I had always ascribed karma to the fortune-cookie school of psychology. It was merely a belief to keep us sane, to let us know that if we do our duty or dharma, good things will come to us all.
I never learned about karma formally until high school. And then, dharma seemed to be doing the dishes, taking out the garbage, homework, and answering the phone at my menial part-time job. It had nothing to do with the greater good of the cosmos or helping my fellow man. If I did housework, I got praise and allowance from my parents.
If I did homework, I got praise and good grades from my teachers and a cash bonus from my parents. If I sold pizza, I got paid.
Why was it that dharma translated into money? Wasn’t the praise enough? That’s what bothered me.
The way they simplified it in my high school World Religions class was this: “If you do your dharma, you get good karma.” It was a mnemonic device that worked well on tests, but I struggled with the deeper meaning.
Being in a Catholic high school, inevitable comparisons would arise between karma and the needlepoint Christian philosophy of “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.”
However, the Buddhists believe a Divine Ruler or Creator-God does not dispense the natural law of karma. According to this law, every act has its own reward or punishment to each individual whether human justice finds out or not.
The law of karma existed long before Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) did. It is an ancient Hindu principle, though Hindus explain it a little differently. In their religion, the Vedas (ancient Indian texts) teach that karma is not a natural law as in Buddhism for it does not rely on fate; instead, man has free will to do good or evil.
Buddhist or Hindu, the nature of karma remains the same. It states that we are responsible for our actions and that there is a cause and effect that generates a positive or negative outcome.
It was hard to say. Despite my best intentions, despite what I understood to be my dharma being done, I was adrift. I couldn’t see the good I was enhancing the world with by just my quotidian routine. Maybe mere existence is enough to set karmic wheels in motion. After all, the first tenet of Buddhist philosophy is that life is suffering.
If I could do something to rise above the mire, that could be counted as a karmic contribution. To find my moksha (release) from the day-to-day that was weighing me down and create a moment of pure beauty. That would be a gift to the world, a dharma worthy of reward.
So my senior year, both Buddhist and Hindu philosophies still piquing my interest, I began reading my poetry at Café Aloha. It was a very small café that had a Tuesday night reading. Pillows littered the floor around low tables in the loft next to the makeshift stage. Cherry Master machines could win you money from the house if you came out from behind the beaded curtain discreetly.
The owner, Baki, was Serbo-Croatian and I wondered why he chose to put up palm trees and hibiscus flowers in his café. Maybe America was his paradise after suffering under a totalitarian regime. The wait staff spoke little English, but they were very welcoming. The Aloha spirit was strong there, and my father told me how the Hawaiians believed the more you shared this happy, positive attitude, the more you would be blessed. Any rewards you wanted to reap in your life would be given if you shared your joy in the present.
There was much joy at Café Aloha. It was a true community, a meeting of minds and cultures—I think every poet there was of a different nationality or race. The area at the corner of Montrose and Lincoln in Chicago was home to many Serbo-Croatian expatriates, but it was also home to a ragtag group of poetic misfits, who made the scene at other cafés and bars around the city, but all came together weekly in harmony at that intersection.
I would finish my homework sipping strong coffee, then talk to the other poets until the reading began. My favourite poet at Aloha was Frank Bonomo, also known as Frankie Berwyn. He was a young man still, only 28 when we met, and he was the first person to welcome me to Aloha. He took my poetry in hand and told me what was wrong with it, and from someone as talented and, to my 17 years, worldly as Frank, that was devastating.
Before people who read my writing had just told me what they liked. Now I had to reach an audience. There is a particular duty to be both profound and entertaining when you read out loud to others. When you reap in the applause, that’s your karmic reward.
“Erin, you’re telling not showing,” Frank was the first one to introduce this concept to me, and I’ve been guilty of it many times since. “Use images, not statements in poetry.”
I would nod and stare into his chocolate brown eyes. He would smile and I would wish I were just a year older, so I was legal.
Second semester senior year, I took a creative writing class. One Tuesday I asked Frank to become my mentor for the class.
He was reluctant. “You have so many people here who could do it,” he said. “Why me?” I wanted to say it was his duty, that he had taken me under his wing when I first came to Aloha, but I had no paper to write these thoughts to him, so I didn’t have the words.
I just answered, “I really admire your writing and I want to write like you.”
He said, “No, you have your own style and it’s great. Just keep writing and I’ll see what I can do to help you.”
I was thrilled. Frank wasn’t a gorgeous man, but he had a gentle toughness about him, like an Italian gangster whose moll I wanted to be. He wasn’t very tall, but broad-shouldered and brown-eyed, with a dusky olive skin and an endearing broad nose above a ready, full-lipped smile. He worked in the women’s prison system, advising inmates with mental health and substance abuse issues. He often brought the female inmates up in prologues to his poetry, under the single spotlight on the Aloha staircase that only raised you a foot above the crowd.
“Eat the mic,” David Rubin, the emcee would tell everyone, to make sure people in the back could hear.
“This week I had a woman on heroin,” Frank never gave names, just afflictions. “And she had kids and she wanted to know when she’d get back out there. I told her once she stopped using in jail. She said that it was too hard, but that she didn’t want to get out and lose her kids, and I told her she just had to decide that she loved herself more first of all.”
No one would ever guess Frank spent his spare time writing about how communism wasn’t such a bad idea, or how garden gnomes were taking over the suburb of Berwyn where he lived, with a cry of “Oh-ey-oh!” Baki would get mad when Frank read his communism poem, so it was banned from the café.
One night, Frank had a feature; this is when one poet is picked to read several selections from his or her work.
His poetry was outstanding. As Frank stood in the darkness of the crowded café, David Rubin introduced him by saying, “I had the pleasure of playing in a band with this man at Fitzgerald’s the other night, and he’s a better poet than he is guitar player.
We were called Frankie Berwyn and the Bonomos, and here he is, Mr. Bonomo himself, Frank!” He took the stage in a black fedora which covered his broad, sloping forehead and highlighted his large brown eyes which were full of feeling.
He thanked Dave for the warm introduction and put his harmonica to his full lips, his back sloping as he hunched over it, his muscular body alive with rhythm.
Read part two here.
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Asst Ed: Renee Picard / Ed: Bryonie Wise