Saturday, July 5, 2014

A Letter from a Monk to His Ex-Girlfriend's Mother

     This letter was written a little less than a year before my return from exile, to the mother of my ex-girlfriend (the main girlfriend I had before I became a monk). She was one of the few friends I still had in America, and aside from my own mother was the only one who stayed in touch. She's not a Buddhist, bless her heart, so the letter touches upon spirituality from rather non-Buddhist angles. 

13 JUNE 10
Dear S______,
     Howdy. The last time I wrote to you was around October of last year, but I received no reply, so I don't know whether or not you got it. (It was the one giving conclusive proof that Ronald McDonald had converted to Islam and was trying to conquer the world.) Actually, I haven't received any foreign mail from anybody in almost a year, and am starting to suspect that all of my mail is being intercepted and confiscated nowadays. The last letter I got from you, last summer, had been slashed open and inspected, and the letter along with the shredded envelope were delivered in a plastic bag. Usually when that happens there is a little note explaining that the letter was "accidentally damaged" in transit. Paranoia will destroia! Many years ago somebody sent me a book in a padded envelope, and before I got it even the padding in the envelope had been ripped open and inspected.
     Last March I moved to a monastery up in the hills near Shan State, mainly to get away from the blazing heat. When I got here the only other monk who lives here told me that at this monastery the electricity works 24 hours a day. I immediately disbelieved him, thinking that in Burma it's just not possible, and was right. Today, for example, the power has been off all day long, with the exception that around 10:30a.m. it came on for about ten seconds and then went back off again. It's pathetic. About a week ago the power apparently stayed on for two days in a row, which was a very memorable occurrence. I felt like I ought to tell somebody about it. Oh! The electricity just came on again. Now it went back off again.
     Another reason why I moved to this monastery is that I figured communications would be better here on account of it's much closer to a town, but I was wrong. The resident monk of this place is so......that almost nobody can live here for very long, and there are very few visitors or supporters coming here any more. (I don't know why he likes me, considering that he has hated better monks than I am, and that people less ornery than him have thoroughly despised me.) So, I have approximately zero connections here. How I'm going to get this letter sent to you I don't know. Back at Wun Bo Wildlife Refuge Monastery I was the big cheese—the abbot I mean—and one of the most famous and respected people in the area, while here I am nobody in particular, which is better for a monk I suppose, but it takes some getting used to. It may be good practice for when I go back to America. Gawd willing, if I don't die first. 
     I sincerely hope that you're not going to renig (renege) on your wonderful offer to help me get out of Burma. As you may imagine, I've gotten rather tired of living in this country. In the last letter I wrote to you, which maybe you didn't get, I told you about the Big Plan, the latest version of which is as follows. Around next November, give or take a month, I'll try to go to Rangoon, make some inquiries, and call you on the phone so we can discuss details. I don't think it's possible to call collect from Burma, so I'll call you quick, give you a phone number to call me back, and then hang up and let you call me back. (Overseas phone calls are very expensive from Burma, and my supporters can't easily afford it.) It may not be necessary for me to ask you for a (one way) plane ticket though, as I may be able to wangle that at this end somehow. Anyhow, the plan is to fly into Sea-Tac airport around April or May of 2011 with zero money and some heavy luggage, so hopefully someone could meet me there. Then the next part of the plan relies heavily on my old buddy Mucus Man (by day he's Mucus McKane, mild-mannered meatcutter from a major metropolitan meat market). If he's willing and able to put me up at his digs in Bellingham for maybe a month I could investigate the possibility of living as a monk long-term in Bellingham, or thereabouts. I came up with a brilliant idea—put an ad in the paper! Advertising can be very effective. If that doesn't pan out, then the next step is to try that monastery in Canada that I wrote to you about. I finally found out something about it—it's called Birken Forest Monastery, is in a Thai tradition, and is near Knutsford, BC, which is near Kamloops, which is somewhere NE of Vancouver. I've written to the monk(s) there, but I haven't found a way of sending the letter yet. If that place doesn't work out either, then the Big Plan crashes and I don't know what I will do. We'll have to wait and see. As I requested in the last letter which maybe you didn't get, and as maybe you've already done, it would be very good if you would pretty please with sugar on it contact Mucus Man (his real name is insignificant) and find out how he feels about his part in the Big Plan, considering that I may be moving in on him with him being essentially my attendant for a few weeks. He's a good friend, but he never writes. Maybe he has dyslexia or something. He came to see me here in Burma some years ago. His phone number is _______, or at least was five years ago. (Ha, shame on me for trying to get you to humiliate yourself by asking for someone named "Mucus Man" on the telephone. It would serve me right if his phone number has changed and you are unable to ask for directory assistance.)
     When I got to this place, x (←This doesn't mean anything) in the building where I'm staying (I don't live in caves any more) I found a stack of Reader's Digest magazines from the 50's, 60's, and 70's. More than a third of them are older than I am. Anyhow, naturally, I systematically worked my way through the pile. It's kind of interesting to see how the attitudes of the mainstream have changed over the last several decades. The most obvious change was around 1970, when rock 'n' roll, hippies, and the Civil Rights movement finally challenged "The Establishment" enough to change the direction of American society. It's about then that Reader's Digest starts looking really modern. Before then all the guys in the magazine, especially the advertisements, look like Ward Cleaver. There's one story in the January 1970 edition (Hong Kong version) that I really like for some reason. It's called "Now...While There's Still Time" by Edward Bartley.

~   ~   ~

     "Missy," I called to my wife, "did you smear Vaseline on the top of my desk?"
     "No, honey. Meghan probably did." Just like that. Calm. As I feared, she had missed the carefully honed, double-edged irony of the question. I knew she hadn't put it there. The question was rhetorical; its only function was to make clear to her that she hadn't done her job: defend my desk against the aggressor.
     I abandoned the conversation. I would deal with Meghan, our 22-month-old daughter, later.
     All that was yesterday. Today I sit here at that same rolltop desk, which I salvaged from a friend's attic two years ago, and stare at the blank sheet inserted in the typewriter. I wait patiently for ideas to come to me, exam questions on Herman Melville for a test I will give my English students tomorrow. My wife is off to a reunion somewhere, but I am not alone. Our two children keep me company. Ten-month-old Edward cooperates to some degree; he spends most of his day poring over a seemingly endless array of cards, tags, assorted pieces of paper, and a Sears, Roebuck catalogue which he tears apart page by page. Occasionally he leans out and flails madly at the piano, which he can just reach.
     But it is Meghan whose plans have been destined from all eternity to clash with mine today.
     She follows a daily routine that is both time-consuming and challenging. It includes certain basic tasks: Watching the "grop." (That would be the fish; I cannot explain the derivation of the word beyond that.) Sweeping the rug in her room and her crib. (Yes, Meghan sweeps her crib.) Sitting for a few minutes on the bottom shelf of the bookcase to determine whether or not she still fits there. (She fit yesterday and the prospects look good for tomorrow.) Checking periodically on Edward—joining him, perhaps, in a brief duet. Climbing in and out of the stroller for practice. Testing the sofa springs.
     Her constant companion through all this is Dumpty, a shapeless rag doll whose best days are far behind him. A year ago he was well-stuffed and bursting with good cheer. His perpetual smile endeared him to Meghan immediately. She provides his transportation; he provides her security. The filthier he grows, the more she seems to rely on his wisdom and homespun philosophy. 
     About a week ago my wife put Dumpty into the washing machine, hoping at least to make him recognizable. We were not ready for the emaciated creature that emerged. Dumpty had been disemboweled during the rinse cycle. My wife spent 20 minutes picking his foam-rubber intestines out of the machine. We thought that Meghan might discard this mere shell of a Dumpty. We were wrong. There was no detectable difference in her relationship with him, except that she found him easier to carry while performing her chores. 
     I can do my own work fairly well during most of these chores, and so I concentrate on Melville. ("Discuss the similarity of the alienation theme in Bartleby the Scrivener and Kafka's Metamorphosis.") I am on my way. Unfortunately, I had not counted on the arrival of the "bib-bibs." ("Bib-bibs" are birds. Again the derivation eludes me.)
     "Bib-bibs, bib-bibs!" shrieks Meghan, her eyes alive with expectation. She insists that I come with her to the window. 
     "In a second. Just let me finish this question. Have you read Kafka's Metamorphosis, Meghan? You haven't? You'd really enjoy it."
     The sarcasm leaves no mark, and she pulls me by the hand (two fingers actually) toward the bedroom window. I see myself as a slow-wit in some Southern novel, being led oaf-like to watch the bib-bibs. And we do watch them. They chatter incessantly and leap abruptly back and forth on the lawn just outside our apartment window. Meghan is absorbed, but as I watch them I wonder whether I parked the car under a tree last night. 
     Suddenly she bolts from the room (she seldom walks) and I hear her naked feet slapping against the wooden floor outside. She returns with Dumpty. She holds him up to the window, stretching him out by his two pathetic, triangular arms and whispering into his non-existent ear, "Bib-bibs, Hindy, bib-bibs!" Dumpty smiles. It's a much wider smile than it used to be.
     I leave them in conversation and return to my desk. Within five minutes she appears before me, wearing her mother's shoes. She reaches up to the typewriter keys and depresses four of them simultaneously. 
     "No, thank you, Meghan. Daddy's seen your work. He'll do it himself."
     She backs off. Out of the corner of my eye I can see her in the kitchen, watching the grop swim around in his circular world. I can see that the water in his bowl needs to be changed. 
     Back to the test. Determined. ("Discuss illusion and reality in Benito Cereno.") 
     "Don't even ask, Meghan. Not today." She stands in front of me with her shoes and socks in her hand. I know the pattern. First the shoes and socks. Then the stroller. And pretty soon we're in the park. She'll want me to pick her a dandelion, or a leaf from that tree the hurricane knocked over but didn't uproot a few years ago. And she'll clutch that leaf or dandelion the way she always does when we walk to the park. Oh, yes, I know the pattern.
     She rests her head on my leg, just as she did when she first learned to walk. She used to bring her plastic comb or her hairbrush (once it was a toothbrush) and rest her head on my leg while I combed her hair. That ritual, however, ended after only a few months—much too soon for me.
     Finally she leaves, and I watch her frustration as she sits on the floor and tries for several minutes to put on one of her socks. The art proves too elusive. In years to come she'll put on stockings or leotards with the ease and grace of a ballerina. But today a tiny pair of socks defeats her. 
     She sees me looking! Back to work. ("What is the significance of the motto carved on the bow of Benito Cereno's ship?")
     She pats the wicker chair, the comfortable one we sit in together to watch TV or to read, and she hastily gathers her books—The Poky Little Puppy, The Magic Bus, The Cat in the Hat, even that ancient copy of National Geographic with the penguin on the cover...Good Lord, she's got them all.
     With her free hand, she tugs at my sleeve.
     "No, Meghan," I snap irritably, "Not now. Go away and leave me alone. And take your library with you."
     That does it; she leaves. She makes no further attempt to bother me. I can finish the test easily now without interference. No one trying to climb onto my lap; no extra fingers helping me type. 
     I see her standing quietly with her back against the sofa, tears running down her cheeks. She has two fingers of her right hand in her mouth. She holds the tragic Dumpty in her left. She watches me type, and slowly brushes the tip of Dumpty's anemic arm across her nose to comfort her.
     At this moment, only for a moment, I see things as God must—in perspective, with all the pieces fitting. I see a little girl cry because I haven't time for her. Imagine ever being that important to another human being! I see the day when it won't mean so much to a tiny soul to have me sit next to her and read a story, one that means little to either of us, realizing somehow that it is the sitting next to each other that means everything. And I see the day when the frail, loyal, and lovable Dumpty will vanish from the life of a little girl who has outgrown him.
     I resent Dumpty for an instant. He's consoling my girl, and that is my concern, not his. She and I have few enough days like this to share. So the paper slips gently into the top drawer, the hood slides over the typewriter. The test will get done somehow. Tests always get done. 
     "Meghan, I feel like taking a walk down to the park. I was wondering if you and Edward would care to join me. I thought maybe you'd like to go on the swings for a while. Bring Dumpty—and your red sweater too. It might be windy down there."
     At the word "park" the fingers leave the mouth. She laughs excitedly and begins the frantic search for her shoes and socks. 
     Melville will have to wait, but he won't mind. He waited most of his life for someone to discover the miracle of Moby Dick—and died 30 years before anyone did. No, he won't mind.
     Besides, he'd understand why I must go right now—while bib-bibs still spark wonder, and before dandelions become weeds, and while a little girl thinks that a leaf from her father is a gift beyond measure.

~   ~   ~

It's kind of strange that I like that so much, considering that I've never had any children and don't particularly want to have any. It's also kind of strange that it slightly bothers me that Missy Bartley apparently didn't breastfeed her babies. There's a kind of wisdom or spirituality in the story, especially in the last sentence—the implication being that a little girl less than two years old is in some way wiser or more spiritual or "closer to reality" than her father. Adults work out explanations for everything which then interlock and form mental prisons from which we cannot easily escape. Little Meghan hadn't built her prison yet (although, strangely, she's more than 40 years old now and probably is about as imprisoned as everyone else). It reminds me of Wordsworth's poem "Intimations of Immortality" which starts

     There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
          The earth, and every common sight,
                    To me did seem
          Appareled in celestial light,
     The glory and the freshness of a dream.
     It is not now as it hath been of yore;
               Turn whereso'er I may,
                    By night or day,
     The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

               The rainbow comes and goes,
               And lovely is the rose,
               The moon doth with delight
     Look round her when the heavens are bare,
               Waters on a starry night 
               Are beautiful and fair;
          The sunshine is a glorious birth;
          But yet I know, where'er I go,
     That there hath passed away a glory from the earth.

(Even so, I don't like Wordsworth very much. The man could walk through his garden and see a rock lying by the side of the path and sit down and write six pages of blank verse about it. Also, frankly, I don't remember having been an Enlightened Being when I was a little kid.)
     As Krishnamurti says, when people try to make life better they generally just try to make improvements in their prison. One of the main reasons why I am a monk is that I'm trying to be as unimprisoned as possible, although of course there are complications.

               I desire Virtue, though I love her not
                    I have no faith in her when she is got:
               I fear that she will bind and make me slave
                    And send me songless to the sullen grave.

     My latest theory as to the meaning of "Come Together" by the Beatles is that it's about Jesus. That would explain a lot of it, like "He got joo-joo eyeball" and "He say one and one and one is three." "He got walrus gumboot" could mean that he walked on water, and "He got early warning" could mean that he was a prophet. See? I have to admit, though, that "He got monkey finger, he shoot Coca-Cola" doesn't seem to fit the theory very well. Do you know what it means? (Wow, I just realized that I'm like Charlie Manson giving religious interpretations to Beatles songs. Maybe I should go back to America and interpret the White Album for people.)
     Oh, I think my health problems will never end—I recently found out that I've got four floating ribs! As if one weren't enough. Since finding out about it, sometimes when I'm lying on my bed at night I can feel them in there floating. I've got an ingenious idea, though: I'm going to try to eat lots of food that sticks to my ribs in order to hold them in place. Aside from the rib thing my health is good nowadays, as far as I can tell.
     I hope your health is good too. This is partly because, if the Big Plan works, within a year I will be over there being a burden on you. {smiley face} (Good health is important for people as got burdens on them.) I hope everybody else's health is good too, although I realize that in this world that may be an unrealistic hope. I plan on writing to my mother soon, and if I'm feeling really wild maybe even to M_____, and then maybe I'll find out some way of mailing these letters. Until we meet again, be happy, stay out of trouble, and say Hi to everybody in S_____ for me. Plus maybe to Mucus Man.
Very Severely,                    
Paññobsa Bhikkhu

P.S. I really don't have anything else to say, but I don't like leaving all this blank space at the bottom of the page, so I'll include some more from "Intimations of Immortality."

     Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
     The soul that rises with us, our life's star,
          Hath had elsewhere its setting,
               And cometh from afar;
          Not in entire forgetfulness,
          And not in utter nakedness, 
     But trailing clouds of glory do we come
               From God, who is our home.

I think maybe he isn't exactly right, but it still sounds nice. Also, I like the way the long, medium, and short lines balance out.

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