The Pursuit of Bravery: When We're All Finally Home

Author: John Lucas Kovasckitz

 

My wife and I have been back in the States for a little over a month, after seven months traveling overseas and a year and a half of not having a home address. In the past year, we’ve sold two vans (our little “home” before we left, and our even smaller home while in New Zealand), we’ve trekked through the Himalayas, we’ve braved a lot of wild roads on scooters, we’ve played with baby elephants in Thailand, we’ve snorkeled with manta rays in Bali, we’ve walked through the Notre-Dame and the Coliseum, and we’ve eaten the best pizza ever made at a little shop in Naples.

The past seven months were were new and romantic and tiring and sweaty and breathtaking and stressful and glorious and monotonous and I was homesick but also wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to go back.

These days we’re figuring out how to be American citizens again...we bought a couch after three days of looking, we bought a car after two weeks of looking, and shopping alone I picked out an upright piano in about 30 minutes (although I’m sure that’s just a coincidence). Our books are unpacked and sorted, pictures are hung...but there’s a pesky frame that’s poorly made and I straighten it at least three times a day before giving up. We have a kitchen again, our own bed, car insurance, a recycling bin, and we’ve filed our late taxes. We’ve reconnected with people we love, hiked our favorite local spots, and gone back to our favorite restaurants.

Danielle signed up for classes while in India and has hit the ground running going back to school. I’ve been writing music and straightening that damn frame for the last time and I started working at a small woodshop a few days a week with my best friend. I’m honestly not super handy but I think I’m slowly learning. My first day on the job I nicked my hand with a power sander and last week I was lifting a table and completely threw out my back. Once I got home it took five minutes to get from the car to the living room floor where I struggled out of my dirty clothes and iced my back, and then I crawled up the stairs to have a small breakdown trying to reach the shampoo in the shower.

After a trip to the chiropractor, a lot of time on our three-day-search couch and a lot of ice, my back is still sore but it seems to be healing OK, and I just finished my first week in the shop without added injury. Mentally the past couple of weeks have been pretty difficult...I think I had grander ideas of what coming home would be like when I was gone. I’ve been restless; I thought that I would feel more purpose, a greater pull of creativity, maybe a greater sense of arrival. I guess I at least figured I would be able to reach the shampoo without issue.

I think I’ve been homesick coming home.

I know that sentence might not make much sense...but I’ve felt it. I think we all feel an ache we can’t quite explain, and a lot of us figure that maybe once we can travel the world or go home or retire or make our first million or meet our dream partner or have children the ache will go away once and for all. That last one on the list strikes true for me...on one of our flights I started crying at the ad (literally just a picture, mind you) in front of me showing a woman on a rollercoaster with her kids. I ache to be a father, but I know that my Deep ache will probably only multiply in the best way when the time comes.

To ache is to suffer, and I think true love requires the ache of suffering. I think we were all made to love, and thus (for a time) to ache and to suffer.

For those of you who quite vocally disagree with some of my beliefs, it will come as no surprise that I attended a week-long silent meditation retreat at a Buddhist center in Thailand. It was probably the most powerful spiritual experience of my life, and was shared with my wife and some of our best friends (Ben, Lydia, and Emily) and about thirty people from around the world.

For six days, we rose from our wooden “beds” at 4:30 each morning to a ringing bell (as an aside, the bell was a repurposed bomb left unused from the Vietnam War...and if that’s not the greatest story of redemption I’m not sure what is). During our stay, we locked up our phones, didn’t kill the mosquitos sucking our blood, observed strict silence, didn’t look in a mirror, skipped dinner, and practiced several sessions of walking, sitting, and standing meditations throughout the day. We got there a little late, so all of the cush contemplative chores like sweeping the meditation areas were already taken, so every afternoon Ben and I would strip to our shirts and underwear and silently scrub the men’s toilets together.

Before that week, I had never practiced sitting meditation in my life. I think growing up in the Christian church I’ve historically felt a bit of aversion to the practice, but now I think it’s really just prayer - perhaps in one of its truest forms. To meditate is to be Still...to empty oneself, to listen and observe - to be Aware.

It took several sessions to begin to learn how to physically sit still for an extended period of time, and to begin to train my mind to do the same. The second day, I pressed into my practice and was given a mystical experience - I felt the sensation of floating outside of my body and entered into a vision. For those of you that I’ve lost here, that’s OK...as Michael Scott would say, I’ll catch you on the flippity-flip.

Within this experience, I was in my body, aware of my breath, but also simultaneously outside of it. I rose to the tall treetops within a scene of alpine beauty: snow-capped rugged peaks, a clear blue lake, dark green trees. I felt an overwhelming peace and joy...an overwhelming Oneness. As I breathed I felt that I was breathing with the mountains, the trees. I was one with them and I understood them. I'm not sure how long I stayed in this state before coming fully back to my body, elated with the beauty and mystery of what I had experienced.

For those of you who quite vocally disagree with some of my beliefs, it will also come as no surprise that I have had a lot of difficulty over the last several years with Christianity, and whether or not I still have enough of its roots left to be covered by its branches. I think the easy thing to do sometimes is to cut and run when there’s conflict...as an Enneagram 9, I perhaps feel this more deeply than most. To stay with humility and tenderness despite differences and conflict is often a difficult arena. After my powerful spiritual experience within a Buddhist center, when I hadn’t experienced something at that level within the walls of a church, I thought for a bit that maybe it was my path to find God under a new tree.

Within Buddhism it is believed that the root of suffering is attachment - through the desire to have or to not have (craving or aversion). Buddhist monks are taught to picture a rotting corpse when thinking of sex, and if food is found to be especially delicious - creating attachments - you are taught to spit the mouthful into your hand, observe it, and then to swallow it again. Mmm boy.

Over the next couple of days, I tried not to create an attachment to again achieve an out of body experience, but nevertheless I suffered through the subsequent sessions. I was wiggly and couldn’t focus, slowly growing more and more frustrated. I struggled to wake up in the morning, and I struggled to go to sleep on the wooden bed at night without Danielle. I struggled with the mosquitoes. I struggled with the story of the Buddha...that to find enlightenment he had to leave his wife and child behind. I struggled with parts of Buddhist philosophy and especially the belief in reincarnation - what I believe to be an underlying excuse for tolerating and further turning the wheel of injustice. I think we learn the most through struggle...and over those several days I learned a lot about my marriage, my own selfishness, and I further solidified many of my beliefs.

I think I especially struggled with the idea of striving for non-attachment to avoid suffering. I believe that to avoid attachment is to avoid true love, and that to avoid love is the worst suffering of all. I want to love deeply...thus I want to fully take suffering head on, come what may. I want to enjoy sex with my wife without thinking of a rotting corpse, I want to enjoy good food without feeling the need to spit it into my hand, I want to father children and to call them my own, I want a comfortable bed unless I’m camping under the stars, and I want to kill a few mosquitoes every once in awhile.

I think God is the ache and God is the roots and God is the branches, and God can be found wherever we look because God is everywhere and in everything. Yet I think we all have our own stories, our own parents. As the days progressed, I learned more and more that I was no Buddhist; I was no monk. Despite the conflict and despite the differences and despite my unbelief, I believe Christianity to be my father, my mother...my roots, my story.

Particularly frustrated during a sitting meditation session, I looked around the room and to the banner at the front - one of the resolutions reading, that all people strive to realize the heart of their own religions. In that moment, I closed my eyes and prayed: Jesus, show me your heart. Immediately I was again lifted out of my body. No vision...just the same overwhelming feelings of peace and joy.

I think I’ve come to the peaceful realization that we’re all One, different parts of the Whole...and that God is within us all, but that Christians are my blood relatives. We share the crazy family reunions and the rituals and favorite stories that bind us together.

One of the most beautiful things about the week was that our teacher, a woman who gave up attending her own doctoral ceremony to be with our class, reminded me deeply of my Grandma K...one of my favorite people in the world. I didn’t catch my teacher’s name until the end of the week, so in my head she was my Buddhist Grandma K.

My Grandma K has Parkinson’s disease, and she trembles and shakes a lot these days. It was extremely special to learn how to sit still and to move and to walk with intention from someone who had her presence, her Spirit.

My Grandma has been one of my greatest teachers of love and of God, and how to fill a home with the joy of family. She lives in the little town of Hope Mills, and the Kovasckitz home on Main Street has been one of the great refuges of my life. However, these days even that home leaves me a little achy, a little homesick. My Grandpa isn’t there anymore in his den watching football, or playing Spider Solitaire on his computer being the grand gatekeeper of the sliding glass door. The pool feels smaller, the kitchen table underneath Grandma’s wind-up toys can’t fit as many of us these days. My cousins are all grown up, life is more complicated...and some of them have even had children of their own. This young generation has brought new life and perspective to meeting at my Grandma’s, but the ache still remains.

I think we’re all aching for God in our own ways. Wholeness. Togetherness. Peace. Family. I think we can get tastes on this earth, but it's never the full glass...there's always a piece or two missing.

I don’t exactly know what I believe about the afterlife anymore. I think like reincarnation within Buddhism, talks of heaven and hell and the afterlife within Christianity have allowed us to look past injustice as we meet it here and now.

But nobody knows for sure what happens after we die. Maybe we just fall asleep forever. Maybe we’re reincarnated. Maybe we’re all in a simulation and I’ve already died hundreds of times. I hope not. Personally, I believe in a loving Creator, and with the presence of temporary suffering I have to believe that it’s all leading somewhere, that somehow there is a purpose for it all. If there is an afterlife or a heaven, I believe that it will be a continuation...it will be familiar. It will be the earth as it should be, with pure peace and joy, because all of the reasons for those things to be absent will be gone. I believe that there will be an overwhelming sense of Oneness, wholeness, of family - because we will all be there, no matter what we said or did or believed before...for if we weren’t all there, it wouldn’t truly be complete. And I think we’ve all experienced enough hell on earth to know a good thing when we see it.

I don’t know if I saw and experienced a glimpse of the afterlife in my vision, but I wouldn’t mind if it was. I don’t know how we’ll reach life after death...if we go to another dimension immediately when we die or if we’ll all wake up together. If it’s all the same, I think I’d like to ride there through the night in the back of my family’s 1992 two-toned Chevrolet Suburban with burgundy interior. My dad will be driving because he knows the way, and my mom will have her headphones in and she’ll be singing. Danielle will fall asleep with her head in my lap soon after we start moving, and I’ll nod off and wake up just as we’re pulling into the driveway.

It will be Grandma’s white house, but instead of the pool in the back it’ll be right up against the alpine lake with a large garden to the side leading into the expansive forest. The house will already be full, but quiet, still, and asleep. Maybe Danielle and I will build a little neighboring cabin, but for now we enter. We’ll go in as quietly as we can, but the sliding glass door will make a noise and Mugsy will give a sleepy bark. We’ll steal upstairs to put our things away, and Grandma will be at the top of the stairs in her cotton nightgown. Her hair will still be white, but her eyes and limbs are young. My mom will tell her that we tried not to wake her, but she won’t answer - just smile and whisper, “hey, kids”. She’ll hug us and scratch our backs with fingers that don’t shake anymore. She’ll tell us that sugar cookies are in the jar, and we’ll silently eat cookies and drink milk, and my dad will eat a cold roast beef sandwich.

We’ll go make beds out of big pillows on the living room floor because all of the rooms are full, but we won’t mind. We’ll wake up late and pad our way out - Grandpa will be reading the paper with Mugsy in his lap, and Grandma will be watching the birds with Uncle John. She’ll have a cup of coffee in her hands, and outside the window Aunt Carol will be walking the garden with a cat or a chicken at her heels, and my dad will be pulling weeds. Steph will be outside running after Riven and Flapjack, and Grandma will giggle. When they see me come in, they’ll say, “morning, Luke”.

And that’s how I’ll know I’m finally home.

//

Six years old, but still holding true. I’ve gotten better at singin’ and recording and the boys have gotten better at videos, but I think this one is still special.