Essay originally published by Evening Street Review, Number 17, Autumn 2017

As a bi-racial lesbian couple in 1982 Catholic Boston, friends were hard to come by. So when a neighbor invited us for dinner, Anita and I sprang for Heineken and ran to her door. There was nothing subtle, nothing apologetic about Helen. As a single mother with a GED, she lived with pressures I’d only seen on TV. From my middle class perch, her life was a train wreck, yet she emerged from the wreckage every day with a smile. I admired her from the start. Hers was an attitude I wanted to try on.

“I’m lucky,” she said that first night over spicy ratatouille. “Chanting keeps my wheels on.” I stopped chewing. Chanting? As in Buddhism? Weren’t they the ones who believed in reincarnation? Of all my new-age dabbling—tarot, astrology, palmistry, astral projection—reincarnation was the one idea that had stuck. It just felt right. Vestigial memories from past lives explained the crackpot bits of me. Why else would a pacifist atheist have an infatuation with military training camps and medieval monasticism? Could a past life run-in with a hangman’s noose explain my throat phobia? Reincarnation made sense to me. Privately, anyway.

Silverware clinked on mismatched china as Helen described her chanting. She didn’t look like a Buddhist, although short of saffron robes and shaved heads, I had no idea what a Buddhist was supposed to look like. I assumed they’d be severe and humorless, like crows on a fence post. Not Helen. She was wild-haired and invariably on the brink of a smile but, inside, she was still as a mountain lake.

“We chant nam myoho renge kyo.” Num mo what? “It means we dedicate our lives to the law of cause and effect.” Her explanation did nothing to clear the fog forming in my head. I was opening my mouth for clarification when a lanky girl with Walkman headphones stuffed in her ears came around the corner. Helen beamed. “This is my gorgeous Shelley,” she said, grabbing her 13-year-old in a bear hug and kissing the top of her head. Shelley squirmed and said her perfunctory hellos before slipping into the kitchen. “Let’s face it,” Helen continued, sure that Shelley was out of earshot. “Life is a crap shoot. How we deal with the crap is what matters.” She sat back in her chair and took a satisfying pull on her beer.

Peering at her across the table, I thought of Roger, a friend from college and the only other Buddhist I’d met. Roger wasn’t handsome yet floated through campus with Cary Grant grace, leaving a trail of who-is-that-guy behind him. He exuded a self-assuredness so appealing I set aside my sexual preference and slept with him a time or two, not regretting it for a minute. Buddhism, I realized, was sexy. Even Helen, with her crummy waitress gig and overdrawn bank account, had a steel rod of strength running through her. Maybe I should become a Buddhist. Maybe I could meditate every day, learn to chant Helen’s mantra and get wise and deep. Maybe then I’d be satisfied with what I had, content with who I was, not care so much what people thought.

Returning from the kitchen with dessert, Helen began scooping ice cream into chipped coffee mugs. Our conversation continued. “If Buddhists don’t believe in God,” I asked, “What do they believe in?” Religion minus God equals what?

“We believe in suffering,” she said before wrapping her lips around a spoonful of Rum Raisin.

Suffering? I believed in suffering.

Helen licked the back of her spoon. “In the church I grew up in, we were told that if you prayed hard enough God would swoop down and pick up the pieces. That’s bullshit.”

My words exactly. Now we were getting somewhere.

Later that night, Helen showed us her altar. It was a low table draped with orange cloth in a corner of her bedroom. A red lacquered box sat in the center surrounded by candles, a mini-pyre of river rocks, bowls filled with shriveled fruit and fortunes pulled from Chinese take-out cookies. “My shrine,” she said, scratching a match against the flint to light a candle. Buddha’s bronze belly glowed in the light. Then she taught us to chant. We sounded out each syllable—nam…myo…ho…ren…ge….kyo—then repeated them, over and over, trying to string them into a ribbon of sound. The language twisted on my tongue but I persevered, waiting for goosebumps that never came.

As I laid in bed that night, watching the headlights of passing cars drift through the trees outside my window, I wondered if my parents had been wrong. What if being an atheist was only possible when money was a phone call away? How would my life be different if I actually believed in something? But what? If nam myoho range kyo was keeping Helen’s wheels on, who cared how it worked? I was willing to drink the Kool-Aid.

* * *

A few weeks later, Helen invited us to a grimy, low-slung, featureless building in the South End that was her temple. The floor was linoleum, the lights fluorescent, the folding chairs hard grey metal. Helen led us to the center of the room—middle row, middle seats. “Better to feel the vibration,” she said. I unzipped my jacket and sat down, eyeing a seat closer to the door, willing myself to get focused. Relax. Breathe. Be spiritual.

A man stepped to the front of the room and bowed to the altar—a grander version of Helen’s. A bell rang out and the show began. I uncrossed my arms and legs, bringing my body into symmetry, feeling like an imposter. When the chanting began I joined my voice with the crowd. Nam myoho renge kyo nam myoho renge kyo nam myoho renge kyo… More tone than words, our chant was a low, mournful drone. The volume and cadence of the chant ebbed and flowed, modulating like a flock of starlings over a still lake— the whole greater than its parts, gathering then separating, forming patterns led by some invisible force.

It was beautiful but after eight, nine, ten…fifteen minutes, the buzz of novelty faded and I began to squirm, sneaking a peek at my watch, kicking myself for not asking how long the service would last. All around me people were rocking, their hands steepled at their chest, riding a wave I couldn’t feel. I snuck a peek at Anita. Her face was relaxed, unfettered by worry. Radiant even. I pulled my eyes away, wishing I could be so undiscriminating. How could she find a refuge here? Why couldn’t I?

My eyes rested on the golden Buddha sitting on the altar with his huge belly, drooping earlobes, helmet of hair that reminded me of the braided doormat I’d just bought at Home Depot. I can’t do this. I won’t. I wanted—no, expected—at least a whisper, something to cast insight my way. But I was left hollow, knocking on the wrong door. In the end, all I felt was out of place and antsy, a voyeur at someone else’s enlightenment.

Later, walking home with Helen and Anita, my hands deep in my pockets, I stopped listening to their conversation to watch a plastic bag rise into the air on the breeze of a passing taxi. The bag danced on the draft, twisting in on itself before stretching and finding its wings. I watched it clear the trees and catch a stronger wind. How far would it float before finding a place to land? How far would I? I now knew, it would have to be someplace quiet. An open meadow, maybe, or a jetty jutting out into the sea where I could stand alone and hear the sound of my own voice.

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Thank you, Evening Street Review.