There are times I feel awed by courageous acts of compassion. This is one of those times. Blogging friend Chris Lemig’s book The Narrow Way comes out next month and I’m honoured to be able to say a few words about it.
As the subtitle suggests, The Narrow Way is about Chris’s coming to terms with realizing he is gay in a time and place where homophobia was the norm. His gut-wrenching descriptions of the fear and self-loathing he experienced and his nightmarish descent into substance abuse and suicidal thoughts are riveting, and surely took great courage to write. How he managed to climb out of such a pit of torment and make his way as a new Buddhist to India and Tibet is a gripping and inspiring story.
Although I’ve kept my own words to a minimum, I hope these passages will whet your appetite for a wonderful book that I had great difficulty putting down.
From time to time, Chris quotes from his journal. Here is a passage verging on despair.
I worry that everyone who sees me knows I’m spun.
My face turns red and my hands turn cold and purple.
My teeth are falling out and my breath smells a little like death.
It makes me crazy.
I don’t take care of my dog.
It controls me. Sometimes I do it only hours after saying I wouldn't.
I don’t even like it anymore.
It defines me and that’s scary.
His drug use fails to produce the much-needed refuge.
I take a hit and inhale into oblivion, letting my eyes roll back until I forget who I am, who I was, who I might be. I hide, deny, evade and make another attempt at this futile escape. But there is no escape. Even though I have changed my name and moved once a year for the past eighteen years, even though I have changed my story and lied through my teeth, the truth has found me out every time. It tears through my body and mind like a chainsaw, unrelenting and agonizing.
And doesn't make his struggle coming out of the closet any easier.
I couldn't even see that it wasn't desire at all but the essence of the real me, the gay me, just trying to get out. So I took the drugs wildly, hoping they would help me to sound out that name with dry throat and tongue. I would snort whole grams of speed in one great inhale, stay awake and stuttering for days, make my way to the gay clubs and porno stores when I thought I had finally broken through. But even then I could only stand there on the shore of that sea of men and sex while the throbbing music and the desperate moans crashed over me like waves. Sometimes I would hold those men in the middle of the night, there in the dark little booths where I could get down on my knees and with open arms and mouth finally confess. But mostly I would just bite my lip till it bled and run for the door. Three years I did this. Nine hundred blinding sunrises in a row. Then the bottom came up too fast and seeing the imminent future of me, shattered and broken there on the hard, concrete earth, I called home.
And once out, it was far from a cakewalk.
I've been out of the closet for only a month when I find myself pinned down in the back seat of the car. We have just come from the funeral of a friend who died from crack cocaine. Her sister and her son, two people I once called friends, are beating me half to death. We are drunk and angry and I have just said something stupid.
“She had it coming to her,” I heard myself slurring under my breath.
Now I take what’s been coming to me for years and I will never again feel this afraid, this alone, this powerless. Flailing fists smash my face, sending electric shocks of violence to my brain. Fingernails tear at my eyes and I think: “She’s going to scratch my eyes out. She wants me to go blind.” “Faggot, faggot, you fucking faggot!” they scream. Or are they saying, “Fly caged bird, fly”?
I think I will go deaf from the screams that are filled with hate and loud enough to shatter a stone heart. But my heart is not stone; it is flesh and muscle beating two hundred times a minute as I start fighting for my life…
I was completely drawn into the book by Chris’s imagery – whether the sights and smells of a drug hit gone wrong …
It is three years before India and I am not going anywhere. Instead, it is four in the morning and my eyes are wild and bloodshot as I pick through the carpet, searching for tiny pieces of crack cocaine that may have sizzled off the end of my pipe. My roommate sits on the bare floor of her room cooking up a fresh batch on a tarnished, blackened teaspoon but I can’t wait to get another hit. I try to smoke what turns out to be the clipping of a dirty toenail, and it fills my mouth with the taste of burnt skin and rubber.
The temptation to use again, always just around the corner …
Four days later without a drink or a cigarette and the cravings come in powerful waves that threaten to bowl me over. “Just one drag, just one drink and it will all go away,” say the voices of old demons still squatting in a back room in my mind. “Stay quit, stay quit, stay quit,” says another voice, a voice that I am just learning to trust, a voice that I’m beginning to recognize as my own.
I chant the mantra to myself when the bargaining and the drafting of new promises begin and the demons withdraw. Stay quit, stay quit, stay quit.
Or the sights and sounds and strangeness of India.
The bus that will take me there from Delhi is an hour late. Plenty of time to stare, dumfounded and open-mouthed, into the face of India as I wait by the side of the road. I am clutching a sweaty bus ticket while she stares back at me, unblinking and unashamed, with a hundred thousand expressions to fit a hundred thousand moods. She is the young leper girl without a nose in bright blue sari begging for rupees while she dances and twirls to tabla beats. She is the prostitute leading the young man into the abandoned, graffiti covered shack across the street. She is the cars, auto-rickshaws and motorcycles screaming endlessly by. She is the three-legged dog covered in mange darting through the traffic.
This is not the face of India that I had expected or imagined.
Panic and despair as a long and carefully planned attendance at a talk by the Dalai Lama seems to unravel.
Back down Bagshu Road I run, following the black lines of the map that is burned in my mind, all the way to the building marked Security Office. I am on the tips of my toes, humming a little victory tune as I walk through the door. I have made it! Ten thousand miles on this long, hard road. There is no stopping me now!
But then, without any warning, I am stopped, suddenly and surely and dead in my tracks. A giant chalkboard hangs at the far end of the hall and I narrow my eyes in the dark to read and reread the tall letters that spell out in clear and perfect English: THERE ARE NO MORE PASSES FOR HIS HOLINESS’ TEACHINGS.
“There must be some mistake,” I say out loud. I close my eyes, imagine the website that I thought I had checked and double-checked. Passes are only issued on the first day of the teachings, it said.
There is obviously some translation problem at work here, so I scurry from door to door peering into the tiny rooms looking for answers. But no one is home. Then I hear a stirring towards the back. In the very last office sits the only stern Tibetan I have ever seen. He gets up from a rickety wooden chair and looks me up and down. I have lost the ability speak so I wave and sign in unintelligible gesticulations. I try to tell him that I want a pass for the teachings; that I have just gotten off the seventeen-hour bus ride from New Delhi and the fifteen-hour flight from America. I pantomime the past year of preparations and planning and hard work. I explain in sweeping, arcing gestures all the magic and synchronicity that has led me here, to this very place, at this very moment.
He is unmoved.
“Didn’t you read the sign?” is all he says. “Yes,” I manage in a whisper.
In the face of extreme suffering.
I let my backpack slide off of my shoulders and I sit cross-legged on the cold platform next to a pile of filthy rags. But it is not rags at all. Suddenly, it begins to stir and unfold. I leap up, ready to run down the tracks in fear as a human form uncurls itself from underneath a torn t-shirt smeared with dirt and grime. It is a young man, no more than twenty, already broken beyond repair. He is all bones now, sharp at the joints that threaten to tear through the wrinkled brown paper sack that used to be his skin. His wispy beard and wild, black hair are a nest for lice and leaves and bits of trash that have come to rest there.
He struggles to move and each bending of each brittle limb is a creaking agony. I think he might be dying right then and there before my eyes.
I am no more than ten feet away. I could take two decisive steps and help him to his feet, take him to God-Knows-Who, to someone, to anyone for help. But I don’t. All the meditations on compassion, the wish to free others from their suffering and pain, are sucked out of me like air into the vacuum of space. Instead, I stare, jaw dropped open, like a dumb, mute statue of stone. It takes long, slow minutes for him to rise to his feet and when he does I think the cool breeze coming from the north will blow his hollow bones and paper skin down the tracks. As the apparition staggers off and disappears around the corner, I wrap the memory of him neatly into an unlabeled box and hide it away on a lonely back shelf in my mind. By the time my train comes four hours later, chugging and steaming around the tracks, I will have already forgotten him.
A simple act of kindness.
This descendent of the Bodhi Tree stretches her long, dangling limbs over me, just like her forbearer did over the Buddha two and a half thousand years ago. Her leaves shimmer and twist and dance in the warm breeze. Sometimes a score or more of them break loose from her branches and spiral down to the earth. Pilgrims swarm, giddily snatching them up before I can even think about rising. A young Tibetan monk, ten years old, picks one up that has landed right in front of my feet. He has an armful of them already and he cradles them to his chest like precious jewels. He is about to return to the stream but when he sees me looking on longingly, he turns and with a happy smile and bright eyes drops every last one of them into my lap.
His Holiness is still smiling and offering his blessings to the crowd as the car pulls away. Our eyes meet for a split second. It is not the perfunctory eye contact of politicians and celebrities but a genuine reaching out. For that brief moment I know he is looking just at me, taking the time to really see me. He smiles, then I smile back. I melt and dissolve right there before his eyes until I am completely content and for the first time in my life I am certain that I have come the right way.
Friendship and a call to action.
Monks and nuns and pilgrims encircle us as we say our goodbyes. Finally, I let go of Sonu’s hand and begin to walk away. I turn to wave one last time but he has already disappeared. I have missed the point entirely. Yes, it is good to meditate, to prostrate, to pray. But what good is this if it doesn’t help those in need?
A deep bow of gratitude, Chris. You made me laugh and cry. Thank you for your kindness and courage to tell your story. I hope that many who find themselves overwhelmed by despair, standing where you have been, will know that they are not alone and that there is a way out, even though at times it seems very narrow indeed.
Let me close with your quote of Joseph Campbell:
Where we had thought to travel outward, we will come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world.