I sometimes describe myself as a loner, though I’m never entirely sure what that means. I certainly don’t avoid crowds, and most of the time, I am one of the most outgoing (read: extroverted) people in the room.
But when I think back to my childhood, I realize that I spent 95 percent of it alone, usually buried so deep in my own imagination that I was either oblivious or uninterested in the situations playing out in my own life. When my parents would fight before they separated in 1976, I would retreat into a barrel of Legos, and suddenly, an entirely new world opened up before me. It’s no coincidence that I read all seven Chronicles of Narnia, cover to cover, during the worst part of the custody battle, and with the exception of the 10-speed my dad gave me when I was 11 years old, books remained my main (and safest) escape until I was able to leave home and move out on my own after graduating high school.
It’s funny, though, that for all the conflicted feelings I felt toward my parents and my step-mother (the latter being plain and simple deep-seated hatred), my Mom kind of encouraged me. There were a few times where she would say something along the lines of, “Sean, you have a great imagination!” She was probably high, and I’m certain her motives were selfish, but her occasional nudge for me to explore my inner creativity stands out in my mind. She got me my first library card, a pocket-sized rectangle of bright orange plastic that allowed me to check out three books at a time. Though she was so hungover at the time that she stayed in the car until she actually had walk inside to sign the parental release on the application.
From that point, I’d get dropped off at the York County Public Library a couple times a month, left to wander what I still hold as one of the most magical places on earth. And every time, after a few hours, either my Mom or my step-father would have to come in and hunt me down because I had lost track of time.
If there was an overriding theme to the first 25 years of my life, it would be: Anywhere But Here. I spent every waking moment trying to escape – to either burrow so far inside my own psyche, or to carry myself away on deep thoughts of fantasy. When my grandfather unsuccessfully tried to wrestle custody away from my Mom, I thought of him as a near-deity, carefully hiding all of the things he and his wife gave me, afraid that I would somehow damage their gifts of books and colored pencils and a box of Pop Tarts, making myself unworthy of rescue. But even when spending time with him, the walls I had built around my mind prevented me from seeing his terrible alcoholism, and I simply was too young to remember the abuse he heaped upon Grandma when they were married seven years before.
For all my effort, I never was able to escape, and it has made such a deep impression on my soul that it still affects the man I am today. It is why I study ancient religions and listen to music in every language but English. It is why I love any kind of ethnic food, have studied Arabic, Japanese, Spanish, German and Mandarin. It is why I went to Cambodia for three weeks in 2004, and why I yearn to go to India, Nepal and Bhutan sometime soon. It is why I sponsor children in far-away places, writing letters back-and-forth and falling in love with the faces of kids I will likely never meet.
And it is why I felt strong enough to question my faith so deeply in 2002 that I undertook the spiritual journey the led me to Buddhism – the religion of turning inward to make the world a better place.
I am at peace (mostly) with the world around me, and with who I have become. It is not the path I would have chosen for myself, had I known the world was bigger than just Rock Hill, South Carolina, when it came time to actually forge a path and set out.