My beloved teacher and friend, Cecilie Kwiat, often quoted in Sane In Pain, passed the morning after Valentine’s Day and I haven’t been the same since.
I’ve been remembering all the good times with her and trying to write down what I learned. Here’s how we met:
Having declined the opportunity to meet Namgyal Rimpoche (my root teacher’s teacher though I didn’t know it at the time) because I was far too busy drinking scotch, my grad school friend, Char Jones, offered lunch “with a visiting Canadian poet,” her sister in law, “who was in town to teach some classes.” As I said, I was very busy drinking, but I usually started much later than lunch, so I could fit it in. We met at the local latest cafe in a building off State Street in Boise with the greatest tree in the back patio. It’s been Mexican and last time I checked was Italian, but at the time, was a little place with nouveau cuisine (for 1988) and jazz somehow fit into its profile. So I showed up and met Cecilie Kwiat, a rather interesting woman about 10 years older than I with twinkling eyes and a wicked sense of humor.
We talked and found we both spoke poet, especially T. S. Elliot, who was a fixation of mine at the time. I no doubt told my story about traveling with credentials to the New York Public Library where “The Wasteland” manuscript is stored and donning the white gloves to lift the page and see how deeply Ezra Pound’s pencil had scored the pages he excised from that text.
At the end of our meal, truffles were on offer, and Cecilie decided on a small plate of three for us to enjoy.
I had very good reasons for drinking at the time. The year before, I had been shattered by a power pole falling on me in a parked car and had a head injury with a bipolar, petit mal seizure condition and severe head, neck and back pain. As Poe Benjamin recently said in an interview in The Sun, “Everyone gets smashed to bits; it’s your best opportunity to grow.” I was insane with pain from that injury most of the time and, true to form, still trying to finish my master’s degree. I didn’t see too much of my children and my attempts at romantic connection were disastrous. I was living in a friend’s pool house and barely able to drive.
Anyway, I took a bite of the chocolate and so did Char. It was really good, but who cares. I weighed about 100 pounds and was ready to move on to my next cigarette and couldn’t taste much along the line of food. Cecilie closed her eyes and reenacted that restaurant scene in When Harry Met Sally, only just for our table. She enjoyed the dark truffle profoundly and her bliss was palpable, a happiness universes beyond my gaiety in the bar past midnight.
And just as all beings do, as I would later learn from the Dalai Lama, one of the many great teachers Cecilie introduced me to, I wanted that happiness. I wanted what she had. And so I went to class that night and for the first time heard, “There is a golden light in your heart, and it spreads throughout your whole body and pours out your pores in the ten directions . . .”
Back then she made that golden light into an egg that surrounded me in absolute safety and I imagined it at night, trying to sleep, whether I had the whirlies or not, as I lay in my invalid bed, watching my breath on an old Serta king of my friend’s. The edges of the bed were scattered with bed trays and the computer keyboard I worked on to write my thesis. I asked Cecilie once what to do while trapped in bed in too much pain to read or write, and she said, send out the safety you enjoy to all the people within a mile of you that are in pain but don’t feel safe, don’t have this nice bed to lie on. Then send it out to all the people in pain in the whole town, the state, the Western US who don’t feel safe or have a warm, dry place to lie down, as you do. Then the Western Hemisphere, the whole Earth, the beings on the moon and the earth and in between, the inner solar system, the asteroids, the whole solar system, the galaxy, the known universe, all the universes, known and unknown, send them all a wish that they be as well and happy as you are.
I listened to her, because that first night in class — now I think it no coincidence, for she had set her sights on saving me — Cecilie told how she’d been playing hooky from school at 15 with some friends, bought some beer, ran into the street and got hit by a truck. The doctors told her she wouldn’t live. When she survived they said she wouldn’t walk. She talked about how life was really suffering, but there was a way out, and the Buddha had fortunately mapped it all out for us, there was a path to follow because others, just like me, had done it.
Most of this path involved practicing meditations sitting crosslegged on floors or in chairs, or lying down if sitting was too uncomfortable, or standing, alternated with meditative walking. I did one 10 or 21 day group silent retreat with Cecilie largely with a migraine in a tent in the Canadian rain. I plodded up to her tent for my interview. I asked her what to do about the pain. She told me to “imagine that it is alright as it is and watch what happens.” I couldn’t remember that and asked her to say it again. Later in our conversation, I couldn’t remember that and asked her again. And just before my interview ended, I couldn’t remember that and asked her again. Each time, she patiently repeated “imagine that it is alright as it is and watch what happens” without a trace of impatience (which she was certainly capable of).
And I learned that what we forget is exactly what we need to know.