Summer Vacation, 2014: Buddhists of Boulder

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“Do you want to meet Chris?” asked Emma after dinner our first night in Boulder, Colorado. “He’s working at a restaurant on the Pearl Street mall.”

“Umm….” said Chris uncertainly when she called him to check. “Isn’t kind of soon for me to meet your family?”

“It’s not my real family,” Emma assured him, in case he was picturing Bubbe and Zeyde from Pikesville, Mamaleh and Aunt Monica in tow. “It’s my ex-stepmother and my fourteen-year-old half-sister.”

While it’s hard to know exactly what the ex-stepmother relationship should consist of seven years post-breakup, I miss Emma and her brother Sam, and making a visit with their little sister seemed like a good idea. I tried to get their grandmother (my ex-mother-in-law) to come too, but she eluded me with some crap about being almost 90 and recently recovered from a bout with colon cancer.

Emma, 26, just got her masters from Naropa. She is a Buddhist-Jewish chaplain, a Bujew, as they say. Sam, 23, graduated from the University of Colorado in Environmental Studies. Since Boulder is America’s number one city for both Buddhism and the environment, neither seems inclined to leave. 

It’s also the capital of microbreweries, recycling, gluten-free cuisine, hiking, biking, clean air and legal marijuana. “Nestled between the mountains and reality,” its tourist board proclaims.  


Brown-eyed yoga moppet Emma is recently out of a long, serious relationship with another chaplain-in-training and a cloud of freshly liberated pheromones whirls around her.  Even the busboy at the Dushanbe Tea House leans over to look at her Hindu prayer beads. “I like your mala,” he says.

This could be Boulder’s top pick-up line.

Ah, well, I was once picked up in Boulder meself, I tell my girls, in 1992 or so when I was taping a segment of a cable show at the Boulder Theater with John Stewart. Not the Jon Stewart that’s so famous now, but the one from the Kingston Trio who wrote “Daydream Believer.” I was doing a spoken word version of my old essay “Women  Who Love Men Who Don’t Pay Their Parking Tickets.” Soon enough I was drinking beer with a British piano player named Nick in the bar the Hotel Boulderado. 

And there it is, girls, right over there!

But that was not my first time in Boulder, darlins.  In 1977, I hitchhiked to a summer writing conference at the university where William Matthews, William Stafford, Ed Dorn, Ron Sukenick and Anne Waldman were teaching. You may not know who they are but they are big stars. Like John Stewart in his day.  

Anyway I had come to town with a traveling companion named David Rodriguez, a street person I met at an art show in Austin, Texas. Senor Rodriguez, who definitely did not pay his parking tickets, got himself arrested at a free concert while picking up pills and coins off the ground. One of the things the cops found when they asked him to empty his pockets was the ID of a person wanted for robbery in Grand Junction. I had to hitchhike out there with bail money.

The girls nod indulgently at their old mommy, who was such a wild one back in the day. 

On a spectacular drive up into the mountains, Emma explains the color wheel of Tibetan Buddhist psychology to Jane. Red is artistic and dramatic, blue is intelligence, green is pragmatism, and so forth, except it’s more complicated than that, because each color has a good side and a bad side and a front it presents to the world. To Jane, this is even more fun than online quizzes like “Which Hunger Games Character Are You?” She and Emma apply the scheme to everyone they know.

Jane and Emma

At three years old, Jane became a vegetarian because Emma was a vegetarian. Maybe Buddhism is next. It could be worse.

We accompany Emma to work — she is babysitting for a precocious two-year-old named Orrin, whose mother she met at Naropa. He is already in love with Emma and he will soon be in love with “James” too. Of course he will. They are beautiful and energetic and doting. They are a babysitting SWAT team.

Me, he screams if I even push his stroller. But I don’t blame him. I’m not that good with children. 

To break up the day, we take the kid to lunch at a health-food restaurant. To be known as a health-food restaurant in Boulder, where Sam’s favorite burger stand offers gluten-free, soy-free, lactose-free and vegan options, you have to be pretty extreme. 

Conclusion: you really cannot make chai out of raspberry leaves and licorice root, no milk and no caffeine.  

On the other hand the snack bar at Naropa serves the chai of the gods. It powers me through a three-mile hike at a beautiful park called Chataqua, though I don’t think there’s enough chai in the universe to make me into one of these middle-aged Boulderites you see calmly biking uphill with their rock-hard calves everywhere you go.

Emma says they plow the bike paths before the roads. 


Everywhere, we meet more Buddhists. At a little cafe on the Pearl Street mall called The Laughing Goat, we are joined by Emma’s friend Snim. In her order of South Korean Buddhist nuns, everyone is named Snim, has a shaved head, and wears loose gray cotton pants and a soft quilted jacket. I’m not sure how I’d do with the other nun routines, but I would certainly like to wear that outfit every day. 

Snim is a truly adorable person with funny English and infectious good spirits. She gives Emma, Jane and me matching necklaces from her monastery in Korea. They look like the friendship bracelets you make at camp, a lanyard of Buddhist colors dangling a tiny silver charm carved with an om.

Chris comes by after work with his placid, contemplative, pony-sized dog, Darwin. Chris is not a Buddhist but Darwin may well be. Our conversation is joined by a guy with a frame backpack, a laptop, a fancy bicycle and a wild look — one of Boulder’s “homeless by choice,” Emma explains.

Buddhist, for sure.

Earlier we went to a talk by a Buddhist psychologist named Mark Epstein at the Boulder Bookstore. Some of what he was saying was same old same old, but one story I liked a lot. He was visiting a meditation master in Thailand with his cronies Jack Kornfeld and Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Dass). They had lots of questions for him about how to achieve enlightenment, escape suffering, live correctly, etc.

Instead of answering, the master motioned to a glass at his side. “Do you see this glass?” he asked the seekers. “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet if this glass breaks, if the wind knocks it over or I drop it and it shatters, rather than despair, I will say, ‘Of course.’ Because the glass is already broken.”

When you realize the glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious, he says. 

I think the ex-stepmothers in the audience would agree.


Marion Winik

Marion Winik

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik writes Bohemian Rhapsody on the first Wednesday of the month. She is the author of "First Comes Love," and, forthcoming in fall 2018, "The Baltimore Book of the Dead." She is the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her monthly email at
Marion Winik

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    • thanks so much! i believe you were sleeping in the next room when I wrote this — always a good thing.

  1. I drove with a friend out to Colorado to a Buddhist summer camp, which unfortunately, my nieces and nephew interpreted as NUDIST summer camp. I didn’t stay.

  2. And along those lines, I told one of the truckers who picked us up hitching to Boulder in ’77 that I was going to a poetry-writing conference. He said, “A poultry-raping convention? What do a bunch of chicken-f*ckers got to say to one another?!”

  3. Thanks for your Boulder story. I seem to know most of these haunts, you mentioned. I attended the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poets in 1978 at Naropa when the school was in a HS gymnasium. Allen Ginsberg was my first meditation teacher and Ken Kesey told one of the best stories I had ever heard. My brother and I drove his Datsun truck from coast to coast and back to Boulder. It all seemed to make sense then.

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