“Start a big, foolish project, like Noah.”- Rumi
Last summer in Sri Lanka, Bhante Sujatha, the monk who asked me to write his life story, told me that he thought I was going to write a pamphlet.
“I thought you would write a short brochure. We would just use it for my ceremony.”
I shook my head and smiled.
“Bhante, you are the chief sanganayaka (chief monk) of North America. It would be pretty challenging to fit your life into a pamphlet.”
We were sitting in a hotel lobby, overlooking the tea plantations in Sri Lanka.
Today we were traveling to Nilambe, a beautiful retreat center in the mountains about 18 kilometers up the road from Perediniya University.
I had just re-listened to my taped interview with Bhante about his friendship with Upul, a world famous spiritual practitioner who runs the retreat center, founded by his even more famous predecessor, Godwin Samaranthe.
Staring at the gorgeous view, I thought about my first interviews.
“Paul? Did you say his name was Paul?”
I asked this question right before I answered a phone call about an interest rate on a mortgage. My day job.
Bhante is patiently silent while I talk on the phone. I interrupt my 5 minute call twice to tell the chief sanganayaka of North America that I will be right with him, that I was sorry, but I had to take this call. I really needed the money.
I swear I can hear Bhante Sujatha’s smile as he answers patiently, “Ooo-pol. Upul. Not Paul. Upul.”
He tells me about running down the path from Upul’s hut to the Subhodarama temple after midnight.
“I knew that path so well. Even in the pitch black, I knew every bump, and rock and even the parts where a snake or a monkey might be. I never slipped. Gosh, I loved that. Do you know anything that well, Mary? You know that good feeling?”
I did know that feeling, and on this trip to Sri Lanka and every step along the way of writing and publishing this book, I never had it once. Everything was unfamiliar.
As I re-played the interview in my mind, I felt chagrined, but proud. I’ll never forget the way it felt to send the manuscript off to John Bardi, the philosophy professor who wrote the forward, or to hand it to Bhante Muditha, Bhante Sujatha’s esteemed teacher, for translation. I would wince as I clicked the send link, always sure this was the moment I would be busted for the crime of being an amateur.
I didn’t notice how far I had traveled down this new path till I looked back and saw that my footprints were gone, covered by the snow and the flurry of my permanent, forward movement. By then, I was all the way in the dark woods. I tried to turn back to my old life, using my once reliable flashlight of optimism and the powerful machete of nonstop pushing, but it didn’t work. I was forever changed.
When I was in the ancient city of Anarantapura, I walked between high crumbly walls crowded with sharp-toothed monkeys gathered with their babies and their mates. My shoulders were up to my ears with tension as I walked through the ruins, feeling like those monkeys were just waiting for a misstep.
Back home, confronted by the steep learning curve involved in writing and publishing My Wish, it often felt like I was back in Sri Lanka, in the fading daylight, with the monkeys impatiently staring at me, starved and silent. Now I know they were never a threat. Neither was this project. I’ve just been afraid of exposure most of my life.
For a while after I finished, I missed my old frustrations. I missed dreaming about being a writer. My son went to college a thousand miles away. I missed the relentless duties of parenting. I got a new job. I missed my old one. I worried that I did the wrong thing.
Last night, I went with my 19-year-old son to the park by our house in Illinois. He just came back from his first year at college in Long Island. He told me he missed New York (this is my kid who HATED cities) and that there was no real Lacrosse scene out here. He asked me to go and watch him shoot.
“Bring Lou Lou (our big black shepherd) too.”
And off we went. A small, complete family, on our way to our dreams.
As I watched my son, moving impossibly fast around the field, wielding a lacrosse stick like an expert, shooting a ball over 90 miles an hour at a goal, I took a breath, and smiled. We made it.
Leo played Lacrosse with one of the best teams in New York last year, and I published a beautiful book.
Every now and then I think I see my old life flashlight, lying near a stream of tears or alongside a trail of celebrations, but it’s smashed, or so heavy I can’t lift it. It just doesn’t work anymore.
Spending all that time with noble people who have dedicated their lives to serving others affected me. My heart has become a ruthless dictator, and I will literally follow it off the ends of the earth. I have no choice.
So I’m grabbing a rock and a stick, and sitting down. Working on the next book. Rubbing as long as it takes to spark. This is my big, foolish project. I was born for it, and I won’t give up.
Bhante Sujatha’s life story shows us what it takes to follow our hearts down their special, irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind, noble paths. I am forever grateful.
Enter. Jump. Go. Risk it all. Gain it all.