As some of you who also follow me on Twitter or Instagram may have gathered, I’ve moved from New Haven to Cambridge, Massachusetts. The biggest, and most materially relevant reason, is for graduate school. I also am beginning to think it was simply time for me to move on. Other transitions and changes were happening in my life, and a physical move of location and the reorganization which inevitably accompanies that packing/unpacking dyad has ended up corresponding very closely to, and complementing quite precisely, those transitions and changes.
First and foremost, I returned my precepts. In other words, I returned to laylife. The decision was slow in its gestation, although the timing of the actual return of my kasa to my Zen Master was influenced heavily by the start of summer classes this June. As one friend put it, “Do you want to start off graduate school in one mode, then switch partway through and have to explain that to everyone? Wouldn’t it be easier if you simply started graduate school, beginning with the summer class, as a layperson?” Since I was settled in my decision to return my monastic precepts, it didn’t feel premature to return my kasa this May, when I was in Korea.
Despite the superficially public nature of a decision like this, superficial in that the effects of the decision are immediately visible in my dress and behavior, and anyone who knows me would recognize right away that something had shifted even if I didn’t tell her, I’ve been reluctant to write about this decision here. Reluctant for so many reasons, and reluctant for reasons that have no rationale, but simply because it felt (feels) so intensely private at times. This sense of privacy is strong, even though I literally wear the decision publically every day, much as I publically wore the decision to ordain every day, in the form of monastic robes. I’m not sure that private is the opposite of public, though, not in this sense. It’s been a month since I formally returned my kasa, and for this month I’ve been content to be both public and private about the decision. Not everything needs to be live-Tweeted. Not every moment or event is Instagramed. Nor should it be. This perhaps is the new privacy: the things we simply do, without attempting to record it on a social-media outlet. This was not something I was ready to announce beyond the people who either know me quite well in real life, or who see me every day.
And yet: I have always included not just my religiousity, but also my religious/monastic identity, in my writing here. If I haven’t written much (or at all) for the past year or so, I know that much of that silence came from the real tensions and unbearably private difficulties I felt surrounding both my personal religiousity and my monastic identity and life. To write anything honest would have required admitting to not only myself but to you, dear readers who find this blog from all over and some of whom I know and some of whom I do not, that I was struggling at a fundamental level with the entire foundation and edifice of my life.
Admitting difficulty is not something monastics really do. We do it, but in retrospect. “One time, when I was struggling with my practice…” “Once, when I was a young nun, my understanding of faith totally fell apart…” “Oh, I hear you, when I have dark times like that…” But rarely do we put it in the present tense even if it’s a current challenge, this very moment, even with each other, outside all but a close circle of friends and mentors. We do not disclose our real-time struggles, but wait until the moment passes so we can use it as a distal reference point. Too proximate, and it can’t be discussed. It’s as if these moments themselves exert a force preventing easy communication.
(Even in that paragraph, I slipped into “we.” There is slippage, a sloppy middle sphere; transitional, liminal.)
To write here that I had returned my precepts was to tacitly admit that I had had difficulties, and difficulties that wouldn’t be relegated to retrospection, “That time when I had a crisis of faith…” Unlike other difficulties in my monastic life which could be embraced by the robes and their effects hidden in some way, I had (have) unreconciliable, irrevocable difficulties. Difficulties that ruptured some fundamental tie to a monastic vocation. Difficulties that pushed the robes away. I wasn’t ready for that tacit admittance, until I felt like I was comfortable saying explicitly: I struggled with my monastic vocation greatly over the past three years or so, and the end I decided that to live authentically and as wholly as possible, I needed to leave. I couldn’t explicitly say it until I was able to own the tacit confession involved, too.
Maybe these difficulties will find new places to hide, like in the pages of textbooks, or in the pockets of my now-colorful wardrobe. For now, however, there is something very bare and open about them, and it was that bareness that had me shying away from writing anything here. Too bare, too open; not a state in which to make an announcement like this, I felt. I have not yet “had difficulties”; I am still having them, still walking through new landscapes of living and feeling both assured and bewildered by turns. I thrill at new freedoms, and I grieve deeply for the loss of old ones.
So, all the packing and unpacking has been good, helpful; it’s shown me that the boxes I store my life in literally and figuratively erupt into an interspliced melange when I unpack. I may use the words “irrevocable” and “rupture,” but it’s clear from where I sit (on a broken chair) in my still-underfurnished and box-strewn apartment, that there is also a continuum in my life. My religiousity remains. My religious identity is still here, in the form of ministry and community building, and I’ll look for other ways to fulfill a clerical or priestly vocation, although not a monastic one. My old kasa from when I was a novice and two kasa from my grandteacher and teacher are a part of the altar. My texts from seminary are carefully shelved. I have all the pictures of the various monastic communities I was a part of, and I will find places to display some of them.
It’s been a little over a month since I formally returned my precepts and my robe to our Zen Master in Korea. It’s taken me this long to say anything in this sphere (no tweeting, no Facebook) because I care so deeply about not only how I’ve now chosen to live, but how I did choose to live, too, and out of respect for my brothers and sisters who still live a monastic life. I really believe that you can’t take your own choices lightly without becoming superficial with others’ choices, and I owe the sangha the weight and time of consideration as much as I owe myself. It took over a month to find words roughly equal to the task. The weight of years and the many relationships involved in my monastic life have held me mute; what could I say that could possibly convey both the debt and the relief of these shifting but never absent relationships?
Honestly, one thing I hope comes out of making this announcement here is that some of the stuckness and silence I’ve experience creatively will ease. Having made my situation clear to both myself and others, maybe I can begin to reground myself creatively, and write again. The fundamental connection between honesty with myself and the ability to write has rarely been clearer than the last several years. With both personal and public honesty, maybe I’ll be able to re-engage writing.
To all the readers, known and unknown, thank you.