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LOS ANGELES TIMES BESTSLLER • WINNER OF THE NAUTILUS BOOK AWARD • “In a world full of spiritual seekers, Megan Griswold is an undisputed all-star. What a delightful journey!”—Elizabeth Gilbert, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Big Magic and Eat, Pray, Love
The Book of Help traces one woman’s life-long quest for love, connection, and peace of mind. A heartbreakingly vulnerable and tragically funny memoir-in-remedies, Megan Griswold’s narrative spans four decades and six continents—from the glaciers of Patagonia and the psycho-tropics of Brazil, to academia, the Ivy League, and the study of Eastern medicine.
Megan was born into a family who enthusiastically embraced the offerings of New Age California culture—at seven she asked Santa for her first mantra and by twelve she was taking weekend workshops on personal growth. But later, when her newly-wedded husband calls in the middle of the night to say he’s landed in jail, Megan must accept that her many certificates, degrees and licenses had not been the finish line she’d once imagined them to be, but instead the preliminary training for what would prove to be the wildest, most growth-insisting journey of her life.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from The Book of Help
It is obviously very early. The light is no more than dusk that leaks past the edges of the blinds.
Embracing the Beloved: Relationship as a Path of Awakening
by Stephen and Ondrea Levine
Purpose: I don’t just want a good relationship. I want a great relationship. And given all that Imago stuff about our family of origin and the relationships we pick, I’d better get cracking. My friend Denise thinks I should do a silent Vipassana meditation retreat. But what with my verbal incontinence, I can’t imagine agreeing to a vow of silence for a day, let alone a week. I’d have to be pretty desperate. In lieu of that, I’ll read this book.
Duration: There’s the actual reading of the book, and then the subsequent discussions with my husband, Tim, about implementing the exercises in the book.
Equipment Needed: Book, but beyond that, it depends on the exercise. They are largely equipmentless but full of instruction.
Relationship Status: Newly married, and wanting more intimacy. Not sure what I even mean by that. Just know I want more.
Location: Village Bookstore (the best New Age book selection) in Bellingham, Washington.
Oh, my God, I love Stephen and Ondrea Levine. It’s my new thing. I can’t stop reading their book. I keep thinking her name is Andrea with an A, but it’s not; it’s definitely an O. I know because I didn’t just buy their book, I bought their tapes too—To Love and Be Loved: The Difficult Yoga of Relationship. And Stephen definitely pronounces her name On-drea. When I’m not reading them, I listen to them. My friend Denise turned me on to them. I think they’re geniuses, like live-action Buddhas meet couples counselors.
My mom was really into Harville Hendrix’s Getting the Love You Want during a rocky chapter in my parents’ marriage. But the Levines seem more . . . what . . . more . . . of my generation or something. And Stephen and Ondrea—unlike most Buddhist-Hindu-Sufi-Taoist-monk types—dedicate their spiritual practice to being a couplehood. None of this celibate monk stuff. They talk about relationships being a tandem climb, where the partners swap leads for a lifetime. I love that metaphor—Tim and I on a tandem climb. That’s so what I dream about.
And like all good Buddhists, Stephen and Ondrea (I like to use their first names ’cause I feel like I know them) met in silent retreat—a death-and-dying workshop, no less. Ondrea had been battling a series of diseases for a lifetime and Stephen was a teacher of Conscious Dying. And Buddhists are the bomb as far as death-and-dying stuff goes. Ask anybody. Anyway, they met, they fell in love at this silent retreat. The first day, before dropping into unabating silence, they went around that classic circle, sharing the “what brings you here” talk. After the talk, Ondrea headed back to her tent, where someone had left a note on her pillow that said: “I love you and would like to take care of you and your child for the rest of your life.” And Ondrea instantly knew who had written that note.
And the rest writes itself. The silent retreat culminates with a Sufi dance—because if you were a death-and-dying silent retreat, wouldn’t you end that way too? A wild spinning dervish sending you straight into ecstatic trance? And mid-dance, their eyes locked and they danced away from that Sufi circle together and have never left each other since. And as any Buddhist Cinderella story should go, both had made peace with being alone indefinitely, each imagining themselves odd enough nuts to never run into somebody else as odd as they. And let’s be honest, how big is that death-and-dying dating pool anyway? And as soon as their kids were out of the house, they decided to take relationship as spiritual practice up a notch or two, living in retreat only with each other in New Mexico. (Maybe that’s what my parents should have done. Or what Tim and I should do now, when we’re just getting started.) But Stephen and Ondrea simply taught what they learned. And you know, typically, Buddhist monks aren’t the best advisors to couplehoods. So, for long-term couple stuff, give me Stephen. Give me Ondrea.
Steven and Ondrea Telephone Readings
Purpose: One step further. To study and discuss the book with what I call my Designated Spiritual Friend, Denise.
Duration: These can last hours.
Equipment Needed: Two phones.
Location: Bellingham, Washington (me), and Wyoming (Denise).
Denise and I are on the phone yet again, reading aloud from Embracing the Beloved. It’s dark outside. I sit in Tim’s and my new (old) house, largely empty, minus a bed and a dresser or two. We’re still moving in and don’t own much furniture.
Tonight, I wait for Tim to return from a business trip to Colorado. He’s helping some organizations get on their feet. Tim and I met in Patagonia, on a semester-length wilderness training program I took after graduating from Columbia. I had waited tables at a Berkeley, California, microbrew pub and saved all my tips for the tuition in a pretty white box I hid in my pantry. It was worth every penny. I fell for not only the wilds of Patagonia but my first real love. Tim is kind (and not just average kind; like, exceptionally kind) and handsome (not just regular handsome, but this humble-shy-strong-tall-perfectly-coiffed-with-a-hint-of-disheveled-sun-bleached-blond-haired-all-American-meets-aquamarine-blue-eyes kind of handsome) and not just regular smart, but Ivy-League-got-accepted-everywhere-he-applied smart; and not just polite, but sweet-old-school-New-England-beyond-gracious polite. He’s the most grounded, generous man I’ve ever met. We once played that game Would You Ever and the question was, “If you could save an endangered species by spending a year immobilized in a full-body cast, would you?” Not only was his yes emphatic, I thought we might soon be shopping for splints, plaster, and bandages. And he’s kind of a late bloomer, like I am. We’ve followed each other around ever since—from Chile to graduate school.
And here we are, five years in and newly wedded, fresh off the glow of crunchy-modern-hippie-wedding-in-the-tall-grasses-at-the-edge-of-the-wild-Similkameen-River, where we said our (of course) handwritten vows, barefoot and bathed in Mary Oliver (his) and Pablo Neruda (mine)—all hay bales, riparian, and Northwest-y—surrounded by our friends and parents and respective older sisters.
But tonight, while I wait for Tim in our little saltbox house, Denise and I do what we do frequently: examine our relationships as if the men in our lives are mere case studies rather than actual human beings. We’ll often violate any confidence in the couplehood if we confidantes think it will help us get to the bottom of it. It. We analyze our men, dissect them, hoping to make sense of this life stuff, this love stuff. Never realizing that this, too, can take us further from our partners, turning them into objects. But we pat ourselves on the back and call this intimacy, as if talking about it is the same thing as doing it.
So Denise and I are deep into hour two of our little impromptu intimacy phone workshop. I read my favorite bit:
The distance from your pain, your grief, your unattended wounds, is the distance from your partner. Whatever maintains that distance, that separation from ourselves and our beloveds, must be investigated with mercy and awareness.
The mind creates the abyss but the heart crosses it.
“God, that’s brilliant,” I say. I’m sure I tear up. “So the less afraid I am of my own pain, the closer I’ll feel to Tim. I love that idea that the heart crosses the abyss our minds create. God, that’s good. And I love that word beloved. I want to start using it: my beloved.”
And so it goes. We cry over how gorgeous it is, how sensitive and deep and misunderstood we are, and, in turn, how much we misunderstand our partners; we say our I love yous and hang up. The world’s problems nearly solved on the phone tonight. Maybe tomorrow we’ll redraft the Palestinian peace accord.
I expected Tim home by nine p.m. Now it is ten. Then eleven. Then twelve. I start pacing our dark house in loops. This isn’t like Tim to be late, let alone not call. To keep myself occupied, I watch Jay Leno interview Hugh Grant. The last time I saw him on the show it was following his arrest for getting a blow job from a prostitute with an exotic name. And everybody asked, “Why in the world would someone want to get a blow job from Divine Brown, when he had Elizabeth Hurley at home?”
And now it’s after one a.m. and I get a phone call from Tim. He tells me he is in jail.
“As in jail jail?”
“Jail,” he repeats. “I was on my way home on I-5 and saw a woman stumbling by the side of the road near our turnoff. I stopped and offered to let her use my phone. But then the police saw me and thought the whole thing looked suspicious and I got arrested.”
And I think: Helping a woman stumbling? With him, possible.
“Tim, are you telling me the truth? Because you know you can tell me the truth. I can take it.” I speak calmly and clearly. I mean it.
“Yes, I’m telling you the truth,” he says.
I offer to start making calls for assistance and attorney friends. We’re nothing if not annoyingly overeducated with similarly annoyingly (but loving) overeducated friends. But Tim refuses the help.
“I’ll be fine. I am fine. Don’t do anything,” he says.
“But how will you get out? Is this your one phone call? Do you get another phone call? Or is that just the movies . . .”
“I don’t know. I’ll be fine. I’m fine.” His voice, firm.
I make those calls to trusted lawyer friends anyway. I call my mother too. Despite it being the middle of the night, I know she will answer and can snap to full consciousness on a dime, no matter how deep her sleep. I need to help, and harness more help where I can. My mom adores Tim. She will help me think this through.
When Tim and I hang up, I head straight to the bathroom. Without going into too much detail, turns out there’s some truth to the expression “having the shit scared out of you.” I spend an impressive amount of time there over the next seven hours. I keep thinking about Embracing the Beloved. I pace our nearly lampless furniture-free house through the night, hoping the phone will ring again. It doesn’t. After dawn, I get a call from a strange female voice that tells me I can pick Tim up at the jail in an hour. I put together a goodie bag of sorts, with a snack and a warm wet towel so he can wash up.
When we imagine the geography of our cities, we don’t often imagine where the jail is. But it’s usually in the middle, with other civic buildings. So while I’m not sure where the Bellingham jail is exactly, I do know where the library is, as Tim and I had taken my mother there for her to compare it with our family’s other favorite city libraries just that week. In our family, books were sacred and given far more easily than hugs. Reading aloud a good book was far more natural for Mom than maternal touch. So a good library? Fantastic.
I look up the jail address and get Tim’s goodie bag, remicrowaving the washcloth one last time so it will be warm, like they provide at overthought restaurants between courses. I head downtown.
After a few wrong turns using the library as landmark, I pull up to the loading zone. I see Tim standing in front of the jail, wearing the suit he married me in. The vintage olive green coat over his arm, white sleeves rolled up. He looks older. He’d always looked so young for his age. My friend Nessa from second grade has always called him Opie with a Bod because he has such sweet innocent face atop one spectacularly broad chest. But there he is, my beautiful husband, looking like the saddest person in the world. My heart breaks for him. I know, whatever has happened, that I love him, can see his beauty—the way he steps into the car with a certain extra quiet self-consciousness, a certain asking for permission. I also know—as sure as I know my own name—that whatever his truth, I have zero interest in ever adding to the look of suffering and shame I now see before me. My only hope, in fact, is to lessen it. This, the only clear thought I’ve had between last night and now. Amid the mystery, only one clear thing. My role as his wife and partner: to support the navigation through whatever waters he finds himself. Or through whatever waters we find ourselves. I picked this boat. He picked this boat. We picked this boat. But neither the waters nor the weather can ever be predicted. Herein lies the tricky part—having some agreement on whose waters one or both of you are in.
We start driving south on I-5 to get his car. He directs me to keep driving past the route home. Glancing back and forth between him and the road I ask, “I thought it all happened right before our turnoff. Why are we heading way down here?”
There is a vast silence. My stomach drops.
“Let’s just wait to talk about it when we get home,” he says.
Every person in the house felt that there was no sense in their living together, and that the stray people brought together by chance in any inn had more in common with one another than they . . .
Purpose: It’s our family slang for a Christian Science thing. When most people call the doctor, Christian Scientists call their practitioners, who perform “treatments.” They study and think spiritually on your behalf.
Duration: Depends on the practitioner. There is no formula, and treatment can be done by telephone or via e-mail.
Equipment Needed: The ability to pick up the phone. I’m too young to do either.
Age: 4 months.
Cost: Somewhere around the $25 mark. As therapies go, it’s remarkably affordable.
HUMiliation Factor: None. That I know of.
Location: Corona del Mar, California.
I’m 119 days old, and I can’t breathe. Well, technically I’m still breathing, but it’s shallow, labored, and rapid. My parents are frightened. Four-month-old little me is doing what? Crying like a maniac, kicking my chubby feet, and pumping my fists up and down?
It’s been going on for hours. They’ve called the pediatrician and have tried everything he’s suggested. I’ve been held upright, patted on the back compulsively, filled with steam in the bathroom, rocked, and cooed at (that last one isn’t medical), but still, nothing.
The doctor has told them if my respiratory rate gets above sixty, they’re to bring me into Hoag, the hospital where I was born. My dad has been timing my breaths with a stopwatch. In the decades to come, he will put a stopwatch to most anything—between the flash of lightning and the subsequent rumble of thunder, the number of minutes we meditate as a family, the length of presidential debates. Today, it’s my breath.
But what I don’t know about my dad yet is that because he is a born-and-raised Christian Scientist, the philosophy of his upbringing and adulthood is a little hazy on this life-or-death stuff. They kind of think death doesn’t actually exist—nor pain, suffering, nor even the idea of difficulty. Maybe better said, they think death can kind of exist, but awkwardly, sort of illogically existing and not existing simultaneously, and only if you understand that in the end these messy little things like pain and death don’t actually ever happen. More misunderstood metaphor. How’s that for a what’s-the-sound-of-one-hand-clapping Advanced Placement Zen koan?
So even though my dad, as a “fallen away” Christian Scientist, is game to count my baby breaths in a practical way, the thing is, there’s a not-so-small part of him that doesn’t—at his foundation—believe in death or illness or pain. Not for him, not for me, not for any of us. I know that’s a little bit nutty thing to say here at the get-go because death is, you know death. But from my understanding, as mostly an outsider to the religion (but with, admittedly, fairly good seats) when it comes down to it, if anything painful/medical/bad/scary/negative/bloody/broken/sad/upsetting/nauseating/vomitous happens, well, within this philosophy, none of that is actually happening, because—and this is the tricky part—we’re all perfect and well at all times.
In the coming years, my dad will say out loud and with his silence, “Life is real. Death, an illusion.” And so it follows, illness, problems, pain, an illusion.
So I’m 119 days old and this is my family. And these rapid breaths animate my lungs. We’ve hit sixty-three breaths per minute. So we load up the Griswold Family Truckster (our green wagon, wood paneling? or maybe Mom’s old Mustang?) and head to the hospital. But we haven’t just called the doctor. My parents have called our practitioner too. Her name is Margaret and she lives in Santa Monica, California. Calling the practitioner and the doctor isn’t a proper thing for a traditional Christian Science couple to do, as doctors are a big no-no. But my parents aren’t traditional. You’ll see.
But it’s this Christian Science metaphysical thing that got them together. David (my dad) and Joyce (my mom) met through my mother’s practitioner, who helped her cure her ulcerative colitis. While Dad was the disillusioned Christian Scientist, Mom was the newbie. She had come upon the religion when the doctors labeled her condition incurable. She turned to Mary Baker Eddy, a nineteenth-century woman riddled with disease until she began to see a connection between her thoughts and her health. The way I figure it, Christian Science was the most alternative health care Mom could get her hands on in the late 1950s. So Mom read a lot of Mary Baker Eddy and her untreatable condition vanished. That would give anyone pause. But to my mom, unlike many by-the-book Christian Scientists, doctors weren’t a big no-no. Western medicine just hadn’t been able to help, so she’d gone searching.
So before hopping into the Griswold Family Truckster, Mom and Dad hadn’t minded making that call to Margaret. They welcomed it. She’d do Mental Work on my behalf while they drove me to the emergency room. They wanted all the support they could get for their infant in distress.
From the view of a Christian Scientist, people fall sick when they forget the absolute perfection of God. So had my four-month-old self forgotten something already? If we were each “whole and complete,” like they said, how had I made a mistake like getting sick already?
And if I’d already made a mistake at 119 days old . . .
Megan Griswold went to Barnard College, received an MA from Yale, and went on to earn a licentiate degree from the Institute of Taoist Education and Acupuncture. She has trained and received certifications as a doula, shiatsu practitioner, yoga instructor, personal trainer, and in wilderness medicine, among others. She has worked as a mountain instructor, a Classical Five Element acupuncturist, a freelance reporter, an NPR All Things Considered commentator and an off-the grid interior designer. She resides (mostly) in a yurt in Kelly, Wyoming.