Independent Bookstore Day (November 2015)

My Lesson from Hell

“What’s going on?” Dan asked, smiling. He nodded at my feet, which tapped to the beat of zero music. My hands were in constant motion, too—fidgeting with my phone, flipping through the in-flight magazine, rustling in my purse, playing with the barf bag. I was like a four-year-old. But I’d rarely been so impatient to arrive somewhere.

We were en route to Arizona to attend a weekend Buddhist retreat. Dan’s experience of Arizona, till then, was limited to a Grand Canyon family vacation and a generic Phoenix strip mall where he once bought albums during a layover, and I was excited to show him my Arizona: the sweet, picturesque mountain town of Flagstaff, where I lived from ages ten to eighteen. We’d stay with my oldest friend from high school, Kim, and in the mornings walk to one of my favorite downtown cafés. During the day we’d attend the dharma teachings, and in the evenings have cocktails at the bar where I was served my first alcoholic drink at age eleven. (My babysitter jokingly ordered me a coke with peppermint Schnapps, and though the owner shook his head and muttered about losing his liquor license, no one took it away.) Above the bar hung framed black-and-white photos of notable musicians who had performed there over the years, and I wanted Dan to see the picture of my father holding his lute. I’d show him my schools, my jobs, my haunts, and the old stone house where my parents lived for twelve years, till my dad was diagnosed with emphysema and advised to move away to a lower elevation. Though I never lived in the house myself, it was the closest I had to a family home. After dating Dan for just over a year—and keeping him at arms’ length most of that time—I felt ready, finally, to invite him

deeper into my life. Flagstaff was a crucial element. The forecasts predicted snow—they generally did—but my good-natured boyfriend wouldn’t mind; it would be pretty, and I knew he’d be charmed by Route 66, the snowcapped peaks, the old train station dusted white, the red-bricked historic downtown square, and all the locals wearing colorful pom-pommed felt hats, walking dogs and riding funky bicycles.

But I was even more excited for the retreat, and the opportunity to introduce Dan to my teacher, Khentrul Lodrö Thayé Rinpoche. The abbot of a large monastery in Tibet, Rinpoche was wise and funny; his lessons were clear and accessible, and he did a spot-on John Wayne impersonation. Eight years earlier Rinpoche had singlehandedly turned me into a practicing Buddhist after I heard him give just one public talk, and I secretly hoped he’d do the same for my boyfriend, who was loosely Protestant. I fantasized that after returning from Flagstaff, Dan and I would meditate together.

But it wasn’t just excitement making me squirm. I was nervous, too. What if Dan didn’t enjoy the teachings? Or embarrassed me by asking overly academic and esoteric questions? What if my favorite Flagstaff restaurants paled in comparison to the San Francisco eateries we frequented? What if we ran into one (ok, five) of my ex-boyfriends? What if he wasn’t charmed?

To read more, order Days Like This from Independent Bookstore Day.

I shut my eyes in order to see.” –Paul Gauguin