The Next Buddha is Sangha

Julius made reservations at Aquavit on E 55th St for dinner before our show at The Mint Theater on W 43rd. Normally he’d choose a place that’s closer to where we’re heading next but I can tell he’s feeling nostalgic for the trip we took to Stockholm over Christmas. Aquavit is Swedish chic—minimalist décor; dim lighting; tables, chandeliers and mobiles all evenly spaced like a feng shui dream—and right down the block is the St. Regis Hotel, which is reminiscent of so many of the Beaux Arts buildings on the cobblestone streets of Stockholm’s Old Town.

Before last year, I’d never been to Sweden and we’d had misgivings about going at the beginning of winter when it’s so cold and there’s no sunlight but we found Stockholm to be every bit as romantic as Paris. I’ll never forget how the moon glanced off the ice on Lake Mälaren and the Royal Stockholm Palace, the hilly park with the carousel, the incomparable attractiveness of the people. It doesn’t hurt that the Scandinavian countries always rank highest in terms of quality of life too and I know Julius, chief compliance officer at a major bank, appreciates how everything there is up to code and orderly to a T.

Julius realizes he can be too sanguine about things running like a top. That’s why once, when we were at the Charles Dickens Museum in London, he bought a refrigerator magnet that featured a quote from David Copperfield that he’d hoped might help him remember to manage his expectations: “Accidents will occur in the best regulated families.” It turns out that our family, comprising two gay men and two cats, is no exception to this rule.

Before we even decide what to order from the menu, which lists dishes crowned with herring and arctic char, Julius says, “I was afraid I was going to have a heart attack last night.” I lower my menu and look into his eyes. As I recall, all that had occurred in the middle of the night was that he’d jerked his shoulder and ended up with a neck pain. He’s prone to think this is what happens when you get past fifty, but I have friends who pulled their backs or wrenched their necks just bending down to tie their shoes or reaching over to turn off their alarm clocks when they were all of twenty-five. But he goes on to say that he woke up to get a drink of water, with his neck feeling like it was on fire, and he became dizzy and had to clutch the sink to stay on his feet. He started sweating and was going to call out to me but was able to steady himself and stumble back to bed. The stumbling part I do recall. He was breathing heavy but, when I asked if he was okay, he said it was just his neck giving him problems. Now he’s telling me he was afraid he was having a heart attack, though he’d had no pains in his chest. I take a deep breath and do my best to stay mindful.

It’s hard, though. Last week, my friend Jill’s wife died of ovarian cancer at the age of 49. They’d adopted a newborn baby girl three years ago. Four months ago, my mother died of ovarian cancer too, although she had lived to be 80 and my father had enjoyed almost fifty more years with her than Jill had been able to enjoy with her wife. The year before Mom died, Rachael, one of my all-time dearest friends, died of liver cancer just three weeks after diagnosis. She was 43 and was survived by her 45-year-old husband, her 10-year-old daughter, and her one-year-old daughter whose first birthday she had celebrated less than a week before she died. I’d been at Rachael’s home in London for dinner only days before she was diagnosed and she’d seemed just fine. Ten days before she died, I’d flown in on my way back from Rome to check up on her and she was frail and rickety but her laughter was robust, her spirits were high and I felt confident that we had years ahead of us and could beat this thing. I had no idea I’d be flying back for her funeral a couple weeks later. Two weeks ago, I had lunch with a friend (a widow) who told me a woman we used to work with, whom I was frankly not fond of, had keeled over in her apartment at the age of 50 while getting ready for work. She’d had a health scare but the doctors said she was fine now and she exercised regularly, had a good diet, didn’t drink or smoke. Julius is 51 now. Sure, he takes care of himself, but so did all those other people. (And, yes, I’d feel better if he’d meditate, it’d make him less stressed, but I don’t want to be like one of those spouses who hector their husband or wife into going to church or whatever when they don’t want to.)

After a lot of discussion on these matters, I tell Julius, “I hope I can stay cool. I’ve been working a lot with all this stuff in meditation.”

In fact, right before I’d arrived at Aquavit, it struck me how much recent events have changed my motivation for sitting. For the longest time, I came to the cushion twice a day because I wanted to find inspiration for writing. It might not be the highest motivation, but it was mine, and whatever gets you there, gets you there and, in getting there, I’d developed a practice I could come to at times like this. Rachael died, Mom died, Dad and I are all but estranged and I’m not close with the rest of my family—and my meditations have been so intense-feeling that it’s an ongoing effort not to call time when the sitting gets tough. Life might be fragile, but my practice isn’t and I intend to keep it that way.

Still, I don’t want to lose Julius. He says he doesn’t want to lose me either. Neither one of us knows how we’d get on if one of us lost the other. And yet life is such that people do lose each other.

These same sentiments were expressed in the play we went to after dinner. I love The Mint Theater. They’re the friend to the friendless play. They revive all these works that time forgot but that were something in their day. Also, at 39, I’m always by far the youngest in the audience, something I seldom experience in New York. The play was called A Picture of Autumn by the late British dramatist N.C. Hunter. In it, younger members of a family compel their older kin to sell the family estate, the only world the old folks have ever really known. It might be The Cherry Orchard-Lite, but I still couldn’t help but feel for the characters, especially since Julius has remarked on many occasions how sure he is that he’ll die before me. I could see myself one day having to sell our home, including the roof deck we were married on, and weighing how much I could bear to part with it all.

Yet for however heavy life has been, for however little I know about what it has in store for us, I am grateful that I have a meditation practice and a Cherry Orchard in my mind, so full of fond memories, that I can maintain and that can never be sold away from me. And so I’ll continue coming back to the cushion every day, so I can be fully present for whatever happens now and whatever may happen next.

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the novel, 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010). A longtime meditation practitioner and active member of New York Insight, he lives in Brooklyn with his husband and cats. He is currently at work on his new novel, A Sorcerer on Montmartre.