I’ve been sitting again. One of the many reasons to sit is to try to wade one’s way to the far side of the grove of trees where live the chattering monkeys that inhabit our minds, all those monkey-voices chittering at us, particularly in times of great stress and grief. I’ve been turning the Three Refuges over in my noisy head like river stones. I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the Dharma. I take refuge in the Sangha (see below). Twenty minutes a morning, on my little pillow, the Buddha, a Virgin of Guadalupe candle, a stick of incense. I take refuge. I turn the refuges over and over like worry beads.
However, I seem to have added a fourth refuge. I take refuge in Johnny Cash.
The American Recordings series — I remember buying the first one when it came out. It was my second year in my PhD program, and I was living in a converted garage in Salt Lake City. Winter quarter I didn’t take any classes — and I only taught on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I took the quarter off to concentrate on writing, which seemed like an outrageous and daring thing to do at the time, to duck out of classwork, to duck out of making progress toward that degree. To take a chance on my book. It was snowy, and I sat at my folding table under the window, writing the first draft of my novel. It’s a novel about grief and loss, so I was listening to music that gave me some thin thread of faith that I could write that book at all, that I knew anything at all about brokenheartedness, that I could make something beautiful out of it. Outside my window, everything was muffled under thick, fluffy white snowflakes. Inside, my gas heater would tick on occasionally, and Johnny Cash sang about brokenheartedness with that purity of tone that simultaneously breaks and sustains one’s heart.
In the last few weeks all I seem to want on the CD player is Johnny Cash’s American Recordings series, a series in which you can hear him getting older, getting closer to the river, still singing his broken heart out. I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the Dharma. I take refuge in the Sangha. And I climb into the lifeboat that is the broken ferocity of Johnny Cash’s late recordings and take refuge in my faith that if anyone can get me to the far shore of this grief, it’s that voice.