Safety Search

Looking to words for solace after loss

A photo of a piece of cut paper art hanging on a wall in the form of the Chinese character 福

Photo by the author

I lie to my boss. 

Have you done this type of contracting before? He asks. There is no ill will in his question. I’m a few weeks into a new job, and I’m doing well. I answer emails and click all the right buttons. 

I have in fact done this type of contracting before. I had said so, actually, during my interview the previous month. But in the space between my response, I surprise myself.

No, I tell him. I haven’t. 


When a person commits themselves to Buddhism, they vow to take refuge in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. The Buddha as their teacher; the teachings and lessons of the Buddha, called the dharma, as their path to follow in life; and the sangha, the community of fellow Buddhists, as their companionship. Ceremonies differ from place to place, but the proclamation is clear: “I take refuge...”

Author and Zen teacher Vanessa Zuisei Goddard writes that her first teacher, John Daido Loori Roshi, would say taking refuge means committing to a complete trust, one without safety nets, and throwing yourself into something else to rely upon it. While we normally think of taking refuge as a way to protect ourselves from danger, Goddard writes, there’s more to it than just safety: “It calls for courage and trust and vulnerability—an openness that I believe comes from the recognition that the universe is an infinitely fragile place.”

To seek refuge is to admit we have been battered by cold and loneliness. We have been left out in the grating rain or wringing sun. Only when we have decided that enough is enough are we able to surrender to the inevitable—the need for support, comfort, and warmth—and come through a doorway. We enter a room where the fire lights up the walls and pools around the ceiling like a laughter in the belly. 

I’m not one to not lie. Lying comes to me too easily for my own comfort. I can imagine how I learned this skill. I know the scene well: My father is in the living room watching television. Dinner is on the table. The phone rings. He is needed at work. 

I’m on the way. I’m on the way. He says. 

He is not, right now, on the way. 


You arrive at our home to be met by good fortune. It looks like this: 福. Gold ink on red paper, hanging on a white wall. The character is said to bring happiness, blessings, a good life, and a happy future to the home. Chinese families display the character in our houses during the Spring Festival, and many keep it up year-round. 

There are six 福 in my family’s house. One greets you from the front entrance, watching high above you from the stairs to the second floor. Down the cool marble hallway, you pass another on last year’s calendar. In the living room, there are three, one on each wall. 

There is one more above my mother’s room on the first floor, hanging upside-down.  


Contracting was not a primary function of my job. I asked people who appeared more certain in their career decisions than I to approve this modification or clause, and I would start up the rudimentary management software to track its status. It didn’t matter if I had done it before or not. 

However much I disliked my boss at the time, he was a lot nicer than I gave him credit for. He talked a lot, and he wanted to get to know me. He meandered from one topic to the next like the jolly captain of a small rowboat in a vicious storm. I asked coworkers how they managed to stay upright under his gale of words when caught in conversation, and they smiled and shrugged. 

I panicked at the prospect of small talk. I panicked at wanting to be known. I guarded myself with the words I had. 


When my mother is in the hospital—for maybe the tenth time in a handful of years, and also the last—I describe her as a “family member.” I describe the slow, seven-year tragedy as an “urgent personal matter,” a “crisis,” or an “emergency.” The veracity of these words don’t matter—they are both true and false—but their function does. 


I think people want to hug me. They want to know what is happening. What is wrong. How am I doing. What they can do. 

These are the words I use to politely stop them at arm’s length. 

I am OK. 
Thank you for your message.

The truth, of course, is no. You—just as I—cannot do anything. 


I construct my responses carefully. One letter after another. Spaces between words and walls let in vulnerabilities. No wall is solid. The sound of air conditioners in hospitals and homes is the same, and I pad the shingles on the roof with distant language—

Sounds good,
Looking forward to it, 
Happy to,

Life goes on outside the house. 


I want closeness like any other person, and I hesitate like any other person. I look to certain words to tell me when it’s safe to trust. Over the past couple of years, I’ve found safety in the words I learned as a mediator and facilitator:

I’m wondering . . .
Tell me more . . .
Is that right?

I don’t want to feel like I’m in a mediation, my partner tells me. 

I tell him I feel safe in the structure. The way we each have our turn. The way we promise to hear one another in good faith. The way another person carries our words and meaning between us even though we are in the same room because somewhere along the way you and I lost the key. Caught up in our own emotions, we strayed too far from each other and now take the hand of a stranger to bring us back. 

Training in facilitation and mediation taught me how to move between emotions—to deflect when needed, to block for defense, to pivot for newness, to circumnavigate for adventure—without lying.  


The 福 is upside down in my mother’s room as a play on words. There are hundreds of homophones in the Chinese language. A single sound could signal a dozen different meanings. The sound for “upside-down” and “arrive” are the same: dào. Good fortune has arrived.


When my mother dies, these are the words where I find a semblance of solace: 

moments of peace and comfort as you remember your wife and mother
rest and grieve.

Every new telling of the impossible event is a venture outside of familiar safety.


Outside the home, I tell friends one by one: in an outburst over dinner, in a solemn tone on a walk, in three words over a text message.

A few months later, I tell strangers and acquaintances with more eloquence than I did before.

In the midst of these conversations, I tell myself there is safety in vulnerability. I tell myself there is safety in being known.


Death and Dying, Family, Language, Work


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