I don’t know whether this is joy
or sadness, I don’t understand
what I feel, I’m crying,
I’m crying, it’s humility
as if I were dead,
gratitude, I thank you, my fate,
I’m unworthy, how beautiful
— Anna Swir
This poem: a prayer, a mantra.
I remember Paul walking, strutting, down the streets of London, full of life. We had just watched Rattle and Hum, the Irishman Bono projected bigger than life over us, also in his youth and full of life, singing. All the riches in the night.
Paul was my roommate. He was my Dean Moriarty. The stories I could tell. And then he returned to America, as I would later, and we lost touch and never saw each other again.
But the internet has a way of keeping people connected. On Father’s Day, thirty years later, while I was with my wife, I saw a stream of posts. Paul just died.
“I’m not sure,” I answered.
Later I would learn from a friend of his I did not know the details – how cancer had burrowed through his spine, how he never complained, how he lived quietly with his pain and died.
And then our friend Jean died. Also cancer, but in her brain, slowly taking her self and then her life.
There are others. Suicides. Traumas. More cancer.
My time will come too, this is certain.
This weekend I was near the base of Mt. Tremper at Zen Mountain Monastery for a retreat focusing on the precepts. Rather than follow the zazen discipline of counting my breath, I let my mind run free like a monkey among the trees.
The first precept is to affirm life.
Shugen Sensei talked about how one person’s enlightenment is connected to another person’s enlightenment. If he is hurting, you are hurting. If he is growing, you are growing. So work toward not just your progress, but toward everyone’s.
And then the evening gatha. I listen to the litergist:
Let me respectfully remind you, life and death are of supreme importance; Time passes by swiftly and opportunity is lost; Each of us should strive to awaken; Take heed – do not squander your life.
The last time I saw Paul was in our pub in London where we tended bar. He had just returned from Scotland and was holding court, bantering, full of life, bigger than life, not an opportunity lost, as if to tell me,
“Do not squander your life Chris.”
I watch the waves break just below me, row after row. I smell incense from Hindu offerings on the sand. A brown bull walks alone between the ocean and me. I have not yet seen the macaque monkeys who I have been told will go through our bags looking for food to steal.
Matua, my local instructor, says, “OK, let’s go.”
I pick up my surfboard. It’s a size large, their widest and longest board, which is the most stable, giving me the best chance of standing up after I catch a wave. Matua fastens the Velcro strap on the leash around my ankle and runs into the ocean ahead of me. I hesitate. I don’t want to be in the water and the sun and the turmoil of the surf I see.
I am in Bali, Indonesia, at the Padang Padang Surf Camp, early in the morning, when the waves of the Indian Ocean are best. I flew over twenty hours to be here: over ten hours from Boston to Istanbul, and over ten again from Istanbul to Denpasar. I was thirty thousand feet in the sky cramped in economy. Now I am at sea level. The ocean and sky expand before me.
Balinese Hindu tradition holds the gods are in the mountains and the devils are in the sea. Somewhere above me and beyond me are the gods. The devils are right here. I follow Matua with my board into their chaos.
Ahead of me I see the other students lying on their boards, paddling out, over the rows of waves. When the waves break, the surfers push the noses of their boards down into the breaks, get swallowed, and emerge on the other side. A wave reaches me, rolls me, and I scramble desperately to hold onto the board and not let the ocean take me, wrapping my arms and legs around like a monkey. I pull muscles in my ribs.
Matua paddles smoothly through the water, sits up on his board, which disappears below, and waves me to him. Diane, from Canada, is already riding a wave toward the shore.
Matua points my board toward the shore and watches the waves as they approach us. We go through a series of “Paddle now Chris, no, stop, wait, now paddle,” and he holds my board as I paddle furiously as a wave approaches, catches the back of my board, lifts it, and takes me. I hear Matua shouting from the other side of the wave, “Stand up, stand up, stand up,” which I try to do, but instead I fall wildly into the wave and roll and roll under water unable to reach the surface on my terms. Held down by devils.
It goes like this for the next few days, made worse by my pulled muscles. One morning it takes me twenty minutes to get out of bed as I try to find pain-free positions. I take a day off and go into Ubud, where the love part of Eat, Pray, Love occurs, spending my time shopping and eating and being a tourist, walking through a temple where the monkeys steal from tourists, feeling closer to the gods and further from the demons on the sea.
A group of Australians have arrived at surf camp. I watch one of them – Tim – in his early twenties, catch a wave on his own, attacking the break. After the wave passes with him, I see Renee. She says, “I hate this!” I feel the same.
A large wave approaches us and Renee yells, “What do I do?”
“Dive under it!”
I dive, but instead of going under and through to emerge on the other side, the wave holds me and pushes me out on the beach side, where I surf sideways, lying on my board, plummeting down the wave, with no idea what happened to Renee.
I hear Matua calling my name and see him waving me to him. I paddle out to him so he can hold my board, point me to the beach, and push me at just the right moment as a wave approaches, catches me, lifts me, and takes me, while he yells, “Stand up, stand up, stand up,” and I try to stand up, but like every time before, and as will happen every time after, I fall off my board into the surf where I roll and roll under water, but I return to the surface every time. I have become comfortable in the surf, literally rolling with the waves.
I begin to find a beauty in this. Acceptance. A kind of gratitude.
Tim starts getting up almost every run and looks like a ripper. Diane is up. I see Renee get up once and fall gloriously. Every run for everyone ends with a wipeout. I paddle. Matua smiles. He waves to me. I go to him again to again be lifted by the demons only to fall again into their chaos. This is where I am in my life right now, monkey that I am, not yet ready for the gods.
My companion turns his head to me, as though only now has he seen me. Last night I flew in from Honolulu, the plane shuttering as we descended through the cloud bank, then steady in the calm air, clusters of lights below, and I was pulled forward as we landed and braked. Kona.
My driver seemed as unsure as me as she turned down a single lane road in the dark to Gingerhill Farm, high above the town, turning to our right and left, so we only saw walls of foliage until everything opened before us. I listened to the sounds of chirping – “coqui frogs,” she said, “an invasive species.”
I walked along the porch, following the directions Zack had texted me, pushed open a screen door, found the bed, and disappeared into sleep, believing I was alone, but in the morning discovered I was sharing the room with a gold dust gecko, resting so still I thought he was just a rubber toy, until he looked at me, as though I was an intruder in his space.
“Geckos are not from here,” says Zack as he serves me breakfast on the lanai. A feral cat follows him, walking an arc around me, just out of my reach.
“How much of this is planted?” I ask, pointing to the foliage surrounding us.
“All of it,” he says. “We planted it all. Cleared out what was here and planted this.”
A Japanese woman in her early eighties joins us. Mayumi Oda, Zack’s mother. They speak in Japanese. His father, who lives in California, met his mother when he lived in Japan. His wife, Iris, from Brazil appears, and he switches to Portuguese. They excuse themselves and I sit with Mayumi. I ask about the farm, which she bought twenty years ago.”
“So much work,” she says. “Hard to keep up with.” I look at the jungle of trees and fruits and vines. Among the leaves are geckos hunting. At night the coqui will wake and sing for mates.
Mayumi walks me to her painting studio. Resting on an enormous harvest table is a near-done thanka (a traditional Tibetan painting of a bodhisattva). I mention this and she acknowledges the tradition, but says, “I do it in my own style,” and I notice her breaks from the form.
The next three days, I rise at dawn and meditate with Zack, Iris, and Mayumi, sitting in her living room, facing the Pacific below, watching the sun rise and listening as the coqui slowly quiet themselves. One day I have a private yoga class with Iris. I think my poses are perfectly mirroring hers, but several times she she breaks her poses to step over me and firmly push my body to the right position. Another day, with a teacher and Mayumi, I awkwardly move through the slow-motion-martial-arts moves of Tai Chi. On my last day, I have a cooking class with the farm’s Filipino chef and Zack guides me through the farm, the goats and 500 pound pig greeting him, not knowing the day will come when he must end their lives.
In my time alone, I return to Joko Beck’s “Everyday Zen” and her talk, “Relationships Don’t Work.” After noting that every moment of our lives is in relationships, she says she wants to talk about our illusion that relationships will work.
“See, they don’t. They simply don’t work. There never was a relationship that worked. You may say, ‘Well, why are we doing all this practice if that’s true?’ It’s the fact that we want something to work that makes our relationships so unsatisfactory.”
Alani picks me up to drive me to the airport. She lets me sit with her in the front. She is in her late sixties, a large Hawaiian woman, laughing as she talks. She is telling about a tourist she picked up who propositioned her. “You crazy?!?” she says.
She tells me about her husband. They met in their twenties. He is from Mexico, was in the Marine Corps, and asked her to marry him three times. The first two times, she said no, but then, she explains to me, pointing to the sky, “He said I was here to save him. So I married him.”
I ask what happened.
“It didn’t work,” she says.
After some silence, she says, “If we had less aloha spirit, there would be less haloes.” I nod, thinking not just about the foreigners (including me), but the plants, the coqui, the geckos. “But that is the old way. And I teach it to my kids.”
At the airport, I want to hug her. She remains in her seat. Smiles. “Aloha, Chris.” And then I am on the plane, rumbling down the runway, breaking into the air, arcing right, back to Honolulu, into the clouds, thinking about the garden of my own life, and wondering what is the best practice for tending to it.