When I was married, I had a little room of my own at the back of the house. It was just large enough to hold a single bed and a bedside table. A window opened onto the garden. I kept my journals there, a stack of books, and a clipboard, pen, and paper.
I often retreated to this room for several hours after work. I had a hard time explaining to my husband what I was doing there night after night. “Thinking and reading” seemed inadequate and even faintly sinister to both of us, although it was perfectly true.
As time passed and our marriage faltered, my retreats into the room increased the tension. My husband told me that when I came out of the room after a few hours I frightened him; I looked ill. He compared me to the housewife in Doris Lessing’s short story, “To Room 19,” who tells her husband, “I need to be alone more than I am,” and ends up gassing herself in a cheap hotel room. He said my need for solitude was excessive and dangerous; he said I should get help. Not long after this conversation I moved out, and we eventually divorced.
That was seven years ago. I see now that I was wrong about a lot of things regarding our marriage. I was wrong in thinking that he caused all the problems; that money and housekeeping were our main points of conflict; that he could never change.
But there is one thing about which I wasn’t wrong. I have a genuine need for long periods of solitude, for a refuge from other people. Today I live in a small apartment where I spend many hours alone — thinking, reading, and writing. I have good, close friends, whom I call or visit when I feel sociable. I wouldn’t be happy without my friends, and I wouldn’t be happy without my refuge.
When I listen to the scientists, I begin to feel there is no refuge: the human race is already too far along the road to calamity. We are all going to suffer, and there can be no hope.
Then I read some of the spiritual teachers and understand that thoughts are the primary reality. Perhaps if we believed and willed in concert, we could change the world, fix the environment, achieve peace.
Then I listen to my heart and realize how little I know. I have only the accumulated evidence of my senses, my experiences, and my ideas, which really don’t amount to much. The ratio of what I know to what I don’t know is so staggeringly small there might well be as much reason for hope as despair. So I plod along, doing my best to live out the highest values I know. That’s my refuge.
On the radio, I kept hearing “. . . everybody has to fight to be free/You don’t have to live like a refugee. . . .” I had been living like a refugee so long I didn’t know there was any other way. Frank and I were wintering in a strange town. Not much money, no friends, and we didn’t know how to enjoy each other. The night before, he had torn up the Scrabble board and our marriage license and thrown them in the trash. When I got up in the morning he was already gone. The note he left on the kitchen table began like the others: “Listen, you small-time, small-town bitch —”
Barefoot and broke, I left the apartment, wandering the streets and alleys of Tucson all day, speaking to no one. Night came but I couldn’t go home to his anger. Dazed, exhausted, I sat on a cement wall staring at silhouettes of ragged palm leaves lifting in the wind. In the morning, I was on my feet, pausing here and there to watch the passing cars. I wasn’t hungry but I sat for a while at a table outside Quick-Snax, watching for Frank, ready to evaporate if I saw him coming.
Night again. Like an injured dog, I slunk away from the lights of the city out into the desert, stumbled into a dry arroyo and sank down. I lay under the crescent moon in the cold silence. The sky began to pale. I watched as the first rays struck the coarse grass along the bank, painting it yellow-green. A crystal drop of dew hung from a green blade; reflected within the drop, a blazing ball of light — the sun. Astonished by the clarity of the light, the grass, the blue sky, I rolled over and saw the bleached white stones sparkling in the sun. I saw that our lives are like rented rooms — none of it really belongs to us. A sense of peace filled me like a cloud; my bones felt airy, translucent. I stood up slowly, looking around. Now what? It didn’t matter at all which way I went from here. I had found refuge in a single moment.
I want to say that I take refuge in the Buddha.
I want to say that I take refuge by rolling in my baby’s arms.
I want to say that I take refuge by working in my garden, writing in my journal, playing with my child, reading wise and interesting books, having a heart-to-heart talk with a good friend. . . .
But these serve only as distant, secondary sources of refuge in my life. My primary, constant source of refuge is compulsive overeating. Whenever painful problems of a personal nature come calling, I am only a few minutes away from habitual and sweet oblivion.
For me, being alone feels like home. When I am alone, the house remains quiet. I immerse myself in the silence which nurtures and renews me. When my wife Susan is home alone, the radio or television is always on to keep her company. Some people think of silence as the absence of sound; I think of sound as the absence of silence.
I have completed many group meditation retreats over the years, but last summer I decided to do my first solo retreat. The effect of four days of meditating alone in the mountains of Kentucky was remarkable. My mind quieted as I dwelled in the here and now. The experience was so seductive I found it unnerving. I examined my strong need for solitude. I realized that at some level I perceive others as threatening. I work hard at winning their approval as a way of diminishing the threat. I suspect the reverse may be true for others. Being alone may prove as threatening and stressful to them as the lack of solitude is to me. Their existence is reinforced by their interactions with other people, whereas mine is challenged.
Although I like people, I need to escape periodically. After my mountain retreat I realized that I didn’t tire of other people as much as I tired of being who I was around other people. I wearied of being “on.” I sought escape from an aspect of myself. Although solitude nurtures me, I see now that my ultimate refuge can never be a mountain hermitage. I must find it at my center.
In 1985, at what at what I now consider to be the tender age of twenty-three, my husband and I joined a volunteer service program. We accepted a project with a sanctuary church in Seattle that offered refuge to Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees.
We lived for a year on the third floor of an unusual and dynamic Baptist church with a Salvadoran family and a Guatemalan man. We engaged in political organizing, sought refugee status for Central Americans, and opposed U.S. military aid to their countries. We attended meetings, helped with conferences, published a newsletter.
The best part of our work came in living and working with the refugees themselves. We rushed a malarial boy to the hospital, gave English classes, played basketball, celebrated birthdays. I translated for the refugees as they spoke to church, school, and political groups, telling stories of the suffering of their people. Best of all was sitting in the church kitchen for hours, preparing and eating tortillas and sharing struggles, dreams, and laughter. Surely God is with us, I would tell myself, as we cleaned up from a dinner together.
I believed with all my heart that Jesus himself would offer refuge to those fleeing the kinds of persecution my friends had faced, but other things were less clear. What would Jesus say when a refugee wanted fifty dollars to buy running shoes, and the church sanctuary committee thought the request extravagant? What would Jesus do when the church became the object of bomb threats, graffiti, vandalism, ugly phone calls, and break-ins?
I grew to feel utterly inadequate and confused. My Spanish was strangely fluent in the vocabularies of suffering, torture, and war. Needs were enormous and urgent, yet my own contributions seemed meager and hopelessly insufficient. On top of everything, I experienced immense guilt for feeling all of the above. In our bedroom on the third floor of the church I began to slam doors, throw things, and scream like a hysterical child.
After we completed one year of service we moved out of the church, feeling broken and bewildered. Juana cried when we left because we had loved her children as our own. I cried as well because I could leave but my friends couldn’t. I cried for the luxury of making a cup of tea in a quiet kitchen and drinking it on the front lawn. I cried when I visited the church because I loved and was loved by the people there, but wasn’t strong enough to participate in their ongoing work. I cried for the fact that despite all my grand ideas about serving basic human needs, I had failed to provide a refuge for myself, a loving place of safety in my own heart.
Jim-bo comes into the library almost every day, barefoot and bare-chested. Rosalie, the children’s librarian, gives him sheets of paper and Magic Markers and he draws pictures. “What’s that picture?” Rosalie asks.
“That’s not a picture,” Jim-bo says emphatically. “That’s scribbling. It’s just scribbling,” he shouts again. “Can’t you see?” Jim-bo gets blue and green Magic Marker all over the table. “Ha! I scribbled all over the table.” He stands in front of her desk.
“You should be more careful, Jim-bo,” Rosalie says calmly.
“Ha!” Jim-bo barks and scurries out the back door.
Sometimes Jim-bo comes into the library and Rosalie is not there. “Shit, fuck, shit, fuck, she’s not here,” and he removes one or two books from the picture-book shelf, sits down at the table, and thumbs through them. When he leaves, he drops them responsibly in the book drop, just like Rosalie has taught him to do.
Other times Rosalie is there, sitting at her desk, and the phone rings. She searches through some reference books, answers the patron’s question, and hangs up. “That phone hates me,” Jim-bo says.
“Why does the phone hate you?” Rosalie asks.
“Because!” Jim-bo answers.
“A phone is not alive,” Rosalie tries to explain. “A phone can’t hate you.”
“That phone hates me,” Jim-bo affirms. Then he goes to the toy box near the fiction section and pulls out the eight-foot, fuzzy, multi-colored snake. Rosalie uses the snake to round children up during story time, each child holding on to the snake in an orderly fashion. “All aboard for story time,” Rosalie says.
“This snake is gonna bite your nose,” Jim-bo giggles. “This snake is gonna bite your mouth. This snake is gonna kiss you, Grandma.” Jim-bo covers his face with the snake.
The other day, Jim-bo asked Rosalie to draw a picture of him. Rosalie sat beside him with Magic Markers and paper and began to draw the outline of a face. “This is the boo-boo on your chin,” she said using the red marker. “This is your hair,” she said, using yellow.
“That’s not my hair,” yelled Jim-bo. “That’s just scribbling.”
They went through his entire face in this manner. “That’s not the color of my eyes. My ears don’t look like that.” Jim-bo giggled hysterically as Rosalie finished drawing in his features.
Six months ago, Jim-bo sat on the sidewalk in front of the library, playing trucks with his friends and giving me the finger. Now when I pass, Jim-bo says, “Hi, lady,” and waves the open palm of his hand.
During the three months after he died I often awoke around three in the morning. The southeastern sky, visible through the bedroom windows, became a focus of reality. I depended on the brilliance of Arcturus and the stream of stars which make up the Water Serpent. This night, the full moon provided a backdrop for the oak trees whose dark branches, rigid and stiff from winter cold, were as still as the silence pervading the house.
Only my son and I were in the house now. The other children with their families had long since returned to their own homes in other cities to grieve, but this son had stayed on — not quite knowing where he was to go now that his father was dead.
I lay there. For once neither the beauty of the sky nor the beauty of my room — the carefully chosen cream-colored wallpaper covered with pink and cranberry roses on deep green vines, the antique oak chest of drawers, the pewter candlestick, the walnut sewing rocker cushioned in pink and cream, the Monet prints, the soft candlewick comforter — could ebb the tide of terror.
Suddenly I was out of bed, pulling on the pink robe he had given me for Christmas. I raced down the hallway, past bedrooms that had once known the laughter of parents and growing children and now stood empty. My knock on the door at the end of the hall brought a groggy response. “Yeah?”
“I need to be with someone!” I cried. “Please, I need to be with someone!”
Without thought, he threw back the blankets and said, “Climb in.” For a few seconds I lay there, wondering if it was all right for a mother to share a bed with her grown son. Suddenly I did not care about the answer. In a few moments I was asleep. I was safe. The son had remembered. The son, who as a little boy had climbed into bed with his father and mother, afraid of the dragons and goblins, had remembered.
Used to be a sensible man wouldn’t build a place in the Texas panhandle without a storm cellar. Most new places don’t make provisions for refuge from tornadoes. It’s hard to hide from a thing that mysterious and unpredictable. I suppose they figure tornadoes are just too fickle to trouble about. A tornado can jerk a house into the next county but leave a deck of cards undisturbed on a coffee table where the living room used to be. It can fill the sky with a lumberyard but spare stray cats. It can pick up a Wells Fargo armored car, shake it around, and beat the guard inside to death with rolls of quarters. They say that a tornado can’t really drive straw into a tree trunk. What actually happens is the storm twists the trunk and opens the grain so the straw just blows straight in.
It must have been comforting to have a storm cellar, to know exactly where to take refuge. They offer advice now. They tell you to take refuge in a bathtub and pull a mattress over yourself. You ever try to wrestle a mattress into a bathroom? That’s not refuge; that’s looking for trouble.
When I was a kid my mother had a way of tucking me into bed that provided refuge from things so bad they didn’t even have names. My dad had these huge hands. When he put a hand on my shoulder, I knew refuge.
When I was a kid, I didn’t understand a lot of things. I didn’t understand what could happen in the world, what could go wrong. Now, I do. But when I was a kid, I understood better where to find refuge.
There’s a new tom in the neighborhood. I saw him stalking our quiet black cat in the parking lot. Now Ankhi has come in anxious and tense. He jumps up on my lap, mewls a couple of times, and then splays himself across my chest. My arms cradle his soft black body; he tucks his little nape under my chin. He clings for awhile, but finally his breathing begins to slow and then the steady rasp of a purr reverberates through my heart and diaphragm. I feel so big and protective. But then I notice that my own breathing is beginning to slow and as my tummy vibrates with his purring, I find myself letting out a long sigh. I wonder who is taking refuge in whom.
Mercer Island, Washington
Refuge is housing in New York City. The A Train, the one Duke Ellington wrote the song about, will take you to where I live: Inwood, in upper Manhattan. The lyric says the train will take you to Harlem. When I go home I travel through Harlem and past it, all the way to the last stop.
I didn’t come by housing in New York City easily. When I arrived in 1983 I found a sublet in a run-down building in the west Nineties. One morning I went to the bathroom and the ceiling caved in. I had the good fortune to meet an elderly woman who had a bedroom to rent in her large apartment in the west Seventies. It was cheap, but I didn’t have any real privacy; after a few years, I’d had enough. I spent all of 1986 looking for an affordable rental and never found one. Finally, because I did nothing but look and work that year, and the work was plentiful, I became a late-eighties cliché: an artist with a co-op. My own place, finally — small, too expensive, way-the-hell uptown — but mine!
My income has since slid, my adjustable mortgage has soared, and I can’t afford it on my own. I need to take a roommate, but I’m postponing that as long as possible.
Late at night I flip a coin to decide which subway line will get me home, the A or the #1, which also goes to Inwood. Either one could get stuck behind a work train, or crew, and take forever. A trip that takes half an hour during the day can take three or four times that long on a bad night. A few times I’ve just been dropped off at 168th Street to fend for myself.
People say you shouldn’t ride the subways late at night. I have to. I’m a jazz pianist and singer. A good one, but not famous. I work late and can’t afford to take cabs. I was mugged last year just after dark on the street. I was assaulted three years ago early one evening in Riverside Park. I seem to have better luck late at night on the subways. I try not to look like I have any money, which isn’t hard for me. I always make sure I’m not alone in a car.
Last night I got on the A Train at 2 a.m. The crowd and the parade of beggars thinned as we moved farther uptown. At 145th Street, I found myself alone in the car. I changed cars. The ride continued for awhile and we were finally dumped at 168th Street. This time a shuttle was operating and arrived after a few minutes. There were six other men in the car with me as we pulled into 207th Street at 3:15. They were all sleeping. Even though it was the last stop, none of them budged. It hurt to see.
As I walked up the hill, the wind coming off the river was moist and fresh and good. I unlocked the door to my building, walked up a flight, and opened the three locks on my door. My parakeets were asleep in their cage, and my dog gave a wag of his tail from the couch. A flickering light and a few messages on my machine. A short walk for the dog, a cup of chamomile tea, and then to bed. My refuge. My home.
New York, New York
In my childhood I used to retreat from the cruelties of summer camp to a big granite boulder sparkling with mica in the middle of a creek.
Over the years, I’ve taken refuge in daydreams where I saved whole nations from tyranny or had various movie stars fall madly in love with me. At college I was the rebel. The president of the college had tight, carefully arranged waves in her hair and, as far as I was concerned, a mind to match. She kept inviting me to nightmare tea parties where she put me down in front of other people. I hated authority. The question of whether I should stay a virgin or not convulsed me in agony. I was in love with Shelley and writing papers on Sidney Hook and Karl Marx. Others gave up meat twice a week to help poor Finland fight wicked Russia. I refused.
When I got married at twenty, I was sure that I’d never be unhappy again. Marriage was going to solve all my problems. Three months later, I was pregnant. My husband wanted me to have an abortion, and I wanted the baby. There was a field of grasses near where I lived. Sometimes I’d sit there staring at the wind. I’d watch the grasses moving until I could go home and learn to cook and cope with growing up.
A half century later, having taken refuge in dharma, karma, sangha, LSD, visionary experiences up the kazoo, initiations into every which path, still on a yo-yo ride, I’m in New York City, hot and tired and hungry, walking around in circles between Penn Station and Times Square, looking for a low-cholesterol restaurant.
Thousands of people, all tired, angry, press in on me. A fellow selling driver’s licenses from Texas or Louisiana, a tired Black Muslim hawking earrings, a shell game busted by the police, and all the people rushing around bumping through their days. “Where is refuge now?” I ask myself. “There’s no smiling guru here, no hills, no stream, no back yard with hollyhocks and Johnny jump-ups. I’m on my own.”
The city sounds go rrrhumm, rrhumm through me. “On my own,” I muse, “on my own.”
As soon as I realize that, my heart softens. The scene unfolds like a flower. I’m still hot and tired and hungry, but now the faces of the people are blooming. The pain in my neck goes away, and my feet don’t ache so much. I find the real refuge, the one inside me.
Santa Cruz, California