The 163 States of Compassion

“The silence of sitting will tell you everything you need to know.”

It was the kind of fortune-cookie bullshit you hear a lot of at Zen meditation retreats offered in Northern California by Northern Californians. Actually, that’s not fair. You get that kind of bullshit in Portland or Seattle or Denver or New York too, but this dose of bullshit was the first cohesive collection of words I’d heard in what felt like forever – and it wasn’t helping.

There’s this point in an intensive meditation retreat where you’ve been actively concentrating on your breathing and your posture and how your knees are now made of concrete and that the small of your back is the all-consuming heart of a great vortex of pain that is actually absorbing the pain from all living beings for hundreds of miles around you and compressing it into a perfect symphony of agony composed in a language of utter suffering that you will sing through clenched teeth until you finally embrace the sweet release of death.

I had passed that point something like a lifetime (or at least forty-five minutes) ago, and what I was not prepared for was a lesson on sitting in silence. I was ready to flex my legs, stand up, bend backwards until I cracked my back like a machine gun, and then reconsider the life choices that had led me to think a three-day retreat in the middle of nowhere between Ukiah and Clear Lake California was “exactly what I needed.”

Truth be told, I had no idea what I needed.

Zen and the art of divorce and self-discovery after the cut…

What I’m Looking For – Line 13

Felt the healing fingertips

For almost nineteen years I have been a liar. When asked about this, I have never told the truth about these events. Not even once. For about two months after it began, I thought about this all the time. After September 28, 1992, I have not let it cross my mind more than a dozen times.


Teenage boys spend a lot of time thinking about “First _;” “First Kiss,” “First Base,” “First Time,” …and we anticipate them in that order. I was no exception, but the summer before my Junior year of High School I still felt like I was a lifetime away from any of those. I’d had a couple of girlfriends in the “chaste hand-holding and going-steady when there’s nowhere to go” sense of the word, but nothing serious enough to even warrant a reasonable shot at that mythical moment of lip-locking that some of my friends talked endlessly about.

I constantly felt behind, which I know now is a pretty normal state of mind for a teenager. Personally, I had almost no first hand knowledge about “serious” boy-girl relationships; and all my second-hand knowledge was either bragging or hearsay, neither of which were particularly reliable even when coming “from the source.” Compounding that, in a private/parochial/conservative Boarding High School in the early 90s, no one who knew better was actually telling us “the truth.” It was like there was a big secret out there that we were all searching for, and none of us were smart enough to actually compare notes. How much we REALLY knew was a closely guarded personal secret, and discussing it put you at risk for exposing what you didn’t know, and the social tragedy that would ensue. Falling to the status of complete-social-outcast always felt like it was just one mistake away. No one makes a mistake if no one talks about it…so silence was the rule of the herd.

The first time I’ve ever talked about my first time

What I’m Looking For – Line 12

I have kissed honey lips

The first studio session for Life Drawing 250 was being held in a studio space I’d never been in before, a few blocks off campus in what would otherwise have looked like any other generic office building on any street in the Pacific Northwest. So generic in fact, that I missed it three times and found myself about fifteen minutes behind schedule and in danger of missing the class. If you’re not set up and ready when the doors close, you don’t set up at all.

By the time I found parking three blocks away, hauled my supplies out of the back of the Pulsar, and dodged traffic crossing three streets without waiting for the lights to change, I was out of breath and just trying to dash the last ten yards to the door before I was too late and ended up with a giant hole in my grade.

I saw her coming down the sidewalk from the other direction, clearly in the same hurry I was in, but about fifty feet further away with a duffel bag swinging beside her as she jogged towards me. I remember thinking she looked like the daughter from “My Two Dads” in a grey sweatshirt and jeans and her blond hair pulled back in a scrunchy. She was still a few dozen steps away, but my mommy taught me manners, and no matter what kind of hurry I’m in, I hold a door for a woman.

“Thanks!” she said as she passed through the doorway, flashing me a wide smile and hurrying off down a hallway.

One of the most intimate and confusing events of my life…

What I’m Looking For – Line 11

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

Graduating from a private boarding academy was full of ceremonies I’d never even thought of before. I’d just figured we’d put in four years, show up on a Sunday in late May, listen to some speeches, and get our diplomas. One of the ceremonies I’d never considered was Senior Recognition, an evening about half-way through our Senior year where students were recognized for their achievements and then had a chance to recognize family and teachers who had a significant impact on them.

It was also the night that scholarships were announced. As I had a pretty meager SAT score (1240, 800 verbal – 440 math…odd to think I work in computers and tax accounting isn’t it?) and a reasonable ACT score (32, not great but pretty good) I wasn’t expecting much in the scholarship department. In fact, I’d completely tuned it out.

It’s all about looking a gift horse in the mouth…

What I’m Looking For – Line 10

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

She came up behind me and put her hand on my arm. The shock almost launched me clean off the swiveling studio chair. With the headphones on and the studio door closed I didn’t hear her come in, and I always kept the radio station doors locked on Saturday mornings.

I’d just done the top-of-the-hour news recap and the station call sign, and she was wearing a cream-colored skirt, dark blouse, and a matching cream jacket with shoulder pads that Troy Aikman would have been proud of. It took me a solid three count with my jaw hanging open to figure out that church had just ended and she had come in on her way back to the cafeteria for lunch.

“I didn’t mean to startle you, I thought you heard the outside door close when I came in.”

It was a logical assumption, the self-closing mechanism on the heavy steel door caused a crash that sounded like a truck accident rattling the building when left to its own devices. But between the sound-proof studio and the headphones playing back my own broadcast, I probably could have been oblivious to a nuclear strike atomizing the parking lot behind the station.

Two paths diverge in a wood, this is a glimpse of a path I didn’t take…

2nd Footnote to Line 9

When I write blog posts there are two key things I try to keep in mind:

First, I tend to write things from specific times and places and events in my life, and those things intersect with the times and places and events of others, and other people have their own memories and feelings about any given set of events.

And second, that memory is distinct from truth because it is personal history, it is the history we write – and re-write – about ourselves.

Reading the original post, and the comments to the post and the prior footnote, I realized that I needed to make one point very clear:

Those events are decades old. Time has passed, and much more has happened in my life, and in the lives of my family than is encapsulated in that post, or any post; or even in any one recollection of events.

I also want to make it categorically clear, that I love my family, I love my dad VERY much, and I have learned much about who he is, and about who I am, by working to understand his personal history, and his memories, and what makes him tick.

My dad is a loving, caring, compassionate person who has a character that runs far deeper than I understood as a teenager. As a kid, I thought of my dad as essentially a two-dimensional presence; a combination of family history and household rules, and also the man who took us camping and hiking, and helped shape so very much of my own eclectic tastes in music and art and history and philosophy. When I was twenty-years-old I didn’t realize even a fraction of the impact he had on who I am, today I can hardly identify a fraction of who I am that doesn’t bear his imprint.

As I’ve discovered who I am in the face of my own backstory, I’ve discovered SO MUCH about who my father is, and how deep those waters run. I wish I had really known him better when I was younger, but as these things go, perhaps I can only truly begin to know him as I begin to face similar issues and write my own memories and personal history.

There is one other thing I want to clarify, while my father was struggling to find success in 1990, the next two decades saw him find incredible success. In some ways that success has created other dynamics that I have had, and will have, to deal with for a variety of reasons; but it would be a tragedy of history and memory to leave anyone with the impression that my father has done anything other than ultimately rise to and exceed the expectations placed before him.

How that ultimately affects me is a story still left to be written.

Footnote to Line 9

Sometimes, when I’m trying to write a larger series of things, I’ll get stuck by something that doesn’t work the way I want it to. Usually, the solution is to fix the thing that isn’t working. But, occasionally, the solution is to toss out what isn’t working and finally get down to what it is that I’m really trying to write.

Line 9 was the latter. The post that finally went up is something that I’ve been trying to write for at least the last four years. It’s personal, it’s still raw, and it’s going to end up significantly revised in the future. But it’s something about me that I’ve carried around and processed for decades.

“We are who we come from,” according to my family. And who I come from has been drilled into me since before I could walk. Family history is paramount, and the process of ingesting it, and digesting it, and retelling it has a lot to do with who I am as a storyteller, and who I am as a person.

I realize that Line 9 is long, even for a print article. Yes, I’ll eventually edit some out, change this, sand off that, add a sentence here or there…but it’s also about being complete. Perhaps too complete at the moment, but everything has to start somewhere.

Think of it as a draft. One of the hardest drafts I’ve ever written.

What I’m Looking For – Line 9

Only to be with you

I really didn’t want to go to Gem State Academy. GSA represented a lot of things about my family, my family’s expectations, and my notions of small-town Idaho that I just didn’t want to deal with. I’d made my feelings known, and my mom at least had seemed to respect those wishes. We talked about alternatives, and my parents agreed to let me go to the other major prep school in town, Bishop Kelly.

That last sentence is almost impossible to believe even now, twenty years later.

A really long discourse about where my crazy comes from…

What I’m Looking For – Line 8

These city walls

For a March morning, it wasn’t particularly cold. Some of the other pedestrians around me on the sidewalks were still bundled up, but most of us were simply in our suit jackets or spring coats. I could see all the way down Wall street to the exchange, with the giant American flag suspended in front of the roman columns above the entry.

I was surprised how narrow Wall Street felt. The huge buildings on either side were towing over us, almost chocking out the grey sky. Across from us was Tiffany’s and Co. and I was almost to the Trump building where I was still early for my appointment on the 37th floor.

As I looked back up the street, I saw it. So out of place in this row of ultramodern concrete and steel behemoths. Dark and gothic, with spires and details almost garish compared to the flat things around it, seemingly made from bricks carved from some kind of blackened sandstone.

Somehow, it silently cried out to the countless bustling people swarming down the sidewalks “Stop! What you are running to is NOT as important as what you will find in here!”

But the people didn’t hear it. They didn’t even seem to see it. Like it was invisible in plain sight.

I made my way to the lobby of the Trump building, but not before taking one more glance over my shoulder up towards Trinity Church at the far end of the street.

A blast of wind blew past me just as I was turning away, coming straight from the old church at the far end of the road. Through the car horns and doormen and taxi callers, I could almost hear something carried on the gust as it washed over me, “…what you will find in here.”

[Word Count: 301]

[<- Line 7]|[Line 9 ->]

What I’m Looking For – Line 7

I have scaled these city walls

We left London on a train out of Paddington Station on a beautiful morning, and the scenery through the train windows was spectacular. These were the final fleeting hours of spring, with flowers blooming, grasses thick in the fields and the lambs playing nose to nose with the rabbits. It was like something out of a James Harriot story.

We wound our way out into the Welsh countryside, changing trains in Cardiff, and pulling into Caerphilly in the early afternoon. We started with lunch in a pub near the train station, Jacket Potatoes and a Ploughman’s Lunch all around.

We decided to walk up to the castle, as it was just a few blocks away. Really just a gentle stroll up ancient avenues and past shops and offices that had seen decades winding into centuries.

A wonderful day gets even better…