Jon R.C. Roller
I'm in the hospital and the smell of antiseptic reminds me to count my breath and reconnect
with my higher self.
I'm alone in the waiting room, so I chance muttering a mantra under the breath.
For a few seconds, I'm not there anymore, not in a hospital, never was. I was never Tana
Erin Tellahin. She was an ego drop in the vast ocean of consciousness, a fold in the ground of
being. She was as real as I could be, the lower self I take breaks from. So I was in the hospital. But I
count the breath and see the mantra. I am not in the hospital, not in Indiana, not anywhere on
earth. From all the illusion of suffering, I am far away.
I forget. A nurse walks by, keys jangling, and I come crashing back.
The voice of the TV, confident and low, a man reporting the news.
I avoid the screen, and try to focus my healing energies on Dad and his heart, and say a
prayer to the healing spirits and my true-soul-self-higher-power.
I worry how all this is going affect my chakras.
I hear my parents coming this way, their voices distinct catching my ear. I seize up a little
and ready my bag. I can't see the looks on my parents' faces, but I make the leap that they are not
good. I wonder what I can do to please them, help them, help us, heal the world. And I go back to
chanting silently in my mind, counting my breaths and beads, as I listen to their footsteps shuffling
toward the door. I listen only listen on the long car-ride home.
I walk into my bedroom and pull a brown, sturdy old oak chair away from its place
underneath my desk. It's rear, right leg squawks against the blonde, uneven wood floor; long thin
strips of tough yellow and orange, worn smooth under many heels before mine, and yet bowing like
short waves on smooth rocking water. I place my foot in a dip in the floor, and reach for a pencil.
With a another squeak of the chair I am seated. My desk displays before me, with all the contents of
my day and life arranged neatly in bright, plastic boxes color-coded and labeled. Blue is for work; red
for family. In a green box, I keep all of my notes for charities I support, when I can.
I reach behind some paperbacks stacked with the spines facing the brown back of the desk,
and showing only blocks of gray and white, with thin lines creasing them; like small walls of
concrete, guarding. They wouldn't give up the names of the authors or titles, and obscured the view
of a special box. This one has a purple lid, and no label. I place it squarely in the center of the old,
smooth desk, pull my chair in closer and place my hands, palms down, to the left and right of the
box. I loosen my shoulders, and take a deep breath in and out. With my eyes closed I pray. I cleanse
the mind of all dark thoughts, energies and feelings. I focus my mind, counting my breaths from one
to ten, and after doing this six times I open my eyes and look out the window. The tree in the front
yard is lush and green in the bright blue spring day that fills my small room with light. I have seen
this a hundred times or more. I notice, though, that when seeing this familiar picture after cleaning
my mind in the way I have just performed, then the colors spark just a bit brighter, and the shadows
lay more crisp and cool. I look down at the purple lid of the box between my hands. I form a white
beam of light in the front part of my head, in my imagination, and send a beam of this light to the
box. The soft and blonde hairs growing from the skin on the back of my neck stand when they meet
the pleasant quick, chill that just ran down my spine. I see myself, my true spirit nature and I see it
as a great bird made of fire, red flames exploding in all directions, unbeatable, unstoppable. But this
version of myself is benevolent, compassionate; a fair warning to any bad spirits which could
possibly by lurking by.
From the window come the sounds of children laughing, and the plunk plunk sound of a ball
slapping down the asphalt of a small, sparsely side-walked street. The smell of my mother's cooking
fills the room, a pot of spicy vegetable stew with sweet cornbread. I am not distracted by these
sensations. I welcome them in, transforming them with boundless compassion into perfect moments
of unexpected bliss, moments to be surprised by the joy of having them. But I note them, sensations
that they were, sense them rise and pass away. And I do not take my eyes off of the lid of the box, I
never let the white beam of light waver. In the mind's eye I see it and a thin cloud or mist of white
and faintly green smokish energies, healing and loving, surrounding the box. Flowing out from my
chest is also a ball of this white-greenish light. I let it fill the room and relax my shoulders once
more. With my left hand and my right I pop the lid of the box and place it behind the gray book
walls. The scents of sandalwood and jasmine float from the box and I reach inside. I retrieve these
my sacred items, or some of them at least. I put the box back, and arrange the items in a row: a choir
book, beads, and a colorful bag of sand.
Placing the small plastic bag against the T-zone of my face, I feel the cool air from the hiding
place drip from the surface of the bag, across the smooth pale skin of my forehead and down the
bridge of my nose. I think back to the day I got the bag of sand: the previous winter, marching up
the side of a steep hill at the university and finding pavement at the top, hearing the sound of two
men laughing, and them standing on the horizon line of the parking lot in their saffron colored
robes. The echoes of their monk laughter reverberating between the four-story classroom buildings
the two men stood between, framing them in red robes against a cold white sky. I remembered that I
gasped, and I watched the condensation shoot from my mouth as I breathed heavy after the rough
walk up the hill. A moment from the part of my life that I kept track of in my purple-lidded box
with no label, that began when I was just a teenage girl.
I could never give it a name. That would spoil it. For this is the part of my life that meant the
most to me, is my secret; the place where I explore my mind, soul, or consciousness. Forced to give
it a name, I might suggest “my spirituality” but I don't like the sound of that word either. This is
where I keep my notebook, my prayer beads and my bag of colorful sand, and where I seek the
ultimate liberation in moments of white-greenish light.
My mother's voice calling me down to dinner.
I gently and gingerly put my items away and pad softly in my socks over the beige carpet and
down the stairs. I feel awkward and let the awkwardness wash over me. I hear voices. What am I
doing? A grown woman hopping to the sound of my mother's voice? Still doing the same strange
rituals she discovered as a little teenage girl? They rise and pass. I check them. And the rituals are
not exactly the same, anyhow.
I am in my parents little house in Indiana, picture perfect small middle class Midwest
Americana. Mom's stew is delicious. Dad avoids the salt. He's quiet most times, but tonight he talks
about what they did to him at the hospital.
I have my prayer beads in my pocket. I eat with my right hand, but push my left into the
pocket and feel the chipped spheres of human bone slip along the tough, course string. My mother's
stew is delicious, but it contains meat and the smell overwhelms me in some bites which briefly pang
me with guilt and I hope that my merit in simply accepting my mother's compassionate gift of food
and giving her one less stress can balance out the taste of bad karma in my mouth.
But whose bones are in my pocket? Who's bones were these that shape this mala, this simple
technology of enlightenment? Bodhisattvas of Nepal, no doubt. I thank them for their donation after
death of this tool, the perfect reminder of our mortality and impermanence.
Mother offers me seconds. I accept.
Dad is struggling with the Latin name of some condition he read about on the internet.
Mother helps him finish the words.
I listen to Dad chewing a great mouthful of cornbread and loudly swallowing.
Mother asks if I've heard from Kit. No, I say, not recently. I got an an email from him about
a month ago. She tsks. I say it seems like he's enjoying New York. She sighs and says she worries
about him and wishes he would call.
I do not tell her about the night three weeks ago when he called me late at night and began
rambling about the men who were going to come and take him away.
After dinner I get in my car and drive to my apartment. I greet each of my plants with a
deep, solemn bow and intone namaste. I hear them in my imagination greet me back, some with
high chirpy plant voices, others with grumbly old plant voices sonorous and low. Its 9:30pm after I
change into my yoga pants. I know he'll probably call me around 10:00pm. Just enough time for me
to get some chanting in.
I rearrange my altar, what Kit calls my Chinatown tchochke playhouse. So rude. But tonight
I will generate good merit and pass that to him selflessly, and to all the world. For Brad, too, that,
he might not be so mean to me anymore. Tonight I place the statue in the center of the altar and
deeply bow. The mantra. I do my stretches for a solid ten minutes. My legs are sore from the
drive. Full lotus, legs crossed. I suck in a big lung-full of air and exhale with my eyes closed, open
them. My altar. The long drive from the suburbs to here. The call I'm expecting. I light the incense
and start the counting of breaths but tonight my mind wanders back to those days before. I inhale
the pure and holy light from the god of my altar, my deeper self. I try to focus on their clean
energies and spread them throughout the universe And my mind is a cloud, thick and green floating
back to its beginnings, smoke of the incense and my memories blending. And as I chant I see a long
dirt country road and hear my brother's voice complaining in the back seat of a Plymouth station
wagon, circa 1992.
I note the memories and let them pass, as my meditation master has instructed me. And the
great I stands amused and complacent watching these scenes flit past. The Plymouth hovers in the
back, sure to return and yet the film goes farther.
Now, it seems the first thing I remember is squatting on a sidewalk and rubbing my fingers
along the brown, smooth pebbles trapped forever in the solid concrete. The surface is coarse, and the
grains of dust bite into my soft handskin, but those little half globes break the monotony. They are
tan and smooth; feel wonderful and cool to my touch. I hear the sound of my mother's voice calling
my name. The red brick walls of our house and her, standing in a thin yellow sundress leaning
against the front door. I turn my head back down to see the pebbles in the stone concrete sidewalk.
Some are shiny and green, but most are a kind of tan to chocolate and I want to free them so bad,
but I can't, to remember. Two to take with me, free them and bring their polished skins along
everywhere I would go in the world from then on. But I can see no way of prying them from the
gray stuff that holds them. Still my mother calling. I feel my knees straightening themselves and my
body turning against my will toward the house. I run away from those little orbs. I run back home.
I remember summers. Riding bikes to nearby cul-de-sacs with red-headed Richard the Tall,
and trying to guess who lived in each of the houses, whether Meg Ryan or Jim Carrey, even though
all have clear signs in their meager front yards. New House. Just Built. For Sale. Pressing our noses
flat up against the sliding glass doors in the back we see the unstained emptiness of houses no one
had ever lived in. Richard would later move to Germany with his family at the old age of 9. We sit
on the swings in his back yard and look at the sky. I can barely count to 10, but he says looking up
that one day he would count all the stars even though everyone denies you could ever do that. I want
to hold his hand but don't because I don't want to give him cooties, but when he grows quiet I know
he is counting stars, and that he is my first best friend.
Presently, it occurs to me that I never saw him again after that night. The pure cream colored
forces of goodness exhale from my lungs. The incense burns. I fill the multiverses with excellent
merit. Note my fleeing monkey mind thoughts, and return to my breath and counting. The
memories rise and fall, waves.
Getting stung by a bee, going to the doctor, crying when I failed a math test. I float through
each of these forgotten world's but brought back and alive remembered now as if I am there but not.
Living a second time.
Some things I should never want to live through again. Moments of which I am ashamed.
Stealing Snickers bars from the Mom-and-Pop store, lying to Mother about going to a baseball game
(we're going to a game arcade instead; spending all five dollars on Galaga and Miss Pacman--she
would have been furious). Then. My dad's putting me down in the grass behind our house.
--Bug! Bug! I chase a grasshopper.
I chase it into a small patch of gravel and marvel at the rocks. My mother's voice is calling me
back. There is smoke and the smell of cooking hamburger. I run to her and she covers my ears as
the firecrackers shake the earth. My dad is at the grill in overalls and a worn ball cap. My mother's
glasses and jean skirt. My brother is born. There is time for jealousy then. I want to hold him when
they get home from the hospital. I'm so happy. But then there is less time for me. I act out to get
them to see me. I drop plates, hold my breath and stamp my foot. I make the baby cry. They make
me move out of my room into the smaller room. I cry like the world is ending. I know I give them
The worst is a day walking home from school in the flurry of mid-winter and catching a
group of teenage boys beating Warren Sunderfield with their bare fists. I am by myself. Cutting
across the cul-de-sacs where I'd memorized many a mysterious short cuts. None of them sees me. I
hear the high slap of skin hitting skin and big Warren Sunderfield booming down against the
pavement. I see them through the bushes in front of one of those empty houses that never sold, six
boys surrounding Warren and making their demands. How I felt cold at the sight of them, shooting
thru my torso, but nothing like the cold on my goose-flesh that day, not something a North Face
could fix or cocoa. But I do not freeze to the spot, I shuffle around to get a better view and they hear
me. And then it is like my legs in that first of all my memories, my body unwilling to do as I will
picking me up and carrying me. I run away. I hear Warren is in the ER for a long time, and I know
he never plays football after that night.
Her pained furrowed brow behind her large glasses. It is like she is beaming punishment into
me with that look. The time I thought God might not be real, like Santa, when my brother asks me
why we have to go to church.
--Because mom and dad said so?
The answer reaches her ears I hear her heart break in two as she snaps my name.
But for all these pangs of red faced conscience, I find a salve. A scrap of melody hovers in my
ear. There is a balm in Gilead.
The Tellahin household never sleeps in on any day. Weekday are a time of solemn waking,
quiet morning meal, taciturn waits at the school bus stop for the long yellow rectangle that takes me
and my brother to school. Saturdays, though, we squeal and run into the living room to watch the
last great wave of a morning cartoons. Long bowls of sweet cereal and sugar while Kit colors in his
coloring books and I try to puzzle out what would happen next on Jem or X-Men. Daddy reading
his paper, grinding his teeth and rubbing his already bald head. Mother, somewhere; like a
hummingbird. Dishes or on the porch sweeping away the leaves.
But our Sunday mornings are neither of these extremes. They are calm, but active. Each
shower quick but thorough; each family member quickly clean in turn. Our heads buzzing with
anticipation but we keep calm, eat our toast, and choke each other with sprays of huge clouds of
Right Guard deodorant. This is efficiently done in an hour or less, then we sit in the car -- Dad
always driving -- for another hour on the Sunday morning drive to church.
Why one so far away? That is due to my mom and her strict intolerance for wayward
theology. She leads us in hymns from the front passenger seat of our old blue Plymouth station
wagon. Kit and I harmonize on these morning car rides, and I can see him now as an adult
embarrassed to death at the thought of singing along to hims with his big sister in a station wagon. I
must remind him, when next we meet. But again the roads.
Those spaghetti shaped roads through spring green, summer yellows, fall reds, and white
winters are ribbons of theatre stage where we learn to sing out for our Lord. O come, angel band.
Give me that old time religion. It was good for our mothers. . . but is it good enough for me? The
right fit? But our interlocking 3rds and 5ths are only the first 15 minutes or so of the drive.
Our throats grow weary, our attentions wander. Mother always has a Bible study question to
quiz us with, a Sunday School lesson review. She has her morning lesson for the teenagers on her
lap, prepared the night before--how long has she been teaching them? From before we were born, so
my pride swells to be doing more grown-up work than expected. But that is Mom, always a higher
standard held, especially in the fields of religion. And so we cannot got to the church nearest our
house for they are postmillenialists, not to the church by the school as they are amillenialists, and
surely not to the church by the old abandoned mall -- they are Unitarian-Universalist (unbelievable).
But Mom drills us on verses for the end times. Preparing us, mama bear, for the dark days that she
is sure will come in our lifetimes. Plagues of giant bees and wasps, the Jews returning to the holy
land, a Democrat in the White House.
--The signs are all there for any born again Christian to see, to read, to prepare for.
My father nods, groans solemnly, and parks the Plymouth.
The swell of the church organ and the preacher's voice imploring me to come to the altar and
give my life to Christ. My eyes are locked on the scrapes on my knees while I think about whether or
not I should go up there.
I look up to them. Dad quietly moving his lips along with the closing him. Just as I am
without one plea. Mother's brown, curly hair and pink horn rimmed glasses. No make-up. A playful
plaid button up shirt and long denim skirt.
--Can I go up there?
She gasps and smiles. I'm scared because it looks like she will cry, but she says yes. I walk to
the front of the church while people sing. The preacher puts his big arm around me and I can feel
with my small hands the fat of his stomach through the cotton of his buttoned suit jacket. The sweet,
chemical smell of his cologne stings my eyes. I wipe the water away from them.
--Bless you, child. I want you to pray this prayer with me, inviting Jesus to live within you...
And he leads me through the prayer. I give my life to Jesus. My heart is a cave. I see all the
sin in my heart as metal garbage cans, full over and rank stinking up the cave. A glowing Jesus in
robes and beard appears inside. With a wave of his hand, and a flash of light, all the garbage is gone
and a holy fire burns in it's place. A glowing white light, the Holy Spirit, living in the cave of my
We sway in front of the congregation as the music plays on. The preacher keeps calling
people to the altar.
--If this little girl can come up here, then you don't need to be afraid!
A really big man comes up to the front. He is twice the size of the preacher. His beard smells
and the drawings all over his skin ripple, tattoos. I hear the clink of metal and squeak of leather from
his jacket as he kneels down with the preacher. I am alone up here. The lights are burning the slight
red patch on my back where I'd gotten too much sun the day before. The preacher's wife leads me
over to the pew in the front row. I cannot think of anything but that sunburn and Jesus. There's
more salty water on my face.
When the music stops the preacher addresses the congregation and tells them how happy he
was to see two souls come to the Lord that Sunday. The crowd agrees with amens and hallelujahs.
As the people leave my parents come to the front carrying Kit who has fallen asleep. The smiles on
their faces. The preacher tells them and me that I will get baptized the following Sunday.
--Make sure you're here on Wednesday and we'll go over the details. And don't worry now I
won't drown you or nothing.
I laugh. I like swimming. I am not scared. I know what baptisms look like.
The big man looks scared. He is trying to hide the fact that he is crying. But he looks at me
and his face was wet like mine, but he smiles when our eyes meet.
--I wish I'd done this when I was your age.
We are part of a special club me and him. I watch the people leaving, all the ladies with their
hair like feathers and shoulder pads, and the men in their long suit jackets and the teenagers in their
wide bottom pants and t-shirts. After the thrill of the altar the heat and silence of our old station
wagon. Car doors slamming in the parking lot. When Dad gets behind the wheel of the car he turns
around to look at me.
--We're proud of you, Tana.
--So proud of you, she squeezes my hand
My brother asleep in the seat next to me. I cannot hear anything over the sound of Jesus
scrubbing clean the walls of the cave. We roll through the flat farm lands of Indiana back to our
home. I watch the electric lines. The station wagon rumbles along and she looks back at me with
such love on her face. Dad impossibly starts singing the church songs again, his high creaking tenor,
his face not worn out yet, his body not yet bent with the creeping, Latin names for disease.
Jesus forgives me now. Forgives me of the Snickers bar, the Galaga games, the jealousy
toward Kit, the grief I gave them, the cowardice when Warren fell, the blasphemy. Jesus in my
heart-cave, making it all right. I, born again.
Sheets of living light come down and wrap me up. Cool jets of peaceful waters spurt out of a
ball of that same kind of light suddenly in my chest. I can see Jesus Himself walking around in the
cave chamber of my heart, clearing away piles of trash and placing them in a silver metal trash can
and with a snap of His fingers the can disappears. All my sins forgiven, not because I am so special
that I have done something to deserve it no, no human could ever, but Jesus out of his infinite love
has done this for me, that which I could never do. Through Him I can be one with God. The
meaning of life in a nutshell. To find and be One with the Lord God Who Created us. And to turn
away from sin, death, and the devil. There is warmth where there was none and isn't any any more.
A feeling of warmth that I watch grow hot with adolescence, and hotter with anxiety, the need
to make others feel that heat, the need to get back to that moment when it first began, to assure
myself that He is factual and real. The need for authenticity, to have a heart salvation and not just a
Moments where I am confident. When Kit comes crying to me and confesses with no
prodding that he has broken my video game controller. I forgive him with just that much too much
haste. I am angry but that anger is caught on the other side of an impenetrable glass and though I
know it is there inside me I cannot actually feel it. In fact, I just feel sorry for Kit and ask him a
Again it is Kit in fact sending me down a Damascus road. He's running into our cramped
shared bedroom with his shiny Bible. Mine is proudly worn down, as Mother says that no Bible
that was clean and neat had been read, and then what is the point? He shows me the passage where
the sun becomes as black as sackcloth of hair and the moon becomes as blood. He is excited, I can
see a glint in his eye. He has his crayons and his notebook, red ready and black.
--What's sackcloth? Is it black?
--Why are you asking me?
--Because you always know all about this stuff.
I told him about sackcloth and mourning. He delights.
--This stuff in the back of the Bible is so cool.
No trace of irony in him. The colorful twists in the description of John's hallucination hold
him captive. He begs me to describe sackcloth and rams' horns. I pull down an encyclopedia and
show him color photographs of all the things from the revelation to John. Scrolls, trumpets, bars of
gold and dragons. He draws them in absolute silence, slowly with a steady hand and when we show
Mother she hangs them on the refrigerator. Dad approves with a full sentence
--Why now that is really good, he whistles through his teeth.
For him always taciturn, this is the equivalent of writing the Brothers Karamazov.
My memories of Kit are like drawings themselves now. Endless jagged triptych panels in
pastel colors question me on ancient history and the Son of God.
--What did David's armor look like? Was Jesus tall? How could any of this stuff really
I must to know, for his sake as much as mine. I read and I learn all. Vacation Bible School
sword drills and Mother's home memorization tests etch the words of the Lord onto my young
mind. Scripture becomes my world, my breath, my sight, my everything. It is not enough to just
memorize what it said verbatim, but to think on each statement until it gives up its deeper hidden
spiritual message, put there thousands of years ago by God himself like Easter eggs behind a veil of
Moments where I am not confident. When the words clash like pink and grey, where men
say one thing and do another. The summer camp where Whitney proved it all wrong.
I hear bells.
The memories behind my eyes melt into blocks of colors like a modern Russian painting,
faces and figures become square horsies and unicorns stabs of red and dull purple. Where are those
I come out of my reverie. The phone is ringing. I bite my lip and curse the pins and needls
shooting through my lotus crossed legs. I can barely move. I cannot call this meditation, my mind
and memories washed me to far from the Great Shore of Mahaparinibbana. I flop over useless feet
to grab and answer the phone. I look down. It's Brad and the incense has burned out.