IN LATE JUNE, I TOOK MY FIRST vacation in three years and one month. I bought my ticket—a third of it paid for by my friends at Shambhala Sun magazine—and departed for Halifax, Nova Scotia, a carry-on in each hand, laptop bag strapped to my back. I had my usual window seat, my usual prepackaged vegetarian meal (nuts). Looking out over the clouds, I saw little suburbs spreading their tentacles through tracks of forest that had, clearly, been the middle-of-nowhere only a few years before. My mother, Linda, lives in Halifax (the capital of Shambhala Buddhism—the community I was raised in), and she picked me up in her good ol’Subaru. The passenger’s window and rear wipers didn’t work, it had 100-plus thousand miles on it—but it got us to downtown Halifax, where my mom lives in the upper half of cute little cottage. I stayed in Halifax for a week: working at the Shambhala Sun offices, seeing old friends (many of whom were married, with children, getting engaged, etc.) and emailing a few hours each day via wireless in a café there called The Trident.
Over the course of my week in Halifax—a formal, gentle Britishish city that has, rather suddenly, lost its centuries-old economy (no more fish in the sea), I was struck by a few things. Working with my mentors at Shambhala Sun: Molly de Shong, Melvin McLeod, Jim Gimian and 16 other sterling staff, I realized how little I know about running a magazine—and how ^!?%#*@ it is that I and my part-time assistant are, in effect, trying to do the work of 19 people. Secondly, Halifax’s beautiful old shingled houses stand side-by-side with newer, monolithic concrete bunkers, known colloquially as apartment buildings. The lovely city’s astonishing lack of respect for its own, irreplaceable architectural heritage made me appreciate, all the more, the Historic Preservation societies and New Urbanism so prevalent back home. Finally, I realized that my mother is a poor person. She wears the same shoes we bought together three years ago. They have holes in them. She lives in an apartment the size of a sailing boat, with donated furniture. Her fridge is emptier than mine, and I’m a bachelor. Whenever I took her out over the course of the week—this being her hometown—she’d exclaim, “Wow, how nice, I’ve never been here before!” She works six part-time jobs, one of which pays $9/hour (Canadian). She’s a teacher, a Shakespeare scholar, she’s helped to found two schools, directed dozens of plays—but there’s no money in all that. When I found out that, other than her bathroom, my mom doesn’t heat her apartment over the 8-month Haligonian winters, I freaked out. I wondered what the hell I was doing, fooling around with this magazine that hadn’t paid me 20K over three years. I was always a nerd—top of my class—and yet here I was, 31, of no help to my momma. But the funny thing was, she was happy. She makes other people happy, too. As Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche says, “If you want to be unhappy, think only of yourself. If you want to be happy, think only of others.”
But then it was time to go, and I flew to La Guardia, spent a night in the now-trendy Meatpacking District—and went out to Long Island, where I joined Ted Rose, who made last issue’s Babar cover possible, and three of his NY writer friends for a week. No meetings, no phone calls—no more than an hour of email a day. I got back into writing my (dusty) Great American Novel—and spent the first week of my life on the beach. I played basketball and rode my bike along the seashore to the Farmer’s Market; I played croquet and smoked Nat Shermans on the hammock with fireflies. And I forgot all about my poor mama. Life was good. Only—and here I was reminded of my teacher, Chögyam Trungpa—life wasn’t good. I wasn’t good at doing nothing. I’m good—one of the best—at busy-ness. I’m so good I’ve burned my memory out. My brain is sick of doing two things at once. I always forget what I’m talking about, forget peoples’ names…anyway. Where was I? Ah yes: Trungpa talked about rich people, and how they weren’t really happy. Can’t Buy Me Love. I know a lot of self-made rich folk, and most of them are brilliant, and arrogant—in a good way—they know what they think, and aren’t afraid to say it. But they aren’t often content. And so, despite a week in Heaven, living like Gatsby, I had a profoundly difficult, lonely, insecure week…until, finally, I stopped trying to be
somebody (I was in a house of somebodys—one writer had the previous week’s TIME magazine cover article and next month’s feature in Atlantic Monthly, one was stressing about his latest for NPR, another working on her piece about Slow Food and yoga, another interviewing the author of “The Hours” and glancing over her feature in the Sunday Telegraph—and there I was, five years younger, the Buddhist cowboy with his little magazine).
Next I went to NYC, worked on wireless with my old assistant at S’nice (a lovely vegetarian café in the Village) and saw Al Franken tape a show; I met with Cyndi Lee, friend and founder of OM Yoga; I met with Breathe magazine; I met with Jeff Mendelsohn, founder of New Leaf (the paper we’re printed on); I met with with Dave Platter, a marketing guru buddy about how to take this baby elephant big-time. Finally, I visited my grandparents for a mini-family reunion. My grandpa and I celebrated our birthdays together. On July 16, he turned 87, and I turned 31. My grandma and I went for long walks, I finished reading Winston Churchill’s autobio of his first 30 years—and I saw my first Jon Stewart.
Here’s the moral of the story: contrary to rumors, last issue (self-evidently) was not our last. Neither is this. At this point, it’s all or nothing. I won’t rest until elephant is in every café and yoga studio that’ll have us. Until I have a nationally-syndicated talk show (Stewart meets Moyers) on the subjects elephant covers: yoga, organics, sustainability, buddhadharma, independent business and the contemplative arts. Until I’m President of the United States. Or, all that failing, until I’m able to buy my mama a nice little house, utilities included.
Yours in the vision of enlightened society,
PS: back in Boulder, I met with John Mackey, founder of Whole Foods. I mentioned my concerns about sprawl,
fast food, architecture, global warming—and he came back at me with an optimism one wouldn’t expect to
find in someone so involved in the real world. Things are better than ever, he said. Blacks and women are
gaining rights. Democracy is spreading. Green living is going mainstream. And he should know. —WHL