I am just a former poet from the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas, and here’s my sad story, my first and last brush with high literary society. My head was turned, ultimately to explode one day in late October, by an assistant professor, theretofore obliviously secular, who woke up one day eager to find his Jewish roots. In my neck of the woods, we call any switcheroo like that, finding Jesus. If you finally decide you need a divorce, finding Jesus. If you are an alcoholic, and decide suddenly to go to rehab, finding Jesus. If you go to your job with no plans in mind one morning and quit your job that afternoon, finding Jesus. (If you are sarcastic, it’s called finding Jebus, not to be confused with the pre-Israelite, namely Canaanite city aka Jerusalem before its conquest by the Israelites under King David. No, just no.)
I was a lowly instructor who taught mostly comp at an elite university in New Orleans, Louisiana, and who, one unprecedented semester, was bestowed with a freshman creative writing class because of some lucky fluke of getting five of my poems in the American Poetry Review, the DeLorean of poetry journals. I also caught this assistant prof tenure track poet’s four eyes, an amazing phenomenon, when you consider, according to rumor, his usual fare was young female students, and I, a forty-year-old ABD, perpetually on a diet. For years, it was Atkins. Then, it became Keto.
Who could blame me for accepting a (not-quite-all) expense paid trip to visit the Dalai Lama? (Well, looking back, me for one.) So, Leo had been an atheist when we first hooked up, one of my criteria for a lover, reared as I was, constantly warmed since the age of reason by the fundy fires of hell. He was issued an invitation by a close friend, from Brandeis, along with several other Buddhist-type Jews, to visit the Dalai Lama, and compare and be astounded once more, by the parallel mysticism of the Kabbalah and the Middle Way. It was to be a redux of an original 1989 gathering when the Dalai Lama had been particularly interested in learning how the Jews had survived exile. Emotional exile, by which he meant, I later learned, how they retained their traditions. I knew how. Food.
Leo was thrilled, but just for the record, he decided to embrace his Jewish-Kabbalah roots on the way to Buddhism long before his Bass Weejuns ever came near Kangra Valley. I was under the impression that real Jews frown on the Kabbalah, which theoretically you weren’t allowed to study unless you were married and over forty and expert at the Torah. But no. Bottom lines, Jubu is an oxymoron; all religions are different paths to the same God is a shibboleth.
I had wanted to think Leo fell in love with me a little on the strength of my poetry as I stupidly had with poets and writers throughout college, a few of them even dead ones. I’d had enough published in little journals to not be completely unknown locally, and I had given a few poetry readings in mostly coffee shops around the city, though looking back, before we became a short-lived item, I don’t really recall his ever being at one. He was at the workshop with a famous poet, however, who had flirted with me before the opening strains, his words not sinking in until I saw his face flash a tad livid. I had been busy silently going over my poem, in case I was called upon, so his flirty comment, something having to do with blondes and green eyes, fell upon my deaf ears at first, looking for all the world like a rebuff. Also, I had recently begun to use a nom de plume since the subject matter of all my poetry had coalesced to the theme of three generations of addiction. (My mother was, not infrequently, or so she said, suicidal.) Sometimes when my pen name was called out, it took me a few seconds to remember it, and I had gained the reputation of being a bit slow.
But call upon me he did and stopped me after the first line with which he took fierce issue. He said he could tell the poem was inferior just because of the first line, and true it was a sticking- your-neck-out kind of first line, which I had shamelessly imitated from a poem by a famous poet, Adelaide Crapsey, virtuoso of the cinquain. I did not make that name up. Her first line was “Listen…” Mine was “Perturbing…” What I most despised him for was that I could see his point. Especially when he read the line several times in different funny voices—sotto voce, baby doll, Svetlana... and a surprisingly good Sponge Bob. Finally, he let me begin to read the rest of the poem, but he kept interrupting me with criticisms. And Leo kept telling him, background music to his rant, to wait, wait, let her read the rest of the poem. Leo had already read the whole poem and saw its validity. Famous Poet was going at it cold. Ever notice how a poem does not make sense, but read out loud by the poet, it becomes layered with meaning? So, Famous Poet stopped me, about line four, when he began to sense it was not amateur hour, and called on some normal older non professor of a woman to read it, someone from the community, who began my dark and wry poem, my poem, in this pleasant, reasonable, Fireside Poet, menopausy voice. It was ruined. And when she finished, Famous Poet proceeded to summarize his trashing.
Later, I did change the first line by merging it with the second. It was that simple. But at the time of the Jubu pilgrimage it was still unpublished. I am hoping for posthumous.
So, that’s when Leo and I hit it off, after the workshop, at Camellia’s, over a late lunch. We both loved Camellia’s shrimp omelets. Leo’s roots had not yet kicked in.
At this university, which shall remain nameless, one climbed into the elite group of writers by one’s worthy presses. This private university was and is so solvent, it hired by prestigious degrees, then gave the lucky schmucks (see? it rubs off) a reduced course load to write, after which they had a certain number of years to get published by, say, Houghton Mifflin, or Crown, or Little Brown and Co. Instructors like me had a snowball’s chance of climbing into that crowd with our normal donkey load of freshman comps. I’ll never hit five poems in the APR again. It came at a time when I had a little freedom, some capital, and enough faith in famous writers to make me want to attend prestigious workshops. And if need be, I was content with second and even third string. Someone had to do it. Potential first-string candidate Leo was nearing the end of his hallowed time of freedom to write, yet unpunished for nonpublication, and was beginning to be nervous.
“I’m thirty-five,” he said at least three times a week. Other darlings of the department in the last few years had been dropping like New Orleans mosquitos after an overachieving street sprayer. As I said, he was nervous.
“Get up early tomorrow and write,” I said. “Have you finished that proposal for LSU press?” What had set him off this time was his brother, who was living in Paris making a decent living with photography, had desultorily sent in his first draft of a short story to the Southern Review, and promptly, so to speak—prompt for a journal—(actually Mark had forgotten about it) had it accepted. It was about two little American boys, brothers, who were lost from their parents on a shopping trip, wandered around the Champs Elysees, walked to Luxembourg Garden’s carousel and ended up at Jim Morrison’s grave. I could tell Mark’s acceptance rankled him. Still, one short story doth not a tenured professor make.
“Did that happen? Are the boys you and Mark?”
“Yes, it is, and I could have written that,” he said, in an Eli Eli tone. “Jesus H. Christ.” We hadn’t turned the lights on that evening and some stray flash from the street made the lenses on his little round Nietzsche type specs that I so loved glimmer in a way that made him look especially… nihilist.
“Anyone could write in Paris. A Jew in Paris, Marais no less, loaded with historic buildings, museums, cafes, restaurants and high-end shops. The heart of where every writer would give his left nut to be. But know what else? Where there once was a community of Jews wiped out in the Holocaust. I have no ambience. No history. No metaphor. No culture. That is my problem.”
I got up out of bed and walked to the window and opened it. I was tired of catering to my allergies. The pollen with their divining male gametes puffed in with gusto, and I immediately regretted it, but only for a second. On the street a young couple both with half shaved heads and in motorcycle boots, and the light bathed them in a mystical stream of photons, so that their lust-heavy and inferior faces were transformed. It is times like these I did not mind my dead-end academic status, and only cared that I was in the Big Easy, the Birthplace of Jazz, the Crescent City, the City That Care Forgot. New Orleans was Paris to me. I was originally from a town called Toad Suck, Arkansas, known as the town with the Most Unfortunate Name. I did not make that up.
“My first wife has been invited, too,” he said. “I found out today that she has accepted Larry’s invitation. We were all friends at Brandeis. She’s cool. Don’t worry. And I hear she is remarried.”
“How many wives have you had?” I said. I had heard her mention before. Iris. I had heard the reason for their split. Too Jewish.
“Just the one,” he said. “You don’t mind, do you? There are ten of us and spouses and interpreters and guides. I doubt you’ll end up spending much time around her. Don’t worry about it. She and her new husband are both going.”
“Why should I mind,” I said. And really, I didn’t. I was flying to India, and though I didn’t give a whit about the Dalai Lama, the tour included stop overs, New York City to get everyone assembled; then two days in London to visit Ben Uri, the only museum in all of Europe to focus specifically on Jewish art; and Delhi aiming us for the final leg. Coming from Toad Suck? Exotica.
The 1989 sojourn to visit the Dalai Lama by eight other famous scholars brought into the public eye the phenomenon known by the cutesy portmanteau term, Jubus, Jewish Buddhists. Hello? Alan Watts was wayyy ahead of them. These famous scholars had found parallels to Buddhism in Judaism and had instructed the Dalai Lama in the Kabbalah and he in Buddhism to them. In one week. It seems their common ground was exile. And suffering. The whole Californian Jubu concept was a joke in my cynical mind. Of course, this was nothing I shared with Leo. Seems as though a goodly number of Jews had become disenchanted with their religion—maybe something about the blood loving, blood-line obsessed G_d who could make Jews so nervous they left out the “o” in “his” name? Maybe because a half a day’s research in archeology and biblical history would have squashed that total belief system. Moses, et al. was simply myth as any literate scholar knows now. PEW says almost half of practicing Jews are atheists anyway. Get your mind wrapped around that one. An atheist Jew who believes his folks were chosen? And promised land? Ok, Buddhists were supposedly selfless; Jews, by Leo’s own admission, well, self-obsessed. And ironically, the fact that they were “chosen” sat surprisingly well with Pentecostalism, so Leo and his sudden new interest in his roots made me even more nervous. If you examine both sects closely, they could be thick as thieves if they ever let their hair down. The thing that struck me at that time was, that a Buddhist would never say, “I am a Buddhist,” let alone “I am a Jubu.” Naming a permanent self was a conceptual fiction in the first place. Even I could see that. On the other hand, we were dealing with Red Hat Buddhism, Dalai Lama led, and his penchant, by his own admission, for talking out of both sides of his mouth. There were other older branches more, well, Buddhist, that apparently didn’t interest the Jubu. Theravada, for example, with its cheery emphasis on extinction. (As I later learned, that was wrong too.) I think it is Jubus’ complete certainty of their chosen path that is especially irksome. No living human knew what the right path is. No living human knew if there is a right path. Only the dead know. Or not.
I should mention my deprogramming. By the time I graduated kindergarten I had repented thousands of times and was baptized at five. My childhood was a steady diet of fear sprinkled with the blood of Christ. We were the type fundies who believed in the Rapture. Thinking and worrying about the Rapture took up more of my time than algebra. More than once I came home from school to an empty house and the dawning feeling that my parents had been raptured up to heaven and I was left behind. I knew I’d have to hide from the Anti-Christ lest he find me and smack my forehead with the mark of the beast for later pick up to be thrown into the lake of fire. But then my parents would drag in late and I’d crawl out from under the bed where I’d curled into a ball, and feel safe again, never mentioning a word. At thirteen I had a petite revelation at church camp I owed to a youth pastor, a one Brother Jason Paridiso, who I’d heard traded chicken nuggets for finger fucks with the little girls. One afternoon, on the way to swim, he chased me into the bathroom, whereupon, to the tune of his banging on the door I’d narrowly locked, I realized something was amiss. (I didn’t exactly what yet.) Thus appeared the first crack of light in my brainwashed skull. By the time I graduated from high school both my parents had lost their affinity for bible banging, mostly thanks to a safe and pleasant YK2, my father openly nursing grudges and buying Diamond Bear Beer, and my mother in a Prozac haze attending only once a month, like a menstrual period. I was the one stuck with the PTSD. When I first arrived at college, at 18, I nourished my incipient agnosticism with every atheist’s book I could find gleaming on the University of Arkansas’ library shelf. I embraced Paul Dirac of the God does not exist and Paul Dirac is his prophet fame, and I added to his brilliance the affable Sean Carroll, the fun-loving Richard Feynman, the avuncular Noam Chomsky, the love of my life, Sam Harris, to name a few, and did so until my sleep was dreamless and my waking hours were free of crazy.
No one in my present circle knew that my mother told me not to bother to learn how to drive because I would probably not live that long, or that hours of church and bible school and camp had at one time turned me into an prepuberty Bible authority, (and made me talk like an idiot), and especially that I’d spent a whole childhood seriously listening for The Trumpet.
I sincerely believed, back them, that Jesus died on the cross so that we would know to help the elderly cross the street. I believed the only ones in hell were those who by choice refused to believe in Jesus’s magic tricks. I believed that Jesus went to hell for three days, that famous long weekend, and Judas went to hell for eternity, an infinite punishment for a finite sin. (Looking back, I saw we were mostly “saved” by gullibility, God’s real criteria for salvation.)
So, my goodness, what I knew of the Dalai Lama, thereafter in this document known as DL, made me know he and his ilk smacked of the same kind of tribalism. Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism. It was all the same to me.
I didn’t tell Leo, because I knew I’d get on my soapbox and burst his bubble, but I saw DL once in person. He was at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. The title of his talk was “Turning Swords into Ploughshares.” I remember him well. He was full of bromides, trite enough to be put on bumper stickers, surrounded by sycophants because he was “The” Dalai Lama. He wore saffron robes and handed out white scarves. He also spoke in broken English, despite having written a number of polished books. Ghost writer, much? Without all those trappings, and if all these sycophants had met him living in poverty on the street, they would have probably kicked his ass out of their way. To be sure serfs existed in Tibet during Buddhist theocracy and slaves in monasteries were property and did not have any individual freedoms. That was from whence he sprung, a randomly chosen baby, all grown up. Most importantly, he travelled ironically surrounded by plainclothes Secret Service men who gave him head-of-state protection. And half those monks, if you peaked under their robes, would be packing.
He also admitted, finally, he was aware of the sexual abuses by monks to students, and women, since 1990, but “it was nothing new.” The Pope and he have much in common.
I operated under a profound mistrust of all organized groups. I had eliminated all major religions of the world by studying them diligently before relegating them to the trash. My BA to MA to PhD took 18 years because of an inordinate number of electives. And, I’ll admit it, I was for many years, in deep therapy for PTSD. My Jungian therapist had a decidedly Jewish name, was an atheist, and he sprinkled his pronouncements with Yiddish but was totally a practical individual. And even he had spent a few years in a monastery before disenchantment. Albert Goldstein. His pet name bestowed on him by a long-ago client was Dr. Ally. I miss him.
“What is Iris like,” I said.
“She’s a JAP,” he said. And unnecessarily, “Jewish American Princess.”
“I know that,” I said, annoyed. “I’ve read Phillip Roth.” Not that Roth actually used that term. But surely Brenda was the first literary JAP.
Dorie LaRue is the author of two novels, Resurrecting Virgil, from Backwaters Imprint of the University of Nebraska Press and The Trouble With Student Affairs from Artemis Press; three chapbooks of poetry, Seeking the Monsters from New Spirit Press, The Private Frenzy, from Jazzbones Press, In God’s Due Time from Parousias Press; a full length collection of poetry, Mad Rains from Kelsay Press; and a full length collection of poems, An Enemy in Their Mouths, from Finishing Line Press. She received second place for Only Visiting This Planet, a short story collection, in the West Virginia Writing Awards for 2019. She lives in Shreveport, Louisiana, and teaches writing and literature at LSUS. Dorie recommends Redbone Press.