk into the woods and sit somewhere and become very, very quiet, then the animals may come to you without fear. It's time for me to balance sitting still with trying so hard.
Jane Goodall did this, and to her came our ancestors.
Sexual assault is associated with an increased lifetime rate of attempted suicide. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/article-abstract/497597
Abuse survivors make up a meaningful portion of every oncology clinic's patient load.
Childhood physical abuse was associated with 49% higher odds (95% CI, 1.10‐2.01) of cancer when adjusting for age, sex, and race only.
A critical incident is any event that has a stressful impact sufficient enough to overwhelm your usual coping strategies. Critical incidents can be sudden, shocking and outside the range of ordinary human experience. However, it may also be an event that has a specific personal significance to the individual and may result in strong emotional and/or physical reactions.
Make a donation. (I have a little personal one on Amazon too - ask away :)