Tuesday, 20 March 2012

About Me, Part 43: The Weight

The summer of 2004 cooled off very gradually. I had my thirty-fourth birthday party at home, a potluck with friends. The food, the music and the company were all fantastic. Towards the end of the party, two friends (one co-worker and her partner) invited me over for a small get together, sometime over the fall, where I could present as myself. By this point, I had begun to think of myself as a crossdresser, although I still used "Penny" or "Miss Penny" as my name en femme. I took them up on their offer and promised to have a look at my schedule.

In the meantime, I was doing much in the way of inner work. I assisted at a Mastery workshop in mid-September, probably my most enjoyable assisting experience to date. But, my time with the workshop and the community around it was was just about over. I felt ready to move on and away from it all, and over the following year or so, I would do just that. I had long begun to sense that there were folks using the whole experience to build up their own egos. One person had declared that their biggest wish was to make millions more dollars. There were some others who seemed to gain much pleasure from being emotionally manipulative of others who were more vulnerable. It began to sicken me. After the assistants' team Thanksgiving dinner that year, I began to make tracks.

My work with Queer Dharma and the Shambhala community, by contrast, was doing much better. Rather than carry all of the responsibility for Queer Dharma myself, I had two other members join me in co-coordinating it. However, slowly, people stopped attending the meetings and we ran out of speakers. Social outings, like movie nights, became less frequent. I was still going to regular open house nights and meditation practice weekends, but I was seeking a much more intense experience. I had done the five Shambhala training levels and was looking into doing further practice and study. Finally, I made the decision to do a dathun, a month-long meditation retreat, which our community had begun to offer that year. It was scheduled to take place during the month of December at a United Church camp on the shores of Shawnigan Lake on Vancouver Island. Not able to afford the full month, I registered for the last two weeks instead. By November, I was eagerly anticipating the time to do very little besides study and practice meditation.

At the end of November, I co-coordinated a Level One workshop at the Center. It was nerve wracking and exhilarating. I came out of it with a much stronger, deeper sense of leadership than I had ever known before.


At my co-worker's townhouse for a small get-together over drinks, in mid-November, I presented myself en femme. I must say that I was well received, even that I passed, which I doubted highly, but appreciated hearing. I had taken a huge step in some kind of direction, but I was not sure which one. I made tentative plans to have everyone back over to my apartment for a themed dinner sometime in the New Year, but I was back at their place for a Christmas party the night before I left for the meditation retreat. That time, as much as I enjoyed the company, I felt very outside myself, en drabbe.


I had begun to date again, barely, before the end of the year. I had decided that I would set up an online dating profile, as a bisexual male, and begin to search for those of like mind and interests. I had one coffee date out of it before the dathun, but it was a step. I had no idea what kind of person I really wanted, but was putting myself out there nonetheless.

Someone from the Shambhala community came to pick me up and we drove to the Tsawassen Ferry Terminal. On the other side of the Straight, we drove over to the Malahat and up towards Camp Pringle, where the dathun was happening, arriving in late afternoon. Settling into dinner, done oriyoki style, I found out that there was going to be a small party to celebrate the mid-way point during the dathun. Things were a bit more whimsical that evening than they would be over the next couple of weeks.


I woke up on my first full day in temporary lodgings; I had been placed in a shared room for the first night before being moved to another lodge on the other side of the grounds. The routine soon became familiar: rising at 5:30 am, showering in a bathroom facility in another building, heading to the dining hall for morning chants in Sanskrit, walking meditation outdoors, breakfast served by a rotating (a rota) team of volunteers, clean-up, meditation followed by a morning talk, followed by meditation, then a break, followed by lunch, followed by another longer break and assigned afternoon chores, followed by meditation (sitting and indoor walking) and an afternoon talk, then dinner and an informal evening talk, then a break for the night (usually around 9:00 pm). There was a lounge area behind the kitchen which included a steady supply of bread, peanut butter and fruit as well as tea and coffee. Any number of people could be found there after the evening talk was over, reading, writing or talking about practice and its applications. The atmosphere was like a bohemian coffeehouse, a summer camp, an ashram and a ski lodge all mixed into one.

Relationships became very subtle, very little words exchanged, much was conveyed in looks, eye contact and gestures. Most of the dathun was functional talking only. The were a few days where we observed noble silence, where no talking was done. The meal servers unfurled signs with the day's menu on them. Chanting was the exception. I felt like, in the absence of words, a huge gap was opening up in my awareness; I wanted something to fill it, so that I could feel less ... stupid, inadequate, clumsy ... but, I tried to just stay with it. Somewhere during my first week, I began to feel the onion skin over my heart get scraped and began crying for no apparent reason, or more like, every reason. Others, to their credit, said nothing and just let me be.

On Christmas morning, at dawn when we did the outdoor walking meditation, our meditation leader was sporting a Santa Claus hat. Just a little bit of humour added to the seriousness. We were just ending our first noble silence period that morning. During breakfast, one of the coordinators, approached me and tapped my shoulder. He was holding his cell phone. "Your father called," he said "He wants you to call him back. He said your grandmother is in the hospital and is not doing well." I felt like I had been stabbed in the chest. My breathing becoming shallow, I grabbed the phone and stood up; light-headed from standing up so suddenly, I rushed outside into the rain. There was no one on the phone. So, I asked the coordinator if I could call long-distance and he said yes.

My maternal grandmother's health had deteriorated throughout the year. She had developed Alzheimer's. Her phone calls had become very sporadic and when I called, she answered in a panic, sounding very disoriented, forgetting that I was living in BC and how I had got here. I had heard that she had been moved to a care facility at the beginning of the fall. Then, nothing. I had left the Camp Pringle phone number with my father in case of an emergency. I had not expected one. But, now, an emergency had happened. My grandmother had suffered cardiac arrest and had been brought to the hospital where my uncles had gathered making final arrangements. One of them called my father who then left a voice message at the Camp Pringle main office. The camp manager had relayed the message to the dathun coordinator who then told me. I dialed my father's number anticipating the worst news.

I was probably shouting, while the silent breakfast continued in the dining hall behind me, but I had lost any sense of how I sounded. My father was at my stepmother's niece's. He told the above-mentioned information and said that he would keep me posted. I hung up the phone and handed it back to the coordinator, then sat back down on my zabuton cushion to finish eating. Everything had been collected. Everyone was getting ready to do closing chants and bow. Just then, the coordinator tapped me on the shoulder again. "Your father just called again, he said your grandmother's doing fine." I nodded and he made to leave, but I held his hand on my shoulder and began to sob uncontrollably. Hesitating a moment, he began to sooth my shoulder: "Okay, okay, your grandmother's going to be okay." Across from me, another participant, seemed struck in the chest just as I had felt and immediately clasped it with one hand, shutting her eyes and seemed to be chanting silently. We were united by a painful, raw, beautiful tenderheartedness.

The rest of the day went by nonchalantly; the morning's drama was hard to beat. The following day did as well. The only thing of note was the food. It was horrible. For most of the retreat, we had eaten fairly well. The cook was a trained chef who was excellent at preparing vegetarian and vegan meals that had a charming visual appeal as well. But the chef had gone back to Victoria for a day to spend some of the holidays with his family. Another staff member prepared the meal on Boxing Day. Breakfast consisted of very bland rice porridge, roast parsnips and radishes. Come the midday break, there were lineups in front of all of the washrooms.

Most of the next day passed without anything significant. After chores, we sat down to afternoon meditation. When one of the dathun leaders entered, it was urgently and earlier than usual. He was accompanied by two others. All of them were dressed formally. A gong was struck to signal the beginning of an announcement. He announced that we were all going to do a sukhavati : a Buddhist funeral service. We all gasped. What had happened? Who had died? Many people had left the camp for home after Christmas. Were they okay? This was to be for thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of dead and missing people in a vast part of the world. I was terrified. What had happened? The dathun leader held up a newspaper headline and explained, his voice breaking, that a massive tsunami had struck the coasts of southern and southeast Asia, eastern Africa, a various islands throughout the Indian Ocean and South Pacific. The losses were in the tens of thousands at the very least. Were all stunned and began weeping.

The camp's manager's had been away for a few days and had returned with the news that afternoon. The rest of the world already knew. The sukhavati was a very sombre one after which we meditated and then took a break. Later that afternoon, we began to come up with ways that we could help including raising some money for relief. A participant began collecting money that evening.

The next day, noble silence began again for the final time; it was to end on December 31st. I spent my last turn on meal duty, filing out behind the other servers, bowing to my row of participants then moving along kneeling and offering my hand for someone's bowl to fill and filling it carefully. The servers than ate in the kitchen, doing a mini-oryoki.

The meals, the chanting, the meditation, the chores, it was all practice and very much worth it. I felt that I had glimpsed an integrated life, something I had never had. I also knew what a deeper relationship with others could feel like and mean. And despite the beard that I had grown while on retreat, I felt very soft, right to my core. Not just soft and tenderhearted, but also very feminine. It was still there.

Breakfast on the last full day of the dathun was silent, and then, the team of leader served us our meals, dressed as commedia dell'arte characters. The laughter was welcome and a relief. The noble silence ended, followed by a closing talk after which we began to clean up the dining hall for the New Year's Eve oryoki banquet and party. Everyone let their hair down that night. The food was scrumptious, the beverages effervescent. We were drunk on each other's company. We did skits that evening, laughing heartily. We got to bed late, after cleaning up the hall.

Waking up the following day, it was snowing. Magic! A few of us, found ourselves, briefly, in the midst of childhood, throwing snowballs. I remembered how I had anticipated snowfall as a child and felt sentimental. After breakfast and goodbyes, I got a lift with a couple of women heading back to Vancouver. We drove out over the snowy back roads, the sound of the few cars on the road muffled. Listening to CBC, we heard some soft music followed by the Queen's speech. As we headed down the Malahat, it began snow more heavily, and then, wet snow mixed with rain. Back at Schwartz Bay Terminal, it cloudy and cold, but no snow had fallen. By the time we got back to the mainland, it was sunny and milder.

I was dropped off at home where I immediately shaved off my beard and my body hair. I felt overwhelmed by stimuli around me, ready to rejoin regular life, but with a zeal that I had never known.


The first couple of months of 2005 were a swirl of sensation and energy. I wanted to engage everybody and everything. At work, they said that I looked great, rested. Among my friends, I felt vibrant. Intellectually, I was coming up with more ideas. I toyed with the notion of doing a radio program and during a dinner out with friends, where I was giving back the sleeping bag that one of them had lent me for the retreat, I asked them about what they thought of a vintage Jamaican music show. They thought it was a great idea. I jotted down a few notes. I attended several talks at the Shambhala Center in January before finally taking a break. I returned to trying to co-lead Queer Dharma whose membership continued to dwindle.

Around mid-month, not long after a brief spell of snow and ice, I returned to the dating game with a vengeance. Searching around the dating site that I was on, I found a young woman whose profile indicated a very intelligent, bright and bubbly personality. After a couple of emails exchanged, we met for lunch at Sophie's Cosmic Cafe in Kitsilano. We seemed to hit it off and agreed to see each other again. We spent the next month and a half, seeing each other regularly, kind of dating. I was very smitten at the time, however something just did not click on that level, and ultimately, during the first week of March, we decided to be friends. In retrospect, I am glad that it turned out that way, I met one of my most precious and dear friends this way, one who would become very supportive in the years to come.

But, in relationships, regardless of temporary setbacks, I was on my way.

To be continued ...

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