When I was on vacation on a small island in Maine, I came across a book called One Thousand Moons: Krishnamurti at Eighty-Five. It is a beautiful book of photographs, long out of print, of the great teacher at work and at rest in California, England, and India. I knew the name of J. Krishnamurti, but hadn’t ever read his books or tried to understand his thought. This changed a few days ago, as I began reading his books and biography. Now I’m immersed in his elegant, subtle and sometimes difficult teachings, which has had an impact on my own thoughts and writing. Here is a man who thinks like I do, or at least I complement myself by thinking so. Like the Buddha, when I read his words or listen to his talks, I say, “Yes! That’s it! That’s what I’ve been thinking all these years but haven’t been able to put into words.” Well, today I tried just that, and here’s what I came up with:
Really, there’s not that much to do.
We don’t like to be told this because most of us measure our worth in being busy, in having responsibilities. But where do these responsibilities come from? Where does this busy-ness come from? From society, we say. I’m forced to do these things, we say. But no. We have chosen these responsibilities, this busy-ness. We stay busy because if we were to cease our busy-ness we would be forced to confront the emptiness of our own selves. We find purpose in action. We try to lead meaningful, productive lives, contributing to the good of society with our labor and our political activities. We try to make the world a “better place.” In reality, we are acting a role. Millions of years of evolution, and we have come to this.
The world economic system that exists today gives us the illusion that we have more choices than ever. And that through this multitude of choices we can find ever-increasing happiness. But actually we are more constrained now than we have ever been. Because the deluge of choices and information that is presented to us now actually dims the true light of wisdom that is within us. We believe we need to listen to the experts to tell us what to do, where to go, what to eat, what to read and see, and how to believe. This is the trick of every organized religion. This is the trick of the priest and of Oprah: that someone knows better than us. That by aligning ourselves with a specific belief system, by following the advice of this or that guru, we can finally achieve lasting happiness. Buy have any of us ever found that to be true?
Look at religion. Are religious people happy people? Does following the edicts of this or that faith or this or that messiah make anyone truly happy? Or instead does it lead to the gaping divisions between human beings that we see today, and that have in fact been going on for centuries? Our distant ancestors may have killed each other over territory or food, but never over ideas like we are doing today. We human beings nowadays are killing each other over ideas in our minds that we attach to as truth but which have no basis in fact in the real world as it is. We say that if only society would change, then we could be happy. But society has been created by human beings. All that we are as humanity up to this point has been the creation of human beings. There are no other forces outside of our own selves that have done this to us. We are in this position because this is what we’ve created.
People say, if only there was peace in society or in my immediate surroundings, peace with my job, with my boss, with my parents, with my children, then I will have peace in my life. We want everyone else to change to make our own lives peaceful, but that will never be the real solution. We can never change the world, only our reaction and relationship to the world. Buddha understood this. We hold this notion that we are making slow and steady progress towards peace. Our political leaders say this. They have signed some agreement, this country has given up nuclear weapons manufacturing, some religious figure gives a sermon, prizes are given, scholarships and grant money distributed, students go to work overseas on their summer breaks, building hospitals and homes for the poor. Progress!
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with building homes for the poor. But these acts alone won’t create peace, won’t solve the crisis we are in. Only a revolution in our own consciousness, in the way we relate to one another, without beliefs, without dogma or political ideologies, only then can we perhaps find peace. Because within each of us, beyond thought and opinion, beyond notions of right or wrong there exists a reality that is not dependent upon individual wants and desires. It is mystical and subtle, not easy to grasp. It is truth, but it is ever-changing, ever-becoming. We discover it only in relationship to the world and to one another.
When two human beings, without ideas about each other, truly communicate with one another, and by communicate I don’t mean talk and nod “yes”, or shake their head “no”, or think of how they are going to respond before the other person is even done speaking, I mean communicating with their whole being and all their senses, meeting the other person as a brand-new being, as perhaps the first person on Earth, only then can we even begin to see our life for what it really is and begin to treat one another as human beings and not just as a means to our own individual ends or our own individual happiness.
Other people don’t exist to make us feel good. Please remember this. First we must let go of all we have learned (not forget it, mind you, no one is asking you to forget arithmetic or how to drive a car or how to cook noodles), but to keep our learning at a distance, to know it’s there but not to allow our learning to come between us and the other, to not allow our ideas about the other to color our interaction with them. This is very hard to do.
Before we even meet people, we’ve already made up our minds about them. Especially people we already know. We say, oh, that person is kind, that person is mean, that person is always insensitive or hurts me with their words. That person is needy, that person is selfish. As soon as we think these things, we negate any possibility of meeting the other in a place of true compassion and love. We create a legend about the other and so believe the legend we have created.
Attaching to beliefs as if they are truth is our downfall. So, the question is: how can we free ourselves from our beliefs so that we can meet the other in right relationship? I don’t have the answer. I’m just asking the question.
This is what I’m thinking about today.
I took this photograph on July 4, 1989 at Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, NY. I was standing on the infield with my sister and some friends when the show started. The first song was Bertha. If you enlarge the photo (which is actually a photo of a photo) I swear you can see Jerry Garcia smiling.
These were the post-coma years, when the Big Man had lost some weight, was eating better, smoking a little less, and feeling and sounding energized and happy to be playing. Watch the video below (I’m the dude in the red bandana) and you’ll hear that his singing was stronger than ever and his guitar solos, as he played his beloved “Tiger,” were joyous and ripping. It’s hard to think, seeing and watching this vibrancy, that in a few years he would be hooked (again) on the heroin that sent him into rehab in California, where he died of a heart attack in his sleep (with a smile on his face, his family said) on August 9, 1995. His body looked a hundred years old, but he was only 53.
I could never claim to have been a real Deadhead. In fact, true Heads might call me a Touch-head, that certain brand of fan who only got on the bus after their 1987 mega-hit “Touch of Grey” went platinum. The truth is, I discovered them around 1982 when, attending an all-boys Catholic prep school, I read in the school newspaper that a poll of the students found that the Grateful Dead was the most popular band. Other bands that made the top ten were The Doors, Led Zeppelin, The Stones, and The Beatles. Clearly, these kids had older brothers. The name scared me: I thought they were a death metal band. How wrong I was when I started listening to their albums: Dead Set, American Beauty, Workingman’s Dead. This was psychedelic American jazzgrass, ancient and modern at the same time. The music, unlike so much of the punk and New Wave I was into, made me smile.
Still, I never followed them, never saw more than one show in a row, and only went to concerts that were in easy driving distance of wherever I was living at the time. I saw them maybe three times in Buffalo, a few times at old Silver Stadium in Rochester, NY and maybe a few times at RFK stadium in Washington, DC, I think. I can’t really remember, not because of the drugs, which I never took, but because all this happened about 25 years ago. When you grew up where I did, in upstate NY in the mid- to late Eighties, you knew if it was summer, the Dead would eventually roll through. I grew my hair long and dabbed patchouli oil behind my ears. I traded tapes in parking lots, listened to their New Year’s Eve broadcasts on the radio, ate yummy veggie bagels sold out of plastic bags and bought tie-dyes made by fellow travelers who were just trying to get enough cash to get a little further down the road. Even more than the music, which was joyous and soul-stirring, was the feeling of love and community I felt when I was in a crowd of fellow fans. Maybe we were all like dogs, who can only hear things at higher frequencies, but we knew. We smiled at one another, and we just knew. This was the place for us.
Now, we have the Fare Thee Well concerts on the horizon, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Dead’s founding, in San Francisco in 1965. This, they say, will be the last time the surviving original members will perform together. This August will also mark the 20th anniversary of Jerry’s death. I’m sure I’ll watch at least a few of the shows on pay-per-view, and listen to all of them eventually on CD or through archive.org. But I wanted to do something more, to commemorate and savor this milestone, but to also give back, at least a little bit, some of the happiness the band has given me all these years. So, here’s what I’m going to do…
During the next few summer months, my plan is to make and give away (at least) 50 free tie-dyes. On August 1st, Jerry’s 73rd birthday, I’m going to find a public spot in downtown Bath, and give away t-shirts to anyone who asks for one, til they’re gone. I’m calling my plan Grateful Dyes. I’ll post updates on Facebook and elsewhere. Follow me, and find me on August 1st if you’d like a shirt. 🙂
I’ll never meet the boys in person to thank them for all the joy they’ve given me during my 47 trips around the sun, but I can do this. This is my sunshine daydream.
This summer, I will:
1. Make more tie-dyes. If you want one, let me know.
2. Sit in the backyard, in the sunshine, listening to the Dead. Neighbors beware that 8/27/72 will be set to repeat.
3. Swim in the pond. If you want to join me, let me know.
4. Go to the beach. Target sells spray-on mineral sunscreen now. Thank me later.
5. Spend some down time with the wife and kids on an island off the coast of Maine, where there’s no internet unless you visit the library, no cell service, no television, and a lot less problems.
6. See family and friends near and far, both here and there.
7. Take photographs. Maybe paint and write.
8. Ignore the scoffers and the internet shamers.
9. Avoid commerce.
10. Not listen to the experts.
11. Drink my berry/kale/chia smoothies and do my barefoot running and yoga.
12. Create my own life. Do good not by politics but by being myself.
I wake at 4:15 every weekday morning. I creep downstairs and plug in the coffee. I check my email and social media, make sure my swim bag is packed, get dressed, drink one cup of black coffee, then unplug the pot before leaving for the YMCA.
I pull into the parking lot at about 4:50, in time to see the older couple, the man with a cane and the wife with a walker, push through the front doors. I turn off my music, lock my car, and go in. I slide my card through the reader, a computer beeps somewhere, I say hi to Doug or Crystal or whoever is working the front desk and has been kind enough to get up even earlier than me to make sure the lights are on, the door is unlocked and the pool cover is off. I use the boys locker room instead of the men’s because I like the cool tile floor instead of the carpet in the men’s room, and because I can be alone with my thoughts, change into my swim things at my own pace, not have to jostle with anyone for locker space, and can hear all the groans, clanks, and scuffles as the building comes to life.
I shower, walk into the men’s locker room to make sure the sauna is turned on, then wait for the click of the deadbolt when the lifeguard unlocks the door to the pool deck. I see the morning regulars, pull on my swim cap and goggles, get into to the pool and do my laps, usually splitting them between breaststroke and freestyle. I swim for about twenty minutes. I don’t count my laps. I swim until I feel done, then I get out and sit in the sauna for about ten minutes to stretch out and relax. I shower, get dressed, drive home, sometimes stopping to take pictures of the river if the light is right. I get home around 6:00.
I make sure my daughter is up and getting ready for middle school. I plug the coffee maker back in and make my breakfast, usually eggs over easy with toast or muesli. I drink another cup of black coffee. I have an hour before I have to get dressed for work, so I read or do some writing. Around 7:00 I get dressed and drive my daughter to school. I get to work around 7:30, and usually have all my emails read and answered by 8:00 when the rest of my co-workers start arriving. I grab more coffee and fill my water bottle. I have the whole day ahead of me. I help people: students, faculty, co-workers, parents, customers, vendors, delivery drivers.
Most of my work life consists of being the arbitrator of other people’s desires. I measure other people’s wants against my own, and then decide how best to proceed. I do the best job I can with the materials at hand. I subjugate my ego.
I eat my lunch at a regular hour, sometimes treating myself to a soft-serve or a lemon square afterwards. I walk around the campus, deliver packages to the mail center, stop in to the library to see what’s newly published, sometimes I meet faculty or associates on the quad and chat with them, ask after their research, their kids, what they did on sabbatical, what they’re working on now. I’m pleasant, witty, always professional.
In the afternoons I might write some emails, deal with problems that have crept up. By 5:00 I’m ready to go home. I try as best I can to leave the troubles of my workday behind me. At home I help my wife shuttle kids to and from sports practice and games, make sure there’s food for dinner, give homework help, make sure cellphones are charged, forms are signed, teeth are brushed, clothes are picked out, and bedtimes happen at a reasonable hour. Then I read a little more, or paint, or maybe edit some pictures I took during the day. I make sure my swim trunks and towel are dry and I re-pack my swim bag, set up the coffee maker for tomorrow’s coffee, place all the things I’ll need in a pile by the door: my bag, wallet, keys, glasses, clothes, flip-flops, iPod.
I’m in bed by 10:00 to sleep for tomorrow’s new day. This is what I do. On Friday nights, I go the local high school football game, if they’re playing at home. I do some yard work on the weekend, do laundry, shop for groceries, go to the beach or for a run or for a swim if there’s time. I take my kids where they need to go, or if they’re travelling by bike or by foot, make sure they check in when they get there. On Sunday nights, my wife and I might turn on Netflix and watch whatever series we’re currently hooked on.
At forty-seven years old, this is my life right now. A Zen archery master, Awa Kenzo, wrote, “Do your best at each and everything. That is the key to success. Learn one thing well and you will learn how to understand the ten thousand things. Ten thousand things are one; this is the secret place of understanding you must find. Then everything is mysterious and wonderful.”
I submit to you that all we need try to do is one or two things well. We live our life, we remain present and cheerful, we make the coffee, we wash the dishes, we fold the laundry, we sleep, we wake. This is all we need to do. Please take comfort in knowing that it is more than enough.
Tonight, I slid into the pond and threw my swim trunks up onto the rocks for the last time this summer. Not many people would go skinny-dipping at dusk when the mosquitos are still biting and the air temperature is sixty-three degrees. No one, in fact. I was alone.
As we hurtle once more around the sun and wonder where summer went, let us take a moment to honor those places that sustain our soul. For me, it’s this pond, this scared body of water that only becomes more special and more sacred the older I get. I’ve lived in Maine for almost twenty years and I’ve seen and experienced many amazing sights. But I always come back this place. So close, a ten-minute drive from my house. Over a bridge and yet light-years away from my workaday existence.
Here, I can be who I really am. I can shake off the dust of the world, and for about the time it takes a pot of pasta water to come to a boil, immerse myself in a silky, clean, clear slice of eternity. Like Thoreau at Walden Pond, I take a bath not just in water but in spirit. The green moss of the forest floor is my bath mat, the breeze rippling through the branches my opera. I saw a loon, heard its call. I saw a heron swoop down from the sky and land on a log a few yards away from me. I held a frog in my hands. I adopted a forgotten Swiss Army knife. I never found the mythical snapping turtle, the one that’s rumored to be as big as a Volkswagen. Thankfully, he never found me either.
To those of you who shared these special evenings with me, I thank you. To those who didn’t or couldn’t, perhaps I will see you here next summer?
We live in Maine, so we know what happens next. The leaves fall, the snow falls, the roads freeze, the snow piles up, we clear a path for the oil guy, we huddle together in living rooms and YMCAs and cafes and saunas, staying warm, living life close to the bone until the sun, instead of just blinding us, warms us again and allows us to find our special places once more.
Tonight, I drove home from the pond past dark, my wet towel drying on the back of my passenger seat. Music played softly on the radio. I saw the lights of the iron works as I crossed the bridge. I came home, made dinner, raised a toast to my special place, thought of the water on my skin, how it held me up, carried me through this summer, buoyed me. I gave thanks.
Tomorrow I’ll look for my fleece jacket, my wool socks. Tonight, I’m going to bed with the pond water in my ears and the bug spray still on my skin.
In surfing, one of the first things you learn is to never turn your back on the ocean. All might be calm on the horizon, but the moment you turn your head to see if the seagulls are stealing your Funyuns, a watery fist swings up from nowhere, flips you sideways, cracks your board into your skull, and pins you underwater. You rise, gasping, with ringing ears and angry tears in your eyes, salt mixed with more salt, looking around wildly for the culprit, only to see calm ocean everywhere, the thief of both your balance and your dignity hiding around a liquid corner. Until next time.
Same with your life. Or in my case, my life. I rise every morning like the good citizen I am. I make coffee, shower, put on clothes, drive to work and back, staring into a computer monitor and moving a little piece of plastic with a button on it around and around in tiny circles on my desk. I make decisions that may or may not help people, may or may not bring people happiness, relief, or at the very least, a modicum of satisfaction. Some days I pretend to care. Some days I really do care; about all the young faces before me, all their hopes and dreams, their tan, athletic legs, their sun-kissed locks of hair that would look right at home atop the heads of Thor or Freyja.
I eat when I’m hungry. I eat when I’m not hungry. I talk to myself in my head, make plans for my future. As in, how will I get through the boredom and frustration of the next work hour, day, week? When will I get an office aboveground, with a window, running water, a bathroom, and maybe air conditioning? What will I have for dinner? When will I need to go grocery shopping? Buy more toilet paper? Will I have enough money to buy toilet paper? Will I have to return bottles for gas or steal money from my children to buy gas like last time? Have the hemp seeds I bought a month ago gone rancid, or can I add them to tomorrow morning’s smoothie?
No matter how hard I work, not matter how hard my wife works, we never have enough money. Writing about it or not writing about it has the same effect, which is no effect. I try not to mention I’m poor in polite company anymore, unless I’m making a joke about it. Everyone has troubles of their own, thank you very much, and besides, it must be something I’ve done wrong. I shouldn’t have gone out for sushi. I need to get on a budget. I should have paid off my student loans by now. Why did I rent that beach house twenty years ago? How could I have been so irresponsible? Put back those cookies.
Social media mocks me. Things that are trending mock me. Audi SUVs mock me. Vacation photos mock me. Boats whizzing by on the river with Golden Retrievers barking on the bow while I’m pulling boulders out of the ground on a Saturday morning mock me. Honest work is all I can do, and it’s not enough. I know I have a bad attitude some days. Yes, I should breathe. Go for a walk. Listen to music. Meditate like the Zen masters taught me. Sit under a tree and read my book and let little green caterpillars from the branches high above fall and then tumble down my neck and into the back of my shirt. Yes, yes, yes. I should do all these things.
I’m a man which means I should suffer in silence. Or not suffer in silence and let my feelings out, in which case I’m a crybaby. Shut up, already! No one wants to hear it! Didn’t I tell you in the paragraph above that everyone has troubles and yours aren’t any more special or depressing than mine?
We can only live one life at a time, and as a friend said, the longer we do something, the harder it is to do anything else. For example, I’d like to learn how to be a pot farmer. But obviously that will never happen. So, I could write a story or a book about being a pot farmer. Purge all my wonder. Have all my questions asked and answered that way. Yet, when I write, I would rather be painting. When I’m painting, I’d rather be taking photographs, and when I’m taking photographs, writing. I suppose this is a good thing, although most days it doesn’t feel that way. It’s an invisible circle in my head that no one sees.
All of this is true, some of it is true, maybe none of it is true. What’s really important, and what I started out wanting to say before I digressed into a pity party, is that it’s really, really important to heed the surfing instructor’s instructions: never take your eyes off the horizon. Don’t turn your back on the ocean. Keep your eyes open. Front.
About a week ago, my wife, bless her soul because she tolerates these missives, came up with a genius idea while we were driving. She reminded me of a metal box I bought her for her birthday one year. The box was decorated like a vintage lunchbox and was meant to hold art supplies. What if, she asked, instead of art supplies, we write down our dreams, things that we want and hope for, on little slips of paper, and put them in the box? Then, as we accomplish the things we want to do, we take the slips out of the box. I joked that we’d need a bigger box because it would soon be filled with hundreds of unfulfilled dreams and desires. But I was just being sarcastic. It is a great idea, and we are going to do it. We talk about buying a bus or camper when our kids are in college, outfitting it with solar panels, and driving cross-country, taking our time and following the sun. Maybe that will be the first slip that goes into the box.
If we keep our eyes on the horizon long enough, coming up for air every time the ocean of our lives tries to hold us under the waves, I know we’ll get there.
I woke up and stared at the bedroom ceiling, filled with worry about the never-ending stress of my job. The stress that never ends, even when I’m on vacation. I vowed to myself that this would be the year I would make a change, get a new job, finally do something that stirred my soul and made me excited to get up every morning. Maybe work outside. Get a job on a farm or learn to build houses. I went downstairs, made my first of many cups of coffee. I fed the fish, checked out my new haircut in the mirror, opened the front door and sat on my steps as the sky lightened. I looked left, up the hill, and could see the sunlight I knew was just then rising above the river, the blue-orange light that meant another day hurtling around the sun. I looked at the cracked, uneven boards of my porch, drank the delicious brown nectar of that first cup, smelled fall in the air. Oh, yes. It was coming, if it wasn’t here already. The same smell I knew I would smell three months from now when I stood at the window of the concession stand up at the high school football field as I waited for a booster to set my steaming styrofoam cup of coffee on the sill of the stand’s window. I looked down and examined the cut on my right heel that just wouldn’t heal, the victim of a shoeless summer spent in and out of ponds, climbing on rocks, setting piles of brush on fire, and pulling boulders out of the stingy earth. I thought about this one life that we all share, and how we really have no idea what happens after we die and how anyone who says they know what happens after we die is lying or scared or both. I wondered why I was always trying to get people to go skinny-dipping with me, why I was always telling people about the books I was reading or the great new band I discovered. How I always try, in my own little way, to get people to maybe step outside of their ordinary lives, to turn off their electronic reading devices and maybe join me in something that might at first be uncomfortable but that could, in time, become something new and wonderful in their lives. I also thought about how much I’m up against, with almost everyone I know already in their forties and pretty happy, or if not happy then at least somewhat content with the way things are, and besides, why should they change now? I want to encourage people to try new things, but get knocked back a little when I realize that their lives are just fine without my suggestions. What do I really know, anyway? Do words matter? Do these hundreds of pieces of writing I’ve accumulated over the past eight years mean anything? Will they be lost in the ether like so many of my other words, and my work. In one hundred years, who will remember me? Will the joy I felt swimming in a pond at dusk ripple out into the universe and maybe give someone else the courage to jump in? Or is everyone else just fine, thank you very much? The sky gets lighter, the buzzing of the insects (cicadas? crickets?) quiets down. My stomach cramps from hunger and too much coffee. Should I have blueberry pie for breakfast? Yes. Yes, I should.