On Hungry Ghosts by L.B. Johnson

In Buddism hell doesn’t exist as a “place” – it’s created by individuals, actions, thoughts, and words—a consequence of life for which each individual is accountable.

Other faith-based believes notwithstanding—that is also true here on earth, not of the “hell” as depicted in scripture but those places we find ourselves where we don’t want to be.

I was at lunch at a chain Italian restaurant with a group of ladies from a volunteer group.   One of them was NOT having a good day, and when our very young waiter came by and asked how we were doing she said, quite boisterously  “We’re all going to hell and I’m driving the bus!”  She meant it as a joke but we didn’t see breadsticks for the next 30 minutes.

But honestly, looking back on life, many of the times I found ourselves in, of hurt and injury and loneliness – were my own doing.  Sure Mom said I wasn’t ready for the training wheels to come off.  I looked good in that arm cast anywhere.  Sure the posted speed limit is 65, but I didn’t buy a twenty-year-old 66 Plymouth Barracuda to do the speed limit. After that, a hundred Geckos couldn’t have saved me money on my car insurance.  That guy that stood me up for the prom?  Fourteen years later he’s staring across from me, wearing a uniform, realizing that I held his job in my hands.

You all know what I’m talking about.  Fortunately, most of us are lucky to walk away from such things.  But unfortunately, human nature is such that there are things that drive us—pain and anguish, or simply those unquenchable desires that in Buddhism are known as “the realm of hungry ghosts“. It’s the sort of thought process that results in someone trying the same type of behavior again and again and again, even though each time it results in epic “Fail”–with fractured relationships or physical harm, while still thinking next time will be different.

In looking at the world around me, one that grows increasingly dark from a nation of collective “look at me” while ignoring what’s happening right around us, I grow increasingly concerned. I can only shake my head at those that continue to say. “Oh, things are better“.  “We are winning the war on terror“, or “The economy is improving!” (because we quit counting people who have been out of work for ages or have given up)

I won’t speak further of the camouflage that is politics, but I can speak of readiness. There is more to being prepared than buying a couple of weeks of freeze-dried food on Amazon and having Google handy in case of a terror attack or natural disaster while you wait for your Mom or Dad or Big Brother to send in help. There is more to awareness than seeing who is saying what about us in media.  I’m speaking of this, not just as individuals, but as a collective nation— as we seem to be more interested in what a Kardashian is wearing than growing darkness that’s spreading from parts of the Middle East to the entire globe.

Perhaps I’m unique in this view coming out of an environment where everything was earned, and sometimes in blood.  While friends were comfy in their parent’s basements, tuition paid for, playing Pac Man; I  was working two jobs, one of them in a funeral home and one of them as a flight instructor. Being a CFI is a  wondrous exchange of frequent days that are either mother nature trying to kill you or the student. And smiling while doing it. Because the student hadn’t yet learned that just because you weren’t yelling at him didn’t mean you hadn’t just avoided bent metal by nanoseconds. That would come after solo.

Now, I wasn’t an aviation major, interested in science and criminal justice, but it was a lot better way to make tuition than “would you like large fries with that”. I remember some of the students vaguely. I remember some vividly, the imprint of their panic-stricken Steve Urkel “Did I do THAT” expression burned into my brain. There was one fellow to whom I was demonstrating how to recover from a stall, the event where the angle between the chord line of the wing and the relative wind is such that airflow is disrupted and the wing stops flying. The nose drops, you level the wings and you add power. Piece of cake. Except in this case, the student took my words “just gently lower the nose” to mean shoving the control yoke full forward with 180 pounds of push. I didn’t know it would go that far forward. Forward, straight into the ground, coming up at 100 miles an hour.

For a moment, the woods below rushed up to greet us with a deathly slap, air rushing past with the speed of infallibility, mocking the effort of lift, the effort of life. But, for altitude and instincts born of hours of repetitive movements, that might have been our last flight. But it wasn’t and with a tussle of controls and the movement of the throttle we were climbing back up, with the power of an engine and the unending breath of youth. Inhaling life from death, not realizing just how close it was until it was over. At that moment I was reminded that nature did not care if we were young and high up on the food chain. The sky, with its solitude and freedoms, creates a perfect stage for exultation or loss and we are very small actors in the arena.

I spent my 30’s and 40’s as an avid outdoorswoman and a hunter, bow, and firearm. I no longer hunt -finding myself not wishing to take the life, even as I know I could if needed.  But back then, I felt as comfortable in the woods as I was in the sky. I loved getting up early, getting into the camo and sneaking through the woods like I was on some sort of covert mission. Climbing up a tall tree stand trying to hold a heavy 20 gauge Belgium Browning semi-auto in one hand was interesting, to say the least. I know the pilots I hunted with, more than once, took bets to see if I’d make it into a particularly tricky stand without yelling for help. It might have taken me 15 minutes but I got into my stand solo and the view was incredible.

The woods at night can be a comfort, a warm blanket around the homestead, keeping the noise and the crowds of the city at bay. The woods are many things, mornings filled with fragrant light, wanton evenings full of the bounty of land that bursts with the juice of life. The wild is beautiful. Yet, from experience, as any outdoors-man or woman knows, they can be a danger. That is is why I always went armed, and with appropriate survival supplies, even for a short hike. I’ve never been lost, through luck most times, rather than skill, but I would know, that if I did to hunker down until light rather than risk a tumble down a path to the coroner’s house.

I’ve spent many a night alone in a sleeping bag on a rise where I could watch the Northern lights.  I’ve spent many a day alert in the seat of a tree stand, around me pine trees in unfurled vistas splattered with dying oak leaves, fields bronzed with corn and the land empty of any movement except for that which would bring a buck into my sights. The sun’s bearing down, burning my shadow’s bones into the soil. It is late November but the air feels like June, a season of life and growth. I’m here to live, not to die, though that will come in its own sweet time.

Some people ask me “how could you hunt, knowingly take the life of a living creature?” I was there neither to judge nor to atone. I was there simply to kneel on the ground where prayer is valid. Not a prayer that is an alignment of words for a specific religion, but prayer that is the knowing occupation of an active mind, seeking answers within the sound of that voice that prays. The voice of the living who wish to live. The earth speaks of the departed, even as the blood seeps into it, but the voice of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living, only to be understood when it is our time to hear.

In the big city, I’m even more aware of the voices of the dead.Yet – so many people wander, both in the woods and in the city, earbuds in, head in the cloud, paying no mind to the dangers around them.  I learned early on, that’s not a good idea with one night as a young woman.

I was a college student and had stopped by a girlfriend’s family home up in the coastal mountains when I was in the area by chance. I didn’t call first, hoping to surprise her. It was in rugged terrain, high up in altitude and miles from most people. I left my car down the hill, afraid, given the softness of the ground, that my little car might get stuck turning around in the wet tracks of their 4 x 4’s. I could walk that last few hundred yards, and I did so, enjoying the quiet of the night after a day of classes far away. But no one was home, so I left a note to say I was sorry to miss them and started walking back to my little Honda.

I felt something watching me.  It was simply a sense, something that made my stomach knot up even if I didn’t see or hear anything strange. I did not stop. I did not run. I simply strode with conviction and as much noise as possible towards my car, trying to look as large as I could, not looking back, the moon through the trees forming slashes of light upon my face as I moved forward with purpose.

What was it? The hairs were standing up on my arms and in my stomach coiled something as old as fear, and as nameless. Yet still, I heard nothing, saw nothing. I was operating on the instinct of an animal, one that is both predator and prey. Was there something out there, sensing my secret blood, or was I just being a silly young woman who had watched Friday the 13th way too many times?

Instinct overrode logic and when I got to within a few feet of the car, I literally ran and dove in, slamming the door behind me. Echoing in that sound was a large WHUMP against the back of the vehicle as if something had bounced off of it with a scraping sound that was more than nails on a chalkboard.  For a moment, before I could get the car started, I just sat there, frozen. Great, I thought, I’m just as bad as the heroines in those silly horror movies whom we make fun of for not running away, while the guy with the chainsaw approached. But at that moment, I knew that feeling. Young, untrained, unarmed.  Although I was nearly stiff with fear, I got the car started, speeding down the hill in a backward movement of time and distance moving away from that which had caused my flight.

In the light of my own house, I laughed it off, it was likely some innocuous forest creature who I’d scared as badly as it had scared me. Yet when I talked to my friend the next day, her Dad said it was likely a mountain lion and had they known I was going to pay a visit they would have cautioned me as they’d seen the spoor. The cat had probably been stalking me, and only when he realized I was getting away did he pounce, then watch me drive off. I will never know for sure, but I will remember that feeling in my gut as I dove in the seat, legs clenched together, driving as fast as I could until I am only dust.

We think, as humans, we have dominion over the wild and especially when we are young, we think we are immortal. But when we are in those places, be it the forest or the skies, we are on the edge, and living is accomplished on an edge that is neither a humanitarian or lenient. The slow, the infirm, the careless . . . perish. And there will be blood. I am reminded of that daily. With each scene, each violent stoppage of that which is life, I develop a deeper appreciation of just being here, breathing, living flesh, and bone. For it was in that cold wood on that dark night as I was stalked by something long of fur and fang, that I realized that this seemingly sturdy body, that serves me subtlety and so well, is only so much meat, and my thoughts and life history would only be a night’s sustenance to some creature of the woods. . . or to fate.

So for today – turn off Facebook, turn off your laptop and look deep into your own capabilities; not as how others view them, but as you see them. Enjoy each day for the gift that is is, realizing that it is just that. . . a gift. You are not owed a good one, or even another one. I look out into an impending winter landscape, the cold light shimmering alongside of the primordial blue of the sky, waiting for the first refraction of darkness as the clouds move back in again. Here hovers only my God and myself, as I divide man’s intent from his actions, even as He divided the light from the darkness.

We can’t as a faith and a nation, continue to look at the world the same way. Kumbaya world views is simply a deliberate avoidance of the problem of evil disguised in the garb of religious tolerance. Sure we all want to be happy, carefree and prosperous. But if we do so by failing to grapple with the other half the human experience, evil, darkness and death–our story will never have a happy ending.

Noted Jewish Scholar Gershom Scholem said “To the intellect, the problem [of evil] is no real problem at all.  All that is needed is to understand evil is relative more that it does not really exist. . [but] the POWER of evil is real and the mind which is conscious of this fact refuses to content itself with intellectual tours de force however brilliant which try to explain away the existence of things it knows to be there.”

As I drove down the mountain that night, the echo of the “whump” on my vehicle, the skitter of claws ringing in my head, I looked carefully around me. I looked up into sulfur yellow clouds drifting past a full moon, my tall form an exclamation point on the rise of land, until sliding on down the slope until only a flutter of red hair waved goodbye as I disappeared from view. I am just one person, but I am a wiser one, for I have looked into the face of darkness, and know that even with the shield of my God and my service – I am NOT invincible, for I know the power that is evil and will not knowingly turn my back on it again. That is why I support the Second Amendment and will do so until my dying breath.

As a Christian and an American, what is happening out there in the world frightens me and that is their intent. But even further, it strengthens my resolve to be wary and watchful, especially of those within our own borders, that remove our rights and defenses as they placate those who wish us harm. For such acts can lead to actions that go against, not just the Constitution, but both sense and judgment, laying the foundation for increased danger to a nation and a people, which are then inherited by succeeding generations as an obvious truth. Such actions frighten me as much as any terror group.  In pretending that everything is fine while refusing to name our enemy—we simply show that hell is our only home.

Amazon #1 Bestselling author from The Home on the Range Blog


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