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Lions Roar : May 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2012 64 language and then when I had a thought I could see it go all the way down again, down onto the same dark ribbon. As the music began we watched the rising smoke ripple into shapes above the speaker. Every drumbeat created a break in the smoke stream and the bass line made circles. Visible sound. We listened to the whole record like this. The doctors left us alone because Ian could get all the ward’s in-patients perfectly still for an hour. Whenever I saw Dr. Walker he winked and asked me how old I was. I saw him doing some computation in his eyes but I had no clue what he thought. My grandmother had told him I’d be coming to visit Ian more regu- larly after school. When the record ended, we switched to the other side of the room and listened to the vocal tracks in the other speaker. John Lennon sang about revolution. The air was thick with smoke. The nurses came in to check on me. Two of Ian’s friends, both named Paul, turned the lights off. There was some shuffling as we moved our chairs over to the right-hand side of the speaker. Another cigarette was lit and placed on the ashtray. “In stereo,” Ian said, “you get it twice. And it doesn’t have to be at the same time. You can separate the sounds. One speaker at a time. One instrument at a time. Listen to the vocals. Study the words. Listen to John Lennon sing one line at a time. What’s he really singing about? He’s singing to you.” When the record ended, Paul and Paul moved some chairs around. Then Ian took out the Bhagavad Gita and we read together, out loud. It was kind of like synagogue. I watched the snow falling outside and wondered why nobody cleaned the win- dows. I listened to the same opening lines I knew almost by heart: Arjuna saw fathers-in-law, companions, In the two armies, And contemplated All his kinsmen, arrayed. The Bhagavad Gita is a seminal text on yogic philosophy and a literary tour de force. It’s about a dialogue between a warrior named Arjuna and his charioteer, Krishna, in the midst of a frat- ricidal war. Over eighteen chapters, Arjuna learns from Krishna how to take action in a war that his family considers just but that his heart cannot commit to. This eternal dilemma—how to navi- gate impossible choices, how to take ethical action in the midst of great violence—is the focus of the dialogue and was also the focus of my endless debates with Uncle Ian. “Why does he have to fight?” I asked. Ian put the book down and lifted his glasses with a finger. “If he doesn’t fight it will be violent.” “But if he fights it will be violent.” “I know, I know,” Ian said, “but Arjuna is standing on the bat- tlefield and he has to do something. So do you.” Standing on the battlefield between two armies, with storm clouds gathering, Arjuna looks out and is terrified by what he “I know. I see it too, Michael. Here, help me with the records.” I pushed two milk-crates of records against the stereo cabinet and lifted out the worn copy of The Beatles’ White Album with the name Ian written on its blank white cover, and a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, which my uncle referred to as “yoga.” Above the stereo were two cartons of cigarettes, a collection of wasted light- ers, a lamp with no bulb, and a book called the Dhammapada. I had no idea who the Buddha was but it didn’t matter; everything my uncle read seemed true. True, not because he told me it was true, but because he wanted me to think about it. “Did you get a new book?” I asked, sounding out the word, dha-ma -pa-da. “It’s used. It’s new but it’s used.” “What is it?” “It’s used, yeah it’s used. But actually it’s really ancient. Really used. But it’s also new. It’s always new.” “What is it?” “It’s the teachings of the Buddha. When we finish the Gita, we’ll read it. Maybe the Buddha is clearer about not being asleep. His basic stance is that if you can let go of what you are holding on to too tightly, things will be a lot more peaceful.” Ian put on the White Album, placed an ashtray on the left- hand speaker, and announced, “This side is the drums and bass.” We angled our blue chairs to face the left speaker. Then he lit a cigarette (there was no incense allowed in the hospital) and bal- anced the cigarette on the rim of the burned plastic ashtray. The trail of smoke rose toward the ceiling lights. Ten or fifteen other patients were sitting in the room with us but I only noticed Ian. It felt like we’d been here since I was born. I felt normal here. I liked watching him. He sat so still listening to records, reading, drinking water. He always wanted to know what I thought and it made me feel like what I thought mattered. When I sat there with him I had enough space to think. Sometimes I could actually see the thoughts themselves lifting off of a giant unrolled banner of