The Llama and the Shmuck

I confide my feelings to Bubo as if he were a therapist; he doesn’t comment because he’s a Freudian llama.

Arnold Meyer
1 January 1998

I confide my feelings to Bubo as if he were a therapist. It’s important he get to know me so transference can begin. Occasionally his head nods encouragingly; he doesn’t comment because he’s a Freudian llama.

Three days into a mountain retreat, the worst has happened: I’ve become a shmuck. In Yiddish, shmuck is literally a penis, but it’s commonly used to mean a sad sack or a fool. The realization comes as I run barefoot downhill toward Bubba. Bubba is the llama who carries my gear. The gear which I’m bringing him overflows from a canvas pannier that defies being packed correctly. I am barefoot because I’ve misplaced my shoes, and running because I’m late, yet again, for the group’s morning meditation.

“Hey Arnie, you dropped a sock,” someone calls. I run back up the hill, and pick it up. “You left your towel hanging on a tree,” rings another voice. As I return to the tree, I think, “No, not just a shmuck, I’m the Mayor, the Mayor of Shmuck City.”

The retreat is led by Joan Halifax, who has explored the world’s mountains for the past three decades. We have traveled from Santa Fe to hike at 13,000 feet in the San Juan wilderness of Colorado. I’ve been warned by friends that the journey will be too strenuous but I’ve dreamed of such a camping trip all my life.

After depositing the pannier beside Bubba, I arrive at the waiting circle of silent participants. They are holding hands and looking at me quizzically, wondering “Why can’t he get it together?” Joan singles me out in a kind, patient voice, like a tutor talking to a child with a learning disorder: “Arnie, this is the first time you’ve camped, so it’s all very new to you. But when you lose your gear, and ask others where it is, you drain the energy of everyone, the whole group. Everyone becomes involved in taking care of you. And we need our energy for today’s climb.”

I lower my eyes and feel my face flush hot. “Please,” she implores, “please, you’ve got to learn to keep track of your things.”

“Today,” the Mayor of Shmuck City promises, “I don’t know how, but I’ll learn to do it today.”

But learning itself is the issue. I suffer from a disorder that has plagued me all of my life. In unfamiliar situations, I sometimes freeze at performing new tasks. If I don’t know how to do them, then I don’t know how to learn them. I begin making clownish mistakes, like Woody Allen lost in the wilderness. I’d lost my water bottle, although I’d doubled back and found it again. And a sheet of Hebrew prayers that I needed to pray in the morning when I wear my tallis (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries). My morning prayers now begin by apologizing to God for my doing-the-best-I-can devotion.

In the midst of the meditation, my watch alarm begins to chime because my heart monitor has set it off. I use the monitor because of a heart murmur. It warns me when my heartbeat exceeds 130 beats, the equivalent of jogging too fast. My wrist watch shows that standing perfectly still, breathing calmly, my heart is racing. It’s my anxiety at the thought of the day’s continuing humiliation: my weak right knee will buckle and I’ll begin to walk with a limp; my leaky heart will siphon off my stamina and I’ll fall far behind the others; finally the group will pause at a mountain top and look back at my straggling approach, frowning as I mark the pristine path with lost socks, underwear and towels.

I shut off the alarm as Joan makes her usual request-that we commit to taking care of our own selves and each other. “We are here to gain strength from the mountains,” she concludes. “They are our teachers.”

Then we walk to our respective llamas, as I remember the lines from a psalm of King David, “I lift up mine eyes to the hills, from whence comest my strength.” I take Bubba’s reins and get into line, wondering again about the connection between Judaism and Buddhism. I don’t know what it is, I can’t put it into words. I just feel a connection to each path.

In my backpack, my tefillin and tallis are like a holy shield. Unfortunately, next to the holy shield there is also a plastic bag full of shitty toilet paper. The used toilet paper is a testament to my ability to follow directions. We’ve been directed not to bury our toilet paper because animals will dig it up. Instead, we are to carry it with us and wait for the time and place when the group will burn it. No one else seems particularly concerned with this. When I mention it I’m told, “Don’t worry about it.” Perhaps they’ve surreptitiously buried their paper. But not The Mayor. No-I have integrity!

Since this is a silent retreat, conversation is highly discouraged. And because I’m a salesman, born to talk & talk & talk, there’s an overwhelming need to communicate. Bubba provides a sympathetic ear. I begin confiding my feelings as if he were a therapist. My feelings, my anxieties, my fears, my problems-it’s important that he get to know me so that transference can begin. Occasionally his head nods encouragingly; he doesn’t comment because he’s a Freudian llama.

Along the Continental Divide, we are separated from the group. The view is so spectacular. I open my pack, and beneath the toilet paper and tefillin I’m pleased to find that I haven’t yet lost my camera. After a series of pictures, we move on in an ocean of silence. Then the day rips open with a nearby bolt of lightning. It explodes with a cannon shot of thunder. Bubba snaps his head back and locks his front legs. He faces me for the first time with panicky eyes. “Come on, Bubba,” I say. “Let’s go.” But he won’t budge. Then small beads of white hail begin to fall and blanket us. The hail grows heavier, but he resists my pull on the reins.

I put my arm around his neck and my face close to his. I nudge him gently, and speak in a voice that’s totally new to me. It is a calm voice, soothing, the voice of the man I wish to be. “It’s nothing, Bubba, just lightning and thunder, and if we move on into the woods, we’ll be safe.” Then I step in front of him, and lightly tug the reins. We move into the forest where the others are protected beneath the trees. Waiting the storm out, I remember the words of Kate Doyle, the llamas’ trainer.

“How do you train a llama to be a leader?” I’d asked her.

“You can’t train them,” she said. “The leaders are born. Llamas are herd animals, and only comfortable when they’re following each other. When they’re young, the leaders just naturally move out in front.”

When the hail storm stops we load our packs again and move on. Eventually Alfie, the llama in front of us, stops because the road in front of him is empty. Bubba won’t move either, and can’t be persuaded. He will not move forward because it means taking the lead. Suddenly I realize that Bubba’s fear is akin to my own. Because he needs the safety of moving in a herd, he freezes before the open vista of the unknown. And I freeze when it comes to entering the unknown too.

As if he hears my thoughts, Bubba steps around me and takes the lead. It is a major step for him, although perhaps no one knows it but me. Walking beside him, it makes me feel that I too can step into my own fear. When we arrive at base camp, I follow Bubba’s example. For the first time in the trip, I step into the presence of the group. I don’t pitch my tent away from everyone to hide my inexperience. Instead, I camp near the others so that I can watch them and learn what to do.

Later, I volunteer to help our guides prepare the group’s dinner. In helping to tie the tarpaulin strings to the tree branches, I feel a beginning sense of exhilaration: I can learn. I untie and retie the knots several times, showing myself that I can master this simple art. And no one is laughing at The Mayor because he is doing something so childish-because I’m not The Mayor after all. Being a shmuck was never their judgement-it was my own. Each of us in the group, I come to realize, struggles in some way with the sense of not belonging, of not fitting in, of being too different.

In learning to take care of Bubba, I had learned to take care of myself. This was the essence of what Joan had asked of us-that being mindful meant learning to take care of ourselves and each other. By the last night, I no longer used a tent. I lay awake under a luminous black sky, staring at the shining stars. The sight of them filled me with awe, and I recalled the second line of the morning Hebrew prayer: “The beginning of wisdom is awe of Lord.” Recently Joan had said that traveling with me was a joy because my enthusiasm revealed a true “beginner’s mind”-a mind that sees the world as constantly new.

Waiting for the dawn, I repeated the phrase, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.” If the world is constantly revealed as new, then such a mind would certainly be awestruck. “Perhaps the link between Judaism and Buddhism might simply be awe.” I think, “the beginning of wisdom for one, the beginning of practice for the other.” Either way, when the dawn rises on another new day, it’s a miracle that is both commonplace and unbelievable.

Arnold Meyer

Arnold Meyer is a writer and salesman living in New York.