From The Under 35 Project: “What the Buddha Knows of Concrete”

Here’s the latest from The Under 35 Project, by Sonya Huber.

Despite my best intentions, I felt underdressed to receive the dharma.

I waited at the registration table with attachments and shenpa bristling like the hooks from a well-stocked tackle box. The other women milling around the book table at the first Midwestern Women in Buddhism conference wore professional/artsy garb: colorful woven scarves draped artfully around necks, baggy charcoal gray pants, loose blazers in embroidered, imported fabrics.

I’d consciously chosen clogs, not sneakers, and jeans without a hole. But in my frenzy to get out the door after I dropped my toddler off with my parents, I’d slipped on my rough brown John Deere work jacket. On the drive to the conference up from the southside Catholic home where I grew up, I passed the industrial parks, junkyards, strip malls, and corn fields of Chicago’s back door, all reminders of where I’d come from. The hour-long commute (blasting classic rock when I should have sat in silence) wasn’t enough time to adjust and clear my head.

A woman with a colorful scarf cut in front of me at the table, then complained to the volunteers about the parking situation. Breathe, I told myself.

I gave my name, got my folder, and saw that I didn’t receive a ticket for lunch. “If I paid, I should get lunch, right?” I asked.

“I’m sorry,” the volunteer said efficiently, explaining that I had missed that spot on the web site registration form. “There’s a food court on the second floor…”

I took my folder, turned and walked away. She called after me, “Excuse me, excuse me…”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, a curt wave of the hand to cut her off. Waves of bad karma rippled from my hunched shoulders. I was thrilled about the very existence of this conference, but the strangeness of it overlapping with my earlier life, was making me edgy and fierce: don’t you dare not let me in. I need this.

I’d come to meditation through panic over a few years. A social justice organizer, I didn’t trust myself around any whiff of relaxation; wasn’t it the American lullaby? I worked and worked and ground myself down to a nub. Yet secretly I devoured books on Buddhism and meditation, my vice of longing. When panic attacks resurfaced in my early 30s, I made myself sit still for an eternity of five minutes each day.

Then I had a baby. I found myself with nothing left inside me, and when my son was six months old I found myself showing up for the meditation instruction at a Tibetan sangha in Columbus, Ohio. The incense, candles, and multiple deity images were Catholic enough to make it feel and smell like home. This was to save my small world so I could work on saving the bigger one later.

I found the free coffee, the free muffins, the bounty of carefully arranged fruit and incense on each table in the conference exhibition hall. Unexpected richness, like the past few months in my own life: I was months away from starting my first job as a professor, not as a gas station attendant. The stories in my head might take years to catch up.

A gong sounded, and silence fell. The woman who cut in front of me in line was the keynote speaker. So of course she’d been hassled to be late. She was razor-sharp, a gift to listen to. I felt glad she’d been abrupt in line, the brusqueness suddenly justified because she had a clear-eyed hold on patriarchy and dharma.

After the first workshop, I sat in the hall beneath a large black and white photo of a playground scene: a Catholic nun in habit and robe breathlessly raced toward a kick-ball, a gleeful student running after her. Three of my aunts were Catholic nuns, all goofy and Southern and irrepressible. The joyful photo made my chest unclench. I shuffled through my conference schedule, and my cell phone beeped. I listened to a voicemail recording from a close friend who had just undergone a double mastectomy and was about to start chemo. The message laid out a few options for her “haircut party” the following weekend.

This is real life, and the jacket and the lunch don’t matter. My eyes stung. Every tonglen meditation on my cushion started with her, with the illusion that I could take away any of her pain or her fear.

As I cradled the phone against my cheek, an Asian Buddhist nun in plain brown robes walked past. She turned, apprehended the image and let out a quick and free trill of laughter.

For a moment, three stories in a constellation: 1950s nun (shorn head under habit) chasing a ball; a bald Buddhist nun in billows of brown robes, a burst of joy; and the hesitant voice from my phone, describing a head-shearing ceremony.

For lunch, I went out into the Chicago I knew, wending down side streets to find a Chicago hot dog and fries. I ate it sitting on a low wall near a busy intersection, and the crunch of the poppy seeds tasted like home. The Chicago-dog meditation with a side of fries gave me a chance to wordlessly regroup. What drew me here, far past the boundaries I set up for myself, was not the beautiful scent of a lotus. The hardness of life, the rough fabric of it, pushed me onto this path, and yet sustenance appears, woven in with this red-orange ache.

Back in the reception hall, the gong sounded three times. I found a chair against the back wall, near a bounty of thirty leftover lunches in plastic containers. Up at the front of the room, the American Buddhist nun Khenmo—shorn, scrubbed and simple, shockingly radiant even from two hundred feet away—began to speak.

“Who here is a breast cancer survivor?”

She and eight other women raised their hands. They were Buddhists, but still women, still people. That is what I learned.

The world is still hurting, and I am the mother of a two-year-old. I do not want my boy to grow up in a world of pain. All I am doing, for today, is trying to breathe and be aware of the pain that I am in, to sense the pain of those around me, like remedial summer school to catch up with this thirty-five-year-old body. The thing I have learned is that pain is a signal and a warning.

And in this way, I will rebuild my life. I have taken two years away from the movement, but I have faith that I will find my way back to the fight for social justice. That urge is in my soul, and I don’t need to force myself or beat myself into an automaton of change. I will listen, next time, to my breath and the choking or freeing sense in my chest. I will take my daily misery and hope to the meditation cushion and the notebook, and I will feel the pain rippling through my shoulders, my stomach. I will use all of these pains — for pain is a rainbow of warnings, an alphabet, a map — as a signal.

Sonya Huber is a creative writing teacher at Fairfield University, and has written two books of memoir: Opa Nobody and Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, both published by University of Nebraska Press. She wrote this essay at age 34, as she “shyly began to admit that I was a Buddhist.” Read more at

To see the rest of our Under 35 Project posts, click here. To read more and submit your own work, visit the project’s website.


  1. lacejosegal
    Posted November 16, 2012 at 11:22 am | Permalink


  2. elizabeth
    Posted December 18, 2012 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    I loved this piece. As someone raised as a Catholic in the midwest who also came to Buddhism as refuge from the hardness of life, I also often felt I didn't belong or wouldn't be welcomed into the places I needed most. So enriching to have your voice, background, experiences, and story offered here. Thank you!

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