Sunday, July 4, 2010

Devon Ward-Thommes: Becoming the Pelican

During my second fall semester in college, the sorority house where I lived hosted one of the largest date functions on campus, Assassins.  Each couple was given the names of another couple – these were their victims.  The goal was to find your victims in the dark, and when you did, they were “killed” and called out of the game; the last remaining couple was the winner.  I don’t remember now what the prize was for winning, but I’m sure it came with lots of popularity and respect.  My roommates and I spent months preparing for it – all through September and October we talked about who we’d invite, what the best hiding places were, how to know your victims in the pitch black darkness.  One of my best sorority friends, a Korean girl named Sun, designed the t-shirt – black with white silhouettes of three skinny, big-breasted girls in mini-skirts and platforms holding guns like Charlie’s Angels framing the word ASSASSINS on the back.  We were so pumped for this shindig.

We decorated the dining hall with streamers and made “better than sex” cake – a dangerous concoction of vanilla ice cream, peanut butter, crumbled Oreos, and M&Ms all smothered with chocolate sauce – for our dates after the event; I certainly wouldn’t eat the stuff.  What I remember of the actual night is fuzzy, out of focus like a bad photograph.  My date was Andy Miguel, my beautiful Filipino boyfriend, star quarterback, secretary of Phi Delta Theta fraternity, student body president.  We wore our black shirts with pride, and painted our cheeks with stripes of greasy black paint like football players.  Everyone wore black bandanas, strips of cloth tied around their arms, anything to make them look bad-ass.  Then we turned off all the lights and the chaos commenced.
There were screams and heavy breathing and pounding footsteps down the hallways. I grasped Andy’s hand – my palms were sweaty – people were groping and gasping and screaming.  We hid under one of the bunk-beds in the dormitory for awhile, tried to distinguish feet running by, the sounds of people banging around in the dark.  We ventured out and ran through some rooms, and then hid in the costume closet, but that was all.  Soon, we heard some loud wailing, all the lights came on, and the game was called off.

The dining hall’s fluorescent lights were blinding.  People sat around on chairs, wiping sweaty foreheads and smearing their make-up.  At least two or three girls were crying – someone had a bloody lip, another girl had banged her forehead into the corner of a wall, the popular soccer player, Karen Lewis, had sprained her ankle.  Stacey mopped Liz’s bloody forehead, Megan blamed her boyfriend for her broken glasses, and they argued until he left, yelling angry words behind him.  I don’t remember where Andy was.  I sat in the corner, heart beating fast, watching the streamers sway and drift around all the angry, red-faced people.  Most of college was like this.

At nineteen, I still believed the truth was that not eating lunch, running a marathon, and joining the crew team would bring lasting happiness, the truth of who I really was.  If I just worked hard enough then all that pain would bring looser clothes, a flat stomach, pure, unadulterated satisfaction in hard work paid off.  I’d learned that beauty equaled happiness - thin, graceful, tan, toned beauty – the people I wanted to be inhabited the pages of Seventeen.  Some were even in my calculus class.  My peers who seemed happy all weighed less than 130 pounds; they had long, shiny, straight hair and big smiles and popular boyfriends. I thought if I could just control my frizzy curls and have one of those hard-ass stomachs, I would be well, and able to relax, and feel fully alive.  At nineteen, this is what I believed.

But I did know a few true things, underneath all the layers of spandex: I had the sneaky feeling that there was more to life than what I could see and hear and touch and taste.  I suspected that God probably existed among all of us stumblers.  And that almost everyone was struggling to wake up, to be loved, and not feel so afraid all the time.  That’s what all the clothes, make-up, elliptical trainers, and string bikinis were all about.  I knew that I wasn’t alone in the dark – I could hear others fumbling around just as awkwardly as I was.  The trouble was that nobody knew where the light switch was.  Nobody even seemed to care.

By the time I joined the varsity lightweight crew team during the spring of my freshman year, I’d developed a curious and wildly ecumenical faith stitched from scraps I’d gathered in reading and participating in various wisdom traditions – Native American, Taoist, feminist, Buddhist, even Catholic, in those sweet, slow days cherry-picking with my ex-Catholic priest father, who taught me to meditate and believe that we are all sons and daughters of God, whoever that was.  According to him, she was most likely female.

My closest friends were my competitors – my best friend Annie Chesnut who turned anorexic our last year of high school, all the girls skinnier than me who rowed on the lightweight team, the sorority sisters who hoarded bagels and granola bars and never came to house meals, my popular, manipulative boyfriend.  What I didn’t know was that my strictest competitor (and my best teacher) would turn out to be the person I hated most – me and my body.

Before every crew regatta, we’d all had to weigh in, each girl peeling her jersey over her head and stepping on the scale.  Sonja, our team captain, weighed 132, two pounds over the lightweight cut-off.  So she ate only rice cakes the day before each weigh-in, and then spent hours dressed in five layers of clothing, sweating off the pounds on a stationary bike in the boathouse.  One time, she was just a sliver over – 130.4 pounds – so we’d all watched as another teammate took Sonja’s long cashew-colored hair in her left fist and a pair of scissors in her right, and sliced off the beautiful swishing bundle.  It turned out her hair weighed a measly .1 pounds.  She’d still not made weight, so she’d fasted all day in order to be allowed to row in the morning.

Although I’d started college 15 pounds over the cut-off, by that spring I weighed 122.  I had learned to multi-task: I took my reading homework to the gym.  I spent afternoons there sweating on the stair climber, trying to feed both parts of me – the curious student asking big questions about spirituality and the dissatisfied sorority girl who obsessed about exercise.  I must have seen some incongruity in this, reading about Jung and his collective unconscious while participating in the sad body image soup that was almost tangible in the steamy air, my fellow sorority sisters pedaling beside me, nose-deep in their Shape magazines.
Poetry often helped.  When I read Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” or anything by Rumi, quick bursts of sunlight streamed through my darkness.  At those times I knew that if you had the eyes to see, there was beauty everywhere in nature, even when it rained spittle rain like God was sneezing, or when sewer stench rising from the river mixed with the sharp odor of wild onions.  I could even see beauty in my girlfriends with large, round bottoms.  I was just glad I didn’t look like them.  Even though I knew some truth somewhere in my body, it wasn’t what I wanted to believe.  I didn’t want to listen to wisdom, I just wanted to have a fast ergometer score, and to be thin.

This time was not so long ago – I was nineteen 7 years ago, a sophomore in college at a small school in Salem, Oregon, where the students were more conservative than the faculty, and ninety percent of social events happened at Greek houses.  I was a new member of Alpha Chi Omega, the jock sorority, I was the girlfriend of the hottest boy in school, and I went to Tuesday night Christian worship services during which young men with soulful eyes strummed guitars with gusto and fervent girls sang loudly, palms open, hands held up to heaven.  My friends were the ones who looked like they had the most fun – the ones who wore disco clothes to school and danced with abandon and laughed a lot.  They weren’t the ones drinking themselves sick every weekend.  They were mostly part of Campus Ambassadors, a large, evangelical Christian youth group.

For a few weeks during the fall, I met with three Campus Ambassador girls on Wednesday nights at 9:00 pm, down by the millstream.  We’d stand in a circle, hold hands, pray together, and tell each other our deepest secrets.  Beth Sweeney talked about how she was slowly beginning to eat again after a year of being too skinny and too sick.  She still wanted to be thin.  She knew it was a problem, but she was doing her best to be healthy.  She was taking a dance class, doing yoga and singing in a women’s choir.  She asked God for help a lot.  I stole glances at her in the moonlight, her bony fingers and painted toes laying atop foam flip-flops.  I understood the voice telling her that she would never be good if she was not thin.  The same harsh voice echoed in my ears, but I never told her that.  I talked about school and crew and Andy, and kept stealing glances at Beth’s waist.  I envied that waist.

Beth was one of my only Christian friends with an eating disorder.  Campus Ambassador parties always included lots of food, which everyone ate with gusto.  My best Christian friend Tracey started a club called Monday-Nice-Day.  Every Monday night, we gathered in a campus kitchen and baked treats – brownies, lemon bars, coconut macaroons, peanut butter bars – and handed them out to kids around campus, who, unlike us, were studying hard.  I nibbled these treats, licked the spoon when we were done, but always felt guilty afterwards.  According to those Christian girls, God was full of grace.  He spoke any time anywhere but could be heard most clearly on windswept beaches and wet forests, through morning fog and burning sunrises, places far away from asphalt and cars.  Christ wanted to be my savior, God wanted to accept me into heaven.  But this promise was not unconditional.  I had to believe that people were originally sinful, that Christ had died for my sin, and that only He, and no other god, could lead me to heaven.  At the service, following lyrics projected onto the overhead screen, I prayed to Jesus to speak to me.  I thought my heart was open, but no message ever came.  Most Tuesday nights after worship I ended up crying in my dorm room, frustrated that I didn’t fit into this nice group of people.  I just couldn’t stop asking questions.  What about all the other people in the world, the Hindus, the Muslims, the Buddhists, the Jews?  Didn’t they have as much right to the truth as anybody?

For Christmas that year, my parents took me to Puerto Vallarta, where we visited Posada Roger, the hotel where they had stayed 25 years ago on their honeymoon.  From there, we traveled north up the coast to a small fishing village called Sayulita, famous for its long-haired surfers and ex-pat artists dwelling in clay-tiled bungalows scattered over the seaside hills.  Sayulita was a great place for rituals and celebrations – it was nearly as exotic as India, including the dying animals and polluted streams that smelled of defecation.  Dudes with rotting dreadlocks smoked hashish on cement porches, naked babes lounged on the beach, and feral cats dug in the garbage.  There were festivals almost every night – New Year’s fireworks, fire-breathers and gypsies in the town square selling hoop earrings and jingle-jangle bracelets.  Women in sarongs sipped martinis in the bars next to greasy men, children played with kittens along the cobblestones and corn fields, artists set up easels on the hilly roads, and surfers congregated in beach-side restaurants to gorge themselves on fried fish and flan.  There was the village church, full of candlelight and poinsettias and beatific, bleeding Christs, there were orgies and mangy dogs and belly-dancers and people in small bits of exotic clothing redolent of spirit and dreams – not to mention tacos grilling in the heat and left-out watermelon, so much juicy life oozing out around the edges.  It was enough to make me nauseous.

I got up every morning at 7:00 am for my hour-long run.  My parents noticed when I returned red-faced and sweaty and did not want to go downstairs for the abundant breakfast of salted and limed papaya, banana, watermelon, pastries from the corner bakery, perspiring flutes of orange juice.  They noticed when I left three quarters of all my meals on the table, the sticky flan attracting flies, and when I studied my profile carefully in the mirror before tying on a wrap-around skit and sliding a sweatshirt over my head for the beach.  I did most of this quietly, and they watched quietly, until my stomach aches got worse.  Every time I ate, my belly erupted into furious gurgles and grumbles, louder than my rare complaints.

At first we thought it was just turista, Montezuma’s revenge.  But my parents had seen me through a grueling year of lightweight crew racing; they knew about Sonja’s impromptu haircut.  The world is so full of pain, and it’s contagious around people you love.  I think my mother suffered more than I as she watched me run and pant and pick at my food.  She had always been my confidante.  But I didn’t want to talk to her about my body; I was listening to that voice residing in a deep, intimate place too tender to expose.  But we also loved to read together, so when her attempts to talk about things ended in more silence, she gave me a book for Christmas.

On the cover, rows of aspens stood out against a yellow background, the forest floor thick with their leaves.  The title, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, surprised me.  Was my mother saying I was falling apart?  Did she think I needed heart advice for difficult times?  When I first opened the package, my mother must have seen my distress at being given such a book; she said her secretary had recommended it, that she wanted to read it after me, that it wasn’t really as self-helpish as it seemed.  The picture on the back intrigued me – an American Buddhist nun dressed in maroon and yellow, shorn hair fuzzy around her head.  “Pema Chödrön is the resident teacher at Gampo Abbey, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the first Tibetan monastery in North America established for Westerners,” I read, curiosity piqued.  One morning in Sayulita, I packed the book in my backpack and after my ritual profile-examination in the full-length mirror, headed to the beach.

I spread out my towel, whipped off my sweatshirt, and flopped down on my tummy lickety-split, so nobody would see my round white belly.  I lay there for awhile, watching all the tan, skinny girls around me brush sand from their oiled thighs and wave at their boyfriends, wet and salty in the pelican-strewn surf.  Then I took the book from my bag, careful to keep the title hidden from view, and started to read.  I don’t remember if I really hoped this book would help me, but I do remember how I was soon mesmerized, agape.  Pema Chödrön didn’t seem to say anything I didn’t already know about fear and truth and the present moment, but it was the first time I’d heard this information given in such a kind, funny, wise, human voice.  She spoke from that same dark, tender place where my neurotic voice resounded, but her message was gentle.  It said: relax.  Be kind to yourself.  You don’t need to do anything else, you’re already awake, precious, whole, and good.  I thought: of course, yeah, I knew that.  But now I could really believe this truth, this truth that spilled out in the quiet relationship between writer and reader.

As I read about calm abiding meditation, that profound practice of watching the breath, I noticed my belly pushing against my ribs, the sand beneath me every time I inhaled.  My body responded viscerally to this wisdom, I felt each cell settle and stretch, feeling itself as if for the first time.  People say about experiences like this that “the veil lifted,” but for me, it was as if I’d been clutching the edge of a cliff and I’d just let go into space.  But it wasn’t a scary free-fall, it was a loosening into innate freedom, space that had been there all along.  Pema Chödrön wrote about discovering what is brilliant and confused in our own hearts, about what is bitter and sweet, and how when we discover ourselves, we discover the universe.  And I felt as though my lungs had just doubled their capacity for breath, for inspiration.

I read all afternoon, belly down on my towel, toes curling in the sand.  There was only me, the book, the sun warming the earth; sunglasses on the sweaty bridge of my nose, the smell of sunscreen, the shush of pages turning, the occasional shift of light or limb.  The wrinkly flower of my heart was opening in slow motion.  I felt I was universes away from those women sprawled on their towels a little ways off.

Pema Chödrön said meditation is a good idea.  So I did it.  I began meditating every morning, right before going out on my run.  I would sit cross-legged on the brick patio of Tía Adriana’s Bed and Breakfast, palm fronds striping shadows across my legs, and I’d listen to my breath, feeling my stomach push in and out, just like Pema said to do.  When my mind got all tangled and distracted, I tried to relax with whatever arose.  I said “thinking” in my mind, and tried to come back to the breath.  I felt air scrape against the inside of my nostrils, my dried-out lips slightly open with the tongue touching the roof of my mouth.  My parents observed me without saying much; I think they were relieved, maybe bemused by my sudden change of habit.  Sometimes I sat with my running shoes on, afraid I would not go running if I was not completely prepared beforehand, like somehow my meditation would calm me down enough to see the truth I did not want to see.  I was afraid that if I saw truth I would accept myself for how I was at that moment, which would mean eating a chocolate bar instead of running, and then just getting fatter and more miserable again.

One day I went running in the afternoon.  In the golden light, I ran past watery-eyed cows and dull-eyed men hanging out at the local bull-fighting ring.  I ended up at the beach.  I felt sick to my stomach, sick of how it stuck out against my tank-top if I did not hold it in, sick of the garbage and dirty dogs and rotting fish all over this god-forsaken paradise.  I went down to the water and sat on some big boulders and watched large black pelicans fishing.  They were humongous, more like pterodactyls than birds, wings stretched reptilian against the sky, and then boom!  They’d jack-knife and plummet toward the waves, beaks wide and scissor-like.  God knows what I’d do if one of those things came at me like that.  After scooping up their catch, they’d settle on the waves, scuttling their feathers back into place, like everything was hunky dory.  No cause for concern, no big deal, I’m fine, everything’s just fine.  Not like I just took the biggest hara-kiri bullet-trajectory path out of the air from twenty feet up and just landed with a PLOOSH in the waves, mouth full of fish.  No, no big deal.

I cried big, heaving sobs, snot running down with sweat and tears into my cleavage as I watched those birds dance.  And then when I was done crying, God was everywhere.  I breathed God in the wind, tasted divine salt on my lips, looked down to see God’s hands resting on God’s skinny legs, blotchy and red from running.  God pounded out rhythms in my chest, and when I looked down at the sandy shells at my feet, there God was staring back at me, from eyeballs protruding on long antennas on a frightened, side-stepping crab.  I collected as many of the purple and orange half-shells as I could and made my way back to Tía Adrianas, white teary flakes still sticking to my cheeks.

That was the day I pecked a hole out of my dark eggshell and saw the world full of birds and fishes, the parts of God that would guide my spiritual path.  This was the day I knew the ingredients that would serve me – wind, water, love, color, prayer, meditation, community.  I knew that resurrection of the heart was possible.

I started praying, not the usual old prayer of “God, send me a sign” or “God, may I be thinner,” but new ones – like just feeling the scrape of my breath or the stretch of my hamstring and delighting in sensation.  The divine was everywhere whether we called it God or Goddess or Buddha nature, poor old Buddha nature, just waiting for me to notice and say hello.  Pema Chödron said “what makes self-kindness such a different approach is that we are not trying to solve a problem.  We are not striving to make pain go away or to become a better person.  In fact, we are giving up control altogether and letting concepts and ideals fall apart,” and I finally understood that this was no platitude.  People were going to come into my life.  Many of them would leave.  Most of the people, even my family and close friends, would roll their eyes and laugh nervously when I mentioned meditating or anything Buddhist.  My sorority friends would stop calling when I moved out the next semester.
My parents weren’t there when I got back to the bed and breakfast, so I went into our room, spread out a towel, and did 200 sit-ups and 60 push-ups, half on my knees.  It would be two more years before I took vows of refuge and officially became a Buddhist student, three years before I went on pilgrimage to India and began 100,000 prostrations in the traditional preliminary practices of Tibetan Buddhism.  Seven years after that day with God and the pelicans on the beach, I sat down to write this story.  But I still remember sitting up from that dirty towel, stretching my quads and calves, and then walking out onto the veranda to watch the sun go down beneath a hazy veil.  I felt euphoric and exhausted, as if I’d just plummeted right out of that dark sky, eyes wide and black wings spread, and hit the water with a crash.

Devon Ward-Thommes is a graduate of George Mason University's MFA in Creative Nonfiction program.  She has previously published in Willamette University's Precision Munitions, a journal of French poetry translations called Rien Rien, and Spirituality and Health magazine.  Her translation of Véronique Tadjo's book-length poem, Halfway, is due out from HOST Publications this year.  She currently lives and works at a Tibetan Buddhist Retreat Center in southern Colorado devoted to honoring the sacred feminine.  This piece first appeared in Melusine's Summer 2009 issue.

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