As I pack, I look up at a Georgia O’Keeffe print I bought in Santa Fe. It is the one with a ladder suspended between the earth and the sky. It signifies transition and my internal voice is telling me, ‘Get on the ladder Julie, it will make you happy.’ I’m taking that advice and becoming a Buddhist novitiate. I am giving everything away but a few pictures of my children and granddaughter and the clothes on my back.
So much of this process of dismantling is like walking through my life backwards. As I sort clothes I am asking myself what will work in my new environment, and each article of clothing tells a story of a time in my life, now past. How does one unwind a very old clock? I suppose slowly and carefully. I suppose, because I don’t know. It’s my first and only time doing this. I have been advised by almost everyone in my life that this is in fact a terrible idea. I have quit my job as a television news executive which offers a wage a little above middle class, and I have given away the last of my possessions. Most people tell me having a job is a great privilege but I can’t make myself feel that way anymore.
The day-to-day sleep state which allowed me to get up without question and pull on a suit, drive through the coffee stand and show up at the office to numbly grind out a new day, had a deadline with an alarm attached, and it finally went off. It rang over and over until it deafened me to all other questions except, ‘what am I doing here?’ It started with little beeps that sounded like my heart stopping. In rather short succession my twenty-five year marriage ended, my daughter and granddaughter moved away, and my dad died. After that I couldn’t stop thinking that everything I’m doing no longer has any context. Then driving home one day in the stillness of my car, the thought came, and came, and came back again: so what’s all the work for? Am I trying to climb a corporate ladder, buy a house and pay the bank for the privilege? At fifty-two, how likely is it that I could even pay off a thirty-year mortgage, and if so, why? Or am I working for my health insurance? Given that I got sick a year ago and have absolutely no hope of ever paying off those bills, I don’t think that’s it. No, I’m working so as to not fall to some horror like starvation or homelessness, which are very real things for way too many people; but I’m lucky enough to have the currency of friends and family to get me by long enough to figure myself out.
When I first tried to imagine myself beyond this lost point, my thoughts had suddenly turned to monastic life, which has oddly appealed to me since I first read Kathleen Norris’s The Cloister Walk on a transcontinental flight some twenty years ago. Still, I struggled over one last barrier to chucking it all and tossing myself in the monastery: the concept of meaningful work. I’ve been hanging on, thinking that what I do as a journalist is meaningful. I still fundamentally believe that showing what is happening in our world serves a purpose, but it’s no longer enough for me at this point in my life. I’m terribly sorry for that.
In the television newsroom I manage, we tell the same story every, single, relentless day. The middle class is shrinking; greed rules the day; the Earth is literally burning; people cannot fight off illness because they are eating factory-farmed meat swollen with all manner of antibiotics; there are people simply starving to death as desertification takes over large swaths of our planet. Meanwhile, Monsanto and dozens of other multinational businesses yank the chain of politicians who enable corporate welfare at unprecedented rates; and while we talk, talk, talk about these things on the news, there does not appear to be any change except that more people are talking about it, which I recognize is something. I still believe in informing people. I still believe in telling the truth and that in telling it we make things better, but I’ve become personally impatient with it. I want to tangibly see the difference I can make. I want to give one hungry person a loaf of bread and be able to say that for that moment, some good has come of my actions. It’s a selfish wish and I know it. But this desire is what I have now, so I’m acting on it.
On some level, I fear myself and the rage of impotence I would feel if I do not act on solving problems but merely continuing to talk about them. If our news coverage about the “disparity in the distribution of wealth”–represented by the woman who was nearly arrested for stealing groceries for her hungry kids–made any difference, then I’d tell that story all day everyday. I thought it made a difference when I first started covering income inequality and rising poverty during the Bush administration, but all these years later it has become only worse. All that coverage, all the days poring through statistics and urging reporters to hold anyone, someone accountable, has not changed anything, and I’ve become anxious waiting.
Those who don’t find my decision to join a Sangha crazy tell me “congratulations on your journey.” But that’s not it either. I am not sure if I am to be congratulated for needing to start over at this point in my life. I just know I’ve got to do something and this, a life as a monk, is what I came up with. Sitting Zazen and counting my breath; cleaning the temple and practicing detachment.
I am two people in this decision: one is at peace and anticipating the serenity, the other is waking me up at 5 am with my heart banging against my ribcage feeling disoriented in the remnants of my former life. I am going to miss having my own room, and I’m savoring that glass of good red wine because it will be a long while before I have it again. And a desperate voice rears up inside, asking me, ‘what are you going to do without money?’ My Zen side urges me to just calm down, gaze at the autumn leaves, and let go of everything but the beauty of the world around me. I decide to trust that soothing voice. So of the two forces within me, I’m going with that one, the same one who told me to climb the ladder to the sky. I will find the answers I need as my bare feet enter the temple, and I find my mat on a bitter cold day, more than seven thousand feet above ground at a Zen Buddhist learning center in Santa Fe. A place so high up, it almost touches Georgia’s azure desert sky.
Soon I will be packing a suitcase in my car without a single business suit, and making the long drive down through Oregon and California, past all the pretty ghosts of the towns in which I’ve lived, and finally up the winding road to my new home for however long I stay there. There won’t be much that’s familiar, except perhaps one thing: there is Wifi and I have a laptop so I will be showing you what it’s like, hoping that you will see yourself somewhere in my shoes (or rather, bare feet); so when it’s time for your own personal revolution you may do so with more bravery than I have displayed here. So yes, I am climbing a whole new kind of ladder- let’s see what happens.
Also by Julie: The Dalai Lama and the Chicken