"Use it or lose it" said the five individual nearly empty paint tubes hanging from her ceiling. Each one had one word, one color, and combined they made the rainbow of her religion. "I let those tubes dry out once," my former roommate and fellow artist Erika told me, when I finally asked her for an explanation, "and my rule is to not let that happen again."
For many years I was raised and surrounded in a mix of atheism and agnosticism. A highly intellectual pseudo-socialist family, my father favored pissing on McCarthy's grave to going to church. My parents were raised in godless families, so it didn't seem odd to them at all. And in Chicago, or the Chicago suburbs (in my dad's case) being without religion wasn't really an issue. But they were raising us in Appleton, a place where one of the first questions would be "what church do you go to?" even as an 8 year old.
So when my dad died and I needed to rebel in an angry way, I fell for the pastor's son, the pastor of a highly charismatic local pseudo-Neo-christian born-again church. I faithfully sang along, and wasn't too put off by the content because there wasn't much content to be had. Years later my partner would ask me "didn't you learn anything about the bible in church?" and I would have to say, "No. Actually. I didn't." I learned how to sing, how to believe in community (something my family was lacking for more reasons than religion) and how to fall in love, with a young man, of course, who would never requite it. I guess that's a bit like God.
I left after a few years - a whole other story - much to my mother's relief, who had declared when I told her I was taking "Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and savior" that I was ruining my life.
I had a friend in high school and just after named Mark (who recently has re-found me through Facebook, hi Mark!) and he was really interested in Buddhism. Someone I would call a "natural buddhist" who already was mostly there, and inclined to sitting silently in nature and considering the interdependency of all beings, anyway. I was resistent - I approached it with my mind and not my heart, and although I made a sign for my door which declared "Please do not enter - meditating" I didn't really use it for meditation, rather as a reason to keep my mother out. This would strike me as very funny years later, sitting on top of a mountain in Colorado during a month-long meditation retreat, as I struggled to finally grieve the death of my mother, that I had tried to keep her out with my non-meditation then, and couldn't, when the real practice came in, for the life of me not deal with her now. I, in fact, a little delirious with the ongoing practice and constant silence, laughed out loud, causing my fellow sitters to glare at me as I interrupted their own struggles with momentary relief from mine.
So, then, how do I use it and not lose it now? The funny thing is that if you truly believe in something, truly connect to it, it feels nearly effortless to do it. Wait - is that true? I think it might not be. It sounded nice to say it at the time, but I have struggled plenty - to remember to actually meditate, to remember the instructions, to sit down and write instead of washing the dishes or playing with the cats, to use all I have experienced in the last few years of practice, instead of letting it dry up in a tube, unused. But what I suspect is that now, I can never really lose it again. I think that's more what I meant to say. Once I have gone so far in, taken vows, sat so much, am teaching the principles day in and day out, stopping Buddhism would mean something like stopping my life, entirely. All of it. Every single second.
In class this week, in response to the question "If you were to make up a religion, what would it be?" one woman, a fellow Buddhist, answered "Green Buddhism" then proceeded to not mention the word buddhism again for pretty much the entire piece, until the very end. And yet the piece was very dharmic, very true to life and daily practice. When she self-consciously said she got off topic, I noted this and we both smiled. It's as if she - I - can't help but use it.