Notes from a sabbatical taken after a chaotic year marked by confusion, setbacks, and loss.
Nearly everyone has their 2020 Horror Story. On the personal front, much of my year was positive and solid. I enjoyed my first year as a parental unit (“Step-Pappy,” they call me), ran for office as a Green and lost (no big surprise there, but I had fun and did what I needed to do), attended a few riots, tasted tear gas, had a flashbang or five explode near or above me, evaded arrest once or twice, and despite the many setbacks COVID unleashed upon our daily life, I found myself looking towards a sunny future.
A smarter man may have been better braced for the proverbial shoe to drop.
Just a few days before Thanksgiving 2020, my Papa, father of my late father, took his own life. The reasons are obvious to me, but they deserve listing here. He never fully got over the loss of his son. His health had begun to decline rapidly and he knew his time was short. Travel restrictions meant he and my Gramma were going to be home-bound for the winter. For creatures of habit like Gramma and Papa, who almost dutifully would pack up their trailer and spend the winter months in Florida and Georgia, four months cooped up in icy, snowy Western Kentucky might as well have been a stint in prison.
The story goes that he woke up violently ill that Sunday morning. As a retired anesthesiologist, Papa even in his late years had the attention, knowledge, and demeanor of the greatest doctor you’ve ever met in your life. (I can hear his “mm-hmm, mm-hmm, mm-hmm” as he’d attentively listen to you.) He knew his systems were shutting down. Gramma, a retired nurse, urged him to get in the car so she could take him to the hospital. He refused, saying the doctors there were stupid and that he’d be better off riding it out at home. Gramma insisted she call 911 to get paramedics over to at least check him out.
First to arrive, before the ambulance, were local police. Gramma was waiting out in the yard and greeted them. While she was explaining the situation to one of the officers, they heard a loud bang. Gramma wasn’t sure what the noise was, but the police did — they escorted her away from the front door while a pair of officers entered the house. They made their way downstairs to the master bedroom, and there, dead from a single gunshot, was my Papa, Philip DiBlasi.
Do the details really matter? Yes. Yes, they do. Papa’s death was a death of despair. He was one of the happiest-go-luckiest men of faith I knew in my life, and he just happened to be my dad’s dad, the man who raised the man who raised me to be a man. Those two characteristics, his joyful demeanor and his profound sense of right and wrong, defined him as much as they defined his son…and I’d say they define me, too.
Papa’s suicide came after a period of personal confusion in my spiritual life. I accidentally discovered a trove of racist remarks from Swami Prabhupada, where he endorsed slavery and condemned African Americans as being “better off” as slaves. It was a no-brainer to dismiss Prabhupada as my guru, and almost as easy to write him off as a guru of any significance. This is a case where so-called “cancel culture” deserves to be put into effect.
What I hadn’t done was find a suitable replacement. I’d lost my dad, my guru, and now my grandfather.
“Old man, look at my life…”
In the wake of Dad’s passing, I dove head-first into the Bhagavad Gita, revisiting the glorious verses in Chapter 2 that speak of the Soul and the process of rebirth and salvation. Those were the same verses I would read aloud at my dad’s funeral from behind the pulpit of First Baptist Church in Seymour, Indiana. I take pride in sharing these verses with a God-conscious audience that may otherwise have never heard them:
“The Supreme Personality of Godhead said: While speaking learned words, you are mourning for what is not worthy of grief. Those who are wise lament neither for the living nor for the dead.
Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.
As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change.” — Bhagavad Gita As It Is, 2.11–13
Only the most cynical of atheists would be unmoved by such profound truths. After Dad’s funeral, I asked Papa a question that has since come to signify my own willingness to be vulnerable and seek genuine counsel:
“When your dad dropped the body, what got you through it, and what were your biggest obstacles?”
I’ve put this question to other members of “the club” (what I call the collective of people who have experienced the exact same loss of Dad, Pop, Papa, Daddy, Baba, etc.), and each instance of it nearly deserves their own respective essay — my childhood buddy Solomon Rust and my political pal Patrick Starnes stand out as emotional lighthouses for me during that time of darkness — but Papa’s was the simplest and the most remedial. He put his hand on my shoulder, gave me a squeeze like I hadn’t gotten from him since I was “knee-high to a grasshopper” (one of his phrases) and he said, “Faith and prayer, son. Faith and prayer.”
Faith and prayer did sustain me through the grieving period after my father died, and then not long after, through the end of a seven-year relationship with a well-meaning but ultimately unsuitable partner.
Faith and prayer gave me the strength to carry on, spending more time looking forward than backward, and to never forget that wherever my old man is now, he has achieved perfection.
With the loss of my Papa, though, came an intense grief that reached despair. I looked up to him so much. He was one of my role models to live out my values and to never be afraid to start a conversation. The nature of his death — not just a suicide, but a particularly violent method — threw me into confusion and darkness. I felt those around me offering little comfort, not because they didn’t care, but because they didn’t know what to say.
Where I went wrong was faulting them for not knowing what to say.
I couldn’t accept the argument that he was old and in pain, as though taking himself out carried a degree of nobility to it. Mind you, this was among the people willing to even talk about his suicide. The official ask from my Gramma was to sweep it under the rug — he’d had an aneurysm.
(Sorry to Gramma, queen of the “other-mothers” I’ve known in this lifetime, this is the only time I’ll openly defy you. If sharing Papa’s story helps to de-stigmatize mental health for men — for veterans, for seniors — or anyone living in fear to share about their emotions, if it saves a single person’s life, then dammit, yes, it was worth disclosing.)
It seemed unfair, after 12 years of living like every visit with him could be my last (he was diagnosed with an aortic issue in 2008), through the COVID pandemic, that this was how Papa went out.
“Run, run, lost boy, they say to me / Away from all Reality…”
With my dad’s stroke and cancer diagnosis in 2018, there was a build-up to his dropping the body. Pre-grieving was a big part of my own process and something Dad and I even talked about. We had been close my whole life, but the late-night chats about life, death, God, and looking back on a life well-lived brought us even closer. Dad took to calling me “man” as though we were peers.
When my mom called to tell me Papa had died, as she recounted the story I kept expecting “…and then his heart just stopped” as the macabre punchline. Not so. At least I was sitting down when I took the call.
After a few self-destructive moves, including infidelity, giving in to anger, drunkenness, and biting every helping hand extended to me, I literally ran away from my problems. I left LaNita without any warning, leaving her to wonder if I was even alive for a few days. Not what Papa or my Dad would have done, at all. For added ugliness, this all took place against the backdrop of the Christmas season. The shame of every misdeed created a negative feedback loop: if I’m a bad enough person to do this, what’s stopping me from doing that?
I found myself kicking off the new year alone in my dad’s half-vacant house in Seymour, Indiana, with a borrowed guitar, the old man’s record collection, and a month’s worth of haunting memories of things I wish I hadn’t said and done keeping me company.
Easily, I had reached rock bottom. I spent ten days in quarantine at the house, too depressed to eat more than a few hundred calories’ worth of food every day (if at all), knowing to stay the Hell away from alcohol, and (to my surprise) enjoying a shockingly abundant supply of weed. The weed helped me sleep, but it also forced me to look inward and reflect on my mistakes.
Desperate for atonement, I dusted off copies of books I’d gifted to Dad through the years. He minored in theology and always enjoyed reading about other faiths, so he welcomed books on comparative religious studies, scripture anthologies, and critiques of society through a Dharmic lens. A devout Christian, he always said, “Jesus is a way, but not the way.”
As part of this process, I began warming up to the idea of staying where I was. In an attempt to begin fitting in to the community I’d left over a decade earlier, I wrote a pair of thought-provoking op-eds for the local paper. One quoted the Bhagavad Gita and the other extolled the appointment of Kamala Harris as Vice President as a major step forward in American history that deserved appreciation for a moment, if just a brief one, without any pissy attachments to partisanship. While it may seem like dopey neoliberal claptrap to my Leftist friends, keep in mind even those talking points border on being revolutionary in a place like Seymour, Indiana.
I spent my 34th birthday cruising around Louisville with my cousin. We got Indian food, accidentally broke into the Hindu Temple of Kentucky (to be fair, the door was unlocked and I’d already said all my prayers before the priest told us we had to leave), and visited my dad’s grave site. It was a high point during such a low period, with the theme of renewal and a fresh start offering me a chance to breathe, finally.
“Got to pay your dues if you wanna sing the Blues…”
A few days after my birthday, on a whim, I checked my spam folder in Messenger. I found a message from someone I didn’t know, or so I thought, but the first two words were “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” When I opened the message, I realized it was LaNita, writing to me using a sock puppet account. Some things are best kept private, but the exchange was one of the sweetest I’ve ever had…unconditional love, forgiveness, and the affirmation that whether our relationship works out or not, she and I have made lifelong friends in one another.
She told me up front that if I wanted forgiveness, I needed to forgive myself first. It’s oft-shared advice, but so much easier said than done. At the root of it is self-loathing. If you can’t love yourself, the person with whom you spend the most time, there’s little hope that you can sustainably love others. Nita dropped a truth bomb on me that ranks as one of the wisest things anyone has ever said to me:
“The goal is to make it to Heaven, not be a saint.”
Meher Baba believed that his personal enlightenment came from meeting and hearing divine words from five people he referred to as “Perfect Masters.” I don’t disagree with that. When Rabbi Sue told me back in 2006, “God is too big to fit inside one religion,” that was one. When Gurukha Singh Khalsa told me in 2010, “Prayer is when you speak and God listens, meditation is when God speaks and you listen!” was another. When Sri Parampara Das instructed me on the practice of japa and gifted me with a set of tulsi beads in 2013, that was another. When Imam Azam told me in 2019, “We must always pray for guidance, because it is the one thing God gives us that we can never give ourselves,” was yet another.
And there it was, LaNita Monique telling me the meaning of life in 2021. The goal is to attain salvation, liberation, nirvana — whatever one wishes to call it — and not to pursue a life of earthly exaltation for purporting to have attained salvation.
After a few days of talking — usually three hour conversations at a go — Nita told me she was worried about my mental health and overall emotional well-being if I stayed in Seymour. The town I’m from has a myriad of problems, including a drug trade controlled by newly-arrived biker gangs, a rise in white supremacist organizations, and just the sheer cultural dissonance that a 34 year old childless bachelor is somewhat of an anomaly.
She knew if I stayed, I probably would have followed in my Papa’s footsteps. I’m not even going to bullshit you here and say I knew what I was doing. No. I needed someone to shake me out of my funk and tell me what I needed to hear, not what I wanted to hear.
After everything I’d put her through, I felt so undeserving of her grace. She encouraged me to not question it.
My search for peace settled to a more palatable rhythm when I came back to Portland, back to my beloved LaNita and our funky little family. With my return I addressed the need to change some old patterns, form new ones, and move forward as my most authentic self.
In terms of my personal life, I have re-evaluated my priorities, the results of which I present here:
- Politics will forever be imperfect, and politics are maya.
I’m not saying don’t vote. I’m just saying don’t invest your hope in people you don’t know to solve problems you know they’re ill-equipped to address, let alone attempt to fix.
- No social justice cause will succeed without God.
Social justice is at the core of the teachings of Jesus Christ, Muhammad (Peace be upon Him), and the Sikh gurus. Similarly, faith has driven the most successful human rights campaigns throughout history.
- Hindutva and Anti-Blackness have driven me away from Hinduism.
The resurgence of religious fundamentalism across the globe has awakened an aggressively nationalistic, racist, and xenophobic variant of Hinduism (where they’re so brainwashed by racist colonialism they actually call themselves Hindus) that has left me unable to defend the world’s third-largest religion.
The nasty old lady at the Desi boutique in Tigard who told LaNita not to touch anything unless she intended to buy it was enough for me to tell her in the moment I was ashamed that woman was a Hindu…until I realized I was ashamed to be a Hindu.
- I follow Sikhi now.
The history of the Sikh faith is one of social justice in faith, gender, and politics. I learned a lot about activism and advocacy from my time working with the Sikh Coalition over a decade ago, when I lived in New York City. Anyone who knew me then would know this is a return to a system with which I am intimately familiar and never fully let go of, even as I embraced Hindu practices. I will certainly return to this topic soon.
- The “Reverend” is retired, but I am not.
Long story short, in part of the Sikh gurus’ quest to abolish caste, there are no clergy, priests, or monks in Sikhi. Accordingly, I am retiring my title as a Reverend minister. I can still perform weddings and freely offer privileged communication as a counselor, but I am no longer a “minister.” Such a title brings with it a perceived aura of intimidating authority and acts as a barrier to reaching those seeking truth.
Whatever the future holds, I look to it in a spirit of optimism, with a spirit to eagerly serve others and live honestly.
Sat Sri Akal,