By Karen McCrea
Kissed By A Deer: A Tibetan Odyssey
Author: Margi Gibb
Publisher: Transit Lounge
Published: October 2015
I met with author Margi Gibb, a writer, artist, and musician, one sunny autumn afternoon at her art-filled home in Melbourne. We spent a delightful afternoon in her garden in lively conversation about all manner of things, including her book, Kissed By A Deer: A Tibetan Odyssey. She’s as warm and open as her book. In response to questions about exposure and vulnerability, she just shrugged, “It’s the truth, and that’s what matters.”
Writing Kissed By A Deer didn’t even start out as an intention. Rather, Gibb added, “I was just writing stories, and I kept writing and writing one of them until it was clear it was going to be book length.”
Described as a travel memoir, it is no simple travelogue or superficial reconstitution of places seen, things done, events attended. It is not a sentimental recasting of a holiday or two into a retrospectively grand adventure. It arose from her ongoing engagement with the questions such as “Who am I?” and “How did I get here?” She describes writing it as having been a process of creative intuition, an auto-ethnographical undertaking, the story of a quest. Like all quests, it is replete with hardships, harrowing experiences, heartbreak and the unsentimental demand from life to open out, step up, look, see, grow, expand.
The book is divided into four parts: Impermanence, Attachment, Emptiness and Acceptance. Each part relates to a major psychological movement in her life, like a musical work. The story (not the journey) begins with Margi adrift in grief after the death of her beloved father. Her mother and two sisters have already died. She describes herself as having nothing to keep her where she was, so she does the brave thing. She goes looking for who she is and where she belongs, via eastern philosophies and religions, the hippy trail of her generation. Although the journey described in the book is deeply connected to the Buddhist path, Margi does not identify as a practicing Buddhist. Having explored many, if not all, of the major faiths, Margi has developed a broad, eclectic relationship with faith, which is an enduring organising principle in her life. In her book, she wanted to de-romanticise spirituality, to impart a sense of the ‘literal blood and guts’ of the seeker’s path: “One of the paradoxes of Eastern religions and spiritual practices is that they seem a lot more inviting and mystical in the comfort and safety of the west. It’s easy for spiritual practices to become a lofty ideal when all your needs are being met.”
The deer turns up at critical points in her process. Firstly in the Americas, at the beginning of her quest for self-acceptance, where it appears as her totem animal. This does not particularly impress her. Then, in Costa Rica she has the eponymous experience – a wild deer ‘gentle and fearless’ approaches her, kisses and nuzzles her. It is a spectacular moment of grace – a nudge from the mythic (she liked that notion) and a sense of connection she needed at the time. The symbol of the deer turns out to be exactly right – Margi’s long search brings her to what is wild, soft and gentle within her.
Margi travels to India, to see the Dalai Lama (the first of three times) and teach in Dharamsala. Two of her music students, young Tibetans, will turn out to be very significant: Yonten, a boy from the plains, and Tenzin, an ex-monk and healer.
Yonten is a pure-hearted person with whom Margi has a perfectly lovely and straightforward teacher-student relationship. She and Tenzin begin a relationship, precipitating hopes for commitment and belonging. Tenzin, however, turns out to be a slippery fish with very different ideas about what can be expected from him. She eventually figures out that his confusing behaviour arises from his involvements with other women. One – Josette – is a kind of nemesis, who keeps turning up all over India. Josette’s stubborn presence in Tenzin’s life forces Margi to confront jealousy, longing, and possessiveness. It’s a cruel thing that one so alone in the world falls in love with a man unwilling or unable to make the kind of commitment she longs for, but perhaps no accident.
What to do? To stay means undertaking a lesson of the kind none of us exactly trip over ourselves to learn. To leave threatens heartbreak that will open the bleeding fault-line of old psychological wounds.
Margi stays. Rejection, intense disappointment and frustration compel her to think deeply about what it means to love someone, to be loved by someone. Pain catalyses a damaging regression to an old coping mechanism – she picks up her long-vanquished dope-smoking habit, and descends into the sticky Attachment described in part 2. She doesn’t get to walk hand in hand with Tenzin into the Tibetan sunset to make a perfect hybrid east-west life together (Margi joked that Eat, Pray, Love has a lot to answer for). Instead, she loses her self-respect and sense of integrity: “I gave up and sank into the quicksand of self-pity. Fuck it. What’s the use? I couldn’t do this anymore. I couldn’t stay present to life on life’s terms.”
In due course she comes back to Australia “sick, skinny, fragmented and disillusioned”, just long enough to process her experiences and heal through art, participating in a multi-faith exhibition. Then, feeling restless, she takes up an opportunity to teach in China for a year, despite her not being “a fan of Chinese politics, food or culture.”
In China, Margi struggles with isolation, dispossession and loneliness, and anger towards the Chinese government, particularly regarding Tibet. Worst of all, she finds her “artist-self dying a painful death.” She travels to Tibet – a fraught, difficult journey – to see Yonten. He and his family provide the opposite experience – warmth, openness, kindness. This part of her journey is in some ways the best part – no heart-wrenching relationships, no awful environs, and no spiritual contortions.
“All this searching had led me to this moment: sitting with ten monks in a tent on the Tibetan grasslands. I knew that, although I was able to enter and visit aspects of their world and their reality, it would be virtually impossible for them to know mine. How could I explain to Yonten the deep psychological, political and existential reasons that drove my search and underpinned much of my behaviour? I’d digested hundreds of books from all disciplines and cultures. I didn’t have the simplicity of one religion, cultural belief or way of life to follow. I’d opened Pandora’s Box and couldn’t close the lid.”
Margi does meet with Tenzin, also returned to Tibet, but finds him up to his same old tricks. Disappointed, Margi returns to Zhuhai with twenty weeks of teaching to go, feeling “wild, scruffy and quite mad” but not mad enough anymore to say yes when Tenzin invites her to open a healing centre with him in Tibet.
Instead, she returns home, empty. It’s time to confront mortality, and she undertakes a ‘gruelling’ six months of interferon treatment for the hepatitis she contracted in her adolescence.
“I’d tasted the magnificence of being alive, the endless possibilities, the diversity, the mystery. Trying to make peace with powerlessness, I desperately wanted to transform. To live and enjoy my life to the best of my ability, regardless of who I was, who I wasn’t, what I did or didn’t have. I was undergoing spiritual shock treatment; waking up from the dream. Life was the gift – anything else was a bonus.”
There is a bonus – one more trip back to Tibet, to meet Yonten’s baby girl and attend his wedding. Once again, travelling in China is a bureaucratic nightmare, but she makes it, and she has a wonderful, rare experience afforded to very few westerners. After the wedding, she visits Tenzin and, finally, finds acceptance of who and what he is, and what has passed between them.
She realises she was attracted to his softness. That her love of Tibet and Tibetans is for their gentleness (there’s the deer again), not their mysticism.
As she elaborates at the end:
“[She is not] bound to the past by longing, resentment or a lack of forgiveness, and I wasn’t bound to the future by dreams, desire and expectations. My heart was free. I was fully present, with and for myself.
I’d travelled a long way searching for meaning and a place to belong. I didn’t find it in the east. Life was no different there than anywhere else; suffering was still suffering, pain was still pain, loss was still loss, love was still love, and peace was still peace.
…I had no regrets.”
And that is a very fine place to end a journey.
Meanwhile, Margi is till teaching and creating. She has a quiet, soft presence that conveys a steadiness and self-awareness. When I spoke with her, she was feeling a little bit restless again. She’s thinking of a trip back to the high country. A trip home.
Margi Gibb is a Melbourne-based writer and artist. Her memoir about her travels through India, Tibet and China is titled, Kissed By A Deer. The book is available here.
Photo-credit: Rod Ceballos
Karen McCrea is a writer, poet and reviewer currently living in a small town in Victoria. She has another life as a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist.
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