In the Buddhist Wheel of Life, there is a realm called the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. Hungry ghosts suffer from extreme hunger and thirst. They wander constantly in search of food and drink, only to be miserably frustrated any time they come close to actually getting what they want. For example, they see a stream of pure, clear water in the distance, but by the time they get there the stream has dried up. Hungry ghosts have huge bellies and long, thin necks. On the rare occasions that they do manage to find something to eat or drink, the food or water burns their neck as it goes down to their belly, causing them intense agony. (Wikipedia) The hungry ghost image is a metaphor for modern day addiction.
This text was originally posted on my Facebook wall in December 2015. Lots of people have read it, and I was encouraged by their response. It felt good to write the story; it was both necessary and cathartic to put this experience down on paper:
I am reading In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Mate. I mention that by way of having met a “hungry ghost” up close and personal this morning.
The morning started with the intention of riding my fat bike to the Knik Glacier. I wanted to change up Nature’s chessboards and play by wilderness rules for a while. I took Kenai and Jack (loopy Labs) for a five-mile walk early morning walk to get them tuned up for being left behind all day. Sometime on my walk, the electric power grid shut down all over Wasilla.
I returned home to a dark house. I keep flipping the light switch on an off to light up the living room. Frustrated, I woke up to what was happening. My daughter, Samantha woke up with a request to make a trip to Carr’s grocery store to pick up some bacon and milk for her breakfast. Ever the dutiful dad, I drove into the dark, rainy morning in search of bacon and milk.
As I drove down Church Road in Wasilla, in the dark, in a pretty strong rain, I saw a young girl who looked exactly like my near neighbor to the south. I flashed on her face noting that she wasn’t my neighbor, and kept driving a few hundred more feet until I got a heart message from my Good Samaritan grandmother telling me to turn around, pick this girl up, and take her where she needed to go. I made the u-turn remembering the last time I played the good Samaritan role: I sustained a severe dog bite on the left calf from a crazy Jack Russell terrier while trying to extricate some woman from under her car. That’s another story.
Did I mention that this girl was walking in Church Road and not on the bike path parallel to the road? She was dressed in black; her clothing barely adequate for the weather. I rolled down the passenger window and asked her to get in.
She said, “I don’t want to get nail polish on your car.”
She thought better of it, and she opened the door and got in.
She was clearly “tweeking.”
She reeked of nail polish, but otherwise seemed harmless. I asked her where I could take her. She didn’t seem to make much sense at first, focused on her drying nail polish, but she rallied and said, “Knik and Railroad.” As we drove toward Knik, she asked my name and then introduced herself in a tenuous voice as “Kaylee.”
She definitely knew the house she was trying to find. She walked into the house and came out shortly afterwards saying, “They are all asleep… they don’t want me there.”
Okay. Next stop, the east end of Wasilla.
I asked her where she went to school and she thought for a while and said, “West.” Continuing, (I’m pretty predicable) I asked her if she worked in Wasilla and she said, “No.” “Do you work in Anchorage?” “No. I’ve never worked before, but I need to work on that.” “Good.” (Again, pretty predictably clueless, as I can be.) “Did you just graduate from West?” “No. I’m thirty-one; take a left here.”
We ended up in a cul-de-sac surrounded with wrecked cars and discarded motor homes. I said I would wait for her to get inside the motor home she indicated before I left. She looked into a wrecked car on her way to the motor home, considered something in the car, and then just stood outside a dilapidated motor home as I turned my Subaru around.
I stopped. She got back in the car. “Where now?” “I don’t know, they were tripping in there.” “Okay, I’m on a bacon run and I need to stop at Carrs. How about you come into Carrs with me and I will pick up my bacon and milk and we can figure out where to drop you off afterwards?” “Could you buy me some nail polish remover?” “Sure.” The power was just coming back on in Carrs. I got Sam’s bacon. I got Sam’s milk. She followed a store manager to find the nail polish remover.
My first thought? Ditch this girl!
I found myself standing by her as she selected four “pretty” colors of nail polish, nail polish remover, and clear polish. She held them up to me and said in a child’s voice, “Aren’t they pretty?” I said, “Pick two and put the others back.” “Okay, thank you.” At least she had “thank you skills” built into her operating system. Expressing gratitude will get you a lot of small gifts in my house.
We paid for the items. The cashier and the carryout guy clearly recognized the hungry ghost by my side. She was still fidgeting and tweeking pretty noticeably. They looked at me, and then at her, and then at me again, trying to make a connection. I could feel my patience and my goodwill starting to flag.
Outside the store, I told her I would take her back to her mother’s house. “Okay.” We sloshed through the rain to Church Road, the lights had come back on in the neighborhood. As it turned out, she lived down Mystery Street a few houses off Church Road in a house where someone had been shot and then arrested about a year ago. I had just walked past that house an hour before while walking my Labs. She lived barely a thousand feet from me.
As we pulled up to a house, she asked me if I “partied.” Pretty predictable. What encounter with a hungry ghost would be complete without that question?
I said “No” and added lamely, “I’m sixty-five.”
She said, “You could come in if you want.”
I demurred. She walked to a truck in the driveway, looked into the vehicle, opened the passenger door, sat down and closed the door.
I backed out of the driveway and said to myself, “Goodbye hungry ghost. Don’t spill your nail polish remover.”
I wonder if this encounter had anything to do with me declaring to myself yesterday that I no longer believe in karma. For me, Karma is an artificial construct; but maybe not.
A hungry ghost… “But for the grace of…” Well, I was looking for a different chessboard to play on this morning.