In It for the Tea

Hilary Smith isn’t keen about Zen, but she does need company. Isolation and depression are the wolves at the door of her mountain cabin.

Hilary Smith
4 June 2021
Photo by Dorel Gnatiuc.

Our first winter on the San Juan Ridge was bleak.

My husband and I had moved to California for the sunshine, but our off-grid homestead was shrouded in fog, and torrential rain carved deep ruts out of the long dirt road to town. The sky was dark for weeks at a time, starving our solar array, and in the evenings we went about like monks at a particularly austere monastery, living by the light of a single light bulb, even turning off the internet to save power. The river we could see from our kitchen window, emerald green in the summer, turned into a milky white demon sucking entire trees into its churning jaws.

It wasn’t long before my husband slid into a deep depression. I was determined not to follow him.

The river we could see from our kitchen window, emerald green in the summer, turned into a milky white demon sucking entire trees into its churning jaws.

“We need friends,” I said. I’d stumbled across the website for Ring of Bone, a Zen meditation center located in the forest a few miles from our house. I had no interest in Zen Buddhism, but their schedule showed potlucks and work parties in addition to a twice-weekly sitting schedule. Showing up to a randomly selected meditation group just to get some social contact felt a little humiliating to me—like going to church just for the coffee and cookies—but we’d experienced intense isolation in our previous life in Oregon, and I wasn’t going to let the same thing happen again.

“It’s not as close as you think,” grumbled my husband. “Seven miles of dirt road is a totally different story than seven miles on pavement. If the car breaks down we’re screwed.”

“Look around,” I said, pointing to the windowpanes weeping with rain and the silent forest beyond. We lived on a dead-end road and the closest neighbor was a mile away. “Do you think we’re going to make any friends sitting at home?”

I emailed the zendo contact person, who gave me detailed directions and asked me to show up a few minutes early so someone could show me the ropes. That Sunday I left the house before my husband woke up and carefully navigated the car down a series of increasingly washboarded roads. I parked at the mysterious spot the contact person had described, and followed a footpath that led past the poet Gary Snyder’s house before arriving at a fairy-tale complex of hand built wooden buildings surrounded by pines, oaks, and madrones. A handful of people in dark clothing and warm hats were silently sweeping the wooden porch and tending the grounds.

I felt clumsy and out of place as a woman named Chris showed me how to bow before entering the zendo, then twice more once I was inside. My sense of awkwardness only increased once the chanting began, and I found myself mumbling along to a text whose claims struck me as highly dubious: “Those who try zazen even once / Wipe away beginningless crimes.”

The social time lasted only a few minutes, but I felt like a capsized sailor who had been allowed, ever so briefly, to step onto dry land. I returned home jubilant. It was terrible,” I said to my husband. “I’m going back next week.”

I suffered through the sitting meditation, fumbled the walking meditation and the bows, endured a second round of chanting, and decided I was an idiot and would never come again. But finally the service was over and one of the members announced that it was time for tea.

We gathered in a small circle close to the woodstove, and someone brought a tray of beautiful clay cups out from the kitchen, along with a reassuringly large kettle. There was one more round of bows to fumble, and then it was as if a spell had been lifted. The zendo members, so silent and inscrutable while meditating, took on faces and personalities. They updated each other on mutual friends and compared notes on winter conditions at their own farms and homesteads. The teacher, Nelson, asked me to introduce myself, and as I described our recent move to the San Juan Ridge, the group listened with interest.

The social time lasted only a few minutes, but I felt like a capsized sailor who had been allowed, ever so briefly, to step onto dry land. I returned home jubilant.

It was terrible,” I said to my husband. “I’m going back next week.”

For the rest of that first, difficult year, the zendo became my lifeline. I found the practice sheer torment and often vowed to never return, but the moments of human contact were so precious, the zendo members so interesting and sincere, that I put up with the discomfort. It was like taking an extremely bitter pill in order to get the grain of sugar hidden inside of it. Soon, my husband began to tag along just to get out of the house. On the drive home, we enjoyed complaining to each other about the inscrutable chanting and the pins and needles in our legs.

Sure enough, the people we saw at the zendo every week turned into the first friends we would make on the Ridge. Sensing my loneliness, one woman invited me to join her for weekly hikes. Upon discovering that we were writers and musicians, a German psychologist invited my husband and me to dinner to meet his poet friends. A young couple moved to town, both Zen practitioners, and soon we were at each others’ houses several times a week, listening to reggae and having long conversations over craft beer.

It was better than sitting alone in our fog-shrouded cabin, listening to the river roar. But it couldn’t stop the landslide that had already begun inside my husband’s mind. He sobbed, tore at his hair, sweat out the bed, crawled onto the floor, and lay shaking under a blanket. The doctors at the tiny rural health center told him to drink valerian tea. The psychiatrist in town was booked five months out. The rain went on and on, soaking the firewood, filling up the channels beneath the sliding glass doors, spilling into the house. In the morning I’d mop up the puddles on the floor.

“I don’t think I can be here,” my husband wept. “I’m so sorry.”

I went outside. Standing among the leafless trees in the tiny, doomed orchard, I called his mother. “He needs help,” I said. “The doctors here aren’t helping him. If I put him on the afternoon train, will you pick him up? Can you get him a doctor’s appointment in the Bay Area?”

We only had one car, which we shared with our friend Rik, an elderly man who lived in a cabin on our land. I couldn’t just abandon the homestead, or Rik would be stranded with no way to get groceries and no one to help if a tree fell across the road in a storm. My husband’s parents’ house was crowded to bursting—he would have to sleep on the back porch—but at least there were people there, and unlimited electricity. There he could watch movies, keep the lights on all night, and find some relief from the mountain silence that was boring a tunnel through his soul.

I drove my husband to the train, then returned home. Over the confusing days and weeks that followed, the relationships I’d built at the zendo kept me from going into freefall. The Zen folks were matter-of-fact about the crisis without being cold. Many of them were in their sixties or older; they’d witnessed death, disease, and all manner of disasters and lived to tell the tale. Unlike some of the people I’d met in yoga studios and other “spiritual” settings, they didn’t give me syrupy platitudes like, “Everything happens for a reason.” If I could sum up their perspective, it would be more like, “Everything happens.” Somehow, that was more comforting to me, more respectful of both my intelligence and my pain, than the more mystical version.

I couldn’t fathom a universe that allowed for such suffering. Going to the zendo didn’t make sense of anything — except when it did.

I agonized over whether or not I should become a Zen student, a formal commitment that marked the beginning of serious training under the teacher’s guidance. It seemed wrong to keep showing up, taking advantage of the community, without becoming fully part of it. Was I some kind of freeloader, bowing out of koan study week after week, abstaining from attending the lengthy and arduous meetings in which zendo business got hammered out? I’d sworn not to let myself become isolated, and thanks to the zendo I’d succeeded. But surely by now they were wise to my game.

Woman wearing red hoodie and orange pants and boots holds a chainsaw. She is smiling.
Hilary Smith. Photo by Seth Nickell.

To compensate for my freeloader status, I brought my chainsaw to work parties and bucked beetle-killed trees into rounds. I baked cookies and made devilled eggs for the potlucks. I sang the chants with a full voice and even memorized a few of them. Privately, I fretted.

“I just don’t think I’m a Zen,” I confided to my husband on the phone.

“So don’t be a Zen,” he said.

“But they’re so nice. I want to want to be one.”

I was taking the Greyhound to the Bay Area every week to see him. The trips left me exhausted and disoriented; I couldn’t fathom a universe that allowed for such suffering. Going to the zendo didn’t make sense of anything—except when it did. During walking meditation, tromping silently along the wooden deck that wrapped around the zendo, I had the feeling of being in a strange sort of chain gang, all tied together on this earth. Everything wasn’t happening for a reason, but everything was happening, and we were happening with it. This wasn’t a beautiful or comforting thought, but it had some light inside it, and I sensed that this was why the zendo people came here—to gaze on that curious light together.

My husband and I ended up leaving the San Juan Ridge two short years after we’d moved there. The homestead was too remote for him, the dirt roads too much of an obstacle, and the weather too severe. We started our lives over in Hawaii, where the sun never pulled a three-month disappearing act and the river would rise but never freeze. My husband got medical care, recovered, started living again. On weekends we’d hike to a black sand beach and play in the enormous, dangerous waves. I was afraid of those waves, but there was nothing for it. I learned to dive under the breakers and not worry too much if I got sucked under and dragged along the gritty sand.

“Moosey!” my husband would shout, gesturing at the green cliffs and the unmistakeable sun. ”Look where we are!”

I knew that in giving up the homestead we’d probably saved his life. Still, I was sad to leave the Ridge. It felt like changing the channel halfway through a movie I still wanted to watch. I felt a lingering sense of confusion and shock; I wanted to know how it ended. Perhaps eventually I would have joined the zendo after all, gone to my first meditation retreat, received my first koan. Maybe someday, sitting by the woodstove in that simple wooden building, I would have experienced kensho—awakening.

More likely than not, I would have carried on as I was before. Showing up for the incense and tea and the pleasure of pulling weeds from the gravel walkways. Feeling torn and conflicted about my presence, about my own existence. Twisting in the wind like some dry leaf, never realizing it doesn’t matter to the tree if it hangs on or blows away.

Hilary Smith

Hilary Smith

is the author of the bestselling mental health book Welcome to the Jungle: Facing Bipolar Without Freaking Out. She is also a YA novelist.