I was running around the track a few days ago when I suddenly realized there were just going to be some things I would never get to do. I’ll probably never go to Paris, for instance. Not that I really want to. I’m sure it’s very beautiful, especially in the springtime. But I also imagine it’s a noisier, smellier French version of New York. I suppose this is just some kind of psychic self-defense. A blue-collar provincialism that screams I never wanted to go there anyway. But I know there are some places I’ll never get to, or places that I’ve visited that I’ll never get back to. Like Solomon Beach on St. John, where my wife and I used to go before we had kids and that used to have this laid-back hippie vibe but is now “family-friendly” and a stop-off for small cruise ships. Or Sierra Hot Springs in Sierraville, CA where I spent one idyllic day soaking naked in an outdoor hot spring while redwoods swayed overhead and I could see the snow-capped mountains in the distance. Or Mexico City, where in college I climbed to the top of a small mountain to visit a shrine where the Virgin Mary had appeared to some schoolgirls, and I looked in all directions and all I saw was city. I’ll probably never be able to take a year off from work, grow (another) beard or not cut my hair and just spend my days surfing. Realizations like this are part of being an adult, I guess. I’m not sad that by Western life-expectancy standards, my life is half-over. I’m certainly not ready to throw in the metaphysical towel. My wife and I are giving serious thought to selling our house once the kids are in college and buying either a VW Eurovan or decommissioned school bus, outfitting it with solar panels and vagabonding around the country while we cook all our meals on a camp stove. Part of the wisdom that comes with age is knowing one’s limits. I’m lucky in that I can take pleasure in the little things. Not just because they are the only things I can afford, but because they bring me the greatest joy. This morning, for example, I drove to work in the sunshine with the windows down, drinking cold coffee, eating a day-old donut, and listening to Ray LaMontagne’s new album, Supernova. I knew I was going to be spending the day in a basement buying back textbooks from ungrateful college students, but my morning commute allowed me to store up enough good vibes to get me through the day. With a bang, summer is here in Maine and I know beach and swimming-hole days aren’t far away. Family trips, finding old vinyl records, time spent with friends, more cold coffee, and skinny-dipping opportunities are in the offing. I look forward to exploring in ever-greater detail my little corner of the world. I don’t feel sad at all I’ll never eat a croissant on the Champs-Élysées. I’ve got Frosty’s twists on Washington Street.
There’s a line in one of Ray’s new songs that goes, “Maybe it’d be best if I just let things lie/Guess I’m never gonna get back to Ojai.” Having never been to Ojai, there’s no way I’ll ever “get back” there. But I hope from there you can at least smell the ocean.
I had some minor surgery last Friday, so I took this past weekend to recuperate. While I was flat on my back, gazing out the window at the sun-dappled leaves and listening to the birds singing, I was able to start and finish five books. They are: The Happiest Man in the World by Alec Wilkinson, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Into the Wild by John Krakauer, Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. All highly recommended. I can’t wait to fully recover so that I can get back on my mountain bike and resume my search for the perfect swimming hole. I’ve lived in Bath now for almost ten years and I’m just now really starting to appreciate the diversity of the landscape. The Kennebec can look foul one day, and as beautiful as the Seine the next. I might take a hiatus from this blog for awhile, too. It’s too beautiful outside to spend time at a computer. I hope you all can find your own private Eden this summer, too. Cheers! – henry
That’s what we call it in my house. As in, “When the Bush money gets here, we can do (fill in the blank).” When I first heard that Congress passed legislation authorizing the rebate checks, I was ecstatic. Dreams of a sunny beach vacation for my family or a few new shirts from the Patagonia outlet danced in my head. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this money would be spent almost before it made it into my bank account. Unless I can somehow convert my ancient Accord’s engine to burn old socks for propulsion, I’ll be spending it on $4-a-gallon gas, and all the other bills that stem from this fact (food, electricity, water, heating oil, etc) The President has said that he’s simply giving Americans back “their own money,” but how can that be, when we are borrowing the money, probably from China, in the first place? There are some Buddhist organizations that I am fond of, and I would love to give a chunk of that money to them to help them build a stupa or make an addition to their meditation hall. I may still give $50 or $100 of “my own money” to these worthy causes. But the truth is that even though this is borrowed money, my family needs it too desperately to be able to give much of it away. We’ll use some of it to pay for our rather modest weekly vacation rental cottage on an island off the coast of Maine this summer, but other than that, we’ll pay bills, which is probably what most Americans will end up doing. Sorry, Ocean Palm Motel and Patagonia; I need to eat.
This past week, I had the occasion to come across a small book that I found in a used book shop while on holiday with my family in Portsmouth, NH . It is entitled A Record of Awakening by David Smith. The subtitle is Practice and Insight on the Buddhist Path. Written in his own hand, this self-described “ordinary chap”, a gardener from England, tells of his deep awakening while practicing the Way at a Threravada Buddhist monastery in Sri Lanka. I won’t be a plot-spoiler, but suffice to say that if you are sincerely interested in the Dharma, this may be quite an eye-opening book for you. It was extremely inspirational to me, an ordinary chap myself, to read the story of the enlightenment experience of someone who had no advanced education or special knowledge, just a sincere desire to awaken. At the end of his account, he gives a few words of final advice, and one of his phrases resounded very deeply with me. He says, “Immerse yourself in the Dharma, dive into it like you would a pool of cool water on a hot summer’s day, but never get out!” This past weekend I also had the occasion to experience a brief illustration of why it is so important to practice. I was at my in-laws’ house and as I was pouring red wine into a glass, it spilled all over the countertop. As I attempted to clean up the mess, I knocked over the wine glass and it almost shattered. I swore out loud, anger flashing. My daughter was right behind me, and heard me. She wanted to know what the matter was. In that instant I realized how foolish I must have looked, getting so upset over some spilled wine. That ever-present Me was wronged once again, by these mindless, inanimate objects. Upon reflection, I saw the folly of thinking that we can somehow control every situation we find ourselves in. Shouldn’t we expect that if we open the bottle carefully, and slowly tip it towards the glass, that the wine will flow smoothly? But no. Despite our best plans, the wine spills or our car refuses to start or we lock ourselves out of our house or we lose our eyeglasses. But just who is it that gets so angry? I think practicing the Dharma can show us that there’s no one here to even get upset. Or maybe that I shouldn’t be drinking wine.
Henry is heading out on the open road today, bound for that paradise by the ocean, Atlantic City, NJ. This is business, not pleasure, but wherever Henry goes, he hopes to find new discoveries and adventure. The meadowlands are coming back they say. It’s been about twenty years since I was in AC, and it’s come a long way since then. With Jersey on my mind, I listened to Nebraska again last night, and those lines of Springsteen’s are echoing in my head as I prepare to set off: “Everything dies baby that’s a fact/But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.” I’m looking forward to strolling the boardwalk and seeing the ocean. I imagine it will be about ten degrees warmer there. I’ll miss my family while I’m away, but I’ll bring them back a handful of sand, or maybe a poker chip.
I wasn’t familiar with the story of Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz until I watched a preview (on that Mount Olympus of all internet time-wasters, Apple Movie Trailers) of a forthcoming film called Surfwise. This is the story of a man who left his successful medical practice to travel around North and South America with his wife and their nine kids in a 24-foot camper so that they could surf full-time. This idea of becoming a “businessless person,” as Zen Master Linji says, is a seductive one. Wild nature is shrinking and as a society we (and our children, if we have them) don’t spend enough time romping in the woods or combing the beaches anymore. I was watching HBO a few nights ago and George Carlin was on, doing his usual routine, when he started talking about how our kids are so overscheduled right now, and how something that used to be spontaneous – play – has now been transformed into “playdates.” What happened, Carlin wondered, to a kid sitting in the backyard in the grass, just sitting there, digging a hole in the ground with a stick? “Do they even make sticks anymore?” he asked. I laughed because it sounded funny at the time. But I wonder. If you look at Doc Paskowitz’s story, you might conclude that he was crazy. His children certainly criticized him for handicapping them in life by not sending them to regular school, etc. When Thoreau moved out to his cabin at Walden Pond, he was stepping outside of what society at that time thought was normal behavior. And yet, his example, his rebelliousness, serves as an example for us today. I wonder sometimes how far I would be willing to step outside of cultural norms to pursue a life of true independence. Would I ever have the courage to sell everything I own, take my wife and kids to the Caribbean, and live in a grass hut, digging in the sand with a stick, eating fruit we picked from the trees that morning? Is that really crazier than working in a basement cubicle for the next twenty years? Which scenario is more normal, more human? I don’t think humans were meant to live in boxes. Sometimes I’d rather get myself to a tropical beach, find a stick, and start digging.
Here is the view from the fire tower at the summit of Overlook Mountain above Woodstock. This hike was probably one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life. But after reflecting on it, I have come to realize the spiritual dimension of what I did. I was all alone that morning. When we reunite with Nature, we are really meeting ourselves, because we are part of Nature, not separate from it. This is a hackneyed saying, but experiencing something like this, or swimming in the mountain streams like I did, really makes you realize how estranged we are from our true selves. All the trappings of society are just false gods. I don’t just mean that our minds or our spirits are part of Nature. It’s our bodies mostly. Everything we are made of was once part of an exploding star. If we believe in evolution, then human life began with the organic materials that were found on our planet millions of year ago. We literally crawled out of the earth. Of course, civilization has its charms, and we all love our cell phones, coffee, and polyester underwear, but at the most basic level, we are star-stuff.