“No one knows what karma awaits us,
But what we sow now will be
reaped in lives to come; that is certain.
So be kind to one and all
And don’t be biased,
Based upon illusions regarding gain and loss.”
“The Mani Man” from The Snow Lion’s Turquoise Mane
By Lama Surya Das
Forrest Gump f—ked my 2020. Mister Rogers. The dude from “Castaway.” On Tuesday night, March 11, Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, announced they had coronavirus, and the “Oh, shit” of COVID-19 smacked me upside the head with the wooden-sandal of reality. Next, the mid-court cancellation of the NBA’s Jazz-Thunder game paired with an unsettling address by the president sent me into a menacing panic—the kind you only expect to see on the faces of the freaked-out kids in slasher flicks.
That Sunday evening, following a bizarre trip to a ransacked supermarket, my partner and I delivered a homecooked meal to a women’s shelter. The ordinarily sedate living place was filled with frightened shouts. The shelter was closing without notice due to COVID-19; in the morning, the women and their children would be on the streets.
Crushed between the government’s feckless policy decisions and the media’s fearmongering, we started wearing bandana face-coverings on our walks along the riverbank. We washed our hands until they were chapped and bleeding. Predictably, these and other precautions offered faint protection from the terror created in my monkey mind.
Our Memorial Day shopping getaway ended when my decidedly foolish mixture of nitro cold brew and Durban Poison crippled me with anxiety in the Home Depot blinds section. In a moment of sublime care and support, my partner lovingly shepherded me out of the congested store with an understanding and compassion that only they possess. Yet, the truth of my suffering was revealed; beneath my camouflage of cautious realism was an unquenchable dread, and the approaching summer would soon supply more fuel.
The weekend before Father’s Day, my kind-hearted partner and I had mustered the nerve to fly to Atlanta. Late on Friday, June 12, we approached University Avenue south of downtown. Each side of the interstate was lined with dozens of GA state troopers and Atlanta Police Department patrol cars. Hypnotized by the deluge of flickering blue lights, we passed them in silence. At a Wendy’s drive-thru not far from the highway, Rashard Brooks had been shot dead by APD officers in another unjustifiable episode of lethal force. Righteous protest followed, and in my mind, the pandemic had jumped cosmos.
Of course, my personal conflicts are not unique. In 2020, millions have suffered devastating hardships and trauma; turmoil has usurped the comfort of homeostasis. It has been a universal season of missed milestones, devasted dreams, and anxious grief. Journeys of love have been cut short. This year should have been the beginning of a decade brimming with promise; instead, 2020 pulled the chair right from under us in the middle of the lunchroom. However, just as nature has shown us the dangers of our untenable relationship with the planet and our fellow beings, it also reveals the energetic power of resilience. Try keeping the dandelions out of your lawn or the cabbage worms from your small plot garden.
Perhaps I should’ve known how unique this year would be based upon the end of the last one. In December 2019, I was lucky enough to fulfill a long-time dream by attending a Ram Dass spiritual retreat in Maui. Fortunatedescribes participating in a community swim and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” sing-a-long with my revered teacher two weeks before his passing on December 23, 2019. It was at the Maui retreat where I met my mystical partner, and the Satsang’s Bhakti yoga and Buddhist training has served as my guidepost for all that’s transpired since that weekend.
In his nearly sixty years of public life, Baba Ram Dass, born Richard Alpert, played a spiritual movement’s multi-generational leader, trekking a path from the drugs and sex antiwar era through Reagan’s No-Nuke Me generation to the 21st Century’s metaphysical bumper sticker culture. A best-selling author of dozens of books, he accomplished his solemn task of loving, serving, and remembering god with conviction, raw humanity, and self-deprecation. One of his foundational lessons has taught me to distinguish between relative and ultimate truths once I identify as a witness to my own melodramas. At this point in my life, everything and everyone I encounter serves as a means for liberating awareness, raising my emotional intelligence, “grist for the mill.” From this perspective, I can pause from milking my victimhood and attempt to be a more conscious practitioner, possibly giving this year space from “2020 SUCKS” memes.
My high-country romance played out during the pandemic like Bob Dylan’s “Standing in the Doorway,” a soul connection torn asunder by my ego. It is painful to let go of the coolest lady I’ve ever known, but I’m paying the penance for my unfulfilled promises. Once again returning to my Atlanta roots, I’ve had time to apply Ram Dass’s instructions. Living and working alone affords ample reflection breaks—especially if you don’t drink. As settled as you can get in a house that lacks the organic ingredients, the domestic rhythms and pleasures, to make a home, I’ve begun to perceive my mental patterns and recognize that my passing thoughts and emotions could conceivably be “fake news.” That it’s permissible to watch Saving Private Ryan. I’ve savored the sugar, fat, and salt of Fox Bros barbecue and Hattie B’s hot chicken. I’ve soaked in the color, form, and movement of the Indian summer. I’ve trick-or-treated with my kids in their neighborhood, not mine. But my joys have been tempered with a sense of loss. Balancing these opposing emotional forces demands clarity and stability that I have difficulty finding. The challenge I face is in not allowing my grief for the millions of worldwide COVID-19 deaths to become a withering depression, not turning my cynical view of the media into haughty inaction, and not permitting my frustration with our corporate governance to sour into anger and division. If I apply the right effort, I can penetrate the depth of my delusions for an instant and, while not fully releasing my preferences, at least ease my grip on them through wonder and amazement. The moments unfolding in front of me are eons in the making, and their control falls well beyond anything I could remotely conceive.
Breath. Relax. Smile.
I’m sure it’s a mantra already plastered on the bumpers of dented Subarus from Summit County to Sedona.
Aside from its beautiful scenery and beautiful souls, living out West taught me a reverence for the environment, the power of refuge in a religious community, and other dharmic lessons that will inform the rest of my life and the future of Southern Fried Karma. More than ever, we remain firmly committed to our mission to Tell a Million Tales of Y’all Means All.
We’re partnering with the Atlanta Writers Club to publish Viral Literature: Alone Together in Georgia, a collection of thirty-two writers responding to COVID-19 with their best work. Our Spring 2021 releases include Lisa Uhrik’s America Becoming: A Declaration of Interdependence, a much-needed framework to reunite our communities, and our first novels by women of color: Rebekkah Coxwell’s Falling and Brenda Wilson’s Red Door Scriptures. We also intend to bring back our annual novel contest aimed at cultivating underrepresented voices. A revamped Volume 4 of The New Southern Fugitives will continue to question the establishment and promote power to the people; this year we’ve witnessed the intensity of America’s progressive power throughout the country.
The Sunday after Rashard Brooks’ killing, my partner and I marched around the Coweta County Square in a BLM rally. The leader of the chanting parade was a young boy, not even ten years old. It was a magical moment we enjoyed with my daughter and her family that I could’ve never foreseen. Five months later, on the clear autumn day when the 2020 presidential election results were announced, the same square was a triumphant scene of celebration. It offered me another chance to be the observer, to note my response to the question, “What am I thinking?” as Lhoppon Rechung Rinpoche, the resident teacher at Mipham Shedra (http://miphamshedra.org/), humbly instructs. I felt delight, but also pangs of regret for not sharing the moment with my cherished partner—a reminder of my defects, proving Baba Ram Dass’s “grist for the mill” lesson.
Paradoxically, isolation has been our collective trouble in 2020. We are fragmented by our separation. This year, many of us have faced difficult risk-and-reward choices, deciding between degrees of pain and discomfort. It’s as if we’ve all been passing through the Bardos together. The challenge for me has been to gain the proper perspective to seed the courage I need to keep moving. Padmasambhava, the 8th-century Indian tantric master, instructed us to “maintain our view as high as the sky, yet in conduct be as fine as barley flour with regard to cause and effect.” I’ve had the privilege of deciding when and where I transformed my despair at f—king up a transcendent relationship into a trendier mundane malaise, but I found no karmic avoidance.
On the Maui retreat, we attended evening kirtan in the outdoor pavilion with Krishna Das, the Grammy-winning yoga “rock-star.” In “Sri Argala Stotram,” he blends his sacred chants with Foreigner’s power rock hit; “I wanna know what love is, I want you to show me,” he sings to his guru, Neem Karoli Baba. I’ve seen love at every level in 2020, from philia to eros to agape. It is my best hope that by honoring and respecting all of life’s heartfelt connections, we can come to rely on each other as fellow seekers, to be grateful for our spiritual allies on the path. Suppose we can summon the fortitude to cultivate generosity and patience. These attributes will not merely heal us individually but will also enable us to heal others. Dedicating ourselves to accomplishing a mere fraction of that philosophy will make this a valued time of growth and self-discovery. If we can’t at least consider that view, then all the suffering of 2020 will have been for naught.
The collection of heartaches and cosmic stains we absorbed on Earth’s five-billionth trip around the Sun will pass with us from this existence to the next. That sweet shy girl and I may never sit together again on the riverbank forged into the high desert valley between the peaceful Rocky Mountain peaks, but, embedded in my inner wisdom, we’ll never leave.
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