I stood at the foot of a 52 foot Bodhisattva carved into the sheer side of the Maiji Shan grotto, and I thought, “I lived. If nothing else, I lived.”
I had been feeling guilty about spending the money to go on this Grand Grotto Tour of China, thinking I should save some money for the eventual trip home. But standing at the foot of this carving that had been there for more than a thousand years, I just kept thinking, “I lived”.
In 2012, I was diagnosed with Stage 2 aggressive breast cancer. Luckily, it was caught very early, and following a lumpectomy, six rounds of chemotherapy and 37 radiation treatments later (during one very long year), I was declared FOD – free of disease.
Life had been really good up to that point. Fairly successful as a theater and short film director (one film premiered at San Diego Comic-Con in 2010) and was growing as an artist, even releasing my own comic book. However, cancer put a stop to everything. Even once I was cleared, the recovery beat the crap out of me.
They don’t tell you recovery takes three to five times the length of treatment. I was looking at three to five years before I began to feel like myself.
Between the diagnosis in 2012 and 2015, my life turned into a terribly sad country song. Cancer, both parents died, ended the best relationship I ever had (with a man who will forever be the love of my life), lost my job, had to move, my cat died, got hit by a car, and I was just out of options.
The hardest thing was I had lost my sense of purpose. I kept drawing, kept creating art. Directed here and there because I had friends who love me and knew directing was a great solace for me. Oh, and they think I’m talented. I never lost sight of myself, who I really am. That always stuck around, thankfully.
I just couldn’t seem to get my foot in the right doors. I was looking around in envy at those of my peers who were walking red carpets, being invited to direct really cool projects, who had panels at various conventions or who were invited on to various panels. I kept wanting to scream, “Hey! Invite me! I’m talented! I’m creative! I’m busting my ass! Why can’t I play with you?”. To no avail. I felt sidelined and just couldn’t figure out how to get on to the playing field. I even tried to get panels accepted into a couple of conventions but that didn’t work. I was angry and stuck.
The universe gave me a break and sent me to China with an American company to teach art and comic books twice in one year and I fell in love with the country that birthed my grandfather. I could feel my history here and I eventually was invited to teach art to children in Beijing for a year. I jumped.
It hasn’t been easy here. Chinese business and American business are very different. But I did find a local theater company and have been working as an assistant director on a couple of productions. Theater is theater, no matter where you are. It is church to me, and I was happy to have found a home. I wrote my first novel, which will be published in the next few weeks. I also kept drawing, working on the second issue of the comic book.
But I was still watching those at home, walking the carpets, standing in front of step and repeats, and watching them create content, and doing things I thought I should have been doing.
Then I was out for drinks with my best friend here, Anthony, one night, after I had quit my job in Beijing for the first time (the second time, I really did quit) and was planning to head home. He said, “You should travel”, and suddenly, I was planning this Grand Grotto Tour, ending in my grandfather’s village, if I could find it. Someone had graciously tracked it down for me and even sent me a direct link to the address for my map app.
As I traveled from Beijing to the Yungang Caves in Datong, then on to Xi’an to the Terra Cotta Warriors, then to Tianshui to Maiji Shan, I began to listen to my soul, which was saying, it doesn’t matter. All of it doesn’t matter.
That kept echoing as I went on to the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang and finally aimed for Guangzhou, where my grandfather was born.
When you spend time walking through caves and grottoes that were carved a thousand years ago by people who had no idea their work would still be there in a thousand years, you become very humbled. The power and the beauty of these works left me breathless. I took almost three thousand pictures because I couldn’t get enough of it.
The first enormous statue – the 56 foot Sakyamuni statue – at Yungang brought me literally to my knees. The peace and power and strength coming off of it reached my long-empty soul. I watched as people bowed and prayed before this behemoth, intimidated by their faith. Many people stopped and prayed before almost every statue in every grotto I went to, offering their faith and their belief over and over again. The grottoes have thousands of statues, from 56 feet tall to five inches tall, to give you an idea of how many Buddhas there are.
At Maiji Shan, I found my faith and my belief again. Standing at the foot of this second enormous Bodhisattva, none of it mattered. Cancer, loss, red carpets and comic book panels meant absolutely nothing. I knew that when I got home – whenever that may be – whatever came after that didn’t matter.
What mattered was that I lived.
I may never walk another red carpet. I may never see another step and repeat and never have a photo taken by Getty Images. I may never need another formal dress for another awards show. I may never get on a panel anywhere on earth. I may never achieve anything more than having once had a fairly successful theater career and one comic book that no one bought.
But what I would have is the memories of this Grand Grotto Tour. I would have the fact that I chanted at the foot of many thousand-year-old Buddhas and gave the universe my gratitude. I worshipped in thousand-year-old temples and heard my chants echo off those ancient walls. I have the fact that I did find my grandfather’s village and I stood in the place where he had stood a hundred years ago. I felt my grandfather walk with me through the dilapidated buildings and I think his spirit was in the dog that decided to follow me and play with me. I would have the spirit I found at the foot of these many Buddhas, who all seemed to be saying, “It’s okay. You’ll be fine.”
And I’ll know that I lived.
And you should, too.