I propped open The Ticking is the Bomb by Nick Flynn while sitting on my bed in a Zen Monastery, day two of a spiritual pilgrimage. It’s an older book, coming out in 2012, but a teacher recommended it.
The day started just before 5 a.m., when some monk jangled a handful of bells outside the door. At the time, I imagined he took a sadistic joy in it.
“Hey, here’s a crammed group of exhausted travelers—how can I give a good start to the day?” he probably thought. “Loud bells!”
Rubbing my head, I greeted the others with a nod.
Night still drenched the windowpanes in reflection as we entered the meditation hall. I crossed my legs into a half-lotus and a bell pitched the space into silence, broken occasionally by the rattling radiator or the rasp of a stuffy nose.
I wrestled with my thoughts for the next hour or so. The rest of the day blurred as we moved from one lecture to another and a silent work call. I stayed in the kitchen, cracking 160 eggs for a massive casserole.
Thirteen hours after waking up, I was choking on Zen. Flynn’s tense prose challenged the backdrop of silence that permeated the day. But I needed it.
The opening description of a sonogram of his soon-to-be-born daughter hooked me in an instant: “It’s as if I were holding a photograph of a dream, a dream sleeping inside of the woman I love—I’ll call her Inez—the woman who now walks through the world with two hearts beating inside her.”
But the story covers more than Inez and his daughter’s birth. Flynn explores his father, an alcoholic and chronic hoarder who spent years homeless; his suicidal mother’s shuffling through boyfriends; his own struggles with substance abuse; painful love affairs—and Abu Ghraib.
Flynn braids the images together with deft precision and poetic flair, using a scattered timeline. At first, I felt jarred when entries shuffled between 2007 and 1975, but his focus was sharp: “One day I hope to be able to tell my daughter about a dark time, the dark days before she was born, and how her coming was a ray of light,” he describes. “We got lost for a while, it will begin, but then we found our way.”
From here, he launches into his memoir about that dark time as he nears fatherhood. Most of the book addresses his many issues–his parent’s poor example, his own weaknesses, the danger of the world in which they live–as the due date nears.
In the monastery, Flynn’s “dark time” echoed in my thoughts. Reading Flynn’s description of a limping relationship with a girl, I thought of my own recent breakup. Flynn escaped by swimming in a lake called Pleiad. “With my goggles on I could see the darkness rising up from the unseen bottom, and it was as if I was looking into the universe,” he writes, “and it just didn’t seem enough.”
I felt the same darkness rising up in meditation.
Flynn’s comments on Abu Ghraib hit with visceral immediacy, despite the years that now stand between.
He describes his struggle to clarify the crisis—along with the rest of the world—after it happened. At such moments, the memoir turns to journalism, replete with research and astute observations, as he concludes “that the function of torture is not about getting information [. . .] It is merely about power.”
Flynn’s father also obsessed over torture, clutching Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and memories—real or imagined—of torture in prison. “Solzhenitsyn’s account of life in the Soviet gulags were his way of dragging into the light what happened to him, in part so it would never happen again,” writes Flynn. “Solzhenitsyn’s point seems to have been lost, at least on some…”
Here, Flynn links the pain of Abu Ghraib to home. The “distant” abuses of Iraqi prisoners in the desert abroad captures a universal value for human dignity, wherever it may be.
At the monastery, I found people struggling to find something, trying to “figure things out,” a lot of them said. One middle-aged woman with flecks of gray in her hair had lost her oldest son a few weeks before. Her voice quavered as she told me about it. One yearlong resident, a young man with teeth yellowed by cigarettes and coffee, almost committed suicide before finding the monastery.
“I was stuck in my head,” he said.
Flynn’s own quest to discover “the truth” of Abu Ghraib joined their words. Like him, they were trying to find order in the chaos. I was too. We’re all trying to “figure things out.”
And despite hardships, Flynn’s searches often find closure.
In my favorite scene, Flynn and his stepfather Travis, a Vietnam vet, visit the site of the My Lai massacre. They see a woman who had survived it as a child by hiding beneath her dead mother. “I watched Travis walk up, say something for the translator to translate. I watched him kneel down before this woman, still seated on the grass, take her hand, kiss it, ask her to forgive him, to forgive America.”
And then there’s the Lulu, his daughter. “Maybe ‘grounded’ simply means an awareness of being one step closer to being put into the ground, maybe that’s why I’ve resisted it all these years,” says Flynn. “Now, watching Lulu lift herself off the floor, it feels right, to have legs under me, for once.”
Flynn’s skill a poet empowers his descriptions, and his skills for research maintain the factual edge nonfiction requires. Moreover, he’s well read and traveled, alluding to literature, art, Buddhism, Christian iconography, and zombie movies across the chapters, revealing new insights, sometimes oblique or wry, sometimes profound.
As the story reaches its conclusion, the narratives collect. It’s difficult to limit Flynn’s work into single theme, motif, or purpose—but after closing the back cover, it felt complete and unified. If anything, it’s a story of growth and discovery, a spiritual pilgrimage or purification of sorts as fatherhood nears.
Reading, I realized I how much I was running away in the monastery. I had my own broken relationship to untangle, my own memories to wrestle with, and my own identity to discover as graduation neared. I had changed my major last spring. I had just started taking anti-depressants a month ago. My grandfather lingered in the hospital, his fate uncertain.
Sitting in meditation, my thoughts had a lot of ammunition, coiling and kicking as I tried to tie them with my breath.
But in the end, I found something. “Zen is a practice,” said the sensei in our face-to-face meeting, “not a philosophy, not a miracle.” I didn’t ask the others, but watching their careworn faces lit by a smile now and then, shaking out their limbs and laughing, I like to hope they also found something.
I left and the woman who had lost her son gave me a hug.
“You have a wonderful son,” she told my parents, her face tired but smiling.
Resting in my hands, the book felt like another pilgrim, but Flynn’s path didn’t lead him into a Zen Monastery. It led him to fatherhood and the profound identity that brings. And, I think, he found something too: “Inez and I kept figuring it out—to be together, to be with Lulu, that it’s all a daily practice,” he writes. “This is the only miracle.”