Flying west through time zones over the Pacific; it is night and continues to be night. But last night or tomorrow night? My laptop is going haywire; messages catalogued tomorrow 2:20 a.m., tomorrow 3:07 a.m. That’s how it feels, this journey into the dark.
Sleepless, I keep shifting positions: I bend my knees, feet on the seat and thighs to my chest; I try to rest my head on my husband, Patrick’s, shoulder. I give up, flick on the overhead light, and take out my journal. My mind is wild with thoughts—excitement about our family trip to Asia, relief at a long-needed vacation, but also disturbed churnings.
Something terrible has happened.
Rio was only twenty-two—so young. He had been my daughter, Caitlin’s, campmate after preschool. He was just her age. That’s why I find it so frightening, a parent’s worst fear.
I struggle with a kind of koan: how to embrace such heartbreak and horror?
No way around; only through. Many years ago when I prepared for my first ten-day meditation retreat, I was afraid that my mind would become a black hole. I would be trapped in a midnight dimension where nobody could find me or hear my cries. At that time, in my early thirties, I was recovering from my father’s death. I was scared that all the silence and meditation would draw me further into the dark, like the plane that is always flying into the night, and that there would be no way through, no way out.
A flash of memory of Rio fifteen years ago in a bird-watching camp run by our raconteur/philosopher friend Brian in our backyard. How that tribe of children, Rio and Caitlin in the lead, skittered down our back stairs, leaving joyous wreckage of toppled chairs as they circled the yard. How Rio skidded to a stop, sighting a trembling hummer. Beneath the willow, only Rio, mouth gaping, rapt.
Brian always spoke of Rio as an “old soul.” This boy loved twilight forays deep into the woods. Attuned to what was hidden, he saw the shadow owl camouflaged by redwood boughs, the flutter or hoot beneath apparent silence. He was a born owler. As I remember him now, my mind is alive with owls: hunters in the night with large yellow eyes, hooked bills and needle-sharp talons, they soar through a dark expanse.
“Maybe it was the intensity of the owl that had so fascinated him,” Brian said in his storyteller voice when we got together to honor Rio. “Perhaps too the mythic link to the underworld.”
At moments as a child, I felt that link myself, a dark pull. That’s another reason why what happened is scary for me. When I sense a darkness in someone young, I panic. I remember once years ago my younger sister, as a troubled college student, came to visit for the weekend and took an overly long bath; I had a sudden dread that she had slit her wrists in the tub. I burst into the bathroom to find her soaking peacefully.
The first time I saw Rio’s intense sensitivity we’d been looking for owls all day but hadn’t seen any. As we were driving home from the delta, the headlights of the car shone under a funky bridge by the side of the road. Suddenly, Rio shouted, “There’s an owl!” None of us could see anything, but we stopped the car. Rio slid out and walked cautiously toward the bridge, stalking the bird. Out it flew from the shadows: a barn owl—its pale underside ghostly like a fluttering shroud. Off into the haze, it was gone.
How did he know? All he could possibly have seen was a bare stilt-like leg, slim as a reed, and—perhaps gripping a rusting pipe—a claw. That was it. “Was it the sharpness of his eyes, the focus?” I asked Brian. Brian gave a wry smile: “Rio’s eyes were good, but he didn’t always use his eyes. With owls he went beyond his physical senses.”
I would have thought that kinship with the forest, with the owls themselves, might have saved him. Protected him from that tormented moment in a locked car filling up with lethal gas. “But he was a young human,” Brian had reminded me in his philosophic way, “and he needed other humans. The natural world is a sanctuary, but it is not enough. We need kindred spirits to touch, and that’s where things were so hard for him. An acute sensitivity can also isolate, can be a torture.” So hard to access the inner torment of a rawly intuitive young person—out of sync with this violent world. Mostly it’s opaque to me.
In the long, dark cabin of the plane, mine is the only lamp still on. Patrick is sleeping, and up and down the rows, so are the other passengers, mouths open, heads flung back or drooping on their chests. The soft rasping sounds of sleep harmonize with the drone of the engines. I see now what I’m really asking:
How can I fly into the dark but not be consumed by it?
The first kid I knew who took his young life was Bobby Stark. I was only twenty-two then, myself. Afternoons, I met with Bobby one-on-one, teaching him writing. Nights, he and his pals in the projects went on joyrides in stolen cars, did doughnuts and wheelies in the back streets of Cambridge. Sometimes tough, Bobby was also tender, like the way he called me “Sweet Bah-bra” with his long Boston a. He was also the first kid I knew who signed up to fight in Vietnam. A year later, he boomeranged back to a VA mental hospital. I learned soon after from his probation officer that he’d killed himself there.
I lean back and close my eyes again. But I keep seeing Rio, and after him, Bobby in green jungle fatigues. Then I see today’s soldiers in their desert fatigues, minds and bodies steeped in war—what’s been done to them and what they did or did not do—all the civilian codes of how to treat other people blown up in their faces.
Before I left on my trip, I stuffed a sheaf of papers in my briefcase: the program from Rio’s memorial, articles on youth suicides and soldier suicides. So many lost children. Now I rummage through my notebooks, reading haphazard passages.
As we land in Chiang Mai, I stash my journal and articles. I try for now to put away my thoughts about Rio and Bobby and the other soldiers. When I go to the wats of Thailand and the pagodas of Vietnam, I will light incense for these young suicides in memory of their lives and of their pain, which I have just barely begun to take in.
I find myself turning to the owl, minion of the night, as wise guide and protector. In Buddhist meditation, we fly into the dark. The owl is a worthy totem for this practice. As a powerful night flyer, the owl enters the unknown. Its great yellow eyes shine with the light of the sun in the dark of the night. Acute hearing and vision couple with the gift of perspective—shifting in an instant from the microscopic to the telescopic, and with a sinuous rotation of the neck, witnessing a vast panorama. Thus, the owl has a power of clear seeing that apprehends the deepest truths and is associated with wisdom.
In shamanic practice, whatever is frightening can be transformed into an ally. As a night hunter with a haunting shriek, the owl is linked to death. But it can be enlisted as an ally to protect life. I enlist the owl to protect my mind. Armed with fierce talons and beak, the owl supports my commitment to keep equanimity in meeting all that is dark and frightening.
In Vietnam, I set out for a sacred cave with a phantom owl on my shoulder. Just past dawn our family approaches the Perfume Pagoda, an array of temples in the limestone cliffs of the Huong Tich mountains. A boat lady in a conical peasant hat rows our skiff along a narrow waterway. As we pass between the rice paddies, we see hardly anyone—only flocks of egrets and wild ducks gleaming white against the tender new green of the rice, and occasional fishermen putting out traps. At the base of the cliffs, we disembark and begin our climb past a series of temples to the cave shrine.
Confronted with the pitch-black maw of the cave, I freeze. I’ve been known to panic in tight Parisian elevators or in walk-in refrigerators. Being trapped in the dank constriction of a cave is my most dreaded nightmare. Just the sight of the narrow entrance feels like a glimpse into the sometimes-opaque chambers of my own mind—infused with thoughts of Rio and all of the others.
I continue to wrestle with the challenge: how can I enter the dark without being consumed by it?
Remembering the fierce owl on my shoulder, I draw on its power to steady my mind. I follow my family under the churchlike peak of the cave opening and enter the slender passage into a sanctuary. Absolute darkness.
Slipping by us into the cave, the boat lady leads us up terraced steps revealed in the dim glow of her pocket light. She points toward faintly outlined statues. A flash of Patrick’s camera suddenly illumines Quan Âm, the Goddess of Compassion. One instant of radiant kindness—here and then gone—dissolves into the dark of the cave.
I turn to Patrick, “That’s Quan Âm, the Vietnamese Kwan Yin, the one who hears the cries of the world.” We have been noticing Quan Âm statues all over Vietnam—on mountaintops, in market stalls, rising in the bay across from China Beach, where soldiers went for R and R during the “American War.” But I’d never felt moved before to introduce her to my family. At that moment in the cave, in the brief illumination, it comes to me: oh my God, here we are in Vietnam, with its centuries of war. I think again of Bobby Stark and his fellow youth in the American War, and then of the young soldier in Iraq who shot himself in the dark latrine. Two of the millions. So many cries for her to hear.
Born from a ray of the white light emitted from the eye of Amitabha Buddha, the goddess Quan Âm is luminous with compassion. She vows never to rest until she has freed all sentient beings from suffering. According to one of her many legends, when she struggles to comprehend the needs of the many, her head splits into eleven pieces. Amitabha Buddha, seeing her plight, gives her 1,000 heads, with 2,000 ears with which to hear the cries of suffering. When she hears these cries and tries to reach out to all who need aid, her two arms shatter into pieces. Once more Amitabha appears, offering her 1,000 arms—so that this incandescent Goddess can aid the many.
On our last day in Vietnam, at the Hanoi History Museum, our family happens on a burnished wooden statue of the Goddess of Compassion, with 1,000 heads and 1,000 arms. Endowed with a towering crown of additional heads, each with acutely listening ears, this Quan Âm clearly hears the cries. When listening to great tragedy, she breaks open, but shattering into many heads and arms, she is always renewed; she cannot be destroyed.
In what spirit does Quan Âm hear the cries of young suicides? Hear our cries as mothers and fathers and mentors experiencing these deaths that we cannot fathom? Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield said to me before my trip: “We can hear in the urge to commit suicide something respectable and important. A person knows that something significant in her life has to die, and she thinks mistakenly that it is her body. But what has to die may be the way she holds the world or herself.” As I contemplate Quan Âm, I know, she hears through or beneath pathology to a pure yearning for release. With the ferocity of the owl to keep me on course, this is the compassionate hearing I aspire to. It is radiant, not a state of pain, not tarnished by anger, guilt, disgust or terror that sometimes have filtered my own hearing. No matter how dark the cave, I long to tap into the Quan Âm within myself that I so often forget is here. This is what I’ve been groping for: a pure space inside that can open to the horrific but remain in some fundamental way inviolate.
On the plane flying home, east from Hanoi to San Francisco, it comes to me: years ago when I learned that Bobby Stark had killed himself, I never tried to find out what he had been through in the war. I never wondered about the horror he might have seen or maybe the horror he had found himself doing. Sitting in the cramped seat of this plane forty years later, for the first time, I weep for Bobby. I know these tears include all of the young soldiers. And Rio, too.
Like the Quan Âm with 1,000 heads and 1,000 arms, can my heart continue to crack open and at the same time remain intact? These are sufferings I am so far from comprehending. I’ll need all the protection I can find as I listen, flanked by a fierce owl of wisdom and a radiant goddess of compassion.