I’ve never managed to get very far on the road of spiritual liberation without accident. My varied attempts to escape the traps of earthly life all eventually crash. Seeking to evade one troubled relationship, I land in another. Attempting to kick one addiction, I find a substitute. Thinking I’ve left behind one religious dogma, I end up in another—Buddhism instead of Catholicism, for example. Life returns me to my life, sometimes dramatically, always firmly. “Take a good long look,” it seems to say, mercilessly shutting off my every exit.
Yet in the drama of entrapment and escape, there has been escape. The exits are everyday: a depression lifts of its own, a locked shoulder releases, a grudge dissipates, an attachment lets go, a distance collapses, a spiritual dilemma resolves—to be replaced by the next mood, tension, object of attachment, dilemma. In my mind’s eye I see myself as a kind of cartoon human cannonball shooting head and shoulders through one wall, nose pressed against the next. It’s either a discouraging image or an encouraging one: discouraging to the extent I subscribe to classical Buddhism’s goal of freedom from the round of rebirth; encouraging to the extent I find a peculiar freedom in rebirth itself.
Recently I had another accident.
I was on my way up the Pacific Coast to be with my sweetheart on Valentine’s Day. I’d just stopped in Coos Bay and had called to say I’d be in Eugene in a few more hours. The waitress at the bistro where I’d dined had a nice smile, and the Stroganoff had been tasty. I was ready for the last leg of the long trip. It’s normally only eight hours from my home to Eva’s, but on this trip I’d given myself a few days to go the back way. My pickup loaded with belongings, I was on my way from one life to another, preparing to join households with her. I’d treat myself to Highway 101, with its ocean views and string of coast towns. Instead of feeling pressured on the interstate, I’d be right in the flow of local traffic. Even so, I found myself every few miles pulling over into the slow vehicle turnouts, glad to let the faster cars go by.
Leaving Coos Bay, dark now, rain beginning to fall, I took another turnout. . . when abruptly the pavement disappeared beneath me. I began to fishtail, swerving from shoulder to pavement, back into a bank which tipped me over, roller-coaster fashion. In the long moment of losing balance I realized my trip wasn’t going to end as planned: it was ending this instant as my truck crashed to the highway, driver’s side down. In the silence that followed I came to myself still strapped into my seat belt, still in one piece, apparently unharmed. The windshield wipers kept up their steady beat, back and forth, back and forth. What next? Get out of the seat belt—GET OUT OF THE DAMN TRUCK. But I couldn’t find the release. Just then I heard voices outside. “I’m in here,” I yelled. Help was on the way! I pounded on the windshield while someone outside pounded on the passenger’s door.
Just then my truck took a blow that knocked me breathless. I’d been struck by another car. Up to this point what was happening hadn’t quite registered; this wasn’t the sort of thing that happened to me. Any moment, I would wake up from this nightmare, a nightmare eerily like the one I’d had recurrently for almost thirty years. But with this second shock I knew that this time there’d be no waking up. There was in fact no time whatsoever. One more hit and I’d be dead meat. My life depended on instant action.
Meanwhile the voices outside disappeared for a while, and then I heard one calling from a distance, over and over: “Eric. . . Eric. . . ERIC.” I had no idea what was going on outside, just that I was on my own now. I managed to unstrap my seat belt and, with only one exit remaining, began kicking at the windshield. The thought that I was trapped didn’t occur. There wasn’t time for any thought whatsoever. Suddenly the glass crumbled and I walked through, onto the road.
At the time there wasn’t a moment’s gap between being inside the truck and being outside of it, but in retrospect there’s a gulf over which, for the last months, and particularly now as I write, I try to throw a bridge of words. I can’t quite engineer it; in spite of all my efforts I’m still left hanging over a mystery that can’t be mastered but only lived and died: the mystery of a baby compressed in the birth canal one moment and released the next—of hatching from one’s sheltering shell into nakedness—of the moment when the flame of existence blows out. I’m dumbfounded before the paradox of being propelled by forces beyond my control and at the same time pushing with all my might from one state of being into another. Who pushes? Not an external force; I myself need to go through that canal, transform, die, But at these (or any other) times, I have no fixed identity, identity being cast in the experience like the skin of a snake. Trapped in my truck in the middle of the highway, about to die, I can’t say who kicked out the windshield. In the purity and swiftness of that action, I don’t find room for a being grasping after existence. There was just Being, walking right through the barrier of death and life.
No sooner did I find myself through, however, than I faced death in another form. Just forward of my truck another car was parked, and to one side of it a young man was bending over a prostrate form, speaking to it: “Eric.” But Eric wasn’t answering, though his eyes were open, unnaturally so, as though pushed forward from his face. He was breathing hard and fast. His head was bleeding. At that point the pure presence that had guided my actions in getting me free of my own wreckage failed as I faced the devastation of another. The alertness I’d had in the truck, shouting for my life, unfastening the seat belt, kicking out the windshield, began to slip away as my mind evaded what was before me. Blood, pain, death weren’t—couldn’t be!—part of the plan. I ceased to be an adult and did what any child witnessing calamity does: I checked out. I became the child I was decades ago, seeking by the naive means at his disposal to endure the unendurable.
Fortunately others were on the scene by now, tending to Eric and his friend. Unable to help or even stand by, in a daze I wandered about the wreckage, trying to grasp what had happened. All I could see were meaningless details: my filing cabinet, with the stored business of twenty years, on its side, drawers open and papers fluttering in the wind; my bureau in splinters, clothes spilling out. The rain was coming down on it all, shining in the headlights of the stopped traffic backing up on both sides of the road.
Eventually it occurred to someone that I also was a casualty, and I was led to the side of the road and made to lie down. That sounded good to me. The jolt I’d taken when my truck had been hit was reverberating up and down my spine, and my neck felt wobbly, barely able to hold up my head. Ambulances arrived, and a young woman held my head steady while we waited for a neck brace. She was sweet. She was one of the sweetest people I ever hope to meet. Her name was Lisa. Lisa asked me my name, what day it was, the year, the name of the President. I could answer all her questions, and it made me happy to do so. I’d been jarred off the everyday grid and was relieved to find my way back onto it. The call and response of simple questions and simple answers brought me back, out of the dark and the rain, away from the swervings and crashings of my life. To say, “I’m cold” and to be covered, to have voices and hands around and above me, were just so many blessings. Although it doesn’t make sense to say so, I was happy. I expect misfortune to mark me, Jonah-like, off from my fellows: even if I’m not responsible, pain comes bandaged with blame. Yet in this extreme instance I felt nothing but connection.
And so it went, all the way to the hospital, and then for the hours in the emergency room: within these white walls calamity was contained, kindness and efficiency prevailed. I did as I was directed, listened to what I was told, let myself be arranged in various positions against machines that looked inside me. Apparently there were no fractures. I was aching but uninjured.
Meanwhile Eric was injured. I could see him in an open room next to the nurses’ station, surrounded by technicians who had him strapped to monitors. I still was barely able to look at him, watching instead the illuminated lines moving across green screens that displayed his brain and heart. But I could hear him, angry, insistent: “Let go of me. Let go of me. Let go of me.” He wasn’t, I knew, speaking to anyone in the room. He was battling his own dark angel.
It’s three months later. Each morning emerges from night as inexplicably as I emerged from the wreck. Yet, as they say, life goes on. All involved in the accident are alive and healing. The driver who struck me was, like me, shaken up but uninjured. I’ve stayed in contact with Eric and the members of his family, first as they sat by his hospital bed for ten days waiting for him to come out of his coma, then at home, where he is now. I spoke with him by phone recently, when he was alert, articulate, on the mend, grateful for contact with someone else directly involved, especially since he was still so much in the dark as to what had happened that rainy night. Memory was literally knocked out of his head. Coming back is going to be a long haul.
Drawing on the police report, I’ve pieced together the following story. The turnout lane—unlike the many other such lanes I’d used on my trip up the coast—abruptly ended, with no signs or markings. In the dark and the rain I drove off the end of it. Eric and his buddy Joel, both nineteen years old, driving from the opposite direction, saw my truck overturn, and with all the impetuosity of their age ran to help whomever was inside. They didn’t see the other vehicle coming, and Eric, who was standing behind my truck at the moment it was struck, went sailing through the air.
And me? I’m resting, walking, meditating, working in the garden, staying close to home. I’m about ready to go back to working in the world. Whatever comes, I’m trying to keep enough space around me that my life and spirit can find their new shapes. For they are new, even though I can’t quite make out the outlines. All I know is that my life is on the edge, always, of death. As I drive—and I drive as little as possible—I’m aware of myself in a powerful and dangerous machine among other such machines. I’m aware of us all, vulnerable and mortal, paying a terrible price for our conveniences and comforts. It’s a contradiction for which I have no ready resolution.
Meanwhile I sense in my vicinity a being vaster than I ever imagined. Who is this Being? God? Buddha? Spirit? These are only names, while It is indifferent to names. But by any name It seeks communication with me and has been very patient. For years now It has been trying to get through. First there’s been the recurring dream presaging the exact motion of the truck tipping, tipping, crashing. Then about three years ago I dreamed of being trapped in the cab of a truck while someone was reaching in, threatening to do me harm. Finally, for some time I’ve been driving with distinct if fleeting images of wreckage flashing across the windshield of my mind. It’s been inconvenient, and certainly upsetting, to entertain these omens for very long, and so I’ve let them slide by, like the landscape slipping by outside the window.
But I can’t afford to let this rich and terrible landscape slide by any longer. I’m asking myself how to make room for its dreams, messages, omens. How to keep in focus, amidst the appearances of life, the fact of death. How—when forces beyond my control overwhelm me, tip my vehicle over, dump me in the middle of the highway—how to kick out of my confinement. And then how to walk through to meet the next thing.
These are questions I can ask only because I know answers will be forthcoming, are in fact pouring through at this very moment—not through the gate of any traditional formulation, Buddhist or otherwise, but through that of the experience itself, brutal as it was. Glass crumbles even as I write.