Turning Strangers into Neighbors

Driving from Saint Paul to the Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center, the developments become fewer, the traffic lessens, and the noise from the city softens. The prairieland opens itself up, and I can feel my imagination expanding and my mind clearing, as the ferocious barking of commercial America fades into nothing but tiny, insignificant sounds. The more hushed they become, the more I visualize them having a harder time catching up to me. The further away I get, the more I feel the monetary and societal pressures loosening their grip, as I keep my pedal on the gas, hoping to fully escape their radar.

As my car’s mileage reaches 123,000 miles, I think about how tired I am. It’s noticeable, and I feel it. Anxiety and obsessive thinking are big players that govern my mind, and I wonder if I could convert all that constant worry into mileage, where would I be at? Probably I would have made it to the moon by now! But back to planet earth… I think about the time of year we are in—the beginning of April, and I can recall T.S. Eliot’s famous quote, “April is the cruelest month.” This rings true for me, as it places me back into a time and space that houses the memories of a life-changing tragedy. And like with any kind of PTSD, anniversary dates can be a major trigger.

But as I distance myself from the conventional howls and hounds, I am swiftly splashed with the bright red, green, and yellow colors of the Buddhist Temple that proudly stands to the side of the road right off Cedar. This beautiful structure presents itself as a bit discordant and random, an authentic Vietnamese treasure placed in rural Minnesota. One day, curiosity finally got the better of me, and instead of gazing out the window wondering what was inside, I turned my car into the driveway to find out.

It probably would have helped if I had entered the right point of access, for as soon as I realized I had mistakenly picked the “exit only” route, one of the monks was on his way out, checking the mail. Feeling a bit like a trespasser, I sheepishly backed up, and drove to the correct entrance, holding my hand up in an apologetic gesture.  Parking my car, I felt nervous, not really knowing if I’d be welcome or not. Noticing the monk had followed me back around to the front, I sat frozen in my car, watching him amble up a ramp and into the temple.

I had been wanting to stop and discover more about this place for quite a while, but I suddenly became scared, not having any kind of spiel prepared in my mind about who I am, or why I was there. It would have been so easy to just turn myself around, but I decided to stick to my guns and go introduce myself.

Through the temple’s window, I could see the monk turning the “closed” sign to “open,” which I took to be a promising sign. Opening the door, I bashfully asked if I could come in. The monk motioned me to come forward. Walking down an aisle of long Persian rugs, a small man wrapped in an orange Kasaya robe sat barefoot on the floor, sorting the mail he had just retrieved. A sweet calico cat with a bell around its neck came ringing towards me and started wrapping itself against my legs, giving me its undivided attention. Holding out my hand to shake the monk’s, I explained how I had just started working a few miles down the road at the Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center, and that I wanted to formally acquaint myself as his neighbor. The man’s face did not bear any definitive expression, but he encouraged me to sit down, inviting me to stay.

I went on to share that I suffered from a restless mind for the majority of my life, and on that particular day I was struggling to find ways to outrun its harsh confines. And almost immediately, an overwhelming feeling came pouring over me, convincing me to be completely real with the monk. I went on to explain how I felt empty and heavy both at once, that I didn’t know how to slow down the spinning thoughts in my head anymore. There was a calming warmth that the monk exuded, allowing me to feel like I could divulge these kinds of things to a stranger in total confidence. He listened to me intently, looking me in the eye, nodding in a mutual human understanding.

He talked about how our mothers and fathers are our first teachers, but as we grow, we must learn to find peace on our own. Maybe it wasn’t just finding it, but how once we did, it was also about granting its entry inside. I was the driver of my own well-being now, riding alone through the desolate farmland in my little Chevy Sonic. We cannot rely on other people or material things to make us happy, but he explained that the temple was there to help the weary traveler on the road. The people are what help the temple, but in turn, the temple is there to help the people. “Mi casa, su casa,” he said with a chuckle, hoping this universal term would help me understand. In that second, I felt like I had struck gold, and I was caught off-guard by perhaps one of the best definitions of hospitality I could think of.  It was an expression I was familiar with but hadn’t really thought about until the monk said it out loud.

Now, there were many things left unexplained from that afternoon—doors unopened, relics undiscussed, but what struck me most about the monk was how he spoke and acted from his faithful heart. I had interrupted his plan to go on an errand and get more cat food, but he gave up his time for me, sharing his philosophies and the ways of Buddhist meditation. He not only wanted to help me understand his ways but also help me understand myself. Funny to say, we talked a lot about my nose, and how I must learn how to feel the “wind” on it, holding the air in my lungs, and knowing when to release it. Several times he led me through deep breathing exercises. He even led a Vietnamese chant, inviting me to kneel behind him at the base of the altar as he sang in his native tongue. I took off my coat and shoes, and even turned off my phone. With my back to the room, I tried surrendering to my worries, fixating on his motions and being okay with letting go of all the things I couldn’t control—the things I was trying so hard to control. He would occasionally indicate when to bow before the Buddha, in what seemed spontaneous but also deliberate moments. At times he’d turn his head back at me making sure I wasn’t getting too lost, that I was following along, like a father teaching his child a new trick.

Afterwards, the monk handed me two shiny red apples, a coconut water, and some plastic-wrapped flour cakes for the road. He gently placed his arm on my shoulder like a parent does when their child is getting ready to leave the home, encouraging me to come and visit anytime, reassuring me again that the temple was there for anyone who needed it.

That afternoon, I was taken in. The monk could not have been more hospitable, turning his “closed” sign to “open” and helping me, an unexpected, unknown visitor. And without anything to give in return, I was told how to pause, how to sit, and how to breathe. Sometimes a total stranger has to remind you where your nose is, I guess.

As my car left the property, I could still hear the echo of the monk saying, “Remember to feel the wind.”  Maybe in doing so, I’d have an easier time feeling the sun on my face. One thing for sure is that I will return.

I peered through my rearview mirror and caught one last trace of the temple, nodding my head in gratitude. And as the road rose up to meet me, there was peace.

 

Katie Meyer is the Director of Culinary Services at Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center and brings experience as a cook, kitchen manager, and creative writer.

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