Paths of Desire (part 21)

Over the years these scenarios, or consciously designed opportunities to create new habits, in the face of familiar difficulties, would take a wide variety of formats and were designed very differently for each of the members of our community, depending on the person. Each of us had our own unique baggage, or “stuff” as it was commonly called, so each of us had very unique paths and scenarios that MD designed for us. In some cases there would be a group scenario with multiple components and these were very interesting and could be extremely challenging.

The reason these scenarios could be so challenging is that they had to be real in order to work. You can imagine that if one didn’t believe what they were experiencing was real it would just be a farce, or a game, and wouldn’t have the power to evoke real change in the person. In many ways these scenarios were just the same as what any of us undergo in our ordinary life, the same as the trials and frustrations that we encounter every day, but the main difference was that these were created with the specific purpose of changing some negative and unloving part of ourselves, and done in a controlled and consciously directed situation by MD, and could, in effect, speed up the rate of transformation in our lives many times over what we might achieve on our own just living out our ordinary lives.

This was a spiritual training course at least as much, if not more so than a spiritual community. We lived in community, and served one another, and learned to love one another, but all of this was context and environment for the primary goal of our own individual transformation and growth. But through this individual growth we were bound to transform the group as a whole and ultimately have a more joyful and healthy community as a result of our collective individual efforts.

The training course, or community had few overarching rules, however one thing, which MD often repeated to us, was that if one wanted to leave the training, they were of course always free to do so, but to do so with forethought, and to let others know ahead of time; to never run away in the heat of an inner struggle. He explained that this was to our benefit because leaving in a rational and well-thought out way was conducive to health and a balanced life; but to run away in the heat of an inner struggle, when we are losing to some negative aspect of ourselves, when we are overcome with anger or fear or some other inner disturbance, to leave in this way would be damaging to us. Just as victory over these elements within us engenders a feeling of freedom and joy, losing to these elements will usually lead to feelings of sorrow, resentment, unforgiveness or other things that cause us harm throughout our lives.

Over the four plus years that I took the course and lived in the community, I experienced a number of stages in the training. These stages weren’t overtly stated, nor did I pay them much attention at the time, but in retrospect I can see them. In the beginning, we all went through a sort of initiation or introduction to the work, which also included shedding of our old lives and becoming new and refreshed. I can’t speak for others who took the course, as it was certainly complex, and unique for everyone, but my sense is that this progression was generally true for the few that began and remained in the program for the duration.  The initial year or so was a time of strengthening, and healing, and preparing for greater challenges that would come later; it was a time of almost constant joy, with laughing and adventure and excitement. Later stages maintained a great deal of this initial joy and humor and lightness but increasingly the scenarios and challenges became more serious and difficult as we delved into deeper layers of our inner lives and these tested us to, or perhaps beyond our limits at times; or at least we felt like they were beyond us at times, whether they actually were or not, is beyond me to say with certainty.

In order to focus fully on this course of training, we left our worldly lives behind. In addition to selling or giving our possessions away we also let go of other familiar aspects of our former lives in order to achieve freedom. On the mundane level we changed our clothing, our eating and our sleeping habits. On a more profound level, one of identity and sense of self, for some of us, we also changed our names, or MD gave us new ones. I had already experimented a little in college with using my middle name instead of my given name so when I was given a new name, I felt prepared and willing to accept something new, and it didn’t feel strange. I was given the name Jaikananda, which by my understanding means ‘victory to bliss’ in Sanskrit. I went by Jaia for short. Not all of us were given new names at first, some were given new names years later, and some were given many new names over the course of the training; as with most aspects of the program it was unique and different for each of us. One of the members of the community, who joined fairly early on, never had his name changed but kept his birth name throughout the entire time. My name was changed one more time to Francis about a year or two later, and eventually I had it legally changed to this, but for the beginning of this journey I went by the name Jaia.

Our diet was simple and delightful. There were variations to this over the years due to circumstances, but in general it was a vegan diet with very little processed sugars. Some scenarios would involve other types of food, as various members worked on habits around baked goods, or candy or things like that, but apart from these specific reasons, in general we ate very simply. For myself, and the others that I spent the most time with, we typically wouldn’t eat anything until lunchtime, or if we did, we had oranges or bananas. This also was a typical lunch, although sometimes we’d have avocado sandwiches. Dinner was nearly always a wonderful hot dish of primarily potatoes and carrots with various spices along with a green salad with shredded carrots and thinly sliced tomatoes. One would expect after a short time of a diet like this it would get boring but amazingly it never did; in fact, at least for me, it was always satisfying and I never got tired of it even though we ate this way for years. Beverages were equally simple as we almost exclusively drank water or rice milk. Again, there were exceptions to this due to other factors but this was the general rule of thumb.

White was the color of our clothing, though each of us had differing styles; my shirts had Nehru collars, while some of the other men had a more relaxed style of shirt. This changed in later years particularly due to work environments when individuals would be employed and required by jobs to wear other things, but in the beginning years we all wore white. At first it felt a little uncomfortable wearing only white, because we were setting ourselves obviously apart from everyone in the world, and I didn’t like drawing attention to myself, but very soon I enjoyed the white clothing because it gave me a feeling of peace and after a while I also loved the purity and the beauty of it. It occurred to me that my aversion to it wasn’t grounded in anything other than a fear of looking odd or doing something unusual. These certainly weren’t worthwhile reasons to be uncomfortable. Ultimately wearing white was joyful, simplified my choices and allowed me to focus on other more important things.

Our community was primarily nomadic and because of the fact that we never lived in one location for very long we didn’t sleep in beds. I had kept a very good sleeping bag from my former life in the world and used this for the entire time; I remember the first time sleeping in a bed, nearly five years later, how strange it felt and I didn’t like it. It took me several months to get used to the feeling of a mattress again and also the feeling of sleeping inside a house. Most of the time we slept under the stars, under a tarp if it rained, or in tents. We lived in places of incredible natural beauty in the mountains of northern California and Arizona, and in the deserts of New Mexico. Over the years I grew so accustomed to the feel of the night breeze, the sounds of the local animal life, and the beauty of the stars in the night sky twinkling over me as I drifted off to sleep, that it was a difficult transition to sleep inside a stuffy bedroom again when the time came to do so.

(to be continued)

~FS

Paths of Desire (part 20)

Prior to leaving my old life and giving all of my possessions away I had already begun to follow MD as a disciple. Earlier in the year, as my graduation was approaching I was in a crisis; not knowing what to do next with my life and not liking any of my options. I woke from a dream one morning with a Latin sentence in my mind about being renewed and reborn. My Latin was not very good, even though I had taken four years of it in high school, and I’m guessing I completely botched the translation, but I interpreted it to be a message of encouragement to myself and others, that we can be reborn and made anew in a spiritual way.  I no longer remember the beginning of the sentence, but the end I remember was ‘…sacra creationem geniti sunt’ or roughly, ‘…you are born of a sacred creation’. I felt inspired to hike to the top of Mt St Helena, not far from my home, carve this sentence into a rock somewhere near the top of the mountain, and spend time reflecting and deciding my next move in life.

I packed my sleeping bag, some food, and a large mallet and chisel into my backpack and drove to the trailhead. It is about a seven mile hike to the top and provides beautiful views into the Napa Valley, overlooking Calistoga and St Helena in the distance. It was a windy late afternoon when I made the summit and quickly found a good rock face for my carving. I began to carve as the sun was setting at my back; I cast a deep shadow onto the stone where I was working, while a warm reddish-golden glow illuminated the rock around my shadow. It was slow going, since I had brought an old wood chisel, not one made for stone; but it was heavy-duty, and solid, and up to the task, even if it wasn’t the right tool for the job.

I finished my carving late in the night, fairly close to midnight, and the wind had really picked up. It was a full moon, or nearly full, and the night was clear. I was joined at the top of the mountain by thousands, or perhaps millions of points of light in the night sky. The silver moonlight and the rising wind thrilled me as I stared out across the night sky. There is an observation tower at the top or the mountain, which I climbed, and from the platform high above everything, one imagines they are on top of the world. I slept here for the night, with the wind howling about me and the moon looking down upon me with a cool magnanimity.

I returned home with a sense of hope. Several days later MD appeared at my door and told me he had been sent by my “brothers from the inner planes” to help me. I didn’t know I had brothers on the inner planes, but I could believe it, and it sounded possible, plus I was happy to believe that these brothers, and MD, were looking out for me, and were responding to my need, and my hope which had been engendered on the mountain several days earlier.

Very early one morning, MD arrived at my home, perhaps a little before 4 am, and knocked on the front door, waking us from a sound sleep. We let him in and he made his way into our bedroom, he then asked my girlfriend and me to join him sitting on the bed.  We sat there together in the dark and he explained to us that it was time for him to become our guru. If we accepted, we would become his disciples. I accepted, but my girlfriend did not. From this point our relationships changed; mine and MD‘s as well as my girlfriend’s and mine. He and I became teacher and student while she and I began to drift apart. It became clear that she was on a more conventional path and had goals that included a master’s degree, a career, children and all of those wonderful things, while I had chosen a different trajectory.

One afternoon he and I visited a local café and ordered a cinnamon roll and took our seats at an empty table near a window. A few moments later it was served to us on a plate with two forks. This was the setting for one of the earliest formal lessons that I remember as a disciple of MD. It was very basic and rudimentary but it has remained with me to this day. Essentially it was a game about giving and receiving, and the object was to pay attention to my inner emotional and mental state over the course of the game, and to draw conclusions about the nature of giving and receiving from these observations. These goals and objectives were not directly stated at the time, but were clearly intended, and I was to infer them and learn accordingly, internalizing them and making the conclusions my own.

MD pushed the plate with the cinnamon roll towards me and said something like, “Here, this is for you.” I took a bite. He then told me to offer it back to him. I actually wanted the whole cinnamon roll so I felt a little disappointed offering it back to him, but I did. He smiled and laughed and took a bite and said, “Thank you.” And then he pushed it back across the table to me and again said, “Here, for you.” I was much happier to receive it this time and I took another bite. “Now offer it back to me again,” he said. So I did and I felt happier this time as I offered it to him. We passed it back and forth several more times, saying, “this is for you” or something very close to that, each time with a smile. It became fun to receive the cinnamon roll and to give it again. “Do you see how giving and receiving are the same thing?” MD asked me as we ate. “There isn’t a difference between the two.” I understood what he was telling me, both giving and receiving were joyous actions made by two parties, and they both were the same; it made no difference whether one is the giver or the receiver in terms of the joy, fulfillment, or other good qualities one enjoys and participates in during the course of acting out generosity. This act of enjoying the gift of the good tasting cinnamon roll, and then of giving it away and letting another enjoy it, and then suddenly getting to taste it again, and then just as suddenly give it up again for the other person, made clear the joy of self-sacrifice, and the humble simplicity of receiving a gift very clear and understandable.

This was the nature of time spent with MD, he could take the commonplace and make it fun, and turn it into a life lesson of lasting value. Over the course of many months I visited him where he was living in a tent near the coast and my task was to bring him oranges when I came to visit. The goal of this task was to prepare the oranges and bring them to him with the purest intentions I could manage; without negative thoughts, or negative feelings, without any unloving inner motivation that would taint the gift of the oranges. The gift was the energy I put into the oranges rather than the oranges themselves. This was the essential basis for many, if not all of the subsequent lessons over the course of my next four years with MD; what was I doing internally, hidden from view, and was this loving or unloving. The fundamental question revolved around whether I was thinking and feeling with love; and on an even deeper level, was I moving on a spiritual level with love and in love, serving others with pure energy and intention, or was I being unloving.

The big question at this point would be, could MD really see into the depths of my being; the places hidden from view, which nobody else could see, and which in many cases I couldn’t see at first myself. My experience told me that I could trust this; though I couldn’t explain how he could do it, I became certain that he could do it, and that it would be to my benefit to listen and learn from him, and allow him to help me operate on myself and transform the parts of me that were truly unloving, turning them into something much closer to genuine love, and if I was able into love itself.

One time we were in my truck and MD was driving while I sat in the passenger seat. As we approached an intersection in town he let me know we were about to enter a simple scenario as a test for me. A scenario was a situation created to give an opportunity to grow and change. Scenarios were common tools MD used to teach his disciples; by creating a situation that would bring up some inner conflict or negative tendency, in which to be transformed by making a better choice in the heat of the moment; it was an opportunity for the person whose scenario it was, to begin a new response, start a new positive habit and to overcome old patterns that were destructive, or hurtful to themselves and others, or just an opportunity to overcome fear, or some other limitation.

This scenario was one of the first he created for me, and it took place in the main intersection of the small town I was living in at the time. When it was our turn to move through the intersection he drove to the middle of the crossing and stopped the truck. We sat there in the truck for a time while other cars began honking at us to move, and drivers angrily yelled at us. It helped that I was in the passenger seat and not driving, but at first it was still uncomfortable to be yelled at, and to be sitting stopped in the middle of the busy intersection. But I quickly understood that this situation was about maintaining my composure and my peace in the midst of anger being directed at me; it was set up for me, who never wants to make anyone upset, partly out of fear, to confront this fear and be unmoved in the face of other’s displeasure.  MD told a joke which lightened my mood and I sat relatively untouched by the mood of the other drivers in the intersection. After a time he started the truck again and we continued on our way. He complimented my inner composure and said I did pretty well with that difficult situation. As we drove away I did feel lighter, as if a burden of some kind had been lifted and also I felt a little stronger and more able to face the inevitability of others displeasure towards me, justified or unjustified, and more able to maintain clarity in the midst of a difficult situation, which could allow me to ultimately act with kindness and compassion towards others who are angry at me rather than act in reaction to them.

(to be continued)

~FS

Paths of Desire (part 19)

I’d now like to share the period in my life that is the most seminal, and life-changing; but also the most unusual, and in some respects difficult to understand. I say that it was seminal and life-changing because, through this period, I was brought fully and clearly back into the Christian faith, from out of the spiritual confusion that I had traveled for many years; the pleasant, but vacuous new-age spiritual buffet I had indulged myself was replaced, and I was given instead the simple bread of life—a less flashy and less trendy meal, but a much more fulfilling one.

However, the path taken to reach this goal was not common, and I expect some readers will find some parts of my story misguided, and baffling, or maybe even delusional at times. But, hopefully, at the very least, you will agree that the ends justify the means. I certainly feel this way. Becoming firmly and forever Christian because of this journey; any difficulty, trouble or suffering I endured along the way is a small price to pay.

It may help you, as you read these next chapters, to not take things too seriously, and even if things do take serious turns, to take these with a grain of salt; since this is exactly how I approached it while living it. It helped me to trust God every step of the way, to hold to faith and hope, and to refrain from quick judgements. By keeping open to each step, and each experience I allowed myself to glean the truth in the midst of the challenge and to find the pearls of wisdom and transformation where they could be found. By staying with the process and not running away from it—though it would push every button I had, would require laying down my pride and many other things to which I was attached—I was able to confront my fears and overcome them, and choose love in place of fear, faith in place of doubt, and light in the face of darkness.

After graduating from university in June 1993, I sold or gave everything I owned away and joined a spiritual community. My possessions were not very great, so it wasn’t as difficult as it might have been for someone with more wealth. Still, it was very liberating as I gave away my prized leather jacket and racing bicycle as well as an extensive personal library, and an admirable record collection. Perhaps the most difficult to part with however, were all of my journals, and every photograph or sentimental attachment. With the exception of some clothing, my sleeping bag and a toothbrush, I shed every other possession. My trusty Toyota pickup I gave for the collective use of our community.

I remember hearing a story as a child, of a family friend who had given all his possessions away. I admired and was inspired by him, so when this opportunity presented itself I was excited to follow in his footsteps. Pulling ‘my’ truck up to the landfill, and tossing all of my trophies and ribbons from soccer and track out the back was a strange thrill; and when I swept the last remnants of my childhood possessions off the tailgate, I felt renewed.

Our community was never large, though a large number of people came and went for brief stays with us over the years, but when we first began it was extremely small. There were myself, another young man, R., a young lady, K. and our spiritual master, MD.

I had met MD four years prior to becoming his disciple and joining his fledgling community. We met at my mother’s new home. She had recently remarried and they hired MD to design and install the new landscaping for their home. We immediately became friends, and occasionally, over subsequent years I worked for him part-time doing landscaping. He was about twelve years older than me and had a quick wit and intelligence unlike anyone I had met before. He also shared my love for travel and adventure; and he had a wealth of experiences that intrigued me. During the first couple years of our friendship he often discussed a plan to form a company that would create Sacred Gardens for clients around the world; these would be healing gardens that would tap into the natural power centers of the earth using crystals arranged in rings, pyramids that enhance plant growth and promote healing and other structures of this nature. I didn’t know anything about this sort of thing but it was fascinating, and the idea of traveling around the world together building such interesting projects excited me tremendously. Of the projects I had already see him design and build it didn’t seem that far-fetched that he could make this happen; he had a great eye for design, and he was good at business and marketing.

As the years went by he began to teach a form of kinesiology to me. It was intended to enable a person to achieve freedom within themselves by clearing away mental or emotional issues that were causing the individual problems. The idea was that it could help a person make spiritual advances and achieve greater spiritual health and wholeness. From my experience it seemed to do just that, and it was fun. I had a great time working on this with him and feeling like I was making progress.

In addition to his other abilities and gifts, MD was a lot of fun to be around. He was hilarious, and there was never a dull moment around him. So whatever we were doing it was almost always guaranteed to be interesting, and funny as well. In the early 1990s I lost track of him for about a year but then one day I ran into him at a café in Sebastopol, CA. He was different, something seemed more detached and aloof about him and he was more intense in some way. I had touched his shoulder to say hello and he turned quickly and warned me not to touch him because he was in the midst of a spiritual transformation. His sharp clear blue eyes seemed to penetrate through me and I took a step back. We spoke again later and he gave me a book to read, Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda.

Hinduism was the context of my early explorations into the spiritual life with MD. He had studied with Master Subramuniya in Hawaii and was knowledgeable about yogic philosophies and practices. The book he gave me was a primer into this world of yogis, to help me understand devotion, higher spiritual practices, and the master-disciple relationship, among other things. I never would have imagined at the time that some four years later, after beginning on this path so solidly enmeshed in a Hindu context that I would emerge solidly Christian.

Enantiodromia is a Greek word that literally means: opposite running course, and is used to describe a phenomena of going in one direction and ending up with its opposite; that when we pursue a course of action, or a mental or emotional goal with devotion and extreme focus there is a tendency to end up with its opposite. While Hinduism and Christianity are not opposites, they are very far apart, and as I look back on this period in my life, either consciously, as MD intended, or unconsciously, by a God-guided plan, he met me where I was in my life, walked alongside me, and slowly but inexorably guided me one hundred and eighty degrees about face, into a completely different direction, an opposite path to the one I believed that I was on.

(to be continued)

~FS

Paths of Desire (part 18)

I began this story by claiming that life is an inner battle, which each of us wage; and that for me, the basis of my battle has been, and is, to seek love from the source of all love, God; and to resist seeking it in other places, along other paths, apart from Him. Consequent to this underlying battle, are manifest a myriad of more superficial, but no less important battles, waged in my heart and mind against a myriad of sins, mistakes, misdirections, vices or whatever you’d like to call them. Resulting from these battles, waged primarily in my thoughts, are all of the actions I might take, for good or for bad, in my life and in the world; as a result of the victories or the defeats I’ve won or lost within my thoughts.

I’ve described the varied paths my life has taken through childhood, youth and young adulthood as a result of living by trial and error, seeking love without direction, doing the best I can, hoping not to hurt anyone, yet acting without knowledge of the true nature of the daily battle occurring within me, and without a clear method or practice to help me learn how to fight for victory first by God’s grace, in synergy, with my own efforts.

The world is a melting pot of ideas and philosophies from which each of us pick and choose, or adhere to without awareness, consciousness or understanding. We express opinions that we learned along the way, that make us feel good, but not necessarily ones that are true; but we are sheltered from truth by the widespread and deeply held relativism of our world, that allows us to have our own truth, and thereby live free of any constraint, or obedience to anything beyond ourselves.

“I’m a good person.” We hear this all the time, by many people, nearly everywhere. But whether something is good or bad depends not on us, but on God alone; and which ideas or philosophies we adhere to, determine which direction we are going, and eventually where we will end up. One might say it is good to go to New York, and then give good reasons to support that claim; and for those who want to go to a large city with the opportunities it offers, that is good, but for others who desire peace and tranquility, this advice to take the road to New York would be bad advice. So it is in all of life; lots of advice, lots of wisdom, all pointing us in different directions; our task is to decide where we are going, where we want to go, and then listen to the advice that helps us get there, ignoring the other advice which leads us to a different end. Those who want the world can have the world, those who want God can have God.

I mentioned earlier, how, during this period of which I’ve been writing, from my teens through my early twenties, that while, in a sense, I was searching for God, in reality I was slipping further and further away, and deeper into a depravity of my own making. I could look back on this time, from my current vantage point and say, “well, these things are what make me who I am, they are learning experiences and no harm was done” and this may be true, and may be fine to say, but then, these aren’t the things to say, or the ideas and philosophies to hold, if I want to be made new in Christ. The Christian view is to hate the evil we’ve done, to repent, and to begin afresh. These compromises or excuses allow us to stay with ourselves as we are, but they don’t spur us on our path to perfection, or lead us to a better standard of love. Jesus said, “be perfect even as your father in heaven is perfect”. He calls us to be holy, to be healed, and to become whole, as we were intended from the beginning to become. It is by His grace, but also by our ongoing and committed agreement and effort that enables us to attain this goal here and now, and eventually in totality in the age to come.

I imagine myself sitting at the dinner table and I am joined by three wonderful young people, now in their twenties. They are like olive plants around my table, as the psalmist says. When I sit in my prayer nook at night, I pray for these three people, my children. They are on my mind daily as I go about my business; I am concerned for their well-being and their eternal life. So many years ago, I first knew of them, and eons before this, they were known by God. To me they are only images now, memories that barely got started; but they are with God I pray.

When I had learned that they existed, each in their own time, I was a selfish boy, thinking of myself, and also fearful of how I would be perceived by others. I had also learned to be the ‘enlightened’ boyfriend, to support the women in my life in whatever they decided was right for them. So when the decision came to stop a beating heart, I sat quietly, not in an innocent silence, but in tacit support. And when a second beating heart would be silenced, I continued in my silence. And upon the third fatal decision, I crumbled inside, and made every effort to forget, and to tell myself it hadn’t happened; that nobody died and I wasn’t accessory to murder. I was willing to believe this, and to instead understand myself as a champion of rights, a steady and dependable partner, a good man, a good person. And this is the theory I held for decades, completely forgetting the other silent parties involved; those three silent ones, within the flesh of another, which were, one by one, preparing and becoming—and then were silenced forever.

My sorrow for my three children has become complete; where at first it never existed. My tears have washed away the horror of what I did and, upon my knees, I have found peace. I look back on those years, when I sat in self-satisfied silence, and am amazed at what I was convinced was true, and how I misdirected my love and protection. I focused on the needs and rights of one while neglecting those of the other. My love was narrow and could have been larger, large enough to encompass everyone involved, but it was not. By God’s holy mercy and through His forgiveness though, I have returned to my feet again; and in gratefulness and thanksgiving to Him, I march onward.

(to be continued)

~FS

Paths of Desire (part 17)

I continued to be in contact with my friend north of Tokyo as he worked on the score for my play. I sent him new scenes as I completed them, and he sent recordings as we worked out the details. I had moved out of the dorm. In fact, I had moved out of the college entirely after I returned from Taiwan, and I began attending a state college a little closer to home, and a lot less expensive than the private college I had been attending.

I was extremely fortunate to have a friend, a benefactor in many respects, who had purchased land near the university and wanted someone to care take it for her while she waited to build. I often think she made up this need as an excuse to be kind to me but I’ll never know for sure. In any case, this was the reason I moved onto her land. She even went to the amazingly generous trouble of purchasing a used camping trailer for me to live in, and a new gas generator to power it. It was a Spartan arrangement which suited me perfectly. The old trailer needed quite a bit of cleaning but once this was done and it was leveled on site, it was the perfect place to live.

We situated the trailer just under the dripline of several beautiful and enormous old Oak trees on the edge of an open grassy hillside overlooking a tranquil valley connecting Santa Rosa to Rohnert Park, California. The trailer was oriented for full enjoyment of sunsets across the valley in the evenings, and sunrises which peaked over the crest of the hills just upslope, and flooded my living space with rich golden light each morning.  I covered the floor with a variety of carpet samples I had found behind a local flooring company and slept on these in my panoramic ‘living room’.

One of the great natural wonders of Northern California is the earthy and stimulating smell of the grasses, the bay trees and the eucalyptus. My new home was immersed in the midst of this wonderful bouquet and I often reflected how truly lucky I was to be alive in such a place as that. Even the dirt and the dust smelled good here. There was no road up the hill to my new abode, just a rutted dirt path that became a driveway of sorts after many trips up and down in my indefatigable Toyota pickup. Further up the hill I never wanted to drive, rather preferring to keep the land as pristine as possible. But it was an excellent place to hike and enjoy my neighbors; deer, possum, raccoon, owl, hawks and a variety of other little critters.

One early morning before the sun had risen I walked far up the hill into a meadow beyond the oaks. There was still a light mist in the air and the distance was partially shrouded in fog. The meadow was thick with flaxen grass, waving gently in the early morning breeze. Dew glistened on each stalk of grass, and as the sun’s first light broke over the hills above, each drop of dew awoke; and in the midst of this golden flowing sea of grasses were hundreds, if not thousands of little sparkling diamond sails riding upon the waves. I stepped closer to grasp the nature of this grassland armada, and discovered in the midst of the rigging, in the very middle of each rounded, glistening, diamond speckled sail was a tiny sailor plying his boat in the breeze. They were spiders, riding upon their glistening webs, built within the framework of the surrounding grasses; and there were more than could be counted, filling this meadow, sailing into the distant fog, reflecting the sun’s light in a myriad of directions. It was a humble and a spectacular sight, and it did take my breath away for a moment. Hidden here amidst the clouds was a naval exercise like none I had ever heard of before, and one I’ve never seen again since.  I stood for a while and watched the breezes move these tiny sailors gently back and forth among the grassy waves while the sun rose in the sky and the fog melted away. In time, as the sun’s rays began to fall from a steeper angle, as the sun climbed higher into the sky, the glistening rigging of each sail faded and the sails disappeared from my view. The morning exercises came to an end and I turned and headed back down the hill to my trailer.

Of my classes this year, two were of note for the ways in which they informed my understanding of the inner man, and the human spiritual dimension; Jungian Psychology and Critical Thinking. Carl Jung was noteworthy in his development of the concepts of the collective unconscious, and archetypes, or shared collective myths held by all of humanity, which inform the way each of us act and live out our lives. Additionally he developed the theory of individuation, the idea that our primary goal and purpose as humans is to become truly ourselves, uniquely developed over a lifetime, made up of elements from the collective unconscious and elements of our particular personalities. In this I found a working theory that could give some meaning to my life, and purpose to my existence. Critical Thinking on the other hand, gave me tools to decode my thought processes, to allow me to lay bare the way I think, why I think the way I do, and how to change the way I think if I desire that. My professor liked to say that critical thinking was, “thinking about our thinking in order to improve our thinking”. I saw in this process, the building blocks for mental freedom, which could lead to emotional freedom as well. By bringing our thought processes into the light and analyzing them, rather than just taking our thoughts for granted, we can discover our underlying assumptions and the chain of inferences that we make as we reason, and we can discover faulty reasoning, erroneous conclusions, and thereby give ourselves hope of change, and freedom from the bad thinking which leads us to make bad choices which yield bad results in our lives.

I continued to take advanced classes in critical thinking from this professor and began working at The Center for Critical Thinking, which he founded as an international think-tank for the advancement of the field. We hosted visiting scholars from around the world for our annual conference discussing critical thinking and how to better teach the principles of good, sound reasoning to students through the development of better critical thinking curriculum from elementary grades, through middle school and on up into college. I also became one of his teacher’s assistants, and taught the introductory course for him when he was away at various speaking engagements around the country.

My final year of undergraduate studies, I finally settled on a major through the interdisciplinary studies department. This program enabled students to create their own major if they were able to convince the board of its validity, and if they could present a successful case for its acceptance. Most of my credits to this point were in philosophy, of which critical thinking courses were a subset, and in theater arts, excluding the mandatory general education requirements which I had completed years ago. I presented a case to the board to create a special major that I called, Hermeneutic Studies, which was basically a blending of philosophy and theater, and would include, as my senior project, the production of the play I had begun writing while in Taiwan. The board approved my petition, so the trajectory for completing my degree was finally determined. In the end however, my college transcripts just stated that my major was Critical Thinking, which I found a little amusing, given all of the work and effort involved in applying and gaining acceptance for my special major.

Against the backdrop of my coursework and theater productions I was offered a generous opportunity to go through the Montessori teacher training program. The friend who had let me stay in the trailer on her land was a Montessori teacher, owned a local Montessori school and also ran a program for training new teachers in the Montessori method. She had befriended Dr. Elizabeth Caspari, who had worked with Maria Montessori for many years, helped develop the music curriculum for the Montessori method, and was a lifelong proponent and master teacher in this method.  Madame Caspari had bought a home in town and over the course of time I had met and helped her with various tasks around her house; putting up shelves, moving furniture and things of that sort since she was in her mid-nineties and unable to do many of these things herself. Madame Caspari and my friend offered a full scholarship so I could attend the training program and eventually become a Montessori teacher if I wanted. It was a rigorous program, but it only met on Saturdays for fourteen weeks, so it was possible to include this on top of my other responsibilities. There was a lot of reading and many papers to write, but it was a pleasure to learn about Maria Montessori, her keen observation of children and her insights into the natural stages of child development, and the scientific process she employed in developing her methods of teaching based on her detailed observations of how children play, and learn most naturally and effortlessly through their play. Madame Caspari was very encouraging and often commented that the reason she felt I would be a good teacher was because I was willing to get on the floor and meet the children on their level. She was a radiant personality and filled the room with her love, but she was also very tough and wouldn’t accept anything but discipline and hard work. She had very high standards but enforced them with love. Having been born and raised in Switzerland and then spending many years in India, where she met and began working with Montessori, Madame Caspari had a thick accent. Prior to moving to Santa Rosa she had lived at a Unity Village in Missouri. In her lectures she would often comment on her time in Missouri, but with her accent it sounded like ‘Misery’. I didn’t know at the time she had lived in Missouri, so when she would talk about her time in ‘Misery’ I thought it was metaphorical and I felt an up-surging of empathy for her past. I wondered to myself for many weeks what the source of her misery was and why she had lived in it for so long. At long last I came to understand it wasn’t a state of being she had occupied but rather a state of the union.

(to be continued)

~FS

Paths of Desire (part 16)

After leaving Taiwan, and spending a couple days touring Seoul, I flew into Tokyo and was picked up at the airport by a friend who was living about an hour north of town. We knew each other from college, he had lived in China for an extensive period and was fairly fluent in Mandarin, and was now here learning Japanese. He was also a musician and composer. We discussed the play I had started writing while in Taiwan and I explained my idea for a soundtrack. I wanted musical accompaniment for most if not all of the play, with musical settings for particular scenes, an overall theme, and musical signatures for the characters personifiying the inner aspects of the life of the main character; something to help identify the characters ‘Spirit’ and ‘Chaos’, as well as Chaos’s sidekicks ‘Pollution’ and ‘Noise’.

For the next week we worked together on the score for my play, while taking multiple trips with his friends into Tokyo to enjoy its nightlife. My second week in Japan I bought an unlimited pass on the Shinkansen, or bullet train, with the intent to see some of the main island, particularly the beautiful Shinto shrines in Kyoto, and the Peace Park in Hiroshima. To me, both of these exemplified the victory and resiliency of the human spirit; the shrines embodied beauty in symmetry and order, while the iconic image of the twisted metal dome atop the building that survived the atomic blast in Hiroshima symbolized perseverance, fortitude and indomitability.

The train let me off in Kyoto and I spent my first day walking to various famous shrines throughout town; spending quiet time within their contemplation gardens and admiring the order laid out in the building floorplans and the organization of the shrines columns and beams. This order is carried out on multiple scales and replicated in miniature in the patterning of the railings, privacy screens and the layout of the tatami mats which cover the floors of the temples. I found comfort and peace in the intelligently designed and crafted format of the temples, a theme and variation which showed itself in the smallest elements, the structural elements and in the layout of the entire shrine site and gardens. One could almost see the whole of the shrine in the smallest element, and certainly could formulate the underlying concept of it from these details.

At the end of the day I had no place to sleep, and hotels in Kyoto are expensive, so I waited until dark and climbed a fire escape ladder that was close to the ground on one of the high rise buildings downtown. I pulled myself up, threw my backpack onto the first landing and climbed aboard. To get away from the crowds and the noise of the city I climbed up to the seventh or eighth floor landing of the fire escape and set up my ground-pad and sleeping bag. It was windy on the side of this building but I was warm nestled in my bag. I looked out across the city, at the lights, and fell to sleep.

The next morning I had a surprise and a treat. In the dark of the previous night I hadn’t noticed the small home and enclosed garden directly next door to the building I had climbed. It was the only home in the area, surrounded by tall buildings. From my vantage point, sixty odd feet overhead, I had a complete bird’s eye view of the home and garden. It was old, a traditional Japanese home, with an encircling wooden fence that walled off a secret garden complete with a koi pond, small groves of bamboo, wooden walkways and gravel paths. The garden was being tended now by an old man. He swept the wooden walkways and trimmed some of the plants. He went about his business slowly and with purpose. From the fire escape high above, he looked small and his home also looked like a toy; I felt like a giant looking down on him, and I felt a little embarrassed peering down without his awareness. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of this large city he worked quietly and peacefully. I lay in my sleeping bag watching him for quite a while, admiring his work and the life he appeared to be living. I suspected he had had quite a fight though, in order to keep his home, when all of these buildings were being built around him, and the land was being gobbled up by builders and investors. I imagined him to be a warrior gardener, able to wield a sword, the law, as well as pruning shears. The morning light was beginning to break, though it was still early, and the sun hadn’t come over the horizon. I felt I should leave quickly before more residents awoke. I didn’t want to be caught up here on the side of the building so I gathered my things together, descended the fire-escape, dropped to the sidewalk below and went on my way to the train station.

Standing in the presence of the A-Bomb Dome, or originally the Hiroshima Prefecture Industrial Promotion Hall, provides a visceral window into that horrible moment in history, when the equivalent of fifteen kilotons of TNT exploded overhead and killed nearly 150,000 people. It is chilling, heartbreaking and immediately makes one sober and introspective. I spent several hours walking the perimeter of this concrete and steel memorial to man’s power of destruction. In the end, it was hard for me to believe, and hard to digest the power of that bomb, and the far reaching effects it had on the people of Hiroshima and beyond.

As I walked across the Peace Park, thinking about these things; I felt weary from my travels but mostly from the things that man does to one another. I needed something to raise my spirits and suddenly she was there in front of me. I don’t know why she was there, but she was smiling and happy and looked like a lot of fun. She was a Japanese girl about my age and dressed unlike anyone else in the area; she had an eclectic style with mismatching colors and patterns, funky jewelry and scarves, a leather jacket, and hair the color of cherries. She was the perfect antidote to my current mood and I smiled back. Her command of English wasn’t great but it wasn’t bad either, and we were able to talk together fairly well. We walked around the park and eventually made our way to a little café where she introduced me to her friends as her boyfriend. I found this surprising but also amusing and I was happy to play the part.

We spent the rest of the day together, and the night, and the next day she took me to her uncle’s house to meet her family. Her uncle took one look at me, realized I was American, and forbade me to enter his house. I sat on the front porch while she gathered her things together and tried to convince her uncle to let me inside. I understood though, and she apologized and explained what I had already inferred; Americans had caused him untold pain and the loss of most of his family members, I was an American, he couldn’t forgive Americans for the pain they had caused, and therefore I was not welcome in his home. I felt ashamed and wanted to apologize but he didn’t give me the chance since he didn’t come outside again while I was on the front porch.

After a while she came back outside with a small bag and we set out on our adventure. We decided to travel together for my remaining time in Japan; she purchased a ticket on the train to join me, and she wanted to show me some beautiful places. I was touched by how quickly she had attached herself to me. I was also a little nervous about this, slightly uncomfortable, bemused and flattered. She was very gregarious and uninhibited, singing on the train, and laughing with abandon at things which struck her funny. Occasionally she would draw attention from others looking askance at her flamboyance but she didn’t appear to care in the least. She was a lot of fun and she made my time in Japan very memorable.

When we returned to Hiroshima at the end of our short vacation I sensed she didn’t want to part, and I considered what it might be like to bring her home with me. It seemed crazy and impossible but I fancied us to be a new John and Yoko. There was never a dull moment with her, but how long could that last, and really we hardly knew each other. Still it was a tempting thought and as we rode the bus back to her home, and she nestled close beside me, it seemed possible and maybe not entirely crazy. I wrestled with this idea, and considered asking her to come with me, but I couldn’t. It was too much; I was still in college and didn’t even know what I was going to do with my life, and she was so wild, how would she like America, how would she make it there, and I couldn’t take care of her.  Sadly, we parted, and I returned to the US, and I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t return her calls. Several times she called my mom asking for me to call her back and I never did. I was a selfish young man and had moved on with my life. She deserved more kindness from me and I regret not having been able to give it.

(to be continued)

~FS

Paths of Desire (part 15)

Small gray monkeys were a favorite pet of the Taiwanese people, although many of the little creatures passed their days in cages, mostly neglected, and some in misery. One such unfortunate monkey was owned by my neighbors in Luku. They kept him in a cage in the open lot that separated our property and theirs. Occasionally, he was let out and tied to a tether which allowed him more room to move about; but it was difficult to see his loneliness and sorrow spending most days sitting alone in his cage.

It was especially sad to see him out there in bad weather and at night; so one day, I couldn’t take it anymore and I asked the neighbors if I could take care of him for them. They were surprised but agreed to let me look after him. They stressed to me that they weren’t giving him to me, and they expected him to be there when they wanted him, but I could interact with him and care for him as well. The first thing I noticed was that he was incredibly dirty and needed a good washing. Having never washed a monkey before, I decided the easiest thing to do was bring him with me into the shower. I had no idea how difficult this project would be and how much little gray monkeys hate the shower. In my host family’s home the shower was a concrete stall at the end of an outside walkway, nestled against a corner of the house. It had a door and was fully self-contained, which turned out to be a good, because things became very lively for the two of us behind that closed door.

All was well as I carried my little friend into the stall with me and shut the door but once the water was turned on, it was as if I had been lowered into a blender. He exploded and went berserk, flying round and round the little stall, up and down my body, and finally perching himself atop my head. His little hands and feet clutched savagely at my hair and scalp and he refused to let go or be coaxed down from his lofty promontory. As I attempted to pry him off my head he sunk his teeth into my finger; sharp little teeth which drew blood, and I immediately began to imagine what new, strange and unknown disease I might have just contracted. Hadn’t AIDS come from a monkey? Well, nothing to be done now but clean my finger, which I did, while he remained nervously attached to my scalp like an exotic, living, fascinator. While he was up there I was able to bring him into the shower stream several times and at least give him a quick rubdown before finally giving up the venture.

We dried off and then I brought him into my room, which he loved. I closed the bedroom door and let him down onto the floor and he was elated to be free to roam and jump, without a tether, and free of the tiny confines of his cage. If he could have spoken to me I wouldn’t have understood his joy as clearly as he communicated it by his running and jumping and playing. He leaped up onto my bed and used the mattress as a springboard to launch himself up onto the wall above my pillow where he immediately pushed off and then did a somersault in the air before landing on the mattress again. This became his favorite thing, which he repeated over and over again as I watched with a smile. Occasionally he stopped and looked over at me to make sure I was watching him and I voiced approval which was his cue to begin his acrobatics again.  Eventually he tired himself out and we both laid down for the night. I climbed under the sheets, and he lay down on my chest, with his little arms extended across my shoulders, his tiny head nestled against my neck, and went to sleep. For the remaining few weeks of my stay in Luku I brought my little friend in for the night; and we both enjoyed the warmth and shelter of my room, and also the warmth of our newfound friendship; but I never again tried to give him another shower.

At the conclusion of the semester in Taiwan, our group spent the last few days together debriefing at a rustic site in the mountains within Taroko National Park.  There, we discussed what we had learned and how the trip had changed us. Among other things, I found that this trip exposed and called into question some deeply held assumptions I had about the superiority of individualism. I come from a culture that places great value on the individual: the self-made man, the person who climbs up out of obscurity and makes a name for him or herself, one who overcomes and wins and does all of this in the face of the mediocre crowds, rising above mediocrity, finding victory in personal accomplishment. I came to Taiwan with all of this deeply ingrained in me and was certain of its veracity, but it wasn’t long before I realized that I was looked on with pity by the Taiwanese for these very traits. They saw in my individualism something sad and to be avoided. Instead, they believe that how one fits into the larger society, the group, is the important thing, and one’s value is found as a part of the whole, with the others, not apart or alone. Of course this is a generalization, and in the twenty five years that have elapsed since my time on the island I suspect they are now much more like the west, but at the time I was there, and of those I met, this was the belief and the philosophy that guided their lives.

St Paul admonished the church to be of one mind and one spirit, to flee from a competition of ideas, to find resolution to differences, and to foster harmony within the whole. St Paul went on to tell us that, though we may have diverse and individual gifts, they are for the benefit of the entire body, and we, as parts of the body, should find our value in how we benefit and enhance the other members of the body. In so many ways the beliefs of my culture are at odds with Christian ones, and have been at odds with them for many centuries.

After our group debriefing we all went our separate ways. I had booked a flight through Seoul, with a layover for a couple days to see that city, and then on to Tokyo to visit a friend, and travel for two weeks in Japan before heading back home again. My flight didn’t leave Taiwan for another day or two so I spent some time hiking in the area. It appears there have been many slides, renovations and changes to the trails since I was there in 1990, but at that time, the trailhead I took was at a cave entrance on the side of the highway, and one began by walking for a very long way through the mountain.

There is something strange and claustrophobia inducing about walking alone straight through a mountain by way of a small tunnel. In this particular case the light at the other end of the tunnel appeared very far away and looked as if someone was holding a single LED bulb very far in the distance. I began walking through the tunnel towards the light but it never seemed to get any closer. After a while of walking I turned and looked behind me and the entrance now looked just about as far as my destination; I calculated that I must be about mid-way through the mountain. The air was cool and damp and deathly silent. I could see nothing except these pin-lights at my two poles. I imagined the mass of earth and rock above me and thought how impossible it would be to reach me in a slide or collapse. Besides, nobody knew I had climbed into this tunnel, so they wouldn’t even know to look for me. But it was peaceful and so very silent and exciting too. I continued walking through the mountain and after a while the light on the other side did begin to look larger. My imaginations about a collapse provoked me to begin a faster pace and this stimulated my anxiety which in turn prompted me to break into a trot, and then a run in hopes of getting out of the mountain before something calamitous might happen.

The tunnel opened out onto a beautiful gorge and stream, and the trail continued up alongside the waterway and into the mountains. I had heard there were many more caves and tunnels up ahead, although most were short; and up to twenty-eight waterfalls on the trail, with some cascading down onto the trail inside the caves. I had brought an umbrella and light raincoat with me for the day, and a banana or two and a water bottle. I encountered a few other hikers at the beginning and again near the end but other than this the trail was mine. The solitude gave me time to reflect as I hiked alongside the stream, crossed the gorge on several footbridges, and walked through shallow streams, in the darkness of the caves, while water rained down upon me.

Opening an umbrella underground is an incongruous activity and leaves one feeling odd; finding oneself in a torrential downpour while walking through a cave strains our ideas of normalcy. I enjoyed this immensely. I felt alive and free again, as the stream poured down over me through the myriad fissures in the rock overhead; the Year of the female was behind me, and I felt I could breathe once more. I liked nearly all of the women I had travelled to Taiwan with, and all of those I had called my family the past six months, but at the same time I was glad to be alone now, without anyone to answer to, and immersed in beauty.

I emerged from the cave and back into the sunlight, wet and happy. My shoes and socks were soaked through, as were my shorts, but I didn’t mind. All I could see ahead was a wide open freedom calling to me, coaxing me through the next tunnel, across the next foot-bridge, further up into the clouds; and no petty annoyance could keep me grounded here and now. My body was wet and worn, but my spirit was taking flight; I could see beyond this trail into a bright, though unknown future. I had South Korea to visit, then Japan and then the rest of my life to unfold.

(to be continued)

~FS

Paths of Desire (part 14)

That same year a small group of my friends and I produced a play which one of my friends had written. It was well-received, and this inspired us to work together on additional new productions. Over the next few years we wrote and produced five or six new works, and I came to conclude that there were few things in life that I enjoyed as much as being a part of a team, a small group with a common creative purpose. The exchange of new ideas between us was invigorating, and the process of translating these ideas into a cohesive story that was entertaining and edifying was challenging and purposeful.

One of our productions, I began writing while living oversees in Taiwan. My semester abroad had been organized to take place in Shanghai, China however, several months earlier the Tiananmen Square protests took place, and out of concern for our safety the school administration changed plans and directed us to a language institute in Taichung, Taiwan instead. Each of us were placed with a host family in Taichung for three months while we studied language and culture, and then we moved to the mountains and spent the next three months placed with a different host family in a small village named Luku, which was located in one of the premier green-tea growing regions on the island. My play was loosely autobiographical about my time on the island, within the challenges of living in a new culture and facing conflicting values; but it was primarily about the inner life of the main character and his battle to achieve balance and harmony amidst conflicting forces operating within his soul. These forces were personified predominantly in characters I named ‘Chaos’ and ‘Spirit’ who each fought for preeminence and authority within him and wanted sovereign control and the destruction of the other, but the main character’s struggle was to determine the place each of these forces should play in his life, and create a state of balanced inner peace. I took many of the ideas I was learning that year from Taoism and integrated these concepts into the storyline and the arc of the main character.

This was also the year of the female. This isn’t one of the Chinese zodiac, but it was the overarching, and overwhelming principle of my life in Taiwan. I was the only male in the group that traveled to Taiwan. Our group consisted of six other classmates and our program director, all women, and me. In addition to this I was placed in a host family in Taichung, with three daughters, and all of my professors at the language institute were women.  There were certainly many advantages and enjoyable aspects to this situation but when things got tense and stressful, as they invariably can when traveling for an extended period with others, I was nearly always the odd man out. I was a foreigner in a strange land and a stranger amongst my own people. Being the only male in the group meant that I was unique confidante to my peers one moment, and estranged outcast the next. By the end of the six months in Taiwan, I think I went a little batty.

While living in Taichung I attended a Tai-chi class on the rooftop of a high-rise building downtown. I had bought a scooter from a classmate and braved the streets of this large city, driving it between classes and my host-family’s home near the eastern city limits.  The rides through town were never without some excitement and anxiety since drivers in that city viewed road signs and traffic lights as optional recommendations, and considered sidewalks as an extra lane for traffic. Somehow I managed to survive the months on these city streets without incident, though there were several close misses and narrow escapes. By the time I arrived to my Tai-Chi class, I was in need of the soothing and relaxing effects of this ancient martial art.

One of the touted benefits of Tai-Chi is longevity and youthfulness. Our instructor was the embodiment of these effects since he looked as though he was about eight years old. This comes across as hyperbole, but when I first saw him I thought someone had brought their child along with them to the class. When he walked to the front of the group and began instructing I was completely amazed; by the moonlight I examined him intently, and giving him the benefit of the doubt, I decided he could maybe be as old as twelve. For no other reason than his apparent youthfulness, I was hooked on this class; because I was mesmerized by this man-child and was fascinated to watch him because he defied everything I understood about aging. I didn’t understand him very well since my Mandarin was very basic, but I did learn from others in the class that not only was he an instructor, but he was a master practitioner and an instructor of instructors. So he clearly was an adult, and apparently fully into middle-age, but he was the youngest looking adult I have ever seen. His class was exceptional and the setting was quintessentially exotic. Standing on a rooftop filled with Taiwanese Tai-Chi students, in the middle of their large city, at night, under the silver moonlight was a transcendent and magical experience. Doing so with this age-defying human as our instructor gave it all an air of mystery and fantasy as well.

Luku Township was about an hour scooter ride to the southeast from Taichung. This little village was set amidst deep green mountains and immediately surrounded by verdant terraces lined with rows of Camellia sinensis, from which green tea-leaves are cultivated. We arrived during the harvesting season and the entire town and countryside smelled of green tea. In my new host-family’s home, my bedroom was adjacent to the tea-drying room, in which was a long tumbler with a heater-blower attached, into which leaves were poured and dried. I marinated in the smell of green tea many days and nights, falling asleep to the sound of the tumbler as it rotated, drying the tea leaves; it was a natural and healthy intoxication that I felt throughout the harvest season.

In Luku, laundry was done in the streams which meandered along roadsides. In the center of the town there was an area where most people did their laundry. Laundry was only done by women and by me. In keeping with the Year of the Female, I discovered that I was the only man that did laundry in this stream, and as a by-product of my effort, I also provided the townswomen with new entertainment and cause for hilarity. Seeing me scraping and banging my clothes against the rocks, knee deep in the stream, brought joy to women and children alike, and the fact that I was the only white male in the area, I think added to the peculiarity of it.

It was unadvisable to hike in the countryside here too extensively due to the number of dangerous snakes. Venomous snakes had been bred on the island during WWII and after the war they were released into the wild and they propagated. While I was living in Luku one of the farmers unfortunately encountered one of these snakes while harvesting leaves and he didn’t survive. In addition to venomous snakes you might also encounter a large constrictor which is what happened to me one evening as I was riding my scooter to the town swimming pool. I was riding on a narrow road, flanked on both sides by tall reeds, when I rounded a curve and there, up ahead of me, appeared to be a fallen log across the entire road. As I approached it, a sudden chill went up my spine and I stopped abruptly, as the ‘log’ continued to slither into the reeds. It was a very large snake, perhaps six or seven inches in diameter; I couldn’t see its head, which was somewhere in the reeds to my right, nor could I see its tail which was someplace still back in the reeds to my left. The road had to be at least fourteen feet across, perhaps wider, since two small cars could pass each other on it. This snake continued to slither for quite a while, slowly but steadily before the tail finally came into view. I was completely repulsed, but nevertheless something in me wanted to go up and touch it. I pondered this idea for a moment as I continued to watch it slide off the road to my right, and then I determined it was better to leave this snake alone.

(to be continued…)

~FS

Paths of Desire (part 13)

My summer Alaska trip had been a complete success, I had made enough money to pay for books the coming year, in addition to some tuition and spending money. Equally important I had a better sense of myself, my strengths and weaknesses in the face of difficulties, and a deeper understanding and compassion for others who find themselves in tough circumstances and need a helping hand, or friendship, or simple kindness.

I had fallen away from organized religion over the past few years, though I still had an inner appreciation and love for my idealized version of it, but I still carried within me many aspects of a social gospel that I had learned while in church; love for the downtrodden, empathy for those that are hurting, willingness to help others where I could. The golden rule had been inculcated within me and though I was by far an imperfect practitioner of it, at least I kept it as a standard to strive towards and measure myself.

I also continued to learn what I could about my inner spiritual life, to notice my inner motivations and my true feelings, and to make sense of the jumble of ideas and thoughts that ran constantly through my head. Meditation and theater rehearsals still provided me with tools and opportunities to practice inner awareness but I was still several years removed from engaging in something approaching spiritual warfare, or an active and consciously applied effort to fight and win against spiritual things detrimental to myself and others; and the time of applying myself to this fight systematically and with ongoing determination would be something I wouldn’t be initiated in, or begin to practice, for quite some time.

To this very point, I recall a conversation I had with my step-mother at the time. She was bringing up some failings of mine, and observing that I was out of control in some significant ways in my life. I couldn’t disagree with her because she was correct, but I explained why I felt this was the case; I offered a comparison of my inner being to a complicated M1 tank. In my view, I had been dropped into myself without an owner’s manual and suddenly I had to learn what all these levers and buttons and controls and screens meant, in order to operate myself properly, and frankly, I hadn’t a clue how to operate myself properly. I was just going through life guessing, and making things up as I went along; doing a little trial and error here, a little self-correcting there, experimenting with this and with that, and hoping I wouldn’t mess up too badly. Admittedly, it was an imperfect practice, and I yearned for something better, but I made the best with what I knew.

Soon after returning to California from Alaska I began my next school year. I started studying Mandarin Chinese in preparation for a semester abroad the following year. I lived on campus, which was situated in the hills south of Petaluma; a bucolic and serene setting perfect for contemplation and immersing oneself in nature. On a daily basis I could watch deer walking by my first floor dorm window and often resident raccoons could be seen congregating around the front door, eating from our dorm-kitty’s food dish. Having grown used to sleeping on the ground in Alaska, and indeed much of my life, I gave my mattress to the facilities manager for safe keeping and spread a colorful Mexican blanket over the plywood bedframe in my dorm room and used this as my bed for the year.

Chinese language and culture appealed to me because of the mystery involved; the written language was so different from my own, and the cultural history, from the various dynasties up through the Long March and the Cultural Revolution was strange and different and captured my imagination. As part of this exploration I began to read the Tao Te Ching, the basic philosophical and religious text of Taoism written by Lao Tzu. It didn’t enthrall me in the same way as the Bhagavad-Gita but I was impressed by the value it placed on things counter-cultural to my way of thinking; things like passivity and weakness which my culture disdains, and the harmony and balance one can achieve when one embraces these alternatives, along with their opposites, in a unified whole.

As a complement to this study I began taking Aikido at a local Dojo in town. While this martial art is from Japan, not China, and Taoism and Aikido don’t share a common lineage, for me Aikido seemed to embody concepts I was learning in Taoism. For instance, in Taoism there is a famous image about the strength of water in relation to rock, and how over time the water is stronger and wears down the rock; while in Aikido, one meets one’s opponent or aggressor in a way similar to water, allowing the force and violence of one’s attacker to flow past one, and to redirect their violent energy into a more constructive energy that harms no one. I enjoyed applying the theory of the Tao in a practical and active method through Aikido.

Against the backdrop of studying Mandarin and my other classes I was also involved in several theatrical productions. As I’ve mentioned earlier, theater was more important to me for what I could learn about myself and about other people and less about the production or the finished product. In our theater community that year, we had a visiting director from Poland who had worked with the renowned Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, so we were excited to learn what he brought with him from his experience. We were working together on a scene from Martin Buber’s play, Elijah and discussing how best to translate Buber’s interpretation of the Biblical account into modern terms to reach a modern audience. In the course of this discussion the director began to speak about Buber’s own philosophy and his method of Biblical interpretation, or hermeneutics. He went on to explain that as actors, writers, producers we are also engaged in hermeneutics in how we approach the text of the play, and how we translate that into action and perform it for an audience. The question was how to make the Biblical story understood to the audience in the deepest, most visceral and dramatic way, simply and without artifice but with sincerity and honesty and power.

This discussion reoriented me and gave my life new purpose. I had never heard the term, hermeneutics before and I was so excited by the prospect of interpreting sacred scripture and joining that to theater for the purpose of making spiritual truths known and understood by an audience. This idea was a seed of a new life’s purpose; I wanted to write plays which would somehow interpret sacred truths in an accessible way, presenting them to an audience so as to make the unknowable knowable, and to inspire and instruct in these truths to open people to hidden realms so they could know that there is more to life than just what we see and touch.

I wanted to bring the mystery down to earth in some way, to battle the cold rationalism, and the narrowness of the literal, data influenced culture of my society where things are only true and only matter if you can prove them beyond a shadow of a doubt, with lots of facts and charts and graphs to prove your point. I knew in the depths of my heart that God wouldn’t be known this way, that He couldn’t be known this way, and my peers were losing faith in droves because they were trying to find Him in the wrong ways and with the wrong means and because of this they were giving up and dismissing faith as a fairy tale. I wanted to reverse that trend.

(to be continued)

~FS

Paths of Desire (part 12)

All was not lost, although most of it was; I had lost all my clothing except what I had on, my wallet, money, identification, sleeping bag and mat, tent, and my souvenir rocks, which I didn’t really miss and was happy to be rid of the extra weight. I still had a small shoulder pack in which I kept my journal and pen and my remaining food: several slices of bread, what remained of my jar of peanut butter and my ever-present container of garlic salt.

I didn’t take much time to mourn my losses but noticed a bridge not too far from me that spanned the river, so I crossed into what I imagined and hoped must be Portland. I found a visitor’s center which confirmed my hopes but I couldn’t find a good place to catch a ride south. I was tired and had lost patience for waiting on the side of roads so I just started walking south through the streets of Portland. I didn’t have a plan and wasn’t sure how I’d make it the remaining six hundred odd miles home so I just walked.

My hopes were raised when I passed a Methodist Church and some of the members were out front doing some weeding. Though I hadn’t attended a Methodist Church in some time I still felt like here were my people, plus Methodists are known for social outreach and aiding those in need. I was sure to receive some help, perhaps a little money, or food, or maybe a place to sleep for the night. With new-found joy I approached the group and told them a little about my story, how I had been hitching back home and lost my backpack on the train and had nothing left, and I inquired if they could offer any assistance to aid me in my plight. Their reaction was far from what I expected and not only was it unhelpful but it was actually cold and disdainful. I felt ashamed, for myself, and for them. This isn’t what John and Charles Wesley had in mind when they began their church based upon their method; this wasn’t the good news, but instead it was turning ones back on a stranger. I tried a different line of inquiry hoping they just didn’t understand, I couldn’t conceive that these members of my church family would turn me away without even a measure of kindness. In the end however that was all I received, a small measure of kindness, as one of the older ladies in the group gave me a half-smile as she wished me good luck.

So with a half-hearted smile to fill my stomach and an insipid blessing to keep me warm, I left and looked for a place to sleep, as it was growing dark. Not far away I found a bench under a lamppost in a remote corner of a small neighborhood park. It was a safe place, protected on three sides by trees and shrubs and well-lit. It was a long, cold night but thankfully I had been able to pull my jacket off the train so I had some measure of comfort as I lay on the bench and tried to sleep.

But sleep was difficult to come by with the sounds of the city in the distance and other neighborhood activity nearby. These sounds exacerbated my feeling of loneliness somehow and I longed to see some friends again and to talk with someone that I knew and who knew me. The light and shadow cast by the lamppost upon the surrounding shrubs gave them character and depth and animated them to my mind. As I sat up and scanned the foliage I could begin to discern distinct shapes within their branches and leaves. In time I realized that I was in the company of numerous animals and fantastic creatures who were interested in making my acquaintance and sharing their stories with me. Suddenly the night was not nearly so lonely as I began to converse with my new friends, these shrub-creatures, and inquire of their habits, proclivities and adventures. There was Mr Frog who was recovering from a very difficult day, and he was joined by Rat-Man who fancied bowler hats and dainty foods, farther along was a group of squirrels and a porcupine discussing recent events over tea, and further into the trees lived a troll, not particularly handsome, but with a good nature which made up for his physical shortcomings. I shared my difficult predicament with them and they all expressed concern and offered me encouragement, telling me that tomorrow would certainly be a better day. Mr Frog could relate and was certain things would look brighter for one of us or the other; and he guessed it would probably be me that things would take a turn for the better. I consoled him as well and also wished him a better tomorrow. Eventually the night passed and the morning began to awaken, and with the gathering light my friends slowly faded back into the foliage and disappeared among the shrubs.

I continued my walk south, not sure of my plan, but I sensed that I was beginning to lose my ability to cope with my situation, and that I needed to find some help soon.  I perceived that my emotions and my mind were fraying around the edges, and this awareness gave me insight into the mental difficulties of others who live permanently on the streets. I was afraid of losing my mind and my grip on reality and this scared me and made my heart grow with concern for anyone in a similar situation. Living on the street, the loneliness, existing on the margins of society as a pariah, enduring the elements, with little food and fear of attack at night, can take a tremendous toll on a person.

I begged for some change and called my mom. I explained my situation and we worked out a way for me to get a Greyhound bus ticket home, leaving the next morning. That night I found shelter under a pickup truck canopy in a store lot where these canopies were sold. I found one laying on the asphalt, opened the back hatch and climbed inside. It was cramped and it was cold laying on the asphalt, even with a piece of cardboard underneath but I felt safe and nobody knew I was there. I passed the night, sleeping a little, but waiting with anticipation for the bus that would arrive to pick me up early the next morning and take me home.

8:00 am arrived and I was standing at the bus stop expectantly. I had the address listed on the ticket and the correct time but the bus didn’t come. A few minutes passed and I began to worry. I couldn’t conceive of another night spent on a bench or under a truck canopy, or another night without anything to eat.  As I was considering this possibility, a Greyhound bus turned the corner, but stopped on the other side of the street, heading the wrong direction. Like my error with the train, I grew confused and I determined this must be a different bus since it was on the northbound side of the street. I watched the bus unload one or two people and I grew uneasy and anxious. What if it is my bus and I’m about to miss it because I’m on the wrong side of the street? I called out and started to run towards it as it moved away from the curb. I didn’t get very close by the time the bus turned the corner and disappeared, leaving me standing alone in the street. I couldn’t believe how stupid I was and why didn’t I walk over to it and just ask where it was going? Why did I wait so long just watching it, assuming it wasn’t my bus? Oh what a sorry idiot I was, and a stranded one too.

Frantically I found some money from some frightened soul who probably thought I was out of my mind and I called my mom again. I had come unglued by now and she could hear it in my voice. She talked me back down to a place of relative calm and said she’d work it out, to stay with her, not to worry, that she needed me to keep it together. After a call to the bus company she called me back at the pay phone where I stood in a daze, and told me there would be another bus that I could take the following morning. That was good news of course, but I heard it as if through water, muffled and distant and drowned out by the sound of my own thoughts and emotions crashing down around me. It was a beautiful sunny, late August day, with just a slight crispness in the air, hinting of fall coming soon. I could appreciate as I stood digesting this news that someone was enjoying the weather but I couldn’t find any joy in it. I was stuck another day in purgatory.

I thanked my mom for all of her help, assured her I’d be okay, told her I loved her and hung up the phone. I don’t remember the rest of that day. I suppose I lived it, since I did get on the bus the next morning, but I have no recollection of anything that happened after that phone call until the next morning when I got on the bus, sank into my seat and fell asleep, finally, finally heading home.

(to be continued)

~FS