LSD & Zen by Rue Matthiessen

Mar 16, 2023 | Bubbler, FSR

In 2010, I went with my father to a memorial service at St. Annes, in Bridgehampton. I noticed how confidently he sang the hymns, knowing every cadence, every word. For him they were second nature. I was touched by the quaintness of this. Before, I had only seen him as a writer, then a Zen student, then a monk, then a Röshi. He had been an austere figure in black Koromo (robe), white Tabi (slippers), and Shukin (belt), coming in from the Zendo in the barn at his house, sometimes hoarse from the chanting. The singing in the church was new and uplifting and cheerful, a thing we could do together. It was something, as opposed to the nothingness of Zen. As I tried to catch on to the melodies, I saw that he had deep associations there, yet my associations were few. He was a child of a completely different context from that of myself and my mother, his second wife Deborah. The sound of my father singing about God, supposedly another father, cast him in a different light, unique and strange. It made him smaller, less authoritative, and more approachable, since ostensibly, we were both under the umbrella of this supreme force that was going to take care of everything. I saw that as a boy he might have for some moments, days, months, or even years believed this unequivocally, that when he was young his heart might have for a time been given over to some sort of complete resolution.

And then there was my mother, also a writer, who had died when I was thirteen. For a short time, before her existence came to a tragic, early end, she’d taken me to St. Annes too. Not for a ceremony of any kind, and seemingly against her will. Her face set in a kind of fury, she’d bow her head in prayer, as if daring God to make his case. I remember kneeling down and standing up along with the congregation, and clasping my hands together, my breath held fast, so I wouldn’t miss any wisdom that might come down from the sky above the church. I loved the light coming through the stained glass, the singing, the coziness, the candles, studying the backs of people’s heads, and wondering what they were thinking. As soon as the service was over, we’d quickly scurry out of there, my mother irritated and weary, and me feeling pulled away. I’d always want to go back to that somber, Christmasy place of rich reds and blues, hushed wishes and appeals, the baritones and sopranos, some out of tune, and the white-robed figure of mysterious power. I loved all the people in the church, and that afterward there was a coffee hour, and time to play in the garden.

I went there with my mother only a few times, each of which I remember, and then much much later with my father, to the memorial service. The prevailing sense on all of these visits was that St. Annes was a part of my parents, inextricably, no matter how they had wanted to leave it behind.

At about the time of the last visits, psychotropics were coming into our lives like a series of twisters. As a young person I remember seeing and feeling their advent into our house, our social circles, and our town. LSD was everywhere: in the drinks, at the parties, in the music, on album covers and posters. (To understand these opposing extremes, I have only to think of the building of St. Annes—cozy, white and wooden, one storied, simple and contained, where everything was proscribed and clear.) Surely, the roof had been blown off, and people were alighting upon their own path into the sky, to find out where and why and how it all began. At under ten years old in the mid sixties, I was along for this ride.

In my childhood the drugs were powerful, the music was great, the astonishments were many. We were surrounded by a nebulous, hot passion—we inhaled it, and we became it, as much as we were terrified by it. The need for change went well beyond abandoning Christianity. The outrages were constant—the police brutality, the hammering gunfire, the assassinations, the violent footage from Vietnam on TV every night. Our eyes were wide open; we had not yet learned how to close them. In this land of excess and high drama, there was always a sense that we were in it together; nothing less than the fate of mankind was at stake. We knew we must fight, we must fight the injustices. From 1966 to 1969 the soundtrack was the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” and things sped up, going faster and faster and at the same time extraordinarily slowly in spots, like the few seconds before a car crash.

Childhood was simply unacknowledged, as adulthood was unacknowledged. There was nothing that I could call static or fixed, but I didn’t actively miss what had never existed. Everything was in flux. Change was relentless. Guided somewhat by the teachings of Alan Watts, my mother especially was invested in the idea that our thoughts, our preconceptions, our neuroses, our personalities were constructs of a sick, war-making society. All of us had been acculturated with illusions—one of them being the forbidding, frustrating God that she struggled with at St. Annes. The idea was to tear everything down and start over, and LSD was the tool.

Starting with controlled sessions in New York City and on Long Island, my parents both began to think of LSD as a means of cleansing and renewal. In 1968 they took it further, committing themselves to a summer in a castle in Umbria, doing intensive “trips” with friends and other like-minded people. There would always be a “straight” watcher, sometimes my father, who made sure things didn’t get out of hand. Generally, if a person was on a “good trip.” the dose would be piled higher and higher, in order that they have a transformative experience. Sometimes a therapist would guide the session, introducing issues that the subjects had struggled with, which in my mother’s case were her difficult marriage, a childhood scarred by eczema, and the milder eczema that tormented her still. She firmly believed that LSD would help her rout out the traumatized part of herself, or at least reveal it, so that she could confront it. My father was right along with her.

While they were reworking themselves, I was holding on tight to whatever I could glean and make my own. I was steely and strong, and outgoing. I made friends easily, because I desperately needed them. I’d go up and down the street of our fairly conservative farm town, visiting people, knocking on every door. I was drawn to the simplicity and steadiness of farm life, but I was also easily bored. My very favorite surrogate family were raucous writers and creatives a fifteen-minute drive away, all the way on the other side of the island. Fortunately their parents were friends with my parents, so we saw a lot of them. I remember hitchhiking there once, when I was very young, because there wasn’t any other way to get there, and getting a scare. A guy tried to grab me in his car before I threw the myself out of it when he slowed down. Thank God they didn’t have automatic locks then. I became independent fairly young.

In those years I began to see the people who weren’t tripping regularly as hopelessly stuck and square. I began to have the sense that my parents were doing something serious that I needed to defend, and that their world and the regular world were different. Huge gaps were developing between, say, my fifth-grade class and what was going on at home, the former seeming to be frozen in a kind of rigor mortis in comparison. At a camp I went to in Canada, during a campfire lecture that was all about the evils of LSD, I held back from explaining that LSD was harmless, that it was an amazing tool that could help anyone and everyone. I did not divulge what my mother had said, that she had taken it many times while pregnant with my brother, and that he was a perfect, beautiful baby. I wrote her the next day that I hadn’t said any of those things, though I had really, really wanted too. She immediately sent a letter back saying that I had done the right thing, along with the best care package I had ever gotten, with new pajamas and socks, a stack of Archie comics, and five bags of Sugar Babies, my favorite candy.

Not long after she died, my father told me more about her time on LSD. He said that she mostly had “bad trips,” crying and screaming through periods of great terror and desolation. He couldn’t believe how she kept going on with it. She took LSD again and again, piling on the dosage even if she were miserable all through. He shook his head with a sort of admiration for her. He told me about the experiments in Italy, where the person running the session drew faces on cardboard boxes and called them “mother,” or “father.” When my mother was presented with her “mother” she tore the box to shreds “like a wild cat,” he said, by way of explanation, and perhaps as a sort of apology. He might have thought it wise to at least begin to attempt to parse events, break them down into pieces that could be expressed and named, and perhaps wrestled to the ground and dominated. Like he would do. He might
have begun to see what I would have to struggle with for the rest of my life.

I had inherited her journals. One of them, a spiral notebook filled in her loopy hand in pencil, was called “LSD #2.” Recently, I read it straight through for the first time. It made the agonizing darkness that she had struggled with so much more clear to me.

I heard Becky describing something of her childhood and I felt sad for having no dear things or warm places in my childhood. In previous LSD sessions my experience is often one of desolation and empty landscapes, while Peter’s and others are full of wild and abundant if terrible phenomena. I think perhaps because of my struggle with myself and the eczema, most of my life has been preoccupied with this terrible thing, and I truly had few experiences that could penetrate my self absorption.

The landscapes I saw were cold, ashy, desolate. I was in a prairie of licking flames, but they were cold, and I watched with detachment. I tried to think of my childhood and a spoke turned, as a wheel. Between two spokes a scene paused to be examined, the wheel turned and the next scene came on view, each dull and stiff and peopled with the unfamiliar, pale lifeless green in colour, shockingly empty and boring …Urged to find my childhood I said there was nothing to see, and in fact I couldn’t find it.

Peter picked up my arm and said, touching a spot of eczema, “Go into it.” I saw the skin redden and thicken and then a mouth opened and I went into it. I remember screaming and wanting to back out and Peter saying for me to go in … Again the familiar rising scream and rigidity

My poor Mama. No matter how she tries to conquer it, the eczema is still a terrible coiled animal living inside her, threatening to come alive at any time. As my father no doubt understood, I would have to sort her, her LSD experiences, and the root of those experiences out of myself. It would take a long time.

Things were very complicated between them. The dance between leaving each other and staying married just went round and round. Fidelity and commitment vs. betrayal and divorce. Raging fights vs. passionate reunions. They were always driving toward the ultimate decision. A way to be permanently bonded. It was sweet. Equally, it was doomed. I think of them now as so innocent, especially my mother. (One might as well agree to being in a state of flux and change. Time isn’t fixed, and people aren’t fixed. I learned that from her.) Marriage is a leap of faith. But she was determined to make it work, no matter what.

She endured his multiple infidelities, remaining committed to the cause of the two of them together. The question of commitment, especially his commitment, was brought into the LSD sessions. He, an ever-changing chameleon, really did try at times. There were instances where they reenacted the marriage ceremony. During one session “Jim,” the therapist, suggested that my father hold her like a baby in his arms. This went well, until it didn’t.

I felt that physically we made a perfect circle, with no superfluous extensions—in other words Peter and I were contained in each other … I felt his presence continually as if he were there for me almost the whole time. At the end I felt pressure from him for me to quit as if I were doing it all on purpose and he was tired of the game. I wanted it to be over too but knew it wasn’t until it was. I felt at certain times that he gave over the whole of himself for me, literally. After the experience Peter was exhausted and I felt not tired at all.

Like rectangles of sun in a dim, cavernous room, the LSD experiences illuminated a place, a moment, an hour here and there, where she felt unified in mind, spirit and body, and sometimes unified with him. Through LSD, my mother began to feel that the misery of mankind was linked with her personal malaise, each one leading to the other and back again. LSD was the key and the cure. Still biblical in her approach, LSD became a way to find the garden, the original, perfect place that we all came from. It was a way to eradicate the troubles in her third and last marriage. It was a way to defend her own innocent, idealistic view of the world. For her, there had to be a destination of perfect understanding, where things fell absolutely into place, and were right and true always. When the drug was classified illegal and being denigrated in American media, my mother was its great defender, clipping each article that she found, writing letters to various parties in its support.

During that long ago “acid summer,” in Italy, she suggested one day that I take a dose. At the time I was ten years old, leaving the relatively free and magical world of my younger self. I appeared unhappy to her. I might have been unhappy, or I might just have been hiding, or she might have been projecting her unhappiness onto me, or some combination of the three. She thought LSD would help me break through my problems. She asked me if I wanted to, and of course I said yes, because that’s what they were all doing. With my LSD session scheduled for the following day, I went to bed frightened, but also vaguely excited to be doing the wild, adventurous thing that up till then had been reserved for the grownups only. I tried not to think about it too much.

In the morning I woke up in a nervous state. My feeling was that I was in their hands, and that I’d just give myself over to it, as I’d seen them do so many times, floating around the olive grove, or in the surrounding fields, laughing, crying, hugging, looking intently at their hands, or a tree, or a flower for hours. I gathered up my courage, steeling myself, deciding to be happy about this strange new development. In a way, doing this very adult thing might be like graduating from childhood. I couldn’t go back on it; otherwise I’d look afraid, not up to it, not one of the group after all. Expectant and afraid, I came down to the castle’s central room, built of massive stones and reaching at least thirty feet high. On the wooden table I saw the box of little glass vials filled with blue liquid, and remembered that some of them were “dummies,” filled with water and food coloring, in case the illegal cargo was discovered. There was a flatness in the atmosphere, a sense of deflation. No one said anything to me at breakfast. To my surprise, this special day felt pretty ordinary. A little later on my father let me know that my LSD session was off. I found out much later that he, in fact, had called it off, telling my mother that she was taking things too far. At the time was very relieved, and a tiny bit disappointed.

Much later on, in college in upstate New York, I took LSD a few times a week for one whole spring. My dorm was an old mansion with leaded windows and grand public rooms looking out over the Hudson Valley. The surrounding woods were laced with green, and the fields with daffodils and forsythia. My boyfriend had a connection in the city. It wasn’t the very strong, pure LSD that my parents had; it was called “windowpane.” But it changed me. On it, I felt I was seeing beneath the surface of things. Tripping was challenging and exhausting, though I kept going back for more. And there was a strange phenomenon. Whenever my boyfriend and I and our friends would take it, every cat in the area would come to our dorm, claw at the door, rub themselves along the windows until we let them in. Then they’d passionately entwine themselves around us, mewing and carrying on. Usually about five to seven cats from the dorm and the surrounding dorms. Enraptured cats, orange juice from the cafeteria, and lots of Jimi Hendrix. We’d wander off into the fields, looking at flowers of course, the cats trailing close behind.

I remember feeling energy very keenly, a universal force pulsing through my senses. My senses and myself were no different from the energy around me. I was connected up. Nothing was ordinary. Nothing was strange. Systems of punishment and reward were irrelevant, there could be no authority in my life greater than my own interaction with it. There was the realization that the perceptions of others might conflict with mine, and therein lay past difficulties, as well as future ones. What the drug did was simplify this problem— no matter what might happen, no matter my fears—no authority, no God, no religion, no heaven or hell could separate me from my own experience. It was like arriving into my own body for the first time, in a real, workable way. At a time in my life where I had no discipline and no future that I could discern, I woke up to something that was mine, i.e., the material of myself. I oriented to my physical body like an artist to a piece of clay. What I chose to do with it would shape my life. Coming down was as good as the trip, sometimes better. I’d feel worn out, in a good way, and wiser, as if I’d been to a very far off, foreign land. And a little bit relieved to have made it back.

My father often said that there were limits to psychedelics, in terms of what could be learned. But Zen was a different thing. There weren’t any limits to it. You could take it as far as you wanted. My mother might have always known that Zen was the destination. She had been interested in Zen before him, and indeed, all through those LSD years. She naturally picked up the Zen thread when LSD was finally exhausted.

I remember the very day my mother introduced me to Zen. I was probably about eight years old. She said, “I bet you can’t stop thinking completely for three seconds.” And she was right; it was very hard to do. I tried a number of times but couldn’t do it. I was flummoxed. Why couldn’t I just turn off my brain? But I liked the challenge. And I liked to know what she was thinking about, at her big wooden desk with stacks of library books, and classical music on low. Every night, long after I’d gone to bed, she had a world of her own amongst those books, on philosophy, psychology, Eastern religion and Buddhism. She was happiest in that spot. Did she have a premonition about dying young? Her urgency makes me think that, yes, she did. Like many portentous things, it had come in threes: LSD, then Zen, then death.

Many of the psychologists, psychiatrists and writers of the day were centered around a new movement called Sensory Awareness, which Alan Watts had dubbed “The Living Zen.” Charlotte Selver, Elsa Gindler, Erich Fromm, and Fritz Perls were among the many who pioneered the (then) far-reaching idea that each moment was a new moment, and that it was ideal to experience time in the present, as children did. It was believed that adults had everything to learn from children, instead of the other way around. It was believed that conventional child-rearing practice destroyed the integrity of children, their sense of naturalness and connectedness. Sensory Awareness strove to respect the intrinsic wholeness of a person and defend them from the societal, religious, and sexual mores that would separate them from it.

It began to be my mother’s perception that almost every “mirror,” including the sort of preconceptions people have about one another, was fatal to any kind of worthwhile interaction. That the self-image that someone carries through life was forged in their early years by sets of false exterior images foisted upon them. By adulthood, the person has entirely lost who they really were to begin with.

A simple example might be the way people talk down to children, as if they were idiots, and baby talk, which my mother thought inane and forbade in the house. She thought that if our environment was purged of such pre-conceptions (images that we had of one another, the images that were imposed on us by the larger world) we’d all find out who we really were.

The house was a microcosm of experimentation. My parents fervently writing away in their respective studios, so many friends carpooling into the city for psychotherapy that their cars were nicknamed “flying couches.” The housekeepers and any visitors were stopped dead if they dared to send a googoo or a gaga my brother Alex’s way. My stepsister Carey, who lived with us for a year, remembered that everyone was under strict orders to never repeat back anything Alex said to him. It was forbidden to answer “I want my ball” with “You want your ball?” The correct answer was, “Here is your ball,” or, “I don’t know where it is,” to avoid the destructive imaging. As Charlotte Selver wrote, “the image of himself… for better or worse, interposes itself in his functioning, urging here, restraining there: and is any case a film that has grown between him and reality.”

But to me, “You want your ball?” is a gesture of encouragement. It identifies just who and what “you, your” and “I, my” are, and shows that there is a responsive relationship across what might seem to a child an enormous kitchen or living room or garden. It shows support for the effort that was made. “You want your ball?” said in the right tone, implies that you, adorable creature, should have your ball. It must be somewhere and I will help you find it is the cheerful subtext. Maybe there is a fine line between inanity and reassurance. Maybe there is a lot of dumb repetition while we impose our ideas of who the “other” is upon a child—but maybe, having no real alternatives yet, that isn’t so bad.

We were always working on getting rid of the old stuff, paring away illusions, bad feelings, returning to each other and holding each other tight. Eventually, even the things in the house had undesirable associations. My mother and I used to have fights about my homework or my clothes. Most of the fights took place in her least favorite room of the house, the kitchen. There was a white recipe box with painted roosters that my eyes would fixate on while the tension was high. Inspired by her readings, she one day decided we should get rid of things that had bad associations—everything we had looked at or touched while feeling misunderstood and angry. She chose a set of curved highball glasses, a “McCoy’s Oil Service.” pen, an orange throw pillow from the sofa—more things, because she was fighting with my father as well as me. I remember feeling some reluctance but pointed to the recipe box. “We’ll get rid of it.” she said, sweeping it into a bag. This stuck with me. Being able to get rid of an object and its hated associations was great. It was so easy. For me, this was the lighter side of what she was learning, and consequently I was learning, and is the best thing I know now. Come back to what was authentic, what was true.

Two years before my mother died, the sound of Zen chanting came into the house. As they did with LSD, people around us who were not practicing Zen beheld it with great suspicion. The black robes, the uniformity, the rows of adherents, some with bald heads, simply staring at a blank wall for long periods of time, contemplating nothingness. It looked frightening and cultish, and indeed in those days it must have seemed exceedingly strange. No system of reward and punishment—followers of Zen were allowed their flaws, bringing them deep into the hara (lower belly, focal point of meditation) with great long breaths, accepting all. Inside the Zendos it was understood that followers would carry on with their regular lives when not meditating, and in fact, they were encouraged to. At the Zen Studies Society in New York City, there was no master plan that I knew of, no group efforts to recruit people. In keeping with the minimalist surroundings and doctrine, it was sophisticated and low key. Zen didn’t mean to interfere or take over anyone. My mother, had she lived, might have been one of the exceptions, because after she began formally “sitting Zazen,” she went into it full force.

To hear people do the archetypal Zen chants, Maka Hanna Haramita Shingyo (Heart Sutra) and Dai Hi Su among them, is to really understand Zen, if one takes the time to listen. Each Japanese word is said with an emphasis that rarely varies, and there is little tonal individuation between notes. The chants are drones, very unified sounding, no highs, no lows, except at very end when they trail off on a sliding downward note, which sounds like someone dying, or at least running out of air. It is supposed to symbolize the perishability of all life and energy in its endless variation, it sounds like one “thing” or entity dropping off, leading to another thing being picked up, or born, at the beginning of a different chant in a different place. The Heart Sutra is a meditation on emptiness. Oh Shariputra, form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form. Sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness are likewise this. As a child I disliked it because it seemed to have no context — i.e., it was no fun. (Had I been a Japanese child in a Buddhist family, surely I would have been better acclimated, though I might never have thought it was fun.) It sounded to me like just another in a series of endings and departures. It took my mother one step further away from us, because she was so often away at sesshins (longer, overnight periods of silent meditation), in the city at the Zen Studies Society, or at Tassajara in California.

By the time I was eleven, Zen had fully arrived—the straw smell of the tatami mats, the rice-paper screens, the minimalist altars, the people in flowing robes, their faces still and peaceful and contemplative. I was deeply affected by what they were experiencing, I saw them and heard them and felt them all around me. The concepts made a mark on me—the interchangeability of all forms of energy, and again, something I was fast becoming familiar with, the unceasing nature of change. The universe is always changing, we are a part of it, we will change, and that is right and true. Zen tells you to let go, to stop trying to affix yourself to one thing or idea or person. It tells you that if you drop all the thinking and the effort to construct yourself, you will find that you won’t fall, and you won’t disappear. You will find, as many people do, that there is a whole universe to hold you up. It can feel like floating down a miraculous sort of stream. Many people, upon discovering it, cry or laugh or do both, and look like surprised and happy children, years of worry dropping from their faces.

I have an insight into my mother’s experience. Since I didn’t see her very much once Zen came into our lives, my source is a picture, one of my favorites. It was from ’69, not long before she was diagnosed with cancer. Taken somewhere on sesshin, presumably after a few days of deep and silent meditation, she is transformed. She is in a kneeling pose, wearing a loose-fitting dress. Her face is positively broken open with joy, the crescents of her beautiful eyes laughing, with freedom, wholeness, and more than anything—relief. I can’t help but be glad that she arrived to something in her life that brought her such happiness.

Photo by Jamie Lopez

As with LSD, I eventually followed her, about ten years after she had died. Out on my own for the first time after college, I was working in a photo shop on Long Island, and suffering from anxiety attacks. By that time, my father had a real Zendo at his house, in my old horse barn. Feeling completely lost, I borrowed a zabutan (black round pillow) from the Zendo and began sitting for two long periods every day. I took that early challenge of not-thinking-about-anything for three seconds and built upon it, and then, when I saw my father, we’d talk about what I’d discovered. My roommates at the time would ask why I wouldn’t go to the Zendo, but I couldn’t explain it.

Eventually, my anxiety went away. I discovered what the people at the Zen Studies Society had found, that Zen was a place to go to gain a deeper understanding, to “refresh my life,” as my father put it in his book Nine-Headed Dragon River. I found a tremendous relief in it. I was able to “float without thoughts” for a good while, and all the worry went with them. For the first time in a long time, I walked lightly and with a feeling of deep sanctuary on the path that my mother had forged. It was new to me and at the same time anciently hers. The respite from my troubles seemed to come directly from her, my father, the universe, and the practice itself, clearing thoughts and the construct of the ego away. I was tremendously grateful. It put my ship right in the water when I had nowhere else to turn. I did try to attend other Zendos in San Francisco and LA, but it never worked for me.

I once met the Dalai Lama when I was a cater waitress in New York. It was at a cocktail party for a movie called Kundun, about his life. I was circulating with an hors d’oeuvres tray, feeling the buzz of excitement in the room. All the guests were meeting him, and he was blessing them. I asked the boss with what must have been the right amount of desperation if I could meet the great one. She said yes, so I put down the tray and went out to shake his hand and get a blessing. The Dalai Lama had Hush Puppy style shoes under his orange robes. He was benevolent and tired, with laughing, sweet eyes. I was thrilled, and also tired, for it had been a long night. I was overwhelmed with feeling to meet a fellow Earth dweller who was considered to be a living Bodhisattva, and at the same time, he was a little bit of home. When I told my father, he was impressed— and he wasn’t easily impressed.

Eventually, my sense of wonder became more focused on the Dali Lama’s humanitarian work, rather than his sanctified state. Thinking back on it, I did say once to my husband, half joking, “The Dalai Lama had nothing on me.” And Steve said, “He’d be the first to agree with you.” This was the perfect reply. Steve, who was a serious student of Zen Buddhism, immediately saw the paradox, the conflict in the very idea of worship in Buddhism. In other words, though I respect, and to a degree, rely upon the basic principles of Zen, I find an overwhelming contradiction in having to follow a particular person who is anointed as a spiritual expert, especially in Zen Buddhism. Unavoidably, there is an enormous dichotomy at work. Zen, carried forth to its conclusion, has no leader, no expert. There are guides, yes. But the compass that one seeks, and seeks for a lifetime, is in oneself.

I still live near St. Annes, and I think of my mother often when I drive by. She never once alluded to Christianity, for or against. I only felt her struggle, and watched her transform into a Buddhist, and my father follow her on that path. I think of St. Annes as her spiritual home.

Recently, looking through boxes of stuff, I came across a small “Book of Common Prayer” that she had given me when I was six. It is inscribed For my darling Rue. from Mama, Sagaponack, L.I1964. And then I found two Bibles that her mother had given her, similarly inscribed. Her mother, born in 1890, was the granddaughter of Reverend Horatio Potter, sixth Bishop of New York, who founded the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. But Grandmother, who lived in St. Louis, did not attend church regularly. According to her children, she was deeply spiritual and read the Bible frequently. She was also unhappily married. I think her need for sanctuary, and possibly her heritage, underlined her devotion, and my mother followed her, albeit in her own particular way. I am sure that, had my mother lived longer, her anger toward the authority of the church would have mellowed.

My father died in 2014, and now they are both gone. Though they had wanted to move on, they never definitely could. Their departure from Christianity was full of the rage of the expectant. They still needed an authority, a structure, a “way” to follow. They needed a well-trod path, even if it had originated on the other side of the world. I wonder if they ever could have understood how it would work out for me. I barely understand it myself, but know that I am different. Because I am a child of LSD and Zen.

Zen is very difficult to write about, except in highly suggestive and often paradoxical language—such as that is found in Eihei Dogens’s Moon in a Dewdrop. Zen defies the literal and laughs in its face. Words only go so far, because words impose limits. Words are fences around things. A word generally describes “this” or “that.” But in Zen, there is no this or that. Zen is without those kind of limits. Zen is the whole.

While I have an excellent ability to sink into someone else’s word-driven narrative, I always emerge into a sort of emptiness regarding my own, because the narrative is essentially nonexistent, and therefore cannot be grasped. It’s not a bad kind of emptiness—I am acquainted with it and don’t fear it. After my mother’s pointed pursuit of “nothingness,” she indeed died and became nothing, and was dispersed into the enormity of space and time. As a child I felt it bodily. A piece of myself went with her and is already out there. It sounds sadder than it is.

There are many people looking for absolutes, for that which cannot be moved, and some claim to have found it. I call that faith, and truly, I have my nose pressed up against the window. I am looking in and I envy, a little, what I perceive to be their naivete. I cannot coexist with those kinds of hard lines. Everything is changing, including my own perceptions. Idols are always false. To observe the rhythm and pattern of change is the closest I can get to what is real and actual. It would be arrogant and untrue to claim that I can ever hold on to that “reality” for long. Perhaps it is because of that, that there is such brilliance in this strange and mysterious place. The natural world. Birds. Love. Wind in a tall pine tree. Grace. The sound of a friend’s voice. A lover’s kiss. I love all the furniture of life. I love the material of it. The silliness. I love the seduction of it, the theater. The drama. The temporary narratives, the attempt to bracket time and stake a claim. The humor of that. Even the emptiness at the core. It’s a brilliant secret, one that we never truly understand. We’re here when we are here in the moment we are here and do the best we can and hold on to each other and that’s all.

Rue Matthiessen’s memoir, Castles & Ruins, set in New York and Ireland, is about growing up in an ambitious literary family—and will be published in 2023. Rue’s book, Buttonwood Cottage, is available now on Amazon. Rue has been published in many literary journals and has been nominated for the Push Cart prize twice. She lives on Long Island with her husband, Steve. For more information, go to Rue Matthiessen.