yeshe chölwa

At theology camp, it was important to seem busy, so we were — the days were just packed. We would have breakfast at seven, woken up by reggae versions of non-reggae songs. Breakfast was hot rolls, jam, hot chocolate. We’d spend all day attending panels, reflecting on our own faiths, making small arts and crafts, and watching movies.

I was there on a scholarship, but most of the participants were retired Europeans on spiritual holiday. They were paying guests. I tended not to distinguish among them; in fact, in my head, they were sort of like tolerable aunts and uncles. They were attending opening night of a play about modern spirituality written by me and my friends.

Nonetheless, they did not realize how interchangeable they were. This was particularly true of one woman, perhaps the oldest one there. She had hawkish blue eyes and permed silver hair, permed and treated so much that it had turned the color of gift ribbons. She looked like my grandmother, and — not totally unlike my grandmother — she was out of her mind.

On one day, for example, we were all circled up for a ceremony about life and death. (This was how we passed time there; we held ceremonies.) I was telling the true story of coming a few feet from driving off a cliff. This had happened a month earlier, on the North Coast of California, on a dark drunken night. It was a pretty simple story; I’d survived, and then afterwards realized I wasn’t happy about surviving. Of course, the moment I could no longer repress that fact, I became intensely and consciously suicidal. Those emotions had been building up inside me for a year, and now they were coming out.

The story didn’t have a particularly complex time frame: I drove, I crashed, I made it home. But as the camp coordinator was translating my story into Italian, this woman suddenly cried out (in Italian), “WHAT DAY OF THE WEEK WAS IT?”

Eventually this was translated for me, and I thought about it for a while, and finally answered that it was a Monday night. But she was insatiable. The kind program director couldn’t get out three sentences without another scream of “WAIT, WAS IT MONDAY OR TUESDAY?” or “THIS WAS TWO DAYS LATER?”

She started out outrageous in ordinary ways. For example, she would speak exclusively in Italian. She appeared to be monolingual, so somebody would start translating an American comment for her benefit. As soon as they did, she’d shout, in perfect unaccented English: “What, do you think that just because you’re an idiot American that I can’t speak English?” And then she wouldn’t speak another word of English all day.

But we had a lot of time up in those mountains, and as the days passed, she got more extravagant. She sat outside of every circle, but she was participating in her own way. At one ceremony, instead of asking strident questions about dates, she just squawked like a strangling chicken. I’m not being colorful — she was trying to sound like a chicken. We’d be talking about the “no-mind” of Buddhist meditation, and she would emit a gigantic squawk. We’d stop, and wait the solemn second that means (in ceremony code): “Oh, I say, really now, that is a bit much, my dear woman.” Then, having made this point, we’d take up our theme again. She’d squawk even louder.

We wore armbands on one particular day to signify a vow of silence. My vow of silence lasted about thirty minutes, starting when I woke up hungover at 1pm. At 1:30pm I found out I was being accused of carrying and distributing drugs. (Which, in fact, I was not.) Her vow of silence lasted for at least the rest of the week. For all I know, she may still be observing it.

It didn’t stop her from saying things, but sometimes, if you were speaking to her, she would scowl and point furiously at her armband. In other words, she wanted you to know that she couldn’t answer you without breaking the sacred vow. She was even willing to explain all this, in whatever language you spoke, before lapsing back into a sphinx-like quiet.

I remember two final performances she gave before the end. The first one was with food. She kept a very sharp steak knife after the dinnerware was collected. When a basket of fresh fruit went around, she took a large, juicy peach and proceeded to flay it. There’s no other word for what happened to this peach. She carefully pared away the peach’s soft skin, carving it into fleshy yellow petals. She stretched it out, in the form of these rather violated-looking shingles, across the table. It stayed like that for a while, until someone removed her peach, and her plate. She never ate a single bite.

The second act was her poem. We were supposed to write a poem, about love, in a small group. My group wrote a poem about the futility of writing love poems. Ironically, and in order to really understand the poem you have to get this, the poem itself was a love poem, but one which enacted its own impossibility. Think A Lover’s Discourse, if Barthes had been in the Alps and not getting enough oxygen. (Some critics later said that the poem was actually “in love” with language, not with a person. But my question would then be: is there a difference?)

Her poem was an assortment of grass and straw. She gathered dry, unsightly bunches of plants and glued them onto a page of white paper. She handed this 3-D collage to our translators and insisted (quite articulately) on being translated into three foreign languages. I remember one translator presenting her poem in the form of a dance. Another sang a series of anguished, incomprehensible syllables.

At the final ceremony, we wrote prayers. Then we crumpled them up, threw them into a jar, and picked out somebody else’s prayer. (I didn’t actually understand the exercise. I thought we were supposed to wish somebody well, so I wrote, “be unafraid.” Later it turned out we were supposed to pray for ourselves.) Anyway, our resident lunatic was nowhere to be found. I took two prayers from the jar. I found her a few minutes later, staring abstractedly, perched on a bar stool in our lounge and enjoying a cappucino.

I handed her the prayer. She took it instantly, read it silently, and folded it up again. She put the prayer away in her cream-colored purse. “You’re one of the stars in the sky,” she said, smiling brightly.

I’m not saying that nobody else was nice to her, by the way — several other people were. It was something we all remembered, because we’d swallowed hard first. The day after writing our prayers, we were on our way back home, scattering to every continent. The first step of that journey was by bus. As we lingered in the station, distracted by candy and bottled water, she appeared and rushed towards us. “It was very nice meeting you, Joseph,” she said to me. She had, it turned out, a firm handshake. Her expression was limpid. It was as clear as water in a blue bowl.