by Barry Graham

More than two decades ago on New Year’s Eve, my friend Bett and I had dinner with two friends who were older than us, and who intended to make an early night of it. Bett and I had other intentions — we were going to the big party at the Santa Fe Railyard. But that was still hours away, so we headed into town in search of mischief.

We stopped briefly at a restaurant where Bett’s girlfriend was having dinner with some of her friends. As we talked with them I ordered an appetiser, even though I had just eaten dinner.

As we left the restaurant, Bett said many of the town’s art galleries were open, and were serving free drinks. We agreed alcoholic freeloading would be a fine way to pass the time before the party, and off we went.

It turned out some of the galleries offered free food as well as booze. I partook mightily of both, even though I’d just eaten dinner followed by an appetiser.

As I chomped on some buffalo wings, I saw Bett looking at me.

“You can’t turn down food, even when you’re not hungry, can you?” she said.

“You’re right,” I said. Without my explaining why, she knew and understood.

There were many times when the only way I could eat was to steal food. I was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1966, in the Maryhill district, which was a Third World hidden within the first. For most of my childhood, hot water on tap was a fantasy, having a toilet in your home was a luxury, and food of any quality was seldom available. One of the most painful moments of my life, a moment of pure grief, pure loss, was caused not by the death of a person but by being deprived of a meal.

I was in my early teens, and I had just been handed a plate of chicken. This was a rarity. My diet was almost exclusively one of fried processed meat — usually cheap sausages — potatoes, eggs and white bread. Chicken was an expensive luxury, so I was excited.

Before I could eat any of it, a woman whose role was nominally that of parent came into the room. She was drunk at noon, and she didn’t like me. She said something unpleasant to me, I responded in kind, and she knocked the plate of food out of my hands. As she stomped the chicken into the dirty carpet, the hopelessness I felt was so huge that there was room inside me for nothing else.

That woman is dead now, but, forty years later, I can still see the look of dumb malice on her drunken face. In the years to come, I was to mourn the loss of that meal more times than I could keep count of.

There were other times, times of inadequate food or no food at all. And, when these times were over, I still lived in fear of their return. I could never bring myself to pass up a chance to eat. I still felt I had to take it whenever and wherever I could get it, because if I ever had to go hungry again I didn’t want to have to remember the times when I could have eaten but chose not to.

Whatever we think our life’s purpose is, each living day centers around one thing: obtaining what we call food and taking it into our bodies, then doing it again soon after, and then again. Many of us can do so without thought of its terrible, urgent importance.

My friend Charles Bowden is now dead as well, but when he was alive he knew what was most important. In a book called Blues for Cannibals, he wrote: “Before there was a language of words on paper, there must have been a language of food. Speech begins with the fire and the kettle. I am sure of this.”

I’m sure of it too. Chuck Bowden loved to cook, but he didn’t eat excessively, and, though tall and broad, had a lean build. I also love to cook, and I am also lean, and to look at me you might assume I am also moderate in my eating habits. That assumption was made by a friend who invited me, along with some other friends, to his house to eat the racks of ribs he was grilling. He had invited four of us, but only two of us were able to come. “Oh, well,” the host said to me, the first to arrive, “I guess you’ll be carting off plenty of leftovers.”

He was wrong. As the three of us sat at the dining table, my two friends — both large men — ate their share and then stopped. I ate my share, and then ate the racks that had been intended for our absent friends.

My companions stared at me in awe. “You could go in for competitive eating contests,” one of them said.

When I left, there was a single uneaten rack of ribs, and some beans. My host put the food in Tupperware and I took it with me. When I got home, I ate it before going to bed, enjoyed it, and fell asleep contentedly. The next day, my friend who’d cooked it asked jokingly about any ill effects involving a toilet, and seemed surprised when I told him I felt fine.

As a result, I think, of a long practice of Zen meditation, and no lack of food, my constant hunger has lessened from a compulsion to an eccentricity or quirk, but it refuses to be killed by sustenance or logic, and still preoccupies me. I read a crime novel in which the protagonist, waiting for a friend in a small restaurant, orders two hot dogs, one for him and one for his friend. He then realises that his friend is being attacked nearby, and goes outside to help her. Mayhem ensues, after which he returns to the restaurant with his friend in tow, and they find their food waiting for them on the counter. Shaken by the violence they have just experienced, they don’t feel like eating, so they just have drinks instead.

Even though they’re in physical danger, and the protagonist’s life is crumbling around him, all I could think of was the wasted food, those two hot dogs going cold and uneaten.

#hunger #foodpoverty #memoir #personalessay #barrygrahamauthor #charlesbowdenauthor #maryhill #glasgow #scotland


Barry Graham Author Website

Profile at Scottish Book Trust

by Dogo Barry Graham

This morning, I sat in half-lotus position in front of my altar. As usual, I was wearing Japanese monastic attire, and had a Buddhist rosary wound around my left wrist. I looked at the statue of Bodhidharma, founder of Zen, and at the photograph of my late teacher. The bell rang, beginning my meditation. I’ve heard it ring thousands of times in the two decades that I’ve been a Zen Buddhist monk. As usual, I bowed, then sat with a clear mind. I was no longer alone.

More than thirty years ago, a different bell rang, but it had a similarly profound impact on my life.

I was seventeen, and I had gone to a boxing gym for the first time. I didn’t talk to anyone in the changing room as I got ready, or when the training began. I jumped rope. I punched the heavy bag. I did floor exercises. Then the coach called out, “Get gloved up, boys.” It was time for sparring.

There was a cupboard that contained a dozen pairs of sparring gloves, with heavier padding than the gloves used in competition. Along with the other young men, I went to the cupboard, got a pair, and clumsily put them on.

I was staring at the untied laces, and considering pulling off both gloves and fleeing the gym, when a boxer standing nearby, whose hands were still bare, casually took me by the arm and laced me up. As the coach called me to the ring to spar, there were tears in my eyes. He thought I was nervous about getting hit. I wasn’t at all.

At the time, I was so alienated that I had no idea people helped each other. I had never received, or given, any kindness. The only social currencies I had any experience of were violence and coercion. I had been raped and beaten and I had gone hungry and, except for when I had been used, or been told that I was worthless and stupid, I had been ignored. That a person I didn’t know would help me put on a boxing glove, for no other reason than that I was a fellow boxer who needed help, was overwhelming to me. As my spar-mate and I squared off, I had never felt less violent.

That night, I left the gym by myself, but, for the first time ever, I wasn’t alone. The laughter, the camaraderie, the sense of community, came with me. I returned the next training night, and every other one. I didn’t learn how to fight in that gym. I had been fighting for a long time, and the training only sharpened my skills. I learned about friendship. In a place of intense, focused violence, I learned about compassion.

It wasn’t long until the coach scheduled my first fight. My opponent glowered at me as we touched gloves in another ring, in the center of a smoky little nightclub. I felt nothing toward him, no hostility, no antagonism. I went back to my corner. My coach put in my gumshield, and the bell rang.

I was five-eleven, and weighed 118 pounds, a pale stick made of muscle and bone. My opponent was several inches shorter, much wider, and this was not his first fight. As I climbed into the ring and my coach removed my robe, I said a nervous prayer that neither I nor my opponent would be seriously injured. As I looked at the spectators, I was aware of two things: That most of those watching expected my opponent to beat me easily and quickly, and that I didn’t care what any of them thought. It wasn’t about them, or about my opponent, or about me. It was about the fight.

The guy was much stronger than me. After two minutes, when the first round ended, I had a welt under my left eye. As I sat on the stool, my coach told me that I had lost the round. I knew, and I didn’t care.

As the second round began, some of the spectators yelled for my opponent to finish it, walk through me, knock me out. A few others yelled encouragement to me.

My opponent became angry when I smiled at him as we circled each other. I didn’t care how he felt. I slipped his jab and countered with one of my own, then did it again, and then again. As he tried to force me to back up, I hooked off the jab, hard, and he walked into it. I saw the shock on his face as he tried to keep his legs under him.

I had never felt so peaceful, because there was no sense of “I.” Only “this,” the thing I was doing in that moment.

After the fight, which I won by a points decision, my coach told me how happy he was for me. I ate a chicken leg and drank a can of soda, and my coach gave me a ride home. A few blocks from where I lived, I asked him to let me out because I wanted to walk the rest of the way. We shook hands, and I got out of his car, and he saluted as he drove off.

It was cold, and I saw nobody else on the street except a cop. I felt a happiness, without passion, that I had never known before. I did not expect to be able to fall asleep easily, but I was wrong. I slept well, and woke early.

It was a taste of the peace I would later find through Zen. “If you practice here you’re responsible for yourself,” the elderly priest, whose hands shook with Parkinson’s, told me on my first visit to the Zen centre he ran. “You’ll never be any better than you are now. Anything you have to deal with now, you’ll have to deal with for the rest of your life.”

“So why should I bother with Zen?”

“I don’t know. I never said you should. You came here.”

When I look at these words, they seem harsh, uncaring. They were anything but. Hearing them, I felt an almost overwhelming sense of relief. I knew I was being levelled with. I wasn’t being lied to, and so, even though I couldn’t understand why anyone would practice Zen if it wasn’t going to “help” them, I trusted it and I trusted the priest. When the other two participants that evening showed up, I joined in the service. We sat on cushions, chanted in Japanese, and then spent two half-hour periods in silent, objectless meditation called zazen, broken up by ten minutes of walking meditation, clockwise around the room, called kinhin.

When the priest told me just to sit still, I asked him what to do with my mind. He told me I didn’t have to do anything with it, but to just observe it, be present, and, whenever I realized that I wasn’t, to just to come back to where I was.

I thought it was the stupidest, most pointless thing ever – and I knew it was going to save my life. I don’t know how I knew, but I had never felt so certain. And I was right. My sad fury, which I had feared would eventually lead me to prison or the morgue, did not diminish with practice – but it lost all power over me. I would come to relate to my anger in the same way that I related to the anger of other people – as something I was aware of, but that was irrelevant to me.

A couple years later, I took the vows of a Zen monk, a commitment to serve all sentient beings, to save them from suffering, understanding that this includes myself, but without concern for personal salvation. My sangha, or Buddhist group, is not affiliated with any mainstream Zen schools, but, for me, being a monk isn’t about jumping through institutional hoops — it’s about living by my vow. I vowed to meet life as it is, rather than attaching to my preferences about how it should be, to meet myself and others as we are, rather than attaching to my preferences about how we should be. The essence of the vows are contained in the words that I chant every day, at the end of my meditation:

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them. Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them. The Dharmas are boundless; I vow to master them. The Buddha Way is unsurpassable; I vow to attain it.

What I had experienced in boxing is what Zen Buddhists call single-pointed attention, a state of such presence with the activity of the moment, with the moment as it is, that there is no room for ego, for any consideration of self. It’s a peace and freedom that can only be found in compassionate detachment. When I had reached this state through boxing, I’d left it behind as soon as I stepped out of the ring. It was the same with zazen for a while. But, so gradually that I didn’t notice, what I found meditating started to come with me when I stood up and left. And, after a while, I stopped finding it on the cushion but instead brought it there with me, hands palm-to-palm, meeting the moment, sitting present with all creation, and all destruction, each time the bell rang.

#zen #buddhism #memoir #personalessay #boxing #compassion #friendship #poverty #loneliness #barrygrahamauthor #dogobarrygraham


Barry Graham Author Website

Profile at Scottish Book Trust

by Barry Graham

It was the summer of 2004. I was living in East Tennessee, in a house on the edge of woods, at the halfway point on a mile between a mental hospital and a sewage plant.

Someone knocked on my door, and I knew it had to be trouble. I wasn’t expecting anyone, it was after midnight, and not many people knew where I lived.

The knocking on the front door was insistent, though not loud. A burst of urgent knocking, then a pause, then another burst. I went to the door, in the shorts and T-shirt I slept in, and looked through the glass. The security light was on, but at first I didn’t see anyone.

Then I saw the woman who was standing about halfway down the porch steps, crying, her body trembling.

I opened the door.

“Will you help me?” she said.

“Yeah, of course. What’s wrong?”

She cried harder as she said, “A man was giving me a ride, but he raped me.”

“Come in,” I said, and she did. “Sit down. You’re safe here.” She sat on a chair, and I went to the kitchen, poured a glass of water, and brought it to her. She was barefoot, and had a missing front tooth. I realized that she was probably still in her thirties, but she looked much older.

I went and woke Anni, whom I lived with. We asked the woman, who said her name was Wendy, what she wanted us to do.

She said she didn’t want to call the cops. She wanted to call her sister. Anni handed her a phone, but her hands were shaking so badly she couldn’t dial the number on the first attempt, and then when she did get through she was too upset to talk. She gave the phone to Anni, who explained what had happened, but the sister said she didn’t have a car and couldn’t come and help.

Wendy told us she’d asked a guy she didn’t know to give her a ride to her sister’s house in Georgia, but that he’d brought her to this dark corner of nowhere instead, raped her in the woods, taken her shoes, and told her that if he saw her on the road he would run her over. She said she had walked out of the woods and found our house.

I offered to drive her to a hospital, and she said she wanted to go to Rossville Boulevard, Chattanooga, where she’d left her car, where a friend was waiting for her in the car. She didn’t explain why she’d taken a ride from a stranger and left her friend in her car, and I didn’t ask because I wouldn’t have believed the answer.

I didn’t know what had happened to her, how much of her story was true. All that was certain was that something had happened to her, and that she was miles from anywhere, in the middle of the night, terrified, in bare feet.

She said she didn’t want to go to the hospital right away, because the friend who was waiting in the car would be worried. “I can go after I see her,” she said. Anni asked if the friend had a cell phone. “No.”

Rossville Boulevard is a miserable drag where people sell sex, sell their blood plasma, for enough money to buy cheap drugs and cheap booze.

It was where she wanted to go, and so we took her there, in my pickup truck, with me driving, Anni sitting in the middle, and Wendy squeezed against the passenger side door, wearing a pair of flip-flops Anni had given her. (How she had walked barefoot in these seething, insect-ridden woods is more than I want to imagine.) As I drove, nobody spoke, except to ask for directions and if the air-conditioning wasn’t too cold.

As I exited the freeway onto Rossville, she told me to make a right and pull into a gas station. I did, and she pointed to a red car parked at the side of the building. “Over there. That’s my car.”

There was nobody in the car.

“Do you want us to wait here with you until your friend shows up?” Anni said.

“No, that’s okay.” Wendy got out of the truck. With nothing else to be done or said, we told her to take care. As we pulled out of the gas station, I looked back and saw that she’d walked right past the car that was supposedly hers, and was approaching another car parked nearby.

#memoir #nonfiction #poverty #rape #addiction #barrygrahamauthor


Barry Graham Author Website

Profile at Scottish Book Trust