My Cousin’s Altar
Sharon Ento MacClelland
Out of the clouds and emerging from time and conditions there exists a place of peaceful dwelling. The place in the mountains that my cousin calls home wasn’t always serene; it had evolved through turbulent times and conditions.
Our lives together began in a land faraway. The doctors told my Mom that my chronic asthma and eczema began because my father had left us when I was six months old. For the next 18 years my life and my cousins’ lives were entwined and filled with the kind of ugliness that only confusion and misdirection can bring about--our parents were alcoholics to the extreme. My uncle took his anger out on his kids by beating them and my mom simply chose not to be around. The four of us—my three cousins and I--bonded as only people can who go through tears and fears together.
My cousin Tom and I were the oldest, and from the first we wanted to be the caped crusaders who would save his two sisters Deb and Mish from misery. Many years and many unmade and unanswered phone calls later, I hear from my ex that Zack, Mish’s son, has passed away.
She and I had not spoken since her father’s death nine years earlier. Our lack of communication was due regrettably to our mutual misconceptions of each other. My biggest fear during those nine years was that she would die and I would not be able to say goodbye. Not knowing if she would even talk to me, I called and asked if I could come see her. She said yes, and I made my first trip to a place of reconciliation and serenity called Bodfish, California.
It was a long three-hour drive not because of the beautiful landscape but because of the heavy weight of my sadness. Before I left Los Angeles I packed every physical thing I could think of to set up a Buddhist altar, hoping the only thing I had to offer would be accepted.
We embraced, and her tiny, tearful little body shook in my arms. The terrible story of lives gone wrong unfolded. Her son had inherited this beautiful property perched above Lake Isabella from his father, who had died in a suicide pact that claimed both his life and the life of Zack’s half-brother. After inheriting the property--and a year before his death--Zack accidently shot himself in the head, but survived. It seemed that Zack had managed to survive his battle with depression. He had spent a year healing, and just a couple of weeks before he died had regained faith in life and had said to Mish, “I’m back,” meaning that he could go on.
But one horrible night a so-called friend offered him a narcotic patch for his pain. Three days later his eldest son (Mish's grandson) pulled the plug after saying goodbye to his unconscious father.
Mish has always been my inspiration for her ability to go down into scary places, but this one was beyond her. I have now been practicing zazen for 15 years, and the only words I could give her were words that my teacher gave me and his teacher gave him: “You have to sit through the fire”.
So we set up an altar with Zack ashes, a Buddha, an image of Mahakala, incense and bells. Her first reaction was, “I can’t sit in front of this! I’m not pure enough, and I have horrible thoughts!”
I said to her, “This is exactly where you need to sit,” and I gave her basic zazen instructions.
We have to be open to the space that we’re in, but unfortunately most of us don’t start to wake up until we find ourselves in places of horror or despair.
Depression is a horrible addiction. If you don’t follow those dark thoughts, you have all the time in the world to make every place you stand a place of comfort and peace, even if it’s a place where you grieve.
I am ever so grateful to my teacher and his teacher and so on and so on for passing on a space you can put in a bag and take with you into hell.
Zach’s dream had been to make this piece of land a place that others could come to and feel peace. Mish knows the deep sadness of losing a son will never go away, but what we can do for ourselves and those we love is to wake up to the fact that we enable the voices in our own heads. We have to wake up; if we give the voices free rein they will kill us.
Through this most wonderful practice we learn to wake up to the moment we find ourselves in. Sometimes this moment is lighting a stick of incense, sometimes it’s taking your dog for a walk. But wherever you find yourself, that is what you take care of.
Mish now often sits zazen with her two dogs--their breath calms and deepens as hers does. Zack’s ashes sit on an altar that is constantly changing, and each change happens when something new and wonderful is added. Each stick of incense that Mish lights is itself the healing ceremony of practice. Mish not only accepted but embraced what I brought. Every time I light incense at my cousin’s altar I am humbled by the merits of this practice and eternally grateful to my teacher.
Hallelujah I’m a Buddhist!