Sam sat on a plush suede couch, her legs folded beneath her and a laptop balanced on her lap. Her fingers flew across the keyboard as rain pelted against the windows of the little cabin. Her eyes were squeezed shut, and not even the loud cracks of thunder could distract her from her task. In the fireplace, only red-hot embers remained; the only light in the cabin was the laptop screen which illuminated a small circle around her.
When she opened her eyes and noticed the dwindling fire, goosebumps prickled her skin, making her shiver. She considered pulling a blanket around her to continue her mad typing, but her train of thought had been interrupted, so she set her laptop aside. She jumped from one foot to another, waking her sleeping extremities, letting the pins and needles subside before going outside to retrieve firewood. She hoped the fire still burned hot enough that she wouldn’t have to relight it.
When she arrived at the little cabin, she noticed the wood stack under the covered porch but assumed it was for decoration. The forest nights were cold that time of year, so she searched for a thermostat only to discover the only heat source was a brick fireplace. She considered it quaint until she realized there was no switch to turn on the fireplace. She had never built a fire and, with no internet or phone service, she couldn't google "how to light a fire" for instructions.
After several botched attempts, the fire finally started, and she pledged to herself she would not let it go out. But now, here she was, hoping that the fire could be rekindled. She brought an armload of wood inside, dropping it in front of the fireplace. She stirred the embers with a fireplace poker as sparks cracked and spat. She stacked the wood into what almost resembled a pyramid and shoved crumbled-up newspaper beneath it.
The newspaper caught fire immediately, and she pulled her hand back in alarm. Inspecting her hand, she nodded, satisfied that the fire had not bitten her. Not this time, at least. In no time, the fire roared to life, warming the room and bathing it in a soft flickering glow. But then, the door banged open, and she spun around to see that the entryway stood empty. She ran to the door and cursed herself for not securing the latch.
She stood at the threshold and watched as a bolt of lightning shattered across the night sky. She stood mesmerized by the dangerous storm's beauty until a loud thunder boom startled her. She slammed the door against the storm, this time confirming it was properly latched. She leaned against it to catch her breath. She closed her eyes, hugging herself as she took several deep breaths to slow her heart. There existed a time when storms didn't scare her, but now everything seemed to scare her. She reassured herself that it would pass; she was safe.
She set herself to work making a cup of tea to distract herself from the storm outside and the storm brewing inside her head. A sign near the stove warned her that the pilot light was out and listed instructions on how to light the stove. She turned the knob for the burner until it began to click. The smell of rotten eggs permeated the room as she struck a match and held it to the burner. Whoosh! and a small flame came from the burner. When the kettle whistled, she sat at one of two mismatched chairs, bobbing the tea bag in a large green mug as her mind wandered, erasing the sound of the storm raging outside.
She left the city to clear her mind. She googled “Zen retreats” and found the cabin with all its amenities only a few hours from her home for the low price of $900 per night. The ad also touted amenities like yoga, meditation, forest bathing, Ayurveda, and other services that promised her a Zen experience. Zen equaled a clear mind, in her opinion, so she was convinced that even if she didn't understand most of the amenities, they would help her find the relief she sought. She booked a week, depleting most of her savings, and took a week off from work, convinced that Zen Sam would return in her place.
She always wanted to be Zen, a go-with-the-flow person who never felt stressed, scared, angry, or any of the overwhelming feelings she constantly battled with since it happened. She pictured Zen Sam with long flowy hair to match a long flowy dress and a lazy smile on her face. Others would look to her for guidance because they might see her calming, blue-green aura showing that she had it together.
The cabin sat deep in the woods on the outskirts of the Zen resort, far enough from the main buildings for privacy but close enough to give her peace of mind. She hoped by escaping civilization, she could finally calm her anxious thoughts. She would learn how to give her suffocating feelings to the ether, the Great Beyond, the universe, the...the wherever she could send them, so they didn't plague her. She would finally learn the secret life hack that enabled her to handle any obstacle life threw her way.
She tried compartmentalization long before she came to the cabin. She pushed her thoughts into a corner of her mind and locked them in a steel box. Then she sought out distractions, immersing herself in work, taking art classes, and even drinking copious amounts of alcohol. The distractions would work for a short time, but the thoughts would always break out of their box, followed by the feelings that stole her breath, burned her eyes, and shot daggers through her head.
At the resort, Sam immersed herself in the advertised amenities the website promised. She stretched and twisted her body like a pretzel until she lost her balance and fell to the mat. Her face flamed red because, obviously, the other yogis knew she was not Zen. Meditation felt impossible as thoughts raced through her head. She even stripped naked and walked through the forest behind the rented cabin, convinced someone would see her while trying to convince herself she didn’t care. She started to question what Zen truly meant and how forest bathing was bathing at all. Maybe Zen Sam and the real Sam were just too different.
Not a quitter, she kept trying to find Zen Sam; the ad did, after all, promise her Zen. As much as this getaway cost her, they owed her Zen, damn it! She painstakingly composed a handwritten letter, at least five pages long. Ok, it was six pages long because not-Zen Sam counted them several times, worried if she wrote too much or too little, then worried if she wrote correctly. Finally, she used a yellow Bic to light the letter, watching the words burn away until the flames licked at her hands. She tossed it into the river, sucking her burnt finger as the remains floated away.
She felt better after that. Maybe it worked? Perhaps she'd burned away all the terrible feelings, yet, that evening, as she ate her vegetarian meal in the Zen Center, she felt the world closing in again. She quickly dropped her tray in a bin and rushed back to her little cabin. Once safely inside, she fell to her knees, her heart beating hard, hot tears stinging her face.
At the suggestion of a brochure left for her on the end table in the cabin, her latest experiment was called flow-writing. It seemed simple; take a pen to paper and write anything that came to mind. It also seemed safer since there was no burning involved.
First, she could only stare at the paper, her pen pressed to the page, but she couldn't will it to move. In the first writing experiment, she had written what she thought she should, but to write the true thoughts going through her head seemed ludicrous.
She closed her eyes, the logic being she couldn't judge what she wrote if she couldn't see it. Unfortunately, with her eyes squeezed shut, she could barely decipher what she’d written, and her pen kept running off the paper. Then she decided to try typing, and when she opened one eye to peek at the screen, she discovered she had created a giant word jumble. Obviously, Zen Sam hid meaningful words within the jumble.
Sipping her tea, she looked towards the couch where her laptop sat. She considered looking for the hidden words but knew she'd find nothing. Who was she kidding that she could ever be Zen? And for the umpteenth time, she wondered if it even mattered. Hell, she wondered if anything mattered. All she wanted was to forget that night when her life turned upside down. She wanted to forget how her hands shook and how she was utterly helpless to change anything. She just stood there, waiting for help, yet knowing the help wouldn't...no, the help couldn't flip her life right side up. The helplessness never left her after that night showed her that control over her life and those she loved was entirely out of her control.
Desperation to regain control, or at least the fantasy of it, drove her to the cabin. But now she knew control was an illusion. Alice Hoffman said it best: "Once you know some things, you can't unknow them. It's a burden that can never be given away." If Sam couldn't give the burden away, she decided the only sensible course of action was to transform herself into Zen Sam. Zen Sam wouldn't care about control; Zen Sam would carry her burdens and still float through life. She would be light as a feather as her long, flowy hair drifted about her, and her feet barely touched the ground.
She stared into the fire, her tea forgotten, as the storm clouds within her began to churn. The loneliness, sadness, and helplessness punched a hole in her chest again. She attempted the breathing technique she’d learned in meditation but couldn’t catch her breath. Her face tightened in a grimace as she blinked back tears that she was so tired of shedding. And then the anger rained down on her, and her hands shook, sloshing the tea onto the table.
Anger at the pain the tears caused, anger for feeling helpless, anger for having to bear this burden alone, anger for feeling so damn out of control. Then, she screamed and screamed and screamed some more. She had never screamed so loud, never felt the wild release of it, and not even the thunder could drown out her voice. Eventually, her voice gave out, but she kept on, her mouth open in a silent scream. Tears streamed down her face, but rather than burning red streaks down her face, they felt like cool rivers. Afterward, she felt a calm within her she had never experienced. The helplessness lifted, and in its place came acceptance.
She woke the following day, barely conscious of when she had fallen asleep on the couch curled under a fuzzy throw blanket. She sat up; the lightness still lingered. Would it last? She doubted it, but the memory of her screams and the light of a new day presented a revelation: she would be ok. Her throat felt raw and sore, and she raised her hand to touch it. She was enough, and her pain was also her resilience. She couldn't run from the turbulent feelings; she had to feel them. She smiled a half-smile, the closest she'd experienced to a genuine smile in months.
“That was definitely not Zen Sam,” she croaked as she looked down at her wrinkled t-shirt and pushed her short, choppy hair out of her eyes.
“I guess we’re just too different.” Or were they?