A Spiritual Crash
An angry, bummed-out, drug-loving writer sees the light
by Crash Barry
Friday, January 25, 2013
“This isn’t working,” my wife Sweetgrass says. “We both know it.”
“Please, just bear with me,” I say, like every other time this comes up. “Hang in there until the friggin’ book is done, and then…”
She stares at me and shakes her head. “I still love you. You know that, right?” She takes a deep breath. “But I’ve decided to take a house-sitting job. In Freeport. For at least two months. I’ll come back here a couple days each week. You can focus on finishing the book, and I’ve got some classes and workshops I want to take, and…” Her voice trails off as my tears start to flow.
“Everything happens for a reason,” she says, wrapping her arms around me. “I really believe that.”
Saturday, January 26
“Here’s a couple things you might want to read,” Sweetgrass says, getting ready to leave. She places two books on the kitchen table. I glance at the titles: Awakening in Time, by Jacquelyn Small, and A Return To Love, by Marianne Williamson. She’s suggested I read these before, but I don’t have time for New Age self-help literature. Too busy not getting the friggin’ book done.
“In A Return To Love, she mentions God a lot,” Sweetgrass says, smiling. “Maybe you could just substitute the word ‘universe’ every time she does?”
“Yeah,” I say, grimacing. As a devoted agnostic, haunted by a Roman Catholic upbringing, I have zero interest in religiosity. “We’ll see.”
“I’ll be back in a week,” she says. “And we’ll talk on the phone tomorrow. OK?”
“Yeah. All right.”
She kisses and hugs me, then walks out the door.
She’s leaving for good, I think. This is just phase one. She doesn’t want to be married to me anymore. She doesn’t want to live in the woods anymore. Eastern Oxford County is too isolated, she says, too far from culture and her friends. And for the past year, I’ve been tough to live with.
I need to be in the woods because I’m a miserable son-of-a-bitch. The last couple years have been difficult. My dad got sick and died. And I contracted Lyme Disease, which made chores I used to enjoy – like cutting wood, butchering chickens and slopping the pigs — difficult. The disease exhausted me and sapped the fun out of homesteading.
Almost equally debilitating has been the deal I made with a devil who gave me access to the inner workings of the state’s cannabis subculture, the basis for my forthcoming book, Marijuana Valley, Maine. Once I really got to know the fella and witnessed his poor treatment of others, I started to hate the dude. Unfortunately, I’m stuck, because we signed a contract, and the stress of dealing with this bastard while simultaneously trying to write about him is taking a toll.
Sweetgrass encourages me to be grateful for my good fortune, but I can’t. Depression lingers overhead like a dark cloud. I blame it for the band of tightness I feel around my skull. I can’t appreciate anything: not my beautiful, multi-talented and kind wife; not the perfect piece of land we live on; not the comments from readers who tell me they dig my stories about the seamy side of Maine. Nothing brings joy or erases the sorrow or removes the guilt. Nothing banishes the fear and the anger. No wonder Sweetgrass is tired of me.
About a dozen years ago, a kindly doctor diagnosed me as depressive — the standard ailment of male American writers. She prescribed Prozac, which I abandoned after a month because of the odd side effects and the bleak clarity the doses brought me. The only things that provide even a modicum of relief are red wine and bourbon, imbibed in conjunction with copious amounts of marijuana while listening to MP3s of old-time radio theater, preferably mysteries or science fiction. But lately even those pals aren’t helping me get through my grief and rage.
Hours pass, and fitful slumber comes, a sleep plagued by nightmares. Hopefully, in the morning, I won’t be even sadder.
Sunday, January 27
I sit in front of the computer and try to write for hours, but fail. Can’t get into the groove. Disinterested in the story, the deep concentration necessary to write it escapes me. I stare at chunks of text until they turn into unintelligible blocks of pixels.
I haven’t eaten anything and it’s mid-afternoon, but I’m not hungry. I toss a trio of potatoes into the oven and brew another cup of tea. Sitting at the kitchen table, I notice the two books Sweetgrass left behind. I sigh and pick up Awakening in Time. Figure I’ll try to read while the taters cook.
An hour later, the smell of baked potatoes fills the kitchen. I slather them with butter and sour cream and eat while continuing to absorb the book. I read slowly and re-read. The author’s concepts and theories seem as alien as Martian philosophy, but I can’t put her book down. I head for the bedroom, fluff pillows and lay on the futon, reading and reading, pausing only to feed the dogs and let them out.
I’ve brought A Return To Love to bed, too. Alternating between the two books, I’m troubled by the flood of emotions they unleash, especially when the authors quote Carl Jung or discuss “the shadow” and other negative aspects of the ego. Their descriptions of self-destructive patterns of behavior feel maddeningly familiar. A sad realization hits me: I’ve wasted much of my life being angry and judgmental.
I look at the clock: it’s one in the morning. I miss Sweetgrass so much. I want to talk to her and apologize for my lunacy, explain that I suddenly see things differently and understand what she’s been trying to tell me. But it’s too late to call. I keep reading and discovering more hard truths. I’ve been living the wrong way. Rather than being driven by stress and deadlines, I need to focus on the moment and live in the present. I need to learn to let go. And I need to breathe.
I’ve never really known how to breathe. I toked marijuana every day for over 20 years, and for half that time I polluted my lungs with the dark smog of tobacco smoke, too. It gave me a persistent cough and occasional shortness of breath, but I’m not coughing anymore. Not since I stopped smoking marijuana.
Now I vaporize the stuff, thanks to my pal Tom. A couple weeks before Sweetgrass left, Tom introduced me to the handheld, rechargeable Pax vaporizer, made by a company called Ploom. He promised that if I stuck with the device, my relationship with cannabis would change.
Tom was right. I’d tried vaporizers before, but they were the old fashioned type, with tubes, mouthpieces and electrical cords. Vapes never seemed to satisfy the need to puff, but the Pax experience is probably as close as you can get to smoking a bowl. Plus, it’s super portable, small enough to fit in a pocket. Instead of filling my lungs with the thick smoke of Maine’s finest kind bud, I now grind the flower and place the herb in the “oven” of the Pax. The magical device cooks the reefer to a temperature far below combustion, creating a smooth, warm vapor. If I inhale an ovenfull (about a third of a gram), I get wicked high, without heat and smoke further damaging my respiratory system.
Meditation, I’m learning, is just breathing. Focus on the inhale, then focus on the exhale. Nothing else matters. When I tried meditation in the past, my brain was always overstuffed with thoughts. Sitting still and just being seemed impossible.
I go online to search for tips and stumble across a short video in which Deepak Chopra explains a simple meditation. I sit and do what the man tells me to do and boom, I’m meditating. Twenty minutes later, I feel altered, open, ready for the universe to reveal itself.
I return to the books and cross-reference stuff on the Web, descending into the rabbit hole of New Age gobbledygook. Jung and “the shadow” keep popping up. I investigate further, reading more about the concepts of ego, fear and judgment. It’s another long night of painful self-contemplation. This shit ain’t easy. By midnight, I’m done, in desperate need of sleep.
Tuesday, January 29
I awaken a new man. Or so it feels. I search the wall of Sweetgrass’ studio to find her list of the five basic principles of Reiki, an amazing type of bodywork she’s studying. It involves channeling healing energy from the universe, and seems very mysterious. Each time she practices on me, though, I feel better. Clearer. Less stressed. I vow to write the Reiki precepts by hand, twice daily, until they’re committed to memory. Complicated theories and psychobabble are inaccessible to me, and religious edicts generally drive me crazy. These rules are different. Just repeating them aloud feels soothing…
Just for today, I will let go of anger.
Just for today, I will let go of worry.
Just for today, I will be grateful.
Just for today, I will do my work honestly.
Just for today, I will be kind to every living thing.
I eat an orange, then meditate. Twenty minutes later, the solution is clearer. I need to stretch. My body, made rugged by hard labor, aches with strains and soreness. Luckily, Sweetgrass is also a yoga instructor. She’s tried to teach me poses, but due to my inflexibility, I never pursued stretching. I was incapable of yoga. At least, that’s what I always told myself.
Unfurling her spare mat, I begin. Stretching and twisting my body, even in the simplest ways, hurts so much. It’s the pain of muscles awakening. I keep breathing and, finally, endorphins kick in and I feel great. For a little while.
Then the sadness returns. This time, inspired by what I’ve been reading, I try a new approach. I breathe deeply, then confront the emotion head on. I ask it questions. Why are you here? What are you about? After a few minutes, the sadness passes and my newfound clarity returns. The truth, though, is painfully apparent. I’m a simple creature, ruled by guilt, fear and anger. Those feelings need to disappear. Otherwise, I’ll never be happy.
I need to talk to someone. Not Sweetgrass, though. It’s not her problem. And certainly not a shrink. I have zero interest in that modality. I need to hash this shit out with my parents — the people who, due to their hardscrabble Boston Irish upbringing, instilled their anxious Catholic worldview inside me. But there’s one big obstacle: both my mom and dad are dead.
Monday, February 4
Breathing, meditating and stretching are becoming part of my daily routine, and I am thankful for these gifts. Driving home from the grocery store during a snow squall, the car slips and slides across the centerline. Approaching from the opposite direction is a logging truck. The old me would have either freaked or swerved, crashing into the truck or ending up in the ditch. My new self takes a deep breath and confidently guides the Subaru back into the right lane.
Both the books and Sweetgrass assure me that even though my parents are deceased, there’s still an opportunity to straighten stuff out. I need to talk to their spirits, their higher selves. The essences of Joe and Nancy Barry still exist, though they no longer dwell on the earthly plane.
I’m skeptical. Although I’m starting to view the world differently, some aspects of this new awareness are still hard to swallow. I’m not one for communicating with the dead.
Friday, February 8
Twilight approaches while a blizzard rages outside. It’s more wind than snow at the moment, but I don’t give a damn about the weather. I’m on a mission that won’t be interrupted even if the power goes out. The wood stove keeps the house warm, and for this ceremony, the only light will come from candles.
My dad’s office chair will represent his physical manifestation. I’m gonna talk to my old man again, but not the father whose body was wrecked with cancer and whose brain was muddled by Catholic constructs. His spirit — untouched by illness or indoctrination — is whom I intend to speak with.
It’s been 45 minutes since I ate the special chocolate, the one containing a gram of psilocybin. It’s a small dose for someone like me, who usually consumes three times as much to travel psychedelically. I don’t want to trip hard. That’s not the point. I just need some assistance dealing with my resistance to the ceremony at hand.
I pull up a chair for myself and sit next to him. The last couple times I saw him were at his deathbed. Before his illness, we weren’t close. Just infrequent visits and phone calls. And I regret this.
“I just want to say thanks for everything you and Mom did for me.” I pause. This is new territory. Most of my life, I resented how my parents — good, wholesome people, active in their church and community — seemed ashamed of me. My dad worked hard for 45 years as an accountant, slinging numbers for a paper company. My mom was a doll-maker and crafter. Having a son who wrote about sex, violence and drugs was embarrassing.
My father’s genetic gift to me was an ability to be analytical and business-orientated. Being an indie writer is a tough gig, financially, but something inside me that came from him helps me manage the complicated economics of an artistic career. “I especially want to thank you, Dad, for helping run my business,” I tell him.
I sip wine and get him up to speed on the year-end figures. I explain how publishing is changing, and why I’m confident I’ll be able to adapt. I drink more wine and vaporize some herb, then tell him about my plans. The conversation is punctuated with silences and sobs. I look out the window and see the snow, listen to the howling wind. It’s time to talk to Mom.
Problem is, the brown La-Z-Boy recliner that represents my mother is in my writing hut, more than 300 feet, downhill, from the house. (This was supposed to be my mom’s chair, but she got sick before she was able to use it.) I should have brought her in before the storm hit. I don my coat and gloves and head into the blizzard.
The hut is frigid, so I light a fire in the woodstove — a futile gesture, because the little shack is uninsulated and takes forever to warm up. No matter. Sitting in the La-Z-Boy and watching the flames, I speak to my mother, who died six years ago. The words come easier than with Dad, probably because I was closer to Mom. I thank her for everything, especially my artistic sensibilities. I know those come from her.
Brrr. No reason to stay in this cold shack any longer. It’s time to lug the recliner to the house. I shut down the stove and clumsily push and pull the chair, struggling to get it through the tight doorway. Once outside, I tip my mom on her side and bend over, then muckle the chair and hoist it onto my shoulders, resting the seat on the crown of my head.
I turn toward the house. Through the blizzard’s fresh foot of snow and screeching gusts, I take 200 steps, uphill, to the front door. With the La-Z-Boy still on my head, I walk through the house and into the living room with nary a bump or stumble, then crouch and gently roll the chair onto the floor, right next to Dad. Reunited.
Exhausted, I’m ready for bed. I’ll complete the ceremony tomorrow night.
Saturday, February 9
The idea comes to me while snowblowing: I’ll invite my parents’ spirits to dinner. The menu: barbeque spareribs from one of my pigs, mashed potatoes and peas. They call around six o’clock to tell me they’re running late. They’re at Oxford Casino, on a winning streak. My folks always loved the slots, so I’m not surprised. Their delay gives me time to eat another special chocolate.
During the meal, which they don’t touch, I again express my gratitude for the life they provided. I praise them for raising six kids, a feat that seems impossible to me. I thank them repeatedly for the many great things they did for our family: cross-country road trips, countless camping weekends, a safe and comfortable home to grow up in.
I tell them about the dreams Sweetgrass and I have for our land. I talk about the madman who’s willing to fund the low-budget transformation of my novel, Sex, Drugs and Blueberries, into a film. And I explain how I can use marijuana legally, which shocks and disturbs them. They’d always been so anti-drug.
Then the conversation shifts. I tell them that despite all the awesome stuff they did for me, I still have some problems, mostly connected to the church’s doctrines of guilt and fear and shame. “Time for a ceremony,” I say. “In the living room.”
I sit on a chair near my folks’ chairs and begin to meditate. A couple minutes later, I tap into a flow of guided thought that I can’t explain and start speaking to my parents’ higher selves. “Please release me from your judgment,” I say. “Please release me from your expectations. Please release me from stress. From fear. From shame.”
I visualize my parents. Younger. Fit. Happy and smiling. I see a golden cord between them and me that seems to connect my heart to theirs. I pull and tug on the cord. It releases from my body and I let go. My parents float away.
I sit and cry for longer than I care to admit.
Lessons are everywhere. As I continue walking this new path, I still stumble upon incidents of stress and remnants of old-paradigm anger. But it’s so much easier now, using breath and clear thoughts, to tame my temper or limit the length of a depressive episode. My almost daily, half-hour practice of beginner’s yoga helps. So does spending more time walking in the woods and less time sitting at the computer.
My experience makes me wonder about the growing number of diagnoses of depression, bipolar disorder, et al. How many mental diseases are actually spiritual diseases? And how many physical ailments related to stress and sadness could be eliminated through a more mindful way of living? How many of our substance abusers are just trying to deal with pains of the soul? How many ills could be cured with yoga and meditation, coupled with weed, some ’shrooms and red wine?
The thing is, my awakening could not have been forced or taught or bought. It had to come from inside, and only when I was ready. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have stuck. A marital and professional crisis precipitated my readiness, but I don’t think such crises are necessary for transformation to take place.
After contracting Lyme Disease, I decided to take a traditional Chinese medical approach to treating my physical and mental issues. The six months of acupuncture treatments I received were also helpful in triggering my awakening. Turns out my Chi was stagnant. The needles helped stimulate energy flow and eased the tightness around my skull.
The five Reiki principles made the transition period easier. I took a Reiki class last month to learn how to perform energy work on myself, the dogs, small livestock and other loved ones. Lately, I’ve taken to imagining what the world would be like if a majority of humans embraced the non-dogmatic rules of Reiki. So many of our earthly problems would disappear: war, hate-mongering, racism, sexism, corporatism, politics. Fear would be rendered impotent by universal love.
Then we could refocus our energy. If the masses practiced meditation, we’d be able to address climate change, the drinking water shortage, and death by starvation. After all, we’re all one, brothers and sisters. All walls will fall. These realizations have turned my life into a walking, talking Ziggy Marley tune. And now that I’m awake and living in a new paradigm, I keep meeting folks who share a similar perspective.
My transformation was dramatic, but my essence remains the same. I still tell raucous stories. I still raise animals humanely, then kill and eat ’em. I enjoy hallucinogens, ganja, bourbon and wine, while listening to old-time radio stories. The difference is moderation, taking Buddha’s advice to follow the middle path. “Don’t be a drunk or a monk,” I remind myself. “Don’t be a whore or a bore.”
Sweetgrass is back home. She continues to study alternative healing, using me as her willing guinea pig. Lately she’s been combining elements of Reiki, sound-healing and gentle yoga into a unique way of helping others. Her quest has made my journey easier. Her inquiring mind led me to open my eyes. And for that, and everything else, I’m thankful.
On June 22, at Harry Brown’s Farm in Starks, Crash Barry will discuss the best ways to get high and will judge the annual joint-rolling contest as part of Harry’s Hoedown, an arts and music festival. More info at harryshill.net.