Hope for the Holidays

During the holidays, it’s inspiring to remember our lineage forebears. One of my favorite stories features a moment between the meditation masters Chögyam Trungpa and Suzuki Roshi, two of my heroes. When this encounter begins,  Trungpa is drunk and Roshi is angry. They loved each other.

Their story isn’t a holiday story, but it could be. It gives me hope. I suppose you could take it another way.

As a WASP, angry is binary, it’s a switch. For my people, you’re “fine,” “fine,” “fine,” and then, after a few glasses of fine Bordeaux, “Your mother and I have decided to leave you out of our estate planning.” By this time your cat may already be poisoned and buried in the basement.

Speaking of angry, these days I’m moody. Why? Perhaps the holidays. Maybe because I’ve been sitting on my meditation cushion not even intensely, but regularly. Things are coming up. Sorry if you are new to meditation and no one warned you about a dark side. We’ve got stuff in the basement. It keeps trying to make it to the light of day. I was trained not to let it.

In my family,“what happens at dinner stays at dinner” is our motto. What happens at dinner? Someone you love steers you to a seat near a corner of the table. They sit next to you. They wait until the food is served. When they speak, they will be looking away from the Turkey. In short, they separate you from the pack. Then they let you have it. Word choice is considered. This where their graduate education really pays off. They speak quietly, like they’re reading from an op-ed piece or a movie review by Anthony Lane. Their controlled tone signals you that they have officially lost their mind and are ready to take it to next level.

The next level is a raised voice. You both know this will never happen, but the threat is key. WASPs are cold blooded, so no histrionics. In, France, my wife’s country, what they call a “discussion” would register chez moi as a nuclear event. An unspoken rule for the civilized WASPs: no collateral damage. Those people could still be useful. How do I know all this? It’s learned. Are there ways to avoid getting taken out? You have to read the signs.

The time my late Aunt tried on the nightgown was a sign. She was living alone at the time. She had traveled a long way to my cousin’s house for Christmas Dinner. There was wine. I had given her a nightgown for winter. It was warm, but in retrospect, a bit simple. She tried it on in my cousin’s living room just before the meal. No, not like that. She just pulled it on over her sweater and everything else. Still, that was a sign. I missed it. Before I knew it, she had cornered me near the end of a festive holiday table.

My Aunt, an otherwise wonderful, artful, thoughtful woman, had a switch. The WASP switch. “Don’t do what again Aunty?” I leaned in, trying to strike a brave note. Her tone was quiet. Her eyes were glowing. The smell of turkey was replaced by the smell of death. Dinner was just getting started. I was doomed.

“Don’t you EVER give me a present like that again! Even my cleaning lady gives me better presents than the junk you give me. Why do you even BOTHER?! Why?!” In my defense, my Aunt’s cleaning lady Jessica was a Jehovah’s Witness and a candidate for sainthood.  The holidays are about gratitude. Between grapplings with her wine glass, my Aunt elaborated on the gift from Jessica. One thing became clear, she was grateful for her cleaning lady.

Bolting from the table was my only option for escape. That would have created a scene. The rule against collateral damage applies to the victim as well as the perpetrator. Witnesses? Only my cousin, a perceptive soul who happened to be sitting across from us, noticed what was going down. Her face registered horror and fascination. Like someone watching a documentary on baby seals. It gave me solace.

When I look back now, I realize the stress my Aunt was under and I appreciate why she did what she did. My lack of insight into her situation was part of the reason. For a while, I couldn’t forgive her. Why? Because I couldn’t understand her. Because I didn’t understand myself. In the basement, it takes time for your eyes to adjust.

Trungpa and Roshi? The story ends with Trungpa teaching Roshi’s Zen students in a talk entitled “The Open Way” and Roshi calling Trungpa a bodhisattva.

Like I said, these days I’ve been moody, even angry. My temper comes suddenly. “Out of nowhere!” as my wife puts it. As if a switch had been thrown, or a basement door had swung open. I guess it’s a lineage thing. It’s hard way to begin a moment, but it’s real. Being real, it has the potential to end well.  In a strange way, it gives me hope. Hope for the holidays.