Shambhala Sun | March 2013
Spirit and the Boy
Mother to one, sister to the other—KAREN CONNELLY on three interwoven lives and the call she will always accept.
After I talk to
my youngest brother on the phone, I call my son by his uncle’s name.
It’s natural: they are similar in coloring, in physical grace, in humor.
me, they both have a tinderbox temper. “David!” I snap, and quickly
correct myself, “Timo! Come and have dinner.” “I’m not hungry. Why do we
always have to eat dinner? Every single day!” Usually the boy ignores the mistake, but this time he turns to me with uncommon gravity and pronounces, “And I am Timo, not David.”
brother is thirty-seven and the child is five: worlds apart. Still, the
slip of tongue and mind is not so easy to correct. My brother visited
once and Timo adored him instantly, without question, followed him
around like a puppy for four days, literally getting under his feet
and running off with his shoes, his clothes, and one time his
toothbrush. My brother was in a state of withdrawal then, not allowed to
use any drugs in our house. He was often impatient with his nephew.
Magnanimous one moment and grumpy, even nasty, the next. Yet that didn’t
matter to the child; he recognized a kindred spirit when he met one,
and his pure, insistent love won my brother over easily.
worries me, this irresistible melding of two separate beings, but I see
their similarities and try not to fear them. What we love does have a
tendency to fuse together, to become entangled in the mind and the
There are many moments when my son delivers me directly back
into my childhood, as the older sister of a wild, handsome boy.
I, too, am like my brother, or
he is like me. We have similarly passionate natures, which we love and
with which we struggle. I am all the things that the holy texts of
various faiths warn against being: selfish, quick to anger, lustful,
slothful. It is amazing that I get anything done because I just want to
post Facebook notices, read good books, and have two or three lovers to
suit my various cultural leanings and musical tastes. It sounds like a
joke, but I’m perfectly serious. Despite years of Christian and Buddhist
study, I am never fully convinced that lust and laziness are really all
that bad. Or at least all that bad for me. Other people, of course,
should work hard and be good.
husband and I often discuss this very subject, how I secretly believe I
am exempt from the human race and its wiser conventions.
Unsurprisingly, my husband sometimes confuses my name with Timo’s. This
makes us all laugh. Having a child has made me grow up, mostly, though
I’ve always had good reason to never fully surrender to my appetites. To
do so would be to join the other addicts in my family. Born into a
tribe marked for chemical slavery, I have steered clear of certain
poisons: alcohol, crack, heroin, more alcohol. To grow up with one
parent and several siblings trapped in active addictions was to look
directly into the face of murderous appetite and recognize that my
hunger, unchecked, would eat me alive.
maybe it wasn’t early wisdom that preserved me. I may have just been
lucky, lacking a particular genetic predisposition or raised in more
peaceful years than my siblings. It’s impossible to know.
My brother and I share more
than powerful appetites. Our appreciation for the absurd regularly
saves us from ourselves. I have been luckier in being saved. David has
often fought for his life: both to survive, literally, and to make his
survival more than that, a true life. And, sometimes, he has succeeded.
He is a journeyman carpenter, a gifted sculptor. He is one of the most
charming, funny men I know. And other times, the dark side of his
struggle has landed him in prison for long periods of time.
I’m the one who studied Buddhism for years, often while living in a
Buddhist country, my brother is the more skilled and patient meditator.
Prison is an excellent place to practice. At roughly the same time we
came to Vipassana meditation. both of us already knew too much about
dukkha—pain, stress, anxiety. This led us to appreciate the four noble
truths, especially the first two, in which we have positively excelled:
1. Life is dukkha. 2. Through craving and desire, dukkha arises.
has proven more difficult to get a handle on the third and fourth noble
truths: 3) The way to end dukkha is to relinquish one’s craving and
desire (from the sea-monster deep of my ego: Oh, f--- off! Are you
serious?) and 4) The way to alleviate dukkha is to follow the noble
eightfold path (Do we always have to try to do the right thing? Every single day?!).
years later, my brother and I are still at it, on opposite sides of the
country, breathing in, breathing out, breathing in. And laughing. To
live well in the world as it is, we have both cultivated an ability to
find humor in what would otherwise be heart- breaking and crazy-
making. And we like the ground. literally. We find joy and solace in
the dirt, in things that live in the dirt, among dried leaves and twigs. Trees and plants and flowers. Creatures of various sorts.
son shares these predilections. He is a lithe boy, quick on his legs,
alive to earth and wind and smells in the air, a lover, like his mother,
of spiders, pill bugs, centipedes, lizards, frogs. Sometimes, standing
in the garden, he will lift his head and announce, “It’s going to rain.”
often he is right.
He reminds me, as I’ve said, of my brother. but he also reminds me of a little wolf.
One evening, as the boy is getting
ready for bed— here’s the clean underwear, one leg at a time in the
pajama pants, where is the story he wants to hear again?—he turns to me
with that avid, wide-open expression. He will now ask a large or a small
question involving, on the one hand, the universe, or physics; on the
other, ants, or the location of his first baby tooth (we lost it
somehow, and not to the tooth fairy). It is strange to know someone so
well that I can read his face this way before he speaks. This knowledge
is a form and an act of love. There is also some dread in it. For there
once was a time when I thought that I knew my brother as well as I know
my child, and I was wrong.
happens that the question my son asks me this evening is one of the
large ones. It is, perhaps, at the core of all religious and
philosophical inquiry. Psychologists and psychiatrists would be happy to
weigh in on this subject, but, alas, the only expert this five-year-old
has tonight is his mother, exhausted after a busy day and anxious to
usher him into sleep. but first I must respond to the query, “Do I have a
“Yes, my love, you have a spirit. All people and animals have spirits.”
“It’s in your body. And your mind. And your heart.”
all of me?” He puts his hands on his chest. Then on his bare heels.
“Every part of you.” Already I have given up rushing him. Here is a window into the boy’s private mind. I lean in, gingerly, and look around.
now? Can I feel my spirit right now?”
“Can you? Take a deep breath,
then let your breath out slowly.”
He inhales, exhales noisily. Sticks a
finger up his nose, digs.
“There. Did you feel your spirit?”
articulates a peculiar, small smile. Secretive but joyful. Almost
an adult expression. “I feel it! My spirit!”
“That’s great. I’m glad.”
“But we can’t see it, the spirit?”
“Well, you can see your body, and
your spirit gives your body life.
So, in a way, you can see it.”
“But if it’s also in your mind, it’s
invisible.” In a past existence, did he go to school among rigorous
Jesuits, I wonder?
“That’s true. You’re right. So we can say that the spirit is also invisible. An invisible energy.”
pause spans three or four colossal seconds. Invisible energy whirs
inside him like a dynamo, but his voice comes out surprisingly quiet.
“Can a spirit get broken?”
look into the small, finely sculpted face. Only one scar on his entire
body, and it’s on that beautiful face. His right cheek; he fell. It’s
already faded, though, hard to see unless you know it’s there.
“Sometimes a spirit gets broken when frightening or painful things
happen to a person. And if that person is alone, without anyone to help
them at the right moment.”
theoretical disappears like smoke. Tears stand in my eyes as he gazes
into them, but he doesn’t notice because he is busy following his line
of inquiry. “Do you know how to fix a spirit?” he asks, meaning, If my
spirit got broken, would you be able to repair me?
only way to fix a spirit is with lots of love and kindness. And with
long walks outside, in the fresh air. That’s the way to heal a lot of
makes good sense to him. The evening routine hops back onto its tracks;
the storybook is chosen. I tell him not to wipe snot on his shirt. or
the wall. He laughs, then, and pretends to wipe it on my shirt instead. I
begin to read. Soon, he is asleep, his spirit safe in his small animal body.
But the adult truth is more
complex. After all the appetite, after countries, languages, lovers,
music, after the long, rich, wasteful search for wisdom, at times so
pointed and fierce, at times meandering, undisciplined, and always just
like anyone else’s, perhaps the only question I have ever sought to
answer is the one my son asked that night. What grief it has brought me,
that the only broken spirit I could learn to fix was my own. It has
never seemed like enough.
I sat down one afternoon to meditate upon my brother. or just to
meditate, and allow the thought of him in, at last. He had not been in
contact for over four months. no one knew where he was. He is usually
good at keeping in touch, even when he has fallen off the wagon and
started using again. He was supposed to get out of jail in July, but it
was October and there was only silence.
had begun to consider the possibility that he was dead. I had to begin
preparing. He had been suicidal before going into prison—a state of
despair that he had never experienced before, at least not to my
knowledge. He had phoned me, sobbing, distraught about his latest
descent, which had been a long, hurtful one. I talked to him. He was
going to check himself into the hospital, but we both knew that they
would release him the next day, as soon as he was sober and coherent. I
was over two thousand miles away, but even if I could have gone to him, I
knew that I wouldn’t be able to help. Within a few days he had put a
band-aid on the problem by getting into enough trouble to be sent to
jail. It was the first time in more than a decade that he had been
incarcerated. I had hoped—and he had believed—that that part of his life
was over. For him, returning to prison meant utter failure as a man.
thought that maybe something bad—something worse—had happened in
prison, and that he might have been released and taken himself off,
figured out a way to disappear. It was not his style to do something
like that, but when a person sinks down deep into the shame and muck of
self-loathing, he is no longer himself. Sometimes he cannot pull himself
out of that viscous, poisonous substance. It had already happened to
another sibling of mine, an older sister, decades ago. Suicide can
infect families like a virus, even generations apart. I decided it was
time to stop running away from the thought and, therefore, was feeling
silently, secretly frantic. It was a subject that I discussed with no
not exactly. Just when I was beginning to use the word, in my own mind,
in regard to my brother’s fate, one night my son asked me another large
question. “What is suicide?” He deftly pulled my private fear out of
the thin, spirit-filled air. “How does someone kill themselves?” I
answered the question calmly, honestly; not too much detail, just
much is just enough? I know too well what my son will learn later,
hopefully from a distance, from other people’s lives, from stories and
movies, that the spirit can feel so broken that fixing it seems like an
impossibility, or a pointless labor best abandoned. How do you fix a
I sat down to investigate my brother’s absence by breathing into it for
a while. I am not by nature a superstitious person. At the same time, I
know there are many things I will never understand, or will never
understand completely. And I like that. It keeps me humble and curious
about the world. I sat, I breathed. I am an emergency meditator. I sat, I
breathed. I allowed the possibilities in with the breath. I breathed
them out again. I observed. I did not cry. I just fidgeted. My hip was
sore. Then my knee. old wounds.
the time I stood up to continue my workday, I was fairly certain my
brother was not dead. I say “fairly certain” because it is a mistake, in
these situations, to insist that you are right, that you know. I surely
did not know. but I felt that he was alive, and fine. And that he had
his own reasons for his long silence.
Last week the phone rang. It
was an automated operator with her spiel: “This telephone call is from a
correctional facility. All conversations will be recorded and monitored
and subject to... blah- blah-blah.” It’s weird to be so happy when the
prison rings, but I was already grinning. The dour, disembodied voice
of the operator seemed melodic, truly, as though she were singing a
lovely song a cappella: Will you accept this call?
I wondered: What do I feel right now?
I feel my spirit. And I feel my brother’s spirit.
Yes. Yes, I said, I accept this call. I will always accept this call.
Karen Connelly is the author of the award-winning Burmese Lessons, a 2010 memoir about her experiences in Burma and on the Thai-Burma border. Her first novel, 2005’s The Lizard Cage, was compared in the New York Times Book Review to the works of Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, and Mandela, and hailed in the Globe and Mail as “one of the best modern Canadian novels.” Married with a young son, Connelly divides her time between homes in rural Greece and Toronto.
Illustration by Simone Shin