Finding the Comfort in Discomfort

Angel Kyodo Williams's Profile Photo

There were several times while working on Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation that I had to get up from my chair and walk away from the book. The content was intense and provocative: a fierce call to question and change the systems of oppression permeating our society at large and our spiritual communities in particular. Written by three queer African American Buddhists, the book challenges the notion that we can continue to do “business as usual” and survive, whether the “we” is a country, a planet, an organization, a neighborhood, a sangha, or an individual.

But on a deeper level, the book pushed me because of the very force it became as a tangible being. The book’s content invited me to, as Rumi famously put it, “not go back to sleep,” but the collaboration with Reverend angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah forced me to stay awake, to question the very norms I perpetuate, consciously or not, in my own life. In other words, working on the book itself became a crucible mirroring the radical inquiry detailed in its pages.

When Reverend angel and I first talked about the project, I proposed a timeline in keeping with publishing-industry standards: a year, maybe a little more. “Um, no, we need to get it out in seven or eight months,” Reverend angel replied firmly. “The world is asking for it now. But what about all the marketing meetings, and the sales-rep discussions, and all the time and labor and road-building it takes within the institutions to get a book out in the world? I thought. There is no way!

But there was. Through sheer hard work, unconventional meet-ups, gritty faith, grassroots word-of-mouth, and late-night phone calls, the book came together in record time and emerged into the world just as the realities of racial profiling, homophobia, deep sorrow, and spiritual emptiness roiled through the country in the aftermath of the Orlando massacre. We could not abide business as usual. As Reverend angel says, “This is the ‘back of the bus’ moment of our time.”

Nor could I abide by my usual approach to editorial collaboration. I dipped my red pen into the manuscript with vigor, using the tools I’d learned to, in my mind, clear the trail for the reader. The authors appreciated many of the edits, but they also raised questions in places where my own learned behaviors as a cis, straight, white male caused my pen to overstep its bounds in the name of “clarity” and rob some sentences of their hard-earned identities as bold, black, queer roars.

This was uncomfortable, but it was what I needed to do. For the book’s sake, yes, but also for my sake, for, as the book shows so clearly, it is only when we engage compassionately in a bold interrogation of our usual practices that we are able to grow and evolve. The “safe space” that so many people of privilege want to maintain is so not safe for the majority of the world’s people. To not get uncomfortable would be to play my part in maintaining a hegemony that I purportedly work against.

Fortunately, for inspiration and hope I only had to look to Reverend angel, Lama Rod, and Jasmine. As they chronicle so beautifully, their own paths toward freedom involved countless moments of deep discomfort, and yet there they stand, leading conversations about race, love, and liberation to packed rooms of multi-hued seekers, united in their willingness to get messy, to get radical, and to get liberated.

Radical Dharma is fiercely demanding, but it is also fiercely compassionate. Yes, the book exposes the ways people are othered and humiliated, and how all of us, unwittingly or wittingly, play a part in that. But the book also extends open arms to our ghosts and invites us to find new ways of intersecting and being. It’s a book for the soul. As Reverend angel puts it, “Every time I tried to stay within the lines, they ran over me, so I chose the borderlands and left divisions behind.” Radical Dharma offers a borderland that must become our new commons.

Touching Radical Dharma is a life-changing experience, not because of what it says, but because of what it invites, galvanizes, and metabolizes in those who are willing to sit with its complex truths. I’m forever grateful for its fire.

Not Scared, Just Different

the-dark-tunnelA few weeks ago I heard the theologian Matthew Fox discuss the different paths we walk in life; in his parlance, the different vias. I was particularly struck by the way he talked about the via negativa, which he characterized as periods when we experience suffering, darkness, silence, and solitude.

Fox posited that our discomfort with the difficult is mirrored by our avoidance of literal darkness: “Everything Is Illuminated” is not just a book title — from nightlights in kid’s bedrooms to flashlights on smartphones we tend to enlighten our worlds rather than face the dark in them. How breathtaking the night sky is when we are away from the city and really see the stars! And how ghoulish a face at night looks when bathed in the blue light of a computer screen. Perhaps there is something almost sinister about light if we overuse it.

For a good stretch my sister and brother in law held weekly “Blackout Tuesdays” in their home: when the sun went down, no machines were used until morning. This was inconvenient for sure — candles instead of lights; meals without ovens; questions without the easy answers found in computers. But by their reports, both parents and children went to bed with satisfaction deep in their bones — proud that they’d gone off the grid and made it, and also enlivened by the experience of living in the dark.

A few weeks ago my son Rio and I were walking in Dimond Park in Oakland, where the grass and playground eventually give way to a dirt trail that winds up the canyon. At one point, the stream we were following led to a dark tunnel. The path weaved around and over it, but Rio wanted to go straight ahead. It was a warm day, the kind when you can lift your face to the sun and find its warmth filling you up  until worry has no room. The tunnel, on the other hand, looked cold and foreboding. But I followed Rio’s lead, and we began walking in a tunnel so long we could not see daylight. As the creek trickled by and my hands groped their way along the walls, I started to feel strange. At first irrational thoughts shot through me: Could a train be coming? Could there be no exit at the end? Could the entire tunnel spontaneously collapse and trap us inside? Would I lose Rio forever to the dark? But then another feeling came — without the gift of sight, my other senses were more acute: the feel of the hard granite; the soft sound of water over rock. I suddenly felt like a monk walking back to his hermitage at night, the town’s creek and the walls of the monastery my only guides home.

After about five minutes, I finally saw a pinhole of light in the distance. As we reached the exit, I asked Rio if he had felt scared.

“Not scared,” he replied. “Just different.”

A few days later my father had a catastrophic stroke and fell into a deep coma. I flew down immediately and arrived at the post-acute care center to find him in what I can best describe as a deep sleep. The nurse told me she was shocked he was still breathing on his own, as if he were waiting for someone. “His lungs are strong,” she observed. “Was he a runner?”

“Nope,” I responded. “Just stubborn as hell.”

Even though my father showed no response when I shouted his name in his ear, I told him everything I needed to tell him. I caressed his cheekbone as I told him how much I loved him. How much I always had. I thanked him for coaching my little league baseball team for so many years. I forgave him for being such a difficult man. I stroked his earlobes. Other than the occasional awkward hug, I hadn’t been physically intimate with him in 70 years. How sad that only his imminent death was allowing that kind of contact. And yet how alive I felt bestowing it upon him. I told him I would return the next morning and would be happy to see him. But I also whispered, “You don’t have to hold on anymore. Maybe you should just go.”

When the nurse called me at 5 am the next morning to tell me my father had simply stopped breathing, I was not surprised. I returned to the center and stood next to my father’s dead body. I had never been so close to one. I touched him as I had the night before, although of course it was completely different now. I now truly understand that the skin is an organ. And yet I continued to graze his stiff cheekbone with my knuckle and did the only thing I could think of to ease his spirit into whatever realm it reaches next: I made a circle with my fingers around my own beating heart and sprinkled whatever they found there onto his corpse. I stood there in silence for a long time. Then I said goodbye.

I’ve tended to walk around life’s dark tunnels, or hold my breath through them. End, End, End seems to be my mantra. But on that morning, I was content to touch life’s cold stone.




three generations




Dropping the Mask

Much of what keeps me from the page is an uncertainty of what I will write there, almost as if I must have the tale cut and trimmed to even sidle up. It’s as if waiting for perfection is an excuse for inaction. As a friend once told me about someone we both knew: “She’s no perfectionist — a perfectionist would get things done.”

And so I must wade into imperfection if I am going to put letters down, which I’ve found I must do or risk stultification; if I’m not doing it, be wary of my practiced smile.

So what story would I tell if I let myself slip into it? If I didn’t let precognition destroy my mission? I’d probably write about the joy I felt last night just throwing the football with Rio in the park as Stella sprinted circles around us, the early nightfall no reason to hem ourselves in. I’d probably write about a young friend I just made, his earnest curiosity so inspiring because he’s letting everything in; the way he described his parents, how truly loved he felt growing up. I’d probably write too of learning that an old acquaintance took his own life last week, how I sat there at the computer crying bitter tears of frustration and loss; not for me, because I scarcely knew him really, and not even for him, because I do believe that solution might have brought him some relief. No, I was really crying for his son, who in my heart was my son, and how losing a father like that would make no sense. No matter how flawed my friend was, he was surely still his young son’s hero. I never imagined as a child the pain of adulthood, and so adults’ odd behaviors often baffled me. Rio has seen me cry, but he most likely knows little of the ugly movies that sometimes run loops in my head. How are children supposed to understand when those internal cycles negatively affect our external actions? They will, in their own time, but meanwhile isn’t one of my duties to shield Rio from the sad math that never adds up?

And yet how fake this can be. It’s so rare to see authenticity, as if exposing weakness is not in fact a strength, as if life is not something we stumble through but rather a red carpet we must glide down.

Enough with the pretty pictures.

And mine is no sob story; the little I knew about my acquaintance is that his demons were louder and meaner than mine. A wise person I know recently said that the best he could do with his demons was to study them as though they were teachers. To imagine honing this skill such that what we learned could even be shared with the people around us! Talk about a service. But I tend to duck and hide when my demons show up — almost an adult version of what I did with my blankets as a child when I’d imagine scary monsters in my bedroom. It’s almost as if I have an isolationalist foreign policy with myself: don’t worry about those dark cells operating overseas. I dream of an alchemy where I meet those forces, not to conquer them, but to engage them in some diplomacy. At least then I would have something to show for my grapplings — not shadow-infused irritation masquerading as communication but some real stories from my trip behind the curtain.

I surely didn’t see this much in the men I grew up around, and I think that’s part of what made me so sad about my friend’s passing. There seemed something so male about it: his feelings of failure in a world of pressure; his dark pleasures in a world of prescription. There were a few times where he shared openly with me about his shadows, but I’m not sure he found a steady way to integrate these into his life, and so he locked them up so tightly he took away his own life. I cried both for his son’s pain and the way this lineage seems to be passed on so easily from male to male.

And so this all swirled as the ball sailed through the air between me and Rio. I can surface my painful stories in an instant, but unless I can transmute them into something useful they are really my own burden to carry. Not to say they should never be shared — in fact, to be trusted with another’s tribulations (and vice versa) can be an exquisite feeling — but I don’t think we should take this kind of downloading lightly. It’s instructive to hear body workers talk about the care they must take to avoid internalizing the pain they encounter in patients; it’s a fine, learned art to both share and receive our dark sides. We can give up the costume, but this doesn’t mean throwing our clothes on the floor. Or hitting kids with our shoes.

After Rio went to bed, I shared with Annie some difficult feelings I’d been carrying. She listened and offered comfort. My arms found her more than usual in our sleep.


I was in fifth grade and had just moved from one side of Los Angeles to the other with my mom and sister following my parents’ divorce. It was November, so I arrived at Cleveland Elementary as the “new kid,” an identity I couldn’t shake the entire year.

I’d noticed in my first week that slip-on Vans shoes were popular among the cool kids, and I was convinced that a new pair would help me fit in. My mom conceded and went to the shoe store, where I eyed the light blue/dark blue two-tones that everyone was wearing.

“Yes, those are popular, but there are also these; they’ve just come in,” the salesman said, pointing to a pair of Vans with a  blue-green Hawaiian print.

At first I said no; I just wanted what everyone else had. I knew that conformity was the quickest way to acceptance.

“But those are so good-looking!” my mom piped in. “You should definitely get them.”

I remember my stomach clenching in the face of the decision. I didn’t want to be the new kid: the one who was living in a new house with a newly single mother and a new latchkey that burned in his pocket. I wanted to be the kid who hadn’t moved, the one with old friends in the neighborhood and two parents at home. Or at least the kid with the same shoes as everyone else.

And yet: the allure of the exotic, the different, the beautiful. They beckoned from the shelf, those Hawaiian-print shoes.

“Let’s get them,” I said impulsively.

The next morning, I was even more nervous than usual. The shoes looked so new I kicked them against my bedroom door a few times to create scuffs. I rode the bus feeling like my feet were covered in flashing lights. Would anyone notice? Would everyone?

I got off and found my new crew of friends who appeared to reluctantly be accepting me into their crowd.

“Look at those shoes!” one of them commented, and immediately they all looked down and laughed. “Those are lame!”

I put those shoes away after school that day and never wore them again. Not once. I think of them every now and then and feel an ache above my ribcage: at how sad those unworn shoes looked in my closet; at the thought of my mom, how little spare money she had and how much the new pair of shoes must have cost her; at the kindness of my mother wanting me to have that particular pair because she could tell I liked them and she wanted me to have beautiful things; at the salesman, who was probably just trying to do his job (what did he know of fifth-grade fashion politics?); and at my twelve-year-old self, who wanted so badly to fit in that he regretted for months that fateful moment when he’d strayed and listened to the louder voice that told him to choose the bold, relegating him even farther to the school’s margins. How long it took him to find solid ground.

And yet I simultaneously feel relief that I am no longer that child, the one so prone to doubt and insecurity, a boat with a broken rudder with no way to navigate the channel. I inhale and exhale something sweet knowing that that need to fit in, and the loneliness of not, gave way to a stronger calling to honor my quest for the exquisite; that as I write this, I’m wearing a shirt that has bold green and blue designs on it that look abstractly Hawaiian. I’m grateful that I have learned to leave the port of safety and push forward even when convention yells at me to turn back.

The River in Our Eyes

Last weekend I attended a beautiful wedding at a farm near the border of Maryland and Pennsylvania.

As the crowd quieted and the groom and wedding party looked out from under the chuppah, our friend waltzed down the cottage steps in her flowing white dress. At the bottom of the stairs, her father waited for her in his wheelchair. As they began their walk down the aisle, I felt the familiar gush of warm tears falling slowly from my eyes and down my cheeks. Simultaneously, I felt an opening in my heart that rose like warm air through my chest and up my throat until it met those tears in some sort of emotional thunderstorm.

At the reception later, in two separate conversations with female friends about our favorite parts of the wedding, I mentioned how affected I was by our friend’s grand entrance, how quickly it brought me to tears. One of the friends responded, “Wow, Tim, I didn’t know about that side of you.” The other said, “It’s refreshing to hear a man talk about crying.”

All I can say is: What’s up with that? It’s not that I judge the women I was talking to; it’s just alarming that male tears are so rare that women take such note of them. I say this because crying, to me, is something I am infinitely grateful for. When I cry, I feel gratitude that I am touch enough with my heart that it can supply water. When I cry, I feel gratitude for feeling, because my mind can so readily chase away my heart’s evocations.

When did crying become something to be ashamed of for men? When Rio cries, I hold him to give him a safe container to let them flow, as opposed to hastening him to halt them. I know a mother who chastises her son when he cries — toughen up, dude — and I can’t help but imagine those stifled tears coming out later as angry outbursts, or at best reclaimed sadness on a therapist’s couch. The truth is that when I cry, I tend to walk away from whoever is around because I have internalized this association of male tears with weakness, but in secret I cherish each and every one. In fact, I’d say that crying for me is one of the most exquisite feelings in the world; it means I’m in touch with life’s shadow, which let’s face it deserves to be in the light. I don’t want a merit badge for crying: I just want it to be as common as a smile, for the world, and the human condition, is a trying place.

Sometimes when Rio and I watch videos, he takes a look back from his perch on my lap and takes note of my tears. At first he seems confused, because he associates water from the eyes with sadness. “Why are you sad?” he often asks. I tell him it is because I am happy. He has noted this apparent contradiction. We have usually watched something that bolsters my faith in the human potential. I am crying in part because goodness is not more of a norm, just as shedding tears isn’t. Tears come because I taste what could be; there is a hope and bitterness to that. A friend of Allen Ginsberg’s once described him as a “man with leaky eyes.” A mentor of mine once copped to a similar tendency, admitting to me that he is often “that guy in the car you see crying.” Damn I love a man’s tears.

May my destiny, and all my brothers, be so bold and  real.

At the Keys

Eyes closed, fingers on the board, Letting what is around me and inside me come through me. Warm house. Sleeping son. Sleeping partner. Dog sits on the rug by the fire. Dryer turning, offering its warm sound. Inside: also a pearl. Not sure from where; why I found it today. Why now but not always? What is covering it when I feel a void instead? I remember reading how Eckhart Tolle just sat on a park bench one day, spending the entire time watching the people pass in front of him and the leaves shimmer in the wind, and how he just smiled, suddenly aware of life’s bounty. He said he stayed there all day and was never the same after.

And so my eyes are still closed now, because somehow I worry that if I open them the pearl will go away. I’ll look at what I’ve written, critique it, erase it, doubt it, and then the long line of anxierty that stretches toward uncertain futures will light up, and the thick roots of regret and pain that go into the past will surge again. No, I want to compose from this open place, where more truth than I can edit in or out resides.

What is it that I did today that brought me this gift? Nothing unusual. Perhaps just a bit more patience, a bit more restraint, a bit more kindness than was necessary. I apologized to someone today for saying something cold and mean. I listened to my son’s complaint instead of dictating it away. I kissed a dog. I wrote a friend and told her I needed her help. I sat down here, even though I didn’t know what I was going to say and believed I’d find something waiting to come out. I believed in my mind, and in my fingers, and in my knowledge of these imperfect vessels called words. I believed I could keep the barking voice … no, now I want to open my eyes to erase that, but I won’t.

I remember that on the first day of ninth grade, I learned that an eleventh grader had killed himself the day before. The whole school was shocked, and for first period I had an English class with a funny, charming man named Mr. Vedro. He told us to pull out ten sheets of paper, a pen, and to just write. To not hold back. And I filled those pages with my confusion, not caring about traditions or arcs or lessons. I wrote the pain. It was not pretty. But I still have those pages in a box under my bed called “memorabilia.”

There is so much talk in writing about editing, about revisions, about going over and over something until every word sings. I believe in that. I often help writers with my pencil when they haven’t done enough with their own. I cudgel my words into neater packages. But sometimes I just want to let the first truths drip onto the page, to believe that their crude essence holds something worth their unwieldy weight. That sometimes a pure chunk unfettered can do the job of fifty leaner phrases. (Already, I want to modify that: I’ve already thought of a better way to say it. But I’m keeping my eyes closed, and the delete key is too risky up there in the corner. So I need to write myself out of it. Kerouac once said that On the Road was so multilayered because he was writing it on a typewriter and therefore couldn’t erase anything. If he lost track of his narrative he had to write his way back to it. That’s how his trip had so many turns. Some Asian cultures call this “fish soup,” telling stories in wide, roundabout ways, all the ingredients thrown in.)

This is not my preferred way of being; I like order, tidy lines, doing one thing at a time, well. But tonight, I didn’t know what to say yet wanted to write. If I didn’t let myself go completely I wouldn’t even turn on the machine. And so I will open my eyes in a few moments with a promise to correct only misplaced keys and stray punctuation but nothing else. To have faith that sometimes the channel is opening, and delivering words that don’t need distillation.

Chasing Windows

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

Sometimes I just want to see the world like I did that once.

“That once” wasn’t just one specific time. It’s all the times I’ve seen, really seen, the splendor of life right in front of me. I remember last winter: I had just lit a fire in the wood stove, and it was casting its amber glow. Rio was drawing, Annie was reading, and I was watching them. It occurred to me that I was witnessing clearly what I actually have in my life: a home, a family, health, love. There was no questing for more, no castigations of why not, no clouds of regret or self-doubt. No, I was watching a beautiful scene in a film unfold, and it was from my own life.

Ah, but how quickly it fades. Even though I have enjoyed almost 365 days since then with Annie and Rio in this very house, the number of times I’ve caught this same glimpse and really felt it in my bones seems paltry. I often think my own experiments with bending reality — I have a few tired tricks I use — are simply attempts to get me back to this blessed view.

Recently I was driving around a college town, worry on my mind. I was waiting for a light to change and saw two students smiling and laughing as they stood on the street corner. I recalled my own days in college towns, how much easier the world seemed to me then. I was more insecure, sure, but I had less weight on my back; there were days I could just fritter and float. As I drove off, I had the urge to return to those streets; to take the place of these young men and have a view of the world that was perhaps more naive but bright.

The most pristine vistas are the childhood ones, the ones I’m still trying to climb back into. The poet Coleman Barks describes “those two minutes at the end of the day when a golden light would fall across the floor. . . . I would lie down in it and hug myself. One time when I was doing that, I told my mother, ‘Mama, I’ve got that full feeling again.'” For me, such moments came when my grandfather and grandmother would drive my sister and me “down the lake” to the tiny fishing cottage they’d built there; as soon as we hit the gravel road I’d lean forward in my seat to get a glimpse of the water through the trees. When the lake finally appeared in slivers between birches I’d feel a joy I’m not sure I’ve ever relived, even though I still return to that lake every summer and relish it with as much gusto as I can muster.

One of the pleasures of having a child in one’s life is getting to re-experience some of this wonder. When we visit the same fishing cottage these days, I watch Rio’s face closely in the rear-view mirror to witness it register some of the same anticipation I felt as a boy. But it’s not his job to serve as a hope chest for my mislaid dreams. And I can’t be a kid again, just like I can’t return to that college town. But Rio gets me close; and there is some simple pleasure in nostalgia, that bittersweet proximity to experience that memory grants us.

Perhaps the best I can do is to be patient with the pace of beauty; to not fret that the spot at the window may only come to me now and again. And to not curse the ephemeral nature of joy but rather to say thank you for even experiencing it. Otherwise I’m relegated to a life hunting shadows.

The other night I took Stella for a walk down to the bridge after Rio and Annie went to sleep. The evening was unseasonably warm, and a faint orange marked the billowy clouds blanketing the sky overhead. The river was rushing high due to recent rain, and I could see the lights of our little town through the trees. Stella was off leash and smelling this and that, and suddenly I felt a swell of satisfaction, of just knowing that I love and am loved, that these wayward ingredients somehow make a feast. I called out to Stella and she came running, and I hugged that darn canine and inhaled her musky scent and felt a warm quiet rush of the unadorned goodness that life sometimes slips in my pocket.