Cherish This


L. Robert Veeder

Here’s an unusual confession. I have a curiously deep love of going to the grocery store. Before Kara can even mutter the sentence, “Oh shoot, I forgot; we’re out of….” I’m halfway to the car. It’s the normalcy, the domesticity of the whole thing, I think.

I hated prison. It sounds like such a stupid thing to say. Of course I hated prison. Everyone hates prison. I guess though that in retrospect one thing that it did give me was an unusual appreciation for the otherwise mundane- like grocery stores.

In prison the yard would only be opened as long as there was enough light to see- security reasons; They had to be able to see us. That’s what they told us at least. During the summer months it wasn’t so bad. But during the winter months as the days got shorter, well, I detested the winter months. If it snowed we weren’t allowed outside because we might fall and hurt ourselves, but even on those rare occasions when whoever was in charge of custody decided that we’d be fine, the clothes we wore, the coats that covered us were too thin to be of much use, so being outside was a sheer act of will and determination anyway. It was just easier to go inside and suffer the noise, the incessant shouting, the roar of hundreds.
The yard was opened and closed throughout the day. First yard happened around eight in the morning- give or take. Again, this was somewhat determined by the whim of whoever was on duty. Around eleven o’clock or so they would announce that the yard was closed and all inmates had to return to their assigned units. For my own part I’d typically lie in my cell and read, there was so much solace to be found in a good book and the local classical station. As the clock ticked closer to lunch grown men would start hoarding around the door. I have no good reason for this, but I absolutely hated it. I mean I abhorred this behavior. I love my dogs, but that is what this was. It was the behavior of dogs, who always seem convinced that for some reason or another they would not get fed. They would pace with anticipation. The food wasn’t good, and every one of those men would complain about it while eating it. That didn’t matter though. This was what mattered. That they got there first. I knew men, friends of mine, men whom I actually liked, that would stand at that door for hours so that they wouldn’t have to wait in line. And I just hated this. It didn’t make any sense to me then. I didn’t know why it bothered me so much to bear witness to. I still don’t quite understand it, but that was real. I hated what it said about us. I resented the inhumanity in it all. For some reason I found it gross, and pathetic, and so I refused to take part in it. I refused to even look.
Instead, I would lie on my bunk with my little a.m./f.m. radio cranked as loud as it would go and try to forget it. Try to out-human the whole thing…quite unsuccessfully, I should add.
So, I think that’s part of my love of the grocery store. I’m continually enchanted by how tamed I feel. It all feels so normal, and relaxed, and then there’s the wonderful comfort of being surrounded by choices, just an endless array of choices, and colors. My god the colors! But then it’s the people also, just languidly picking through all of this. I see a mother trying to contain her rampant and excited child, and two friends who have bumped into each other unexpectedly in the aisles. An older man with worry on his face, what if he picks the wrong one, whatever it is, spaghetti sauce, panty liners, toothpaste. And somehow or another I find that I fall deeply in love with these people, this spectacular one-act play in slow motion that lasts all the way back to the car.

Oh, the beautiful Ordinary! How much you were lost on me before those days.

Then tonight after dinner Kara rushes out of our little home to meet her book club. She’ll return tonight excited and fulfilled. I’m happy to have time alone with our daughter, Story. She asks for a little more pasta and pesto. My five-year-old daughter actually says this: “Please, Daddy. Could I have a little more? Just a smidgen perhaps?” Those saccharine words actually pour over her lips spilling out onto the floor. I almost slip on her charm. I explain that of course she can have some more, but she has to hurry because it is time for her bath, and then bed. I say, “I’ll work on cleaning up while you eat, okay?” She agrees of course.
At the sink washing dishes I look out the window at a wistful, grey, mid-autumn sky. A chilly nightfall. A fire in the woodstove. My daughter happily chattering away behind me while the sink is running, and I realize that this is one of those moments; I realize that I will not ever forget this moment.
But why?
There is nothing particularly unusual about this moment. It is bedtime for my five year old. It is a day like any other.
It is this: the splendid awareness of space. 
This, Kara’s book club, our simple fulfilling dinner, this soft and uncomplicated evening, was the life that I had been craving all of those many years, and now, here it is. It is actually happening, in all of its glory and splendor!

I read Story her books and lie next to her as her busy brain settles into its well-deserved slumber, remembering, remembering, remembering and cherishing…
This soulful, simple, splendid life, with a little wood to keep us warm on a quiet autumn evening.

Tellin’ The Biggest Lie

Tellin’ The Biggest Lie
L. Robert Veeder

I first met Tony when I was working as a welder at Precision walls. That was truly one of the very worst jobs I have ever had. It was a large, factory type, situation. We were building metal stud walls off-site to be used for large buildings, malls, offices, that kind of thing. We’d weld the walls together, hang sheet rock on them, stucco them and then load them up onto the long, flat, bed of some eighteen wheeler, never to be seen again.
I had taken the job because they would pay me to learn to weld. It was low paying, but cheaper than going to school, and truthfully, I thought welding would be cool. It just seemed like a cool, kind of tough, trade to know how to do. “I’m a welder…” Something about it commanded respect.
The company was old. At some point it may have really thrived, but that point seemed to have passed. It smelled like a dinosaur. Upstairs, off of the factory floor there were some offices that I never got to see. That’s where the architects worked. We used to joke that the way you made an architect was to get a halfway decent carpenter and beat his brains in with a hammer. We’d laugh over this while sitting in the break-room, while “Diesel” scarfed down a tiny can of Vienna sausages and a Pepsi during our first break. I even resented the breaks. A loud buzzer would sound and everything would stop on cue; It didn’t matter what we were in the middle of. If I was slamming screws into a stud wall I’d drop my drill on cue, and make a beeline to the break-room. We all did. They wouldn’t get an ounce of time out of any of us that they didn’t pay for. But I even hated that my life was dictated by clocks and noises and being told where and when to be, and trying to figure out ways to “stick it to ‘em!” I hated that job.
On occasion Bert, the shop foreman would come downstairs and tell us to stop working on whatever projects we had going. The company was tied up in a lawsuit over payment. We were welcome to stay on the clock, but we’d have to sweep…for the next 6, 7, or 8 hours, or until they resolved the lawsuit. It was horrible. What I learned was the Bert didn’t really care what we did. So, after a few months I got the routine down. Bert would tell us to stop working and sweep. Tony and I would go tell Bert we were going to go out back to rearrange a stack of metal studs that we had seen were fallen over. Bert would smile and say great, and we’d go hide in an old building together until it was time to clock out.
That was how I met Tony.
He was truly my closest friend. We spent days, nights, and weekends together. It didn’t matter. He was a few years older than me, maybe ten or fifteen. He had dark dark skin and kept his hair neatly cut with a part carved into it. He’d brush it constantly, “just tryin’ to get the waves”. Tony and I would ride around everywhere smoking pot, listening to Parliament Funkadelic full-blast and talking about life. We spent long afternoons over at his mama’s house, which smelled, like collards, and soup bones. She had a deep seriousness about her that reminded me of my own mother- always concerned. 
When we weren’t there we’d be standing at a river or pond somewhere fishing. Tony could smell a fishing hole from a few miles away. We always carpooled to work together. A lot of times Tony would show up a few hours early, banging on the front door. “C’mon Blink (That’s what everybody used to call me in those days, Blink…Blinker…that’s a story for a different time.) Let’s go catch us some fish!” And we’d hop into his car, watching the sun come up on the highway, fishing poles trembling in the backseat with bated anticipation. Tony already had a joint rolled before we ever left the driveway. Driving under the influence was never a concern for us; unfortunately, not ever. 
Other times we’d go to the local liquor houses, which to my knowledge, are only found in the black communities down south, a remnant from a time that ended up buried into the bones of the south. Liquor houses were run down, dilapidated and pathetic. Sinks hung precariously off of the walls. Counter tops were broken, and sunken in. Nobody really lived in them, though many of us slept there, on the broken down couches, chipped and scarred ugly-ass television crackling away while someone fried up our local catch. I was, and am vegetarian, no fish for me. But the fish we caught were no luxury feast. They were dinner. Food was for survival.
Sometimes, too often in fact, someone would get drunk and pissed off at my whiteness and Tony and the others would intervene. I can still hear it, their justifiable anger. “What the FUCK is THIS! What you got a white man doin’ in a black man’s liquor house for? What you doing here, son?!?” Tony would step in, “Alright, alright, alright, calm down there. He alright. He cool. He my little brother…” And after some coaxing and another drink everything would sink back down again. Or I’d play my harmonica. I could win folks over with my harp, usually. It didn’t always work though. I can still feel the sting of getting slapped for no reason other than being white by a prostitute who had smoked too much crack before I sat down next to her. I was powerless, nothing I could do or say. She was right. This wasn’t my place. This wasn’t even my world. I was just there with Tony. He was showing off and I was ever the explorer of lost and distant worlds; the sadder, the better for me.
I think that’s what we loved about each other, how much our worlds bled into each others. I finally quit Precision Walls, and Tony walked right out with me. Then we went to work for a glass company for about a year and a half together. He would come over to my house, amazed that my dogs were so friendly, and that they just stayed in the house all the time. Tony had a dog, but it lived in a pen, and nobody could go near it. Not even Tony.
At the time I was going to a local cigar bar a lot. I wanted to understand what the big deal was about smoking cigars. They had a bottle of Grand Marnier on the shelf that was fifty dollars a shot, and it was my goal to some day buy Tony and I both a shot of that so we could see what the big deal was. The cigar bar was the absolute opposite of the liquor house experience. It was affluent, white men, and the women who were drawn to them, but they treated us like kings when we came in. They called us both “Sir” and lit our cigars for us as we slunked down into big, cushy, and over-stuffed chairs. Truthfully, looking back, I think this was the draw for Tony and I both. We loved each other, but we were the same in our fascination of each other’s places.
I had hated my own world. I truly resented it. Very recently I watched an old videotape of myself in my very early thirties. I was stunned at just how southern I sounded. I think that it is living here in the north that’s given me the ability to hear it at all, but I really hated being from the south. I hated my accent. The culture that I grew up in was Lynard Skynard, Skoal rings in the back pocket of your jeans, Rebel Flag belt buckles and cowboy boots. My grandparents house smelled like chewing tobacco, and there were duck calls and shotguns in most of the rooms, and I hated it. I don’t anymore. But maybe we all need to hate where we come from a little bit; or maybe there’s something wrong with us if we don’t.
But I loved Tony’s world. It was shattered, poverty stricken, and powerless. There was so much alcoholism and drug use, but of course there would be, there was just nothing to hope for there. His like my own, was a dying culture. It was being transitioned into something else, something newer and shinier.
My favorite liquor house to go to was Eddie Lee’s. Eddie Lee was much older with beautiful brown skin, white hair and one white eye. Tony told me once that Eddie Lee’s brother and him had gotten into a fight and Eddie Lee had been stabbed in the eye, which is why it was white. Who knows if that was true or not? Half the fun of Eddie Lee’s was to drink corn liquor and see who could tell the biggest lie.
One night after too much to drink I was sitting out on the front porch with a friend who had also had too much to drink. He pointed out an old concrete block building a few houses down that had been all but devoured by kudzu, “The Vine That Ate The South”. He told me that it had been part of the “Chitlin’ Circuit”, that legendary circuit of black musicians and performers who had bravely toured the southern states. (Chitlins are a southern food made out of the lower intestines of the pigs. If you’re from the south you either eat chitlins or you don’t. There’s no in between. They’re right up there with pig’s feet for me. I can’t even be in the same room with them. In fact, I’m pretty sure somebody misspelled ‘em.”) There was nothing particularly special about the building. It was two-stories, with an exterior front porch. It was pretty big, and made entirely out of concrete block, down on Jamaica Drive, in Raleigh, North Carolina, which felt rural, even though it was right in the middle of the city. He told me he remembered James Brown staying there and Aretha Franklin; who knows if it was true or not. Honestly, at that point, it didn’t matter if it was true.
I was thoroughly impressed.
Friendships- I loved that guy, but Tony and I drifted apart. My drinking and drug use had started to escalate and I was spending more and more time alone, away from people, or worse, hiding in plain sight, surrounded by people but alone nevertheless. Things were getting bad. Honestly, things were getting pretty bad for Tony too. His mother had passed away, complications from diabetes, and he was trying to keep the house, the house he grew up in, but things weren’t looking good. The last time I saw him he had conceded to selling crack in order to try to keep things afloat for awhile, something he had always sworn he would never do.
The city finally tore down the old hotel, the liquor house too. The last time I saw Eddie Lee he was holed up in a motel, being given free room and board, by his nieces who worked for the establishment. I bought a few shots off of him nonetheless, we drank to his health. Then some older women came in, drank with us, and started teasing Eddie Lee about all of the vile things they were gonna do to his body as soon as I left the room. I finished my shot and politely left Eddie Lee to his misfortune.
The last time I talked to Tony I was in the county jail, waiting to go to prison. Tony and I talked for about ten minutes. Both of us crying. We laughed about the good times, and cried about how bad things had gotten. He told me to stay off of the card tables while I was in jail, “Blink, ain’t nothin’ good takin’ place at those card tables. You jus’ stay away from those things, okay lil’ brother?”
“Alright Ant. I promise. I never liked cards anyway.”
“Hey Ant?” I said.
“Yeah?”
“I don’t know what’s gonna happen here. I gotta be honest, I’m scared.”
“I am too Blink. I am too.”
“Hey Ant?”
“Yeah little brother?”
“…I love you, man.”
“…I love you too, little brother.”

Then we hung up.
And I never heard from him again.

The End.

I Am Sisyphus

It’s eight o’clock in the morning and I am sitting at the desk in my office. I’m not at work officially yet, won’t be for another hour or so. Then the race will start. Kara had asked me if I wanted to go to a meeting this morning, to pick up my fifteen year coin. I didn’t. She said, “The day can look however you want. I have a babysitter, so if you want to go out after work and celebrate, then we can do that…or nothing.” I said that I thought that this year I just wanted it to be a day, just to be a day like any other day. Sometimes I really want the celebration, but this year, this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to come in here and sit and think and spend some time alone.  So, I woke up early, my daughter’s warm, tiny body next to me through the night sleeping heavily after a late evening of trick-or-treating excitement, costumes, candy, and other children running wildly through the streets. Kara still exhausted is next to her, a new puppy sleeping soundly at her shoulder. There is a cat at her feet curled up contentedly as all cats sleep. Last night we went to bed laughing about this- the animals, our child, about the busy place that our bed has become. I pointed out that nine years ago this would have been an absolute dream come true.

Kara said, “Nine years ago this couldn’t have even been imagined!” and we laughed together at our own amazement.

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of my sobriety.  It is a date that is perpetually entwined with gratitude and sorrow.  This is a date that I will always celebrate and mourn. My sobriety cost too much; I have always believed this and now, after fifteen consecutive years, I am sure that I always will believe this.

Sobriety always comes at a cost.  I’ve been around enough 12-step rooms and other sober support communities to know this.

It is veritably impossible to hear a person’s recovery story without being very often stunned and amazed by the levels of grief and despair that their recovery has cost. The cost of my own sobriety was lives. I still shake my head fifteen years later even as I write those words. It just doesn’t seem possible still. I can just never make it better. Not ever.

I am Sysiphus, eternally condemned to pushing a boulder to the top of this mountain.

But it is also great, which is an odd dissonance. It’s a perpetual mourning, but it’s also an absolute celebration, and discovery, and adventure.

I work with people daily in very early recovery. They sit in my office and cry and are angry and are desperate and scared.  They sit across from me and I see myself. It would be impossible not to. The words they use, the language they use, is a close memory hermetically sealed forever in my mind. I listen to them and I hear myself. I feel sad for them, and grateful that for me that the chaos has ended. It has finally ended. I remember how it felt to have the heavy fog of eternal delusion lift and what it felt like to start to see for what felt like the first time ever. And I am so grateful for the utter simplicity of today’s problems.

But again, I question the cost.

One simple decision.

One very simple, very wrong, decision.

And some poor soul never gets to see their child again, their parent again, someone they love ever again, and there is no way to ever make that better. That can never be made better again.

After taking Story trick-or-treating last night she climbs excitedly into her car seat and asks for her bounty, her new treasures, her bucket of goods scored on a lively Hallows Eve. Kara tells her that she doesn’t want Story to eat all of that candy and make herself sick. Story insists that she won’t. We relent and let her have her reserve. On the way home we are absolutely charged. What a great night! We tell Story what a good kid she was and how much we appreciated her saying “thank-you” to all of the people that gave her candy. And because I never want her to forget it I remind her of all of the great things we did leading up to this night. I ask her to join in with me, and we laugh about corn-mazes and hot apple cider. We talk about apple picking and candy corns. We revel in her having been read the entire first Harry Potter book not once, but twice! We remember carving pumpkins and roasting pumpkin seeds. Occasionally, Story asks if she can turn the light on in the van so that she can carefully pick her next treat. Kara says she can do it as long as she does it quickly, and I can hear the crinkling of tiny brown wrappers behind me and I am filled to the brim with love and joy and just Life!

And then I wonder…

Was this what it was like for them?

Fifteen years later this is what I have to offer not just my own victims, but the world. This is what I owe:

My boundless gratitude.

My eternal apologies.

My diligence and determination.

My thankfulness.

My joy.

My promise.

My sobriety.

 

Thank you to everyone, friends, and families, my victims, just everyone, who has made this incredibly magical, and far too meaningful journey possible. Thank you all. And please don’t drink and drive. Please. Just don’t.

Peace.IMG_0995

One Tow In The Water

IMG_1478I first encountered meditation when I was around eleven or twelve years old.  I didn’t know what it was, but I recognized it as something important.  I discovered it through an old western that they used to re-run on Sunday afternoons called Kung-Fu.  Now, if you don’t remember Kung-Fu, it was a pretty simple premise.  In the time of the “wild, wild west” a student, having returned from an exotic distant land, where he had studied under a wizened “Sensei” would find himself involved in physically, and ethically, challenging dilemmas: a bar-room brawl, a bank robbery, or the chastisement of some poor widow’s daughter by bootleggers and horse-thieves.  Having no gun to defend himself with he would have to whip out the ole Kung-Fu on the assailants.  At the end of the episode they would inevitably flash to some scene of the Kung-Fu master, “Young Grasshopper” sitting quietly in meditation; having managed his external conflicts, he had now turned to the more contentious, deeper strain of sitting in this dark stillness.  I didn’t know what he was doing, but it seemed important.  I wanted to know what was in there.

I didn’t have any money at the time.  I did not have any kind of steady income at the time or an allowance to speak of that I really remember.  I shoplifted a book and cassette tape combination from a local bookstore that promised to teach me how to meditate. (This probably says as much about where I was in my life in those days as anything ever could.) I remember listening to it intently night after night, but not understanding what it meant to do when it sagely instructed me to. “Clear your mind of all of your thoughts…”  There were other things on the B-side of the cassette, maybe even a little more useful.  There were a couple of classic zen stories and it was my first introduction to the phrase “What is the sound of one-hand clapping?”  I have to confess, I still don’t know the answer to this one.

I had given up on meditation, or rather, my life took multiple turns away from that particular path.  Mostly, I discovered mood-altering drugs, and alcohol which delivered the instantaneous relief that all of the other spiritual avenues I had explored seemed to be promising me.  I didn’t reject meditation whole-heartedly; mostly I was indifferent to it.  I had tried yoga on a few separate occasions.  I recall one class taught by an older, rotund, fellow who sat in a rocking chair in the front of the class, instructing us through the various asanas.  Mostly, I was irritated through the roughly hour-long course.  He pretended at being enlightened quite well.  His students seemed to devour his acumen.  I simply resented him and never returned.  Later, through my own experiences with meditation I would come to see this as a rather fascinating personality trait that I have.  I like to call it “Getting in my own, damn, way!” It seems to be one thing that I am highly skilled at, a kind of natural ability.

Instead of following any path that he may have intended, I followed the only one that seemed real.  I got high.  Some people self-identify as cocaine addicts or alcoholics, or pot-heads, whatever, my drug of choice was “more”.  Honestly, I’d pretty much do anything that was put in front of me.  I huffed dangerous aerosols, and did too many hallucinogens.  I’d take different colored pills and mix them up to see what would happen; truly, horrifying, dangerous stuff.  There’s a clinical term for this; it’s called poly-substance use, but we just referred to it as being a “trash-can junkie”.

In my early thirties I had lost my house to foreclosure, I had lost my romantic relationship of nine years, my employer had told me that he had kind of had it with me and suggested that I get help, but I was sure that he had no idea what he was talking about, even though I was homeless at the time.  This had been the second occasion in my life at being homeless. I even had a girlfriend who told me with exasperated frustration that she refused to be homeless with me. I got a different, more understanding girlfriend.

Whatever I was doing just was not working.

And then the worst happened.

The very worst thing that could have ever happened…happened.

On November 1st, 2003 I was in a drinking and driving accident.  Two cars had collided on highway 54 in Raleigh, North Carolina.  A person had been pretty seriously injured in that initial accident and many people had stopped to help.  They had pulled him into the road and were desperately awaiting help to arrive.  My van had crested a hill, and there were the people in the road, and I couldn’t stop in time.  I just could not stop in time.  I tried swerving, tried to miss, but it was too late.  And for that I will always be sorry.

Many people lost their lives that night.  Because of me, it was my fault.  It should have been different, but it wasn’t.

I spent most of my thirties in a state prison, but there was nothing that I could say about that.  They could lock me up forever; what could I possibly say?

I spent most of the first two years of my incarceration obsessing about suicide.  Sometimes the very worst thing that can happen is that you have to wake up again to another day.

A friend of mine had sent me the book We’re All Doing Time by Bo Lozoff.  It teaches basic yoga and meditation techniques to people who are incarcerated.  For me it was invaluable.  The most important thing that it taught was that if I had some time to do in prison, I could turn it into a kind of monastic retreat.  I started seeing myself less as a convict, and more as a monk.  I still wasn’t sure that I was doing meditation correctly.  For one thing, everyone seemed to be having such a great time at it, but that wasn’t my experience at all.  I’d sit quietly and work on counting my breath; Then my face would start itching, or I’d get a cramp, or anxiety would set in.  I couldn’t figure out if I should count my breath in and out as “one” or just the in-breath as “one” and the out-breath as “two”.  Also, when I saw images of people doing meditation on television, or talk to other guys about meditation on the yard, they would all appear to be so into it.  They’d talk about how relaxing they found it to be.  Well, it wasn’t relaxing to me; I had to be doing this wrong!

I kept at it.  I have some great meditation stories to tell you.  Some of them were profound, life-changing, realizations that I had through doing a full Rohatsu sesshin all by myself, while following the schedule of a local zen center; but one of my favorite meditations happened when they had decided to wax the floors of one of the dorms lived in right in the middle of my daily forty minute sit.  “Bird”, one of the guys that I was locked up with, had decided to use the industrial grade floor buffer around me rather than ask me to move, so I sat there quietly trying to count my breaths as I worried that his floor polisher would somehow catch my mat and send me flying, spinning across the cell block.

I spent one practice period with another inmate who was also interested in zen, sitting in the phone room during the very early morning hours.  We would tap a plastic coffee cup with a prison grade spork three times to start and end our rounds.

We arranged to occasionally have all-day sits at the prison, with me and a few other guys, which even included a work schedule where we would voluntarily go and clean the yard.  I’m sure the guards either loved us or thought we were nuts!

Eventually, I was moved to minimum custody. As I got closer to my release date the prison started letting me out with community volunteers.  I had a regular practice of attending the Chapel Hill Zen Center in Hillsborough, North Carolina, and to me this was where my practice really began.  I would be allowed to go two or three times per week for occasionally up to six hours.  I’d frequent part of their all-day sits, and I’d occasionally have Dokusan there.  My wife and I were even married there, which again, is part of a much longer story, but it had been such a healing part of my life.  I had honestly thought that I would eventually get out and try to become a Buddhist priest or something like that.  It was the path that I felt most drawn to at the time, and sometimes I still have the yearning to be a monastic, but this is not anywhere in my future at this time.

Not long after I was released I was back in school full-time.  My wife, Kara, and I had moved to Rochester and in fact the Rochester Zen Center had played a pretty significant role in our decision to move here.  She had a job opportunity here and Brockport had the degree path that I was pursuing in drug and alcohol counseling.  We had investigated the city over a few days before making our decision to move here, and had gone to a Saturday morning service at RZC.  It was very different, but it had a lot of things that we both loved.

This is funny.  The place where we had been practicing was in the Soto Zen tradition, so lots of bowing, eating with chopsticks, lots of Japanese EVERYTHING.  It was my biggest complaint about the practice at the time.  I felt like I was always walking around pretending at being Japanese.  Then we came to the Rochester Zen Center.  Nobody bowed!  We ate with forks!  There was nothing Japanese about it, and all of my insides screamed “Heathens!”  That’s what helped me realize that nobody can win with me.  This is my lifelong practice of getting in my own way.  I can always find a reason why the way someone else is doing it is wrong.

My practice slipped away.  I’d love to tell you it was finally having freedom, or my busy school schedule, or finding employment or something like that.  The truth is that Kara and I had a child together, and from that point on we both have always been trying to squeeze our practice in around the edges, just trying to make it fit.

I’ve been out for five years now. Our daughter just turned four this July.  Kara and I have a nice little meditation spot in a guest room upstairs in our house and sometimes we manage to sit there pretty regularly for 10-15 minutes at night before we go to sleep.  When we do, we both usually find that our meditation turns into a sitting nap, but it’s okay.  I don’t push that away anymore.  Sleepy zazen counts too for me these days.

I work as a Behavioral Health Therapist today.  I actually am an addiction counselor, so I spend a lot of time talking to others about anxiety, stress, meditation and sober support meetings.  I’m an addiction therapist in the middle of an opioid epidemic unlike this world has ever seen. It’s something that I am very passionate about in part because of my own experiences, but honestly because my internal mantra through much of my incarceration and my ensuing education had been part of our vows: “Beings are numberless, I vow to save them.” That became my practice, whenever things would get difficult or I would start to feel like I was overloaded, I would return to that particular line of our vows.  Going to school directly out of prison was just absolutely overwhelming.  I didn’t know how to do anything.  I started school five days after I was released; classes had begun the previous week.  My first day back to school was a disaster.  Professors were speaking a foreign language.  One of them said, “All of your assignments must be submitted through D2L on Dropbox.”  I didn’t know what a D2L was or a dropbox.  I really didn’t know how to use the internet.  Most significantly, I didn’t know how to tell the teachers WHY I didn’t know how to use the most basic of technologies.  I went home that afternoon, burst into tears, and confessed defeat to my wife.  “I can’t do this.  There’s no way that I can do this.”  Then I would return to my vow, the only real practice I had left at the time.  “Beings are numberless, I vow to save them.”  If I was going to help people with addictions, I simply would have to learn, and learn fast.

Then we had our daughter, Story.  I remember about 48 hours after she was born some friends came over who had a long history of involvement with the Rochester Zen Center.  They sat on our couch admiring this new person. I had innocently asked them how they managed to maintain a practice when their own daughter had been born many years ago.  They didn’t really answer, but rather, looked at each other knowingly, kind of shrugged.

That had been their answer.

Practice has been such a significant part of my life for so long now, but I honestly feel like I am always just trying to squeeze it in around the edges.  I have meditation cushions at my office and a co-worker and I try to sit together for twenty minutes two times per week, but do to time constraints, meetings, and as I mentioned before, the opioid epidemic, it’s just not always feasible. Sometimes I come in early and sit by myself, but sitting alone is hard.  There’s so much offered through the silent support of a Sangha.

About a year ago some friends of mine and I started a local Refuge Recovery meeting together.  Refuge Recovery is not a 12-step meeting, but rather a Buddhist inspired recovery meeting that explores the correlation between Buddhist teachings and the recovery process.  We were looking for a location, and a friend of mine who had just moved into the Zen Center had stated that he would see if we could have our meeting there.  Honestly, I wanted it to be anywhere else, mostly because I had been away so long that I was embarrassed to go back, but the Rochester Zen Center seemed to make the most sense.  He discussed it with a few people and it was agreed.

When I walked back into Rochester Zen Center this time it felt different.  Somehow in my absence those many months it had grown more familiar.  I was happy to walk through its quiet walls.  I had missed this, and hadn’t even known it.  I had initially renewed my membership so that I could feel comfortable having the codes to the doors, so that I could allow people in for the Refuge Recovery meeting, but it rapidly became more for me.  I needed this back in my life, not just the heavy smells of many years of lingering incense, or the beauty of the back gardens.  I needed the support of the Sangha.  I bumped into familiar, but not too familiar faces, and everyone seemed happy to see me, which was nice, and inviting.  I went to a few early morning sits, and realized how much I missed our chants.  My wife suggested that I sign up for a two day sesshin at Chapin Mill, which is the only sesshin that I have done entirely outside of prison.  I remember one of my favorite conversations with Wayman during that sesshin vividly.  I shared some of my story with him and he looked at me familiarly and said, “Oh, you’re like me.  You HAVE to sit.  That’s very lucky for you.” But my legs hurt and I was feeling frustrated with my meditation, and I didn’t feel very lucky at all, even though he was right.

I’ll be honest, I’d like my practice to be more rigid and structured than it is.  If I could I would probably go to the morning services four to five times per week.  I’d attend Dokusan regularly, and have a great and familiar relationship with Roshi who would guide me easily in my practice.  I might even talk him into calling me “Grasshopper” every once in a while.  This isn’t where I am.  Not yet.  I try to go at least once a week.  I can’t even commit to a regular day.  One morning as I was downstairs changing into my robes I started talking to a long-time member about his own practice. I see him at the Zen center a lot.  When I mentioned my daughter, he said that he didn’t come for many years when he was raising his children.  Somehow that gave me hope.  He didn’t sound like he was any less committed to his practice during those years, and somehow it made me see that through all of this, prison, my release, college, my career, I have been practicing all along.  Maybe it is not the practice that I want, or envision for myself.  Maybe it’s not the time for that yet.  Not yet.  But it is there, and it is real, and I am committed to it, and I have been all along.

So, for me it is not so much that I am returning to practice.  I have been practicing somehow all along.  It’s more like I have a foot in the water, and then I find a way to put another foot into the water, and someday I’ll find a way to wade in a little deeper, and who knows, maybe someday, I’ll take one deep breath and dive all the way under.  Someday, I will go for a swim.

 

  1. Robert Veeder

 

 

 

 

On Drinking and Driving and Gun Violence!

On November 1st, 2003 I was involved in a drinking and driving accident. I had drunkenly drove a white, Econoline, work van into a pre-existing accident on Highway 54 in Raleigh, North Carolina.  It was a horror show, devastating, a living nightmare.  My decision to drive while intoxicated that night cost 6 people their lives.  I managed to hit nine people altogether.  Two of them were seriously injured.  I spent most of my thirties in a state prison; they could have locked me up forever.  There was really just nothing that I could say.

That was a long time ago and I still think about it every day.  I always will.  When I laugh, which is often, I wonder if I have earned the right to feel joy.  When I hurt, sometimes I simply think that I deserve it.  I always will.

The thing that I have found most baffling however has been other people’s reactions.  For the most part people have been kind, and forgiving and understanding.  I’ve heard people confess to me more times than I could possible count, that it could have easily been them driving that evening.  And that’s true.  The people that have caused me the most confusion however, have been the ones who were outraged by my decision that night.  They pretend at being shocked that ANYONE would ever drive while intoxicated.

My wife and I have had this conversation frequently.  We understand that while we as a culture can pretend that we won’t tolerate drunk drivers, the reality of this is very different.  That fateful evening was not even close to the first time that I had gotten behind the wheel while intoxicated.  I’ve also driven other people who knew that I was too drunk to drive, and I’ve gotten into cars with others, whom I knew were too drunk to drive.  My wife and I have left concerts where we’ve watched people by the hundreds stagger through the parking lot towards their cars, a lone police officer at the bottom of the hill directing traffic to assist them back onto the highways.

We don’t hate drunk drivers.  We only hate them when they turn out to be bad at it.

I recall once leaving a party, weeks after I was released from prison, where people who knew my story, professional and well educated people who knew my history, people who are DOCTORS, were getting into their cars to drive home…intoxicated.

Kara and I came to a solution for this. We don’t go to parties, and when we do we show up early and leave early.  I simply can’t bear watching it, and I can’t stand at the end of driveways having everyone arrested.  So, we leave early.

I no longer have any illusions about driving while intoxicated.  This is a part of our culture that, whether we admit it or not, we have come to accept. I would challenge anyone reading this who does not believe it to go to any bar or club this evening, any evening, and count the people that you know are intoxicated who leave, only to get behind the wheel of their own car and drive home, putting all of us at risk.

I have suggestions on how we could practically eliminate drinking and driving, but really, I know that this would involve changes that as a culture we are simply not willing to make.  This is our ugly reality, and so when I hear that someone is killed by another drunk driver, well, I am saddened.  I’m saddened for the loss. I’m saddened for the families. I’m saddened for the driver.  But I’m not shocked.  I am not angry.  This is an ugly reality, but it is one that as a culture we have uniformly made.  We absolutely will tolerate drunk drivers.  We do so every single day, and we only place minimal efforts at stopping them.  We are not willing to change.

I’ve had it with the hand wringing and empty prayers for the victims of the latest mass shooting.  I’ve heard all of the now repetitive and boring arguments about the 2nd amendment and our constitutional rights, and gun laws.  I’ve had it with all of the empty arguments about why THIS shooting was different than whatever the LAST mass shooting was.  I simply don’t care anymore.  I think it’s time that we admit to ourselves that this is simply a reality that we are absolutely willing to live with. It’s an ugly truth, but let’s face it head on…we are not willing to change.

We already know another mass shooting is in the works, and really we aren’t going to take one single step towards stopping it.

My wife and I were discussing this yesterday as well, and I’ll tell you we implicated ourselves as guilty and complacent in this as well.  We simply aren’t willing to move.  Statistically we have a pretty good chance of not getting killed by a gun, but we both realize that this could happen. We could be the next victims in some senseless act of violence, because let’s face it, we simply aren’t willing to make any efforts to change this.

I call bullshit on anyone who says that there is nothing that can be done.  We are the same people who built the pyramids. We are the people who created the hanging gardens and have dammed up entire rivers.  We can harvest energy from the sun.  We can split freakin’ atoms for crying out loud.  We took photographs of Pluto and Pluto’s moon!  There is very little that we cannot do with our big, creative, monkey brains.  If we wanted to reduce gun violence, I am absolutely convinced that we could do that too. So, let’s just be honest with ourselves.  We don’t want to.  We don’t really care that much.  It’s just easier to pray for the victims and hold our loved ones that much closer today.  Those things won’t help anything, but they probably won’t hurt, and we can pretend like we really care.

We don’t.

We don’t care.

If we cared, if we really cared, we would work to change it.

Maybe someday we will care enough to change it.

I hope so.

I really hope so.