In autumn 1988, I planned to spend the winter at my falling-down house in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Inook was on her last legs, painfully unsteady when she squatted down to pee and poop. I could easily lose her before spring. A guy I knew from the other side of town called one day. A part-shepherd pup had been hanging around the bulrushes by the pond near his cabin. They’d just stop by for a visit. No obligations. This is how I met Moses, the love of my life. Mostly German Shepherd, but with the high, long legs of a wolf, about six, maybe eight months old, still with huge paws, and comically unacquainted with interiors. He moved across the kitchen stepping onto whatever was in front of him, making no distinction between the floor, a chair, the stove, table, or the woodpile. But unlike Inook, who continued to fade and remained utterly indifferent to his presence, he wanted to please, to learn, to be good, to get praised, so he was easy to train, although he was not fixed and occasionally wandered down the road.

For a couple of months, I would be joined by the American nun Pema Chödrön, the director of Gampo Abbey, the Tibetan Buddhist monastery north of Inverness that I had first visited while waiting to see if I could buy this house. As a place for meditation retreats, the abbey worked well, but administrative details, personal meetings, and the disagreements endemic to intentional communities left the director with little time for practice. We had become friends a few years earlier, when she first moved to Cape Breton from Boulder, and that winter she arranged to do a retreat at my house from the middle of February until the middle of April.

By the time Pema arrived, Inook had passed on, and Moses and I were sharing the house with a winter weasel, also called an ermine, all white except for the black tip of its tail. I had gone to the Department of Wildlife to borrow a live trap. The ranger explained that as long as I did not have chickens or small cats, I would appreciate this wonderful carnivorous animal that, unlike squirrels, wouldn’t eat the rafters. I’d also have no trouble with rodents. He suggested that I keep it around by feeding it raw beef. Soon the ermine was eating better than Moses and was smart enough to appear only when Moses was outside. Then it would come out of hiding and eat chopped meat from my hand. Little did it know that ritual delicacies were on the horizon.

Before the retreat started, Pema spent hours constructing torma, Tibetan offerings made from flour and butter and dyed in bright colors. Once the preparations were completed, she circumambulated the outside of the house, accompanied by mantra recitation and the burning of juniper. I followed behind, and in this way, the house was ritually sealed. Once Pema stepped back inside, she did not leave again for the duration of her retreat. No one was allowed to enter, not even the snowplow driver whose route ended at my house and who had grown accustomed to having a rum toddy by the wood-burning stove before turning around. About every ten days I followed the plow back into town to shop for groceries.

Pema lived upstairs in an attic space, an open room with eaves that sloped down to the floor and two small windows at each of the peaked ends. Although I had banked the house with fir boughs and hay bales, frigid winds came up through the floorboards, and the winds that howled outside squeezed through the corner joints in piercing whistles. I kept the wood stove stoked all night, and the heat from coal in the old cook stove was worth the oily dust that covered the kitchen. The gravity-fed water system proved incompatible with winter dwelling, and the hoses froze almost daily despite being wrapped with insulation. The kitchen commonly turned into a forest of black rubber tubes hanging from hooks in the rafters to thaw out into buckets before I dragged them back up the hill and rehooked them into a holding tank, only for them to freeze again.

The sacred sounds reverberated throughout the house like prayer flags strung from trees.

What’s called by the locals the Big Ice had come in by the time Pema’s retreat started. The St. Lawrence Seaway does not freeze, but ice floes from the north jam into the coastline so that as far as the eye can see—some forty miles out—the seaway itself looks frozen. A clear sunrise over the ice turns the sky pink and mauve, and dramatic reds and purples move in at the end of a cloudless day. On a still, clear day after a hard snow, the world transforms into a crystal palace. The glare off the ice made my eyes ache and required sunglasses in the kitchen. In March, seals came onto the ice to have their pups, and I watched through binoculars.

At arranged times, and with preapproved food choices, I carried meal trays to the attic and placed them at the top of the crooked stairs, then took back to the kitchen used dishes along with whatever underclothes and socks had been left for washing. When I heard Pema come downstairs to use the only bathroom, I hid in my study off the kitchen. Every once in a while a loud, clunkety-clunk sound came down the steps, and I learned that I would find one of the torma offerings that the ermine had removed from the shrine.

For seven weeks, we did not exchange a single word or once make eye contact. While I marvel to recall our discipline, between the two of us it’s only me who has a penchant for breaking rules. But there was one communication, of sorts. I kept the telephone in my study and any conversation took place with the door shut and a blanket over my head to muffle the sound. One day, I got a disturbing call about Moses. I don’t know what Pema heard. It must have been something like, Oh I am so sorry, I promise that will never happen again, the children must be so upset to have lost their cat, oh this is terrible, I am so sorry…. The next time I went up to the attic to retrieve the dishes, there was a note on the tray, For Moses, along with a red protection cord, which I tied around his neck.

As the days went on, I became familiar with the sounds in the attic: the chanting, accompanied by bells, gongs, and a two-sided handheld drum; periods of silence, then chanting again. The sacred sounds reverberated throughout the house like prayer flags strung from trees. Silence after the noon meal. Perhaps a nap. Maybe a piece of torma rolling down the steps. The days began to lose their mooring to the known world, and every sound and movement, and the work needed to maintain the routine, intensified my attention: the precious nun; the isolation of the house at the end of the road; the ice-packed sea; the chance of a flue fire or slipping on ice; the threat of not being able to walk through heavy snow down the long driveway to the road where the car was parked, or not being able to back the car out of a snow bank. With my senses on high alert, everything felt new, astonishing, and alluring, and nothing felt safe.

The extreme environment outside and my wide-awake senses made every gesture consequential. Paying attention was about survival, not an injunction to stay present in a warm, protected meditation hall tracking the mind that wanders. Paying attention to the stove, to how much dry wood was inside, to how much snow was piling up against the front door; paying attention to putting my foot down on the ice, to driving along the empty road with groceries from town. After about ten days into the retreat, all I wanted was for this sacred activity in the attic to continue uninterrupted. I had neither the aspiration nor dedication to do what Pema was doing, but I could be a mindful attendant. Everything I wanted was right here in this little Monopoly house. With my custodial responsibilities and eating leftover meals alone at the kitchen table, my small universe became bigger and bigger until on clear days, with each branch encased in ice and prism light dancing on the horizon, it seemed that luminosity itself might loosen the house from its earthbound moorings and lift it into the sky.

Listen to an interview with Helen Tworkov here.

From Lotus Girl: My Life at the Crossroads of Buddhism and America by Helen Tworkov © 2024. Reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.