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Buddha’s Journey


I’ve had amazing experiences since I started writing semi-professionally. I’ve seen my byline in The New York Times. I’ve filled out my IRS tax forms with my profession listed as “writer,” and seen that yes, indeed, 95% of what I’d earned had come from my craft. I’ve landed–and lost!–not one but TWO big-shot NYC literary agents. I’ve been on national television. I’ve gone into Safeway and walked up to a rack and opened up a mass-market magazine to show my children an article I wrote. I’ve seen my son walk solemnly, proudly around kindergarten Open House with a copy of Yes! Magazine open to my editorial layout. But this season has been filled with professional (and, yes, personal) disappointments, heartaches, and losses. I just got dealt few more of them today. So instead of crying about the money situation and feeling sorry for myself, I did something fun and creative. Because the only thing that’s saved me . . . really . . . through an incredibly rough year is the circle of support I’ve got around me, not just in my real life, but the one that’s grown around my virtual, writing life. Through this website and through my social media connections.

A woman I’ve never met but with whom I share many mutual friends admired my fat green Buddha statue in a video of my daughter playing piano. She also happens to have been one of my most stalwart supporters, always there to elevate my work, message me when she spots a low in my tone, or crow over my children. I hope she’s not embarrassed or offended by my gentle shout out: this is for you–and all who are like you, Lisa Choate McGovern. You live on Love Street.

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. . . and thank you for making it possible for me to write for you!

My Summer Ghost


Everything I’m about to tell you is true, except for two things: one, it wasn’t my grandmother (although I am part Cherokee, and I have had many sage grandmothers and great grandmothers.) It was my friend’s full-blood Cherokee great-grandmother, but it fit perfectly. Two, his name is.

“My Summer Ghost”

A ghost spent some time with me this past summer, and he lived in my computer. He knew my name, where I had lived in 1972, where my pain had begun. When he said his dad had been at Fort Sill I froze and waited, feeling a NO and a YES all together, it can’t have been?!

My Cherokee grandmother had warned me of this type of ghost, in her way. She had a saying, something like, “there are three types of friends. Those that are there for a reason. Those that are there for a season. Those that are there forever. Two out of those three will leave you before you’re ready.”

This man—my ghost–had skin brown as the good dark soil you never find in Oklahoma, where the dirt is red. Legend says the dirt is red in Oklahoma due to all the blood that’s been shed there. That is where my pain started, in my home . . . and where his started, too . . . my ghost. He came up on my screen and he said, “I knew you, little girl. I knew you when you were being hurt and started feeling very afraid of home, because I was the little black boy down the street whose father killed a man in our living room. My stepfather raped me throughout my childhood. I’m here to show you the path to climbing out and away.”

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He had dreadlocks and wore a Buffalo Soldier hat his great-grandfather had kept, long stored, he told me, a source of pain that he reclaimed and wore with defiance. He smiled at me lovingly, and with a facial expression that held both pity and understanding. He told me the tears could keep coming if they needed to but they would have to stop sometime if I was going to be strong. If I was going to shed this baggage, this weight I carry around, if I was to be a Queen. He told me he had never spent a lot of time crying–that actually, it was something he rarely if ever had indulged in–but that he got into a lot of trouble, instead, in the years after he escaped from his abuser.

I told him that I always cry when I’m angry.

 Right then, when I said that, there was a long pause, and this was the first and the last time I ever saw my ghost cry. He told me, “I spent a lot of time breaking kneecaps for you, girl.”

 He put his strong hand to his forehead and his chest shook. I cried and touched the screen impulsively and told him I wish we could have helped each other back then, grasped small hands, black and white, and run far and fast across the tarantulas and bleached-white sidewalks, across the dry spiky grass, but to where? The farthest I went was on my yellow metal tricycle, riding slowly, steadily, along the long straight ribbon of concrete. How far can I go. How far can I go.

My ghost went far. He went to prison, eventually . . . for fighting his way out of this pain. Now he works for the poor and in need, around the world. He’s an innovator, a change-maker, raising people up with his strong hands. Spreading love and charity after a lifetime of pain and anguish.

 Whenever, during our computer screen chats, I started repeating self-defeating things, how the things that had happened had turned me into a broken person, and possibly a bad person, too, he’d get up from his chair and sort of hunch his back, slapping his thighs, shaking his head low and fast, eyes closed, singing this kind of crazy scat until I’d shut up. He’d ask, “are you quite done?”

When I’d cry hard about the burdens I carry and the boulder on my shoulder, he’d start to pick up all the furniture in his house, ALL of it–please don’t think I’m exaggerating–until he was this small figure under a catawampus collection of chairs, ottomans, boxes, busts of David, books, halogen lamps, “and let me get this here, too, let me add this, Corbyn, is this enough? What about this here? Wait, I can get one . . . more . . . thing . . . that enough, Baby? That enough? What else you gon’ add, Baby? That enough for you?” Then after I got a goooood long look at how silly and overwhelmed and unnecessarily burdened he looked, he’d stare me down good and hard. A long, quiet stare. And he’d start to put each item down, while never losing eye contact with me. Never losing eye contact. Just silence. Just those beautiful eyes and those wild locks, that black skin, that hat, while I cried with relief and understanding.

For as long as I can remember, as an adult, I felt like if I were asked to paint a self-portrait–the internal kind, how I see myself, not the mirror’s lie–I’d see a well-muscled black man with a snarl and tattoos, one whose fists are clenched and whose face challenges you to just Go Ahead, MUTHUHFUCKER, Try!2pac

That’s who I call on when I need that feeling of invincibility, like none of it ever happened, the red dirt, the years of unpredictable anger and violence, of being afraid of your own parents, of your own home, the feeling of having no place that was safe. And in short time this summer, my ghost became my safety.

A text of “today is going to be a great day for you. You are stronger than what happened. I love you. R.” And that was like a sweet guitar strum in my ear, and my eyes would close and my head tilt with an almost drunken feeling of peace, just with those words. Because my ghost was there. He knew Everything. I could rewrite every hurt with his strong arms around me. I could paint a whole new painting, one where I didn’t hide behind bushes and under beds, where I didn’t cut huge bleeding sections out of the bottoms of my feet where no one would see, but where I could march, add to the red dirt, add to the red dirt.

I sliced these huge bleeding sections off my feet for years, and at night I would have to peel off my blood-soaked socks and throw them away. My mother had to wonder what was happening to all my socks. Periodically, I’d find new replacements–the kind that came in multiples, in a bag–laid on my bed without comment.

And yet there came a day when I wasn’t ready and he wasn’t there. He vanished, and it was if we had never met. All contact ceased. A DVD of a favorite movie I had sent to him came back marked “Undeliverable.” And the crying came back, and it came back harder than ever, because I wasn’t ready, and I thought maybe it was time, finally time for the hospital, that I had created my fantasy healer, someone who could make it all better, and I still don’t know if that’s not true. When I try to contact him now, he responds as if we’ve never met or doesn’t respond at all. He said a stranger is trying to stalk him, and that’s me, but I know because I REMEMBER HIM MORE THAN I REMEMBER ANYTHING ELSE IN MY LIFE. But he turned away from me, and it hurt like a thousand things hurt, it hurt me bigger than big, and I’m not sure if it broke me more than helped me.

That’s the thing about ghosts. They’re damned unreliable.

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We Are Totally Not Supposed To Talk About This AT ALL


I go back to work in a few days after psychiatric disability leave. I’ve been going to the strange little Indian psychiatrist in the broken-down office with the half-star on Yelp where I sometimes wait in the waiting room for three, four, five hours . . . who mutters to me about things unknowable, because I sense good in his heart, and because his small smile pleases me, and because he lets the tears roll down my cheeks and says, “Yes, Corbyn, SSRI meds might have blocked your ability for orgasms, for sneezing, for easy laughter or anger, even for crying. You’re doing all the grieving you’ve been prevented from doing for . . . what, a decade? Two decades? Likely more! For as long as you’ve taken them, your emotions have been on pause.” We talk about why the newer generation of medications I take now let me emotions break through, and that’s why I’m crying.

And even though he speaks of “the homosexuals” with something of a sad (but compassionate) shake of his head, I choose to forgive that (and please forgive me for that, as an active, “out,” bisexual woman with so many gay friends and family, because he is trying to love and to be professional, and follow the guidelines of his profession . . . and because his culture is unknowable to me, and his generation is also older and less-enlightened at times.) And even though my insurance pays for 45 minutes once a month for me to see him, he often sees me for two- to three hours every week or so, and he lets me cry in all sorts of ways. Deep wracking sobs, gentle tears rolling down my cheeks while we talk about the science of the brain. And I don’t know if I am getting this right because he speaks in heavily accented English . . . and so quietly . . . and I am partially deaf in one ear . . . but he speaks to me over and over of the chemicals that cause us to build neural pathways that are like broken Plinko boards that cause us to repeat patterns that don’t serve us. How we can rebuild and redirect those pathways through proper medication, rewriting our stories through new versions of old experiences with new and better outcomes, and through simple things like long walks, regular sleep habits, and charitable acts. Today he made me cry in a happy way (I do that, too, because what the hell? why not CRY,) while we chatted (yet again, because it’s his favorite story these days) about the teenage scientist who is busy perfecting a way to diagnose pancreatic cancer through a simple blood test.

I’ve lost fifty pounds since I’ve been going to him, because I guess crying out my pain and eating to stuff it away cancel each other out, once you get the pesky nutrition part taken care of–at least in my case. Food has become a tedious chore that I get out of the way, minimally. Then I get on with this work I am doing.

 A couple weeks ago, he said if I lose my job and/or my insurance, he will never stop seeing me–for free, and he will make sure I continue to get my medications even if he has to pay for them himself. That the wait is long at his office because he does this for others who cannot pay. After having lost so many friends to this illness I have and the person it turns me into sometimes, this made my body crumble in on itself and broke me down into a big ugly cry. To feel that protection, that devotion. Oh, and did I mention? My doctor has rheumatoid arthritis and his body is breaking down quickly. He confided to me he worries about leaving all of us behind.

I’m good at losing people. I can tick them off on my fingers: one hand, two hands, and where’s that other hand? I am able to disappoint dear and valued friends in ways that surprise even me, as I’m in the process of doing it . . . and even the most cool-headed and steady have bunted me over the highest, pointiest barriers. I’m good at breaking people down until they kick me the out of their lives.

 Today I told my doctor I’d been “pretending” to kill myself at my darkest moments this year. That I have asked my husband to just to let me drag the knife along my arms–and that I promise not to “really” do it, because oddly, for me (for most people?) my children are insurance against that; I shan’t leave that grief and that legacy for them to painfully process until they, themselves, finally die. They are reason enough to be here, and I won’t leave them, even though what they get right now is a broken version of a mother. I wonder how it feels for them to see me cry so much.

And to my comfortably-atheist self, he brought up “God” yet again: “you see, Corbyn, there are things that are the domain of God. God has given you a gift bringing life into this world! You had no control over that, that was from Him. And your departure from this life is His decision, too.” And I don’t know if I’m getting all of his words right . . . I often just kind of let his soft, Eastern lilt flow over me like an embroidered silk blanket. But the message was received. It is a sort of gift that I won’t leave this world of my own hand, and yes, that gift comes from my children, who came through me but are not of me. It just so happens I call that a scientific miracle, but in the end, it’s the same thing. 

Ironically, he says there’s no way the company that permits or denies these sorts of claims would never extend my leave beyond this point, for Major Depressive Episode with Suicidal Ideation and Generalized  Anxiety Disorder. That diagnosis merits 42 days. 42 days is what you get. That’s how long Noah dealt with the flood, about. That’s how long he had to reckon with a vengeful God who wanted to fuck shit up on a global scale, so I guess I should be able to get my act together enough to sit at my laptop and click “Delete. Publish. Pass,” on behalf of the news website that employs me.

And my doctor’s wife (who helps in the office) said reassuringly, “well, Corbyn, you work from home. You can do this,” but the isolation is what kills a depressive. On this leave of absence, I’ve left this dark living room and gone out to my community. I’ve tried to be more of use. I’ve helped. I’ve socialized. I’ve connected. I’ve shared laundry-folding times with lonely new moms. I’ve spent time on the porch at night, drinking wine and laughing with people I’ve ignored for too long. I’ve steam-cleaned dog poop from a friend’s carpet.

 So in a few days, I need to figure out a way to bring my job out there into my world. It’s always about something stupid like the WiFi connection is too slow at the library, or I don’t want to spend money unnecessarily at the cafe. But that’s my medicine, I think–my town and the people in it. Just to be near them, to look at their faces and maybe smile and get a smile back. And if I get too skinny, someone please tell me, and maybe I’ll stop crying and start eating a little more food. For now, there’s still more crying to do. And climbing, and climbing. I’m partway up this rock wall and I look down to my small doctor, standing in a half-crouch in pain due to failing knees and shout, “belay?” And I see a grin through his beard and a raised arm holding a rope and a hear a faint, cheerful, “belay on!”

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What it Feels Like to Sell Your Family’s Only Car


When the cable and Internet got shut off, I could hide my shame and embarrassment from the kids, who were oblivious to the threatening collection letters. None of us had to face the person sent out to sever our connection to the world, since they can do it all externally without having to enter the house. I knew scrappy Molly would be okay. Molly takes everything in stride, and embraces change. I worried about Rainer and Zeke, who take such comfort in things reliable, familiar, and stable. Having access to TV shows and the Web was something they’d never been without. But still, I could reassure myself it was not a forever thing, that we would eventually breach that financial stranglehold and it would all be turned on again, as though nothing had happened.

But selling the car meant no turning back. Our Honda SUV was only three years old. It was the first new car I had ever owned. I traveled from city to city to earn money for my family when I worked at my sales job, and this was the capsule that carried me along to the accompaniment of satellite radio and my own self-important chatter on the Bluetooth. The leather seats smelled like the expensive purses I had started to carry as my commission checks swelled. I spent more time in that car than I spent anywhere other than home, and I made sure it reflected my success. Twice a year, I got it detailed to shining perfection. I remember once grabbing the worker’s red towel and buffing off a small spot of road grime I spied on an edge of the license plate, with an apologetic smile.

Because we didn’t yet own a house, this was our most visible claim to the comforts of our income level. Emerging from the frosty air conditioning of my stalwart Honda I would arrive at meetings in the morale-sapping endless Texas summers as pristine as when I had left home. Having a nice, new, big car made me feel like an adult. It made me feel like I deserved my job. Like putting on a power suit, it made me act differently. I felt more in-control, businesslike, and competent. Walking to my car with my keyless-entry fob in hand made me feel cared for. My car looked handsome in the parking lot. I liked that it was luxurious while also being (relatively) fuel-efficient for an SUV. I sometimes congratulated myself at having made a good choice. On the rare occasions when I had to get it serviced, the sybaritic dealership had employees who called me ma’am, and brought me coffee in a china cup and a copy of the Wall Street Journal while I waited.

It was also our family vehicle, and when I wasn’t working, we clicked the children into the fanciest and safest car seats money could buy. We idly visited big box stores under any pretext. We took long drives to the rolling wooded hills outside town, often just meandering leisurely, filling the gas tank without concern. Of course those long days of driving without a specific destination would involve eating dinner out, as well. It just seemed a fitting end after the hours spent acquiring. None of this seemed indulgent; it seemed more just what families did on long unplanned weekend days. Nothing we were doing felt extravagant at the time.

I identified with my car. I felt peaceful knowing my children saw it, dent-free and shining, when I pulled up to the curb to pick them up. When I was growing up, my mother drove a station wagon and when I waited to be picked up from somewhere—school, ballet class—I would feel comfort at the sight of the burgundy Pontiac with its blandly reassuring stare. It offered the sort of comfort I associated with my mother.

The Honda was completely paid-off, but the costs associated with insuring, maintaining, and fueling it were taking us over the edge. A few times we had considered driving out to the coast, or maybe into San Francisco for the day . . . but the money required to fill the gas tank was galling. It got about twenty miles per gallon, but with gas prices increasing, it was getting closer and closer to a hundred dollars to fill it up. We were $500 to $750 in the hole every month, and we couldn’t see where else to cut. We figured selling the car would cover that margin for at least eighteen months, if we could sell it for the $15-20K that it was worth. Accomplishing that would, we hoped, give us time to establish new income streams. We analyzed the numbers and seeing them in black-and-white made the choice a clear one. Larry had always indulged me by calling the Honda Corbyn’s car, the car I paid for with my sales job, the car I lovingly shined and kept vacuumed, and the car that it would ultimately be my own decision to sell. In the end, though, this wasn’t a decision I needed to make or we needed to make. The decision was being made for us.

As I posted my ad on Craigslist I felt a combined anger and sadness. (“Excellent condition 2006 Honda Pilot with leather interior. Silver. Seats seven, or eight in a pinch. Clean title, impeccably maintained . . .”) And then, a breaking sort of goddamn it, we don’t need this car, this car doesn’t define me and it doesn’t define my family. The safety it represented was an illusion. Or rather, the safety it offered now was in what it could give us financially. Once I had accepted that this was the best (only) solution, I felt like a pressure had released and, in its place, I felt more-or-less peaceful resignation. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t afraid I would change my mind. Here it was: I could let go (all at once!) of the stresses of not making ends meet for the past year. I could know we’d have enough to survive on for the next eighteen months or so. I cried after I wrote the ad, not because I was grieving. Mostly I was regretting having waited so long. The release of tension felt like a balloon popping—not a slow realization of growing relief but an instant, dramatic one.

It turned out that even after we’d made up our minds, we had to suffer through a panicky few days worrying about whether we were even going to have any takers. Alarmist news outlets had been talking about how previously easily-liquidated assets were not getting bought, leaving the downwardly-mobile class sitting on a pile of luxury items that no longer fit within their means. Eventually we got a serious offer from a young family. We played phone tag, traded banter, and became friendly. In a nod to safety-consciousness, I arranged to meet them at the parking lot of a nearby office building, empty after-hours. I stood next to the car in a way I hoped looked casual. I thought better of it and decided to sit in the passenger seat, door open. I opened the glove box and pulled out the thickly-rolled stack of onion-thin paper, pink and yellow and white, marked with the faint hieroglyphs in duplicate and triplicate that formed my car’s journal entries. I flipped through them and re-stacked them, arranging them in a way that was far too fastidious, like a new mom slicking her son’s bangs down as he prepares to board the school bus for the first time. I put them back in the glove box and gently pushed it until the hardware made that satisfying “chink” of connection.

I recognized the handsome dark family in their gleaming white sedan as soon as they drove up; we made eye contact and shared smiles of greeting. In the awkward giddiness that comes over me when I’m nervous, I pretended I was one of those airport employees with the short orange lightsabers, guiding them into the parking spot. We introduced ourselves—mother Rhonda, father Andrew, and their son, Joseph, who was surely not even two years old yet. I suggested there were probably more kids in their future, and they agreeably let me pry in this small way. “Yes,” Andrew said, “and it would be hard to fit more than just the one car seat in ours,” he gestured.

He walked around the Honda, feeling for tell-tale body repair work. “By the way, it didn’t come up at all on CarFax, which was weird.”

“That’s because it’s a ghost car.” Andrew and his wife looked at each other and barked quick, appreciative laughs. I had put them at ease, which had been my skill in sales. I knew I wasn’t selling them a lemon, but rather a great car at a good price—and I could see them slowly concluding that as the minutes passed, and our smiles became genuine.

I suggested we ferry the cars over the couple blocks to where we lived, so we could go through the paperwork and make the necessary transactions. I turned the key in the ignition and buckled myself in to my first new car for the last time, and still felt nothing but relief. My sentimentality is so rarely eclipsed by my practicality; I kept waiting for the inevitable tears. I was at peace with this decision, and I was excited about the dramatic change and how it might alter our family’s life story.

But still, that evening, they handed us a cashier’s check for the deposit. They would be coming back with the difference and trading that for the pink slip of ownership, but for now they were preparing to drive off in our last real asset. Rainer and Molly gave exuberant hugs farewell to them before they left, as if this little family were long-lost friends we had finally made the time to see. The sky had a green-gray cast to it, and everything looked and felt just a little different when I walked slowly up the porch steps. I was sad, and yes, I was a little jealous of this successful young couple that had weathered these tough years better than we had. Zeke was quiet. He watched from a small window that overlooks the driveway. He saw Joseph try to heave himself up into this high vehicle, and ultimately get efficiently carried up and into the car seat and buckled in. He looked out the tinted window and in at Zeke, watching him. And with no notice, Zeke hopped from his vantage point and ran outside to the front porch as they made their way down the street, Andrew following the Honda in their smaller sedan. I kept gently herding him into the house, trying to discourage him from that moment of loss, but he wanted to see it. He needed to see it and say it out loud: “They’re taking our car. They’re going to have it now. That’s not our car anymore.”

Some quiet reflection and then, “Are they bringing it back later?”

No, Zeke, they’re not bringing it back.

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