Searching for Buddha Between the Bars of the Cage

Saturday, November 2nd, 2013

To know absolute loss, to suffer real guilt, to look back on how you have betrayed most of what you thought of as decent and good – that is a stripped-down place indeed: a naked page on which to write down the lost language, that language which reflects the enormity of being born.’ – Stephen Reid

The story of Stephen Reid may be as old as humanity itself. Our penitentiaries are filled with drug addicts and alcoholics who invariably end up there because of the great lengths exceeded in their drive to feed their addiction at all cost. This is not rocket science: addicts do degrading and desperate things to ensure they remain immune from life in all of its failed promise and unpredictable equality. The simple fact of the addict’s predicament guarantees his life will end in prison, premature death by overdose or disease, or locked away forever in a psychiatric ward. Every day the addict escapes one of those three fates is pure dumb luck, or for the spiritually bent, an allotment of grace.

The place where the story of Stephen Reid jumps from the worn groove that leads hundreds and thousands of lost souls to their doom each year – to be locked up and forgotten by all of us, or found in rented rooms with needles in their thin cold arms – is the same place where writers and artists have been deconstructing human motivations for long centuries in a clumsy attempt to make sense of this strange arrangement we call living. Reid’s writing may be wrapped in fiction or disguised as essay, but always at its heart it is simply the dispatches of a man attempting to take apart the inner machinery that drives him, to decode that which may not be ours to decode: without self-pity, without the expectation of mercy.

Raised in Northern Ontario as part of a large family, Reid developed a ferocious opiate addiction at age 11 thanks to a local pedophile / town doctor. The abuse eventually ended, but Reid was left with a ghost that would haunt him all the rest of his days. In his award-winning collection of powerful and tender and funny reflections, A Crowbar in The Buddhist Garden (Thistledown Press), Reid whittles himself to the bone. He gets to the core of who and what he is, where he is and why – one part devoted father and husband, one part struggling writer, one part serial bank robber, and always and forever a junky.

The volume of work is slim at 133 pages, but every word counts. This is the labour of a craftsman concerned more about getting it right once and for all than impressing with grand intellectual gestures or the stuffing and static that fills most of our channels these days. Reid knows he’s getting too old to bullshit himself, let alone any reader. And time, which once was a curse and in great surplus to this convict, is running short. This is the great matter.

Reid has no doubt confounded those closest to him, to say nothing of the system that attempts, with lumbering best intentions, to rehabilitate repeat offenders. After the publication in 1986 of the note-perfect novel Jackrabbitt Parole (edited and steered lovingly to publication by his eventual wife, the talented poet Susan Musgrave), Reid was handed the crown that a few other convict-turned-author’s have worn with trepidation before him. The most striking similarity is perhaps to Roger Caron who wrote Go-Boy (winner of a Governor General’s Award). Caron’s demons ultimately saw the former swaggering bank-robber hold up a Zellers store in Ottawa and then use public transportation for his get-away. More sad and pathetic than danger to society. Reid knows all too well the insanity of returning to drugs and the ultimate fate that awaits all junky thieves: you get sloppy, you get desperate, and you get caught.

‘The too familiar feeling had descended upon me earlier in the day without invitation or warning’, Reid writes succinctly about that instant wherein the addict doesn’t push away the whisper of the monkey but allows it to permeate an otherwise normal spring day. He sits over lunch with friends but feels disconnected, apart from the world. ‘I saw in them, perhaps wrongly, a coherence, an essential wholeness that I lacked.’

And that’s how it happens. It’s that easy. Like snapping your fingers, thirteen years of sobriety, obligations as a father and husband are tossed out the window like a cigarette butt. The celebrated one-time mentor and teacher to convicts follows an old rounder he’s met back along that well-worn groove towards the familiar needle and spoon, towards the lie that has betrayed him all these years:

‘And there it was. My conundrum, my Rubik’s Cube without the colours. I was in old brain territory; I simply withdrew the key from my truck door and followed him up the fire escape into the building’.

Fast-forward three months: high as a kite, Reid ends up staging the sloppiest and most dangerous armed robbery of his career. Turning fifty, he finds himself once again in a holding cell, once again facing the prospect of a life sentence, once again left with nothing but thousands of hours on his hands to sit and stare into the darkest parts of himself:

‘That day I swung my feet to the floor and began to pace, hesitantly at first, seven steps in one direction, seven steps back.’

And thus the soulsearching began. The Four Noble Truths in Buddhism are intended as a path towards the end of suffering. Those truths are: ill-being exists; there are causes of ill-being; ill-being can be overcome; there is a path to the cessation of ill-being. Reid’s book seems to me like an exploration of the Four Noble Truths from various perspectives and angles. The collection — which recently won the Victoria Book Award — also proves that art can play a powerful role in the healing process if the artist is willing to sit long enough in silence waiting for the right words to come.

Leonard Cohen was once asked in an interview if he thought that depression had helped spark his creativity, or whether it was something that just went along with the artist’s life. Cohen replied that it was his view he had been able to create despite the grip of depression, so that art was his personal triumph over the mad dogs of darkness.

Stephen Reid sits in a prison cell tonight. But if his words are true, then he is closer to freedom than he has ever been. And he is clean.

(Stephen Reid was unable to participate in an interview-via-correspondence on the release of A Crowbar In The Buddhist Garden, despite the kindly assistance of his wife in providing an address.)