Note to readers: This is the entire story of my summer of Jesus and Buddha. Previously published in five parts on elephant journal, I have revised and consolidated it into one. I am seeking suggestions for a captivating title. If you think of one, please email me or leave it in the comments section. Thank you!
Palo Alto, California – June 2004
By the time I turned twenty four, I thought I had it all figured out. Life was good. I had been living the dream in the San Francisco Bay Area for eleven months, teaching yoga “full-time,” in addition to a slew of other part-time gigs, including subbing at public schools in San Jose and Cupertino. All grade levels, all subjects. It was brutal and brilliant.
I’d been a serious yogi for four years, but I was just starting my sitting meditation practice. I’d gone on a four-day personal zen retreat at Green Gulch farm in April where I began to deepen my exploration of Buddist philosophy.
My birthday is May 30. Six days after celebrating in my hometown, Austin, I boarded a plane back to California. On the connecting flight, I met a guy. Named Christopher. He had just turned thirty one the day before, June 4. We flew from Dallas/Fort Worth to San Jose. And thus commenced The Summer of Christopher. Mid-air.
Not to sound like a super spacey yogini or anything, but I really feel that the prana of, you know, the Universe, the magical, mysterious stuff of Life that is forever moving and changing, attaching and detaching, shifting and shaking, dancing and stretching, singing and swirling, loving and fearing? That shit shifted on the flight when I met Christopher, that blue Saturday afternoon when we barreled across the sky.
Over the years since, I have literally drafted dozens of versions of the scene on that airplane, attempting to rewrite the reality of the flight in which Christopher crashed into my life, to somehow make sense of it all.
I’ve realized it doesn’t matter what exactly was said or done.
I remember that I was the last person to board the plane, until he came onboard a couple minutes later. It was a Southwest Airlines flight with unassigned seats. I was in a window seat; the aisle seat next to me was free. He asked me if he could sit there; I gave him my permission. Despite the fact that he handed me a business card that announced he was in real estate, I was attracted to him right away.
He went by Christopher, not Chris. We started talking about religion and spirituality almost immediately. Who are you? Where are you coming from? Where are you going?
What do you do?
I tell him I do yoga. He tells me he’s Christian.
I think: Oh. Really? What a goddamn shame.
I’m all for Jesus, don’t get me wrong. I just don’t think much of what’s currently done in His name have much to do with the essence of His teachings: Karuna. Compassion.
Christopher was born and raised in the San Jose area. His immediate family consists of two parents and five sons. When he was in his early twenties, the brothers formed an a capella quintet and toured the U.S. singing gospel at various megachurches across the nation. He and his identical twin brother are the oldest. In my fictionalized stories of them, I called the brother characters Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Christopher’s character was named Joshua.
When Christopher told me that he had never kissed a girl before, I refused to believe him at first. I thought he must be kidding. Then, I believed him. He had been raised so conservatively Christian that he’d been miseducated into believing that sex before marriage and therefore any physical affection with a girl (or a boy for that matter) was a big-time sin.
I remember feeling pity. I had most intentionally lost my virginity at eighteen, whick took the duration of one skit on Saturday Night Live, in my college dorm room, on spring break of my freshman year at UT.
I remember telling Christopher that I would kiss him, so that he could experience his first kiss right away. He blushed and rejected the offer, but took my hand and held it the rest of the flight.
Here was this All-American, tan, tall, cute, funny guy who was obviously attracted to me, too. So what if he’s a Christian? I thought. So what if he literally believes in the Bible? Surely he’d get over that, because I sure wasn’t going to become a Born-again.
I began to see Christopher as a Christ figure, subconsciously. It had to be destiny. Same airport, same airline, same destination, same row. Our paths were meant to cross.
I went right home and Googled him. His brothers’ quintet had a website. From there, I linked to their church’s site and before long, found their belief statement.
We believe in the following conditions for salvation:
No one can enter the Kingdom of God unless that person is born again.
Our redemption has been accomplished solely by the blood of our Lord Jesus.
The new birth of the believer comes only through faith in Christ.
No other acts, such as confession, baptism, prayer, or faithful service are required.
Christopher’s twin Michael was a minister at a Baptist church, although their family claimed only to be “non-denominational” and “Bible-believing.” Despite his orthodox religiosity which clashed with my pagan yogic views and tarot reading habit, we somehow connected. In our brief overlap, he would alter my life and influence my journey more than any other guru, lover, friend, enemy or acquaintance.
When I probed, I discovered that Christopher sincerely believed that Earth’s Creation took seven days. Because the Bible told him so. He argued against evolution. Fossil record? Fake! He was passionately committed to saving his virginity for his future wife. So, wait. What? No making out? Not even kissing? Heresy! In retrospect, yes, I was painfully naïve. It took months after our relationship imploded for me to be able to apply the F-word to Christopher and his family. (Fundmentalists!)
Ecumenical became my favorite word. It was very important to me that multiple paths to Truth coexist. I’d been raised Catholic and baptized as an infant. Like a good little bride, I wore a frilly white dress for my first holy communion. The body and blood of Christ, Amen. I refused Confession, because even as early as 1990, it seemed weird to have to go into a small enclosed room and confess my sins to the Father behind the screen. He was just a priest after all, not God.
My most cherished memory of church was the one Sunday morning when I sat in the pew next to my friend Allison and for some silly reason, we both started giggling uncontrollably at an inappropriate time during the Mass. We were probably eleven years old, and thus capable of that particular brand of gasping, choking, girlish laughter that can only occur when you know you are eleven years old and supposed to be sitting quietly. It was an absolutely religious experience.
Aside from that one inexplicably fun time, Mass typically felt like longest, most boring hour of. superfluous standing and sitting, monotonous singing and robotic signs of the cross. I was always relieved when the priest stepped forward, spread out his robed arms and said, “Mass has ended. Go in peace!”
From an early age, I put Jesus up on a shelf instead of inviting Him into my heart. I had a problem with accepting a personal savior. I didn’t see a need for it. Yet, I gazed into Christopher’s blue eyes and thought, Okay, I could love Jesus for this.
At twenty four, I already had a decade of memories of dysfunctional dating experiences, ugly and unfortunate situations, heartbreak and rejection. One of my best girlfriends had a steady boyfriend in high school, another in college, and another after college, who was the best, and whom she married. My history was the opposite.
I mistook promiscuity for power. The ones I thought I loved didn’t love me. I settled for what was I could get: next to nothing.
With Christopher, all that changed on a jet plane. He held my hand. He stroked my hair. He spoke sweetly to me, but he could also be sarcastic and witty at times. He told me he loved me on a Sunday, after we’d known each other eight days. When I said it back, I really meant it.
I went to church with him. Wednesday Bible Study. Sunday Worship Service. I wasn’t into it. I didn’t feel the urge to get saved.
On our first date, Christopher came over to my house in Palo Alto. “The Eichler.” So named for its architect, a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright. It was sort of Brady Bunch style, but with a flat roof and walls of windows. For a year, I shared the house with five girls, Julie and Vanessa, plus one Asian-American Mormon violinist and one Yankee Jewish pothead. We were a very ecumenical household.
Christopher and I sat on the carpeted floor in my room and talked. We sat Indian-style, facing each other like kindergarteners. Later, lying on the bed, we kissed. Finally! He wasn’t so bad at it. The first night we slept in the bed together, we kept our clothes on. He seemed modest, shy about sleeping in my bed with me. I was absolutely infatuated.
In front of his family, he wouldn’t so much as give me a hug. Michael had just married a buxom young Christian girl, and they had supposedly not kissed until their wedding day. She was already pregnant when I met them. She and I had very little in common.
I rather enjoyed my new self-image as a rebellious wild child turned prudent Christian girlfriend. Especially because I didn’t have to be too prudent behind the closed bedroom door. Christopher may have been a virgin technically, but before long we were doing pretty much everything but having actual intercourse. A long way from chaste.
Palo Alto – July 2004
I quit drinking and smoking pot for Christopher, which was kind of a big deal. Fuck, I barely even cursed! The one time I covertly smoked, he smelled it on me and was displeased, but he forgave me.
He came with me to a yoga class once but was too weirded out by the Sanskrit chanting at the beginning to keep an open mind. Yoga was a false prophet in his eyes.
My parents flew out for the Fourth of July. During their visit, I went for a walk around the neighborhood with Christopher. We got into some trivial debate. Only you can’t debate a Fundamentalist. Their world is made up of black and white dualities: right/wrong, sin/salvation, heaven/hell; I live in Technicolor and well over fifty shades of gray.
I was drawn to and repulsed by Christopher for the same reasons — his immense faith and devotion. I wished that I could just surrender, become “Christian” and live happily ever after. But I couldn’t let go of yoga or my newfound Dharma. I remember hot tears bubbling up because I knew something had to give.
In my spiritual confusion, I asked Jesus to give me a sign. I hadn’t prayed to Jesus since the eighties, but that evening, I begged him for guidance.
That night, I sent Christopher to sleep at his grandmother’s house. It was to be our first night apart since he first came over to my house.
At two a.m., I was awoken by sirens. Dad had fainted in the bathroom. He was unconscious for a minute, enough to merit his transport to Stanford Hospital. I called Christopher and he immediately came over and drove me to the hospital. I couldn’t help but bring along my bible of the moment, a paperback book called Jesus and Buddha which places the remarkably similar words of the two spiritual teachers on facing pages.
Christopher liked to hark back to one of Jesus’s most famous quotes: “I am the way the truth and the light,” which he interpreted to mean The One And Only Way.
It cannot be denied that Christopher and his family rallied around my sick father as good Christians will. They offered prayers upon prayers, casseroles, company and compassion. They were wonderful.
The incident was a fluke. Dad felt better and was released the next day. If this was Jesus’s answer to my prayer, I interpreted it as a sign that Christopher and I were meant to be yoked together forever. I thought our love would transcend our immense differences in belief systems. I imagined traveling the world together, he as a missionary and me… well, that part was not completely clear. The wife of a missionary? The yoga-teaching wife of a missionary? The mindful Christian spreading the light of Christ and Buddha around the world?
Our last date was a funeral. His great uncle Ralph. I dug through my closet for my most conservative dress. The service was lovely and moving. Uncle Ralph was from a branch of the family tree that was not Fundamentalist.
Christopher and I got into an argument in the car on the way home from the funeral. Something to do with his assertion that Uncle Ralph was not saved, therefore he’d been turned away at the pearly gates. Followed by my assertion that that was bullshit, and nobody knows what happens after we die.
Our pink love bubble burst. My rose-colored glasses shattered. How could this ever work? Mr. Christianity with a Zen-loving, yoga-teaching hippie?
I decided that we needed to take a week apart. To reassess our relationship, separately. I drove down to L.A. to visit Rose. In a shoebox under the bed was I Kissed Dating Goodbye, a manifesto of sorts written by a young Christian named Josh Harris who was purportedly saving his virginity for marriage. I devoured the book and though I hated every sentence, it helped me understand the mind of Christopher a little better. Or so I thought. Here’s the book jacket summary:
Going out? Been dumped? Waiting for a call that doesn’t come? Have you tasted pain in dating, drifted through one romance or, possibly, several of them? Ever wondered, Isn’t there a better way? I Kissed Dating Goodbye shows what it means to entrust your love life to God. Joshua Harris shares his story of giving up dating and discovering that God has something even better—a life of sincere love, true purity, and purposeful singleness.
Still. I was blinded by my overpowering lust for Christopher and my enjoyment of the new experience of actually having a boyfriend. I wanted to make it work. I ached for him in every moment of our separation. I wished we could go back in time and hijack the jet on which we met. Fly east, far away from his judgmental family, their ludicrous church and my incredulous friends. In my journal, I painstakingly boiled my spiritual belief system down to these eight bite-sized points:
awareness (all we have is now.)
compassion (all we need is love.)
peace (live and let live.)
being (i am.)
spirit (the holy spirit is beyond us and within us.)
unity (many paths, one truth.)
destiny (everything is meant to be. let it be.)
joy (neither cling nor reject. no attachment, no aversion.)
When we reunited at a Starbucks in south San Jose, it was immediately clear that his mind was made up. He could not accept me as I was and I had not changed enough to keep him. Thus, our romance ended as quickly as it had begun. I was shocked and appalled that it turned out to be nothing more than a summer fling. But the story was not over yet…
Palo Alto – September 2004
Happily distracted by my interfaith summer romance, I allowed myself to lose control of my finances. In other words, to go waaay further into credit card debt. By the end, I was paying rent with checks from my Visa accounts. Unfortunately, God doesn’t pay the bills. I kept sinking further into debt, which is easy to do in the Bay Area. Although I’d been making decent money substitute teaching, when the school year ended, my income source was gone. I landed a six-week summer gig as an ESL teacher.Until, the temp agency belatedly realized I did not have a teaching certificate and fired me. I filed a suit in the local small-claims court and lost.
I had to surrender my entrepreneurial yoga lifestyle. Thanks to craigslist, I landed a full-time, salaried job at a media firm in “The City.” SF. I was house-sitting in Mountain View at the time, which meant commuting for an hour each way each day on the 101 in rush hour traffic. I was so depressed and heartbroken that I could not bring myself to engage with my new colleagues. My mind was so sad and fuzzy that I could not grasp the tasks of my new job. I sat at my computer confused and listless, all day. I would lie in the backseat of my car at lunch, crying.
After my fourth day, I stopped at Safeway on the way home and bought an eighth of vodka, a Baby Ruth, a liter of Dr. Pepper, and a box of over-the-counter sleeping pills. I didn’t really want to die; I was just so lost that I didn’t know what else to do.
I drove to Stanford, parked in a vacant lot and walked around a field. I sat on the grass. Professors emerged from distant buildings. Couples strolled arm-in-arm. Life went on all around me. I rose to my feet abruptly.
Since my lease had ended a month prior, I’d been couchsurfing. Unrooted. Now, I was house-sitting Julie who was off gallivanting with the fabulous, flaming Mateo in Argentina.
I deliberately left my phone in the car. If I stopped too long to think about how my family or friends would react, I would be overcome with guilt. I didn’t want to hurt them. I did not relish in the fact that they would mourn me.
I turned on the bathtub faucet and stripped down to my bra and underwear. Too modest to die naked? I swallowed all twelve sleeping pills with big gulps of vodka and Dr. Pepper. I sunk face down into the steamy bath and ate the candy bar. My empty brown eyes did excrete some tear-like liquid, but my sobs were weak and silent. I hoped death would happen painlessly, like drifting off to sleep.
I woke up, face up, in a pool of tepid bathwater, chunks of vomit floating around me. I was alive—and drunk. I staggered to my feet.
It was four o’clock in the morning. I peeled my bra and underwear off, drained the tub, stepped back into the shower, rinsed myself with hot water, soap and shampoo, wrapped my body in a white towel and crawled into bed with my sopping hair.
I fell asleep flat on my stomach. When the alarm rang, I was still dazed and groggy from the pills, yet somehow dressed myself and got in the car to go to work. I looked at my phone. Seven missed calls, all from my mom. She’d uncharacteristically left three voicemails. I started the car but didn’t shift into gear. I called my mom and, between gasps and sobs, was able to form one sentence: “I need to come home.”
Austin, Texas – October 2004
I woke up one October morning, dismayed to find myself in the twin bed of my childhood bedroom on the second story of my parents’ suburban home and, upon looking out the window, even more dismayed to see a shiny, new “Re-elect George W. Bush” sign stuck in the perfect green grass of their front lawn. I marched right outside in my pajamas to remove and destroy it.
But national politics were the least of my problems.
I had survived my weak attempt to end it all. But I had no job, no money, no love, no God and no peace. I had lost touch with Yoga Schmoga. I had adored my existence in the Bay area and fervently believed that living the dream in California was my own personal manifest destiny. Being back in Texas, everyday life was my punishment, constantly reminding me of my utter failure to sustain my happy life on the West Coast.
I effortlessly landed a salaried job in Marketing and Communications in a gray building in a gray cubicle. I reconnected with Amanda and Jane. The three of us rented a house together in the coveted Hyde Park neighborhood in central Austin. I reentered the social scene with renewed appreciation for cursing like a sailor, drinking beer, getting high… on weed, and having plenty of casual sex. All the things I had given up for Saint Christopher. I decided to distract my depression with debauchery, and I partied with a vengeance.
Austin – April 2005
Christopher responded to my various attempts to reestablish communication with a tidy email. Subject line: Hello and Goodbye. He apologized “for not doing the least of what my good intentions were when we parted ways…and that is to not just disappear.” He told me that I “blessed” him and my family in so many ways and said he was “forever indebted” to me for all that I taught him about beliefs, commitment, faith, and hope. He went on:
Now, however, I am grateful for how it turned out. Even though we became quite close, I know it would never have been the best for either one of us to continue the relationship. I wanted to respect your beliefs while not compromising my own, and it became increasingly more difficult, then impossible, to do either very well. Thus, I am glad for the amicable way in which we did part.
He thanked me for being so understanding.
I am glad to hear that things have both settled down for you and picked up at the same time. I have prayed for you on several occasions, and so I am glad to hear you are doing well.
Oh, that pissed me off! And then, the killer:
I, too, am doing well. The best part of my life now is the reintroduction to Alicia, a girl I had known as a teller at my bank. We’ve found mutual attraction and friendship with close compatibility. I really think this is the girl I’ll spend the rest of my life with, and I’m so very happy. I know that you will understand that this changes the nature of our relationship, Michelle. As close as we were, it wouldn’t be fair to either of us to continue correspondence of any kind in the foreseeable future. I sincerely wish you well, however, and I hope that the next time our paths cross I’ll hear that you and your cowboy are teaching yoga on horseback… or something like that.
He signed off: Sincerely, Christopher
I did not understand the way things needed to be. When I called him at work one day, he revealed the fact that Alicia was, in fact, Catholic.
Well, that did it! In my deranged mind, I decided that having a big, colorful tattoo of the Blessed Mother in her Mexican form – la virgen de Guadalupe – on my left shoulder was going to help me win Christopher back.
Shortly thereafter, I had a nervous breakdown, caused in part by my experience with Christopher during our steamy, spiritually-confused summer together.
I don’t remember all the details of my break with reality, but Amanda, who was there to witness much of it, tells me I was convinced that I was pregnant with the second coming of Jesus Christ via immaculate conception. And that I was adamant about my plan to hitchhike to California in my bikini.
I spent ten days at the state mental hospital as men in white lab coats and sad-faced nurses cured my craziness with pharmaceutical potions.
I never saw Christopher again, but I did hear about his fate.
Two Years Later
Taos, New Mexico – March 2007
At a “Yoga as Muse” retreat, I spent five days practicing a technique that involves integrating specific yoga sequences with self-set writing intentions. At the time, I was working on a novel manuscript. As my “fiction” always tended to be, it was highly semi-autobiographical. One day, I was working with particular intensity on a scene in which my heroine, “Margot” was struggling to salvage her relationship with “Joshua,” a Christian.
After an intense day of writing and reading an excerpt aloud and getting feedback from the group, I went to sleep in my cozy cabin there at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House. At three o’clock in the morning, my phone rang. When I looked at the screen, bleary-eyed, the caller ID told me it was Christopher calling from California. We hadn’t spoken in months.
I answered to discover it was not my ex-boyfriend but rather his fiancé, Alicia. Distraught, she asked me if I’d known anything about Christopher’s involvement with three particular girls from his church community.
“No. Those names don’t ring a bell,” I said. “Why? What’s going on?”
He’d been arrested. One of his brothers had turned him in to the authorities. Evidently, Christopher was a pedophile.
I was stunned. An emotional maelstrom swirled within me—disgust, pity, confusion, repulsion, and serious gratefulness that our relationship had ended as quickly and abruptly as it did.
The next morning, I woke up and wondered if the bizarre conversation had been a lucid dream or a crazy coincidence of writing and reality overlapping.
The next morning, I woke up and wondered if the bizarre conversation had been a lucid dream or a crazy coincidence of writing and reality overlapping.
Turns out, it was true. The self-proclaimed virgin had repressed his natural sexual instincts since adolescence – other than the two months he spent with me – but they’d emerged in detrimental, perverse acts with eight different girls he’d abused over the span of a decade, some of whom he had met while traveling with his gospel-singing brothers.
The next time I went out to visit friends in the Bay Area, Alicia and I met for lunch. We commiserated and chatted.She told me that Christopher had ultimately been convicted of eight counts of inappropriate involvement with a minor and sentenced to fifteen years at San Quentin. She had moved on too and was dating a new boyfriend who wasn’t a convicted felon.
Crazily enough, Christopher led me back to Jesus. Because of him, I reopened to the teachings of Christ, for the first time in my adult life. Yet, because I was unwilling to declare the Christian path to be The One True Path, I was unacceptable. I altered my spirituality because of him; his ridiculous religion remained unchanged.
I have gone from Catholic child to atheistic teen rebel to wannabe Buddhist to Buddhist Christian to agnostic to secular Buddhist.
Now, I avoid labels. I am nothing. I am here, now. I am breathing and trying my best to be kind to myself and everyone else.
Because of this experience, I read a slew of books like John Shelby Spong’s Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism and Bruce Bower’s Stealing Jesus. I found great solace in Thich Nhat Hanh’s beautiful work, Living Buddha, Living Christ. My attitude toward conservative Christians evolved from ignorant to cynical to hateful to judgmental to curious to compassionate to confused to indifferent.
Through this experience I have learned that it doesn’t help to judge the judgers. That Buddha and Jesus can live together in my heart, in perfect harmony.