The Gypsy Project

Big Sur Coastline. Gypsy Paradise.


Back to School Shopping

Having taken leave of my own employment I set out to impress myself with my perceived capacity for succeeding at something more carefree and romantic.  In the summer of 1997 Cheryl and I gathered with my soon-to-be-former office staff at a nice restaurant adjacent to the Seattle Convention Center to celebrate parting ways.  We were attending the state dental conference as a team for the final time.

I had tried all the respectful deceptions I knew to avoid conversation about deserting these fine and loyal people to another dentist so I could become someone else.  Having kept the office sale on the down-low for months, I told myself it was best for everyone. Whether they shared that sentiment or not, I believed them when they supported me in following my dream.

The next day I drove the floating bridge across Lake Washington to a Bellevue hotel where I registered for my second convention of the weekend.  I paid a year’s dues and an enrollment fee for the Northwest Writers Association annual meeting and took my seat and a deep breath. My lungs filled with the air of anonymity and possibility.  No more ‘just one way’ of doing things. No more ‘standard of care’. No one spitting on my fingers. No more Friday night phone calls. Just me and the notion that we all are no more or less than what we pretend to be.  And I wanted to pretend to be something else.

Being a dentist is a fine and rewarding career.  There’s a lot to be said for the respect, lessons and character-building that come with the job of being a teacher, a practitioner and a business owner.  I mastered skills, managed challenges — sometimes well, often not — and gained perspective and empathy through humbling experiences.  At the same time I always felt hanging onto one’s job/career/profession as your sole identity wouldn’t check off enough boxes when the final exam came.   

Unsettled, middle-aged, and–as if I felt it important–left-handed, I granted myself the keys to the kingdom where, if you could put some effort into getting over yourself, the only choices left are to cultivate the soul and live life like you mean it.

Callings

I still recall the late summer day I signed the papers, gave the new owner the code to the door and went home to write a letter to our patients saying farewell.  Then I put the top down, bought a six-pack, found a lake and jumped in.  Possibly without a swimsuit.  I would spend the coming weeks entertaining visions of the greatness I could achieve as I wrote out my homemade guidebook of dreams and dares.  Having stumbled into the most wonderful of marriages, I had my wife’s blessings. She was taking a masters degree career counseling class at the time and oddly enough this all made sense to her.

It sounds so noble and confidently directed now.  But it soon became apparent that following my bliss was going to be anything but easy. Eventually, we try and fail at enough to know ourselves literally inside out.  My guideposts were the moments alone in stressless serene emptiness.  No worldly distractions, just the opportunity to be free and at peace with nothing.

I read books.  Whatever fell to my open hands, heart, and hopes.  I read Thoreau, Castenada, Joseph Campbell and Ram Dass.  Pop Psych, New Age, Quit Lit, Crime Fiction, Travel Essays, and occasional Cookbooks.  One of those, “Manifold Destiny”, taught me the unique and ancient art of cooking full meals on your car engine.  Never learned that in dental school.

I gathered answers and inspiration from titles like, “The Purpose of Your Life,” “The Artist’s Way,” “Callings,” “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe,” “Blue Highways,” and, while sipping cheap whiskey, Hank Williams’ biography.

I took a weekend workshop in Marin County on becoming a Life Coach, and everyone but me was truly woo-woo weird.  That opinion came the minute they asked us to pair up, hold hands, and make 90 seconds of continuous eye contact with a total stranger.  That night I also got rousted in my van and kicked out of the host hotel parking lot.  Living the dream, I was.

I set out to run a half-marathon, and settled on a 10K. I built a desk in my van, printed up business cards that declared my reinvention as a freelance travel writer.  I bought a primitive laptop for my on-the-road ‘dashtop publishing’ career.  I would roam the backroads looking for my true identity and climb hills to raise my consciousness.  I would become ‘authentic.’  I would write flowery inspirational and timeless phrases.  Of this I was certain.

YMOYL

I joined the Northwest Earth Institute which led me to the The New Roadmap Foundation. I studied their book, “Your Money Or Your Life.”  I joined the speakers bureau and held trainings on ‘financial intelligence, financial integrity and financial responsibility.’  Where once I burned my draft card (well, after I was excused from military service), now I was cutting up my credit cards.   I hugged trees in the spring and felled them for firewood in the fall to save money on nonrenewable heating oil.

I was notoriously good at pinching pennies.  In the past I had dated a wonderful woman for over three years who learned to always bring her wallet.  She deserved better.  There’s a four-letter word that begins with “J” and ends with “K”, and it’s not “John”.

Time:  Time is finite.  Money and luxury are not.  I got it.  By now I was determined to purchase Time by un-spending the Money that I chose not to have. What I now wanted to be and where I now wanted to go required relatively little:  Food, clothing, shelter, an old camper van, and a pair of rose-colored glasses would do it.

I soon realized I was far less than expert or enviable.  I went back to my ‘day job’ on a limited basis and that fit just fine.  For the next twenty years I would be a freelance part time ‘drill for hire.’  I needed better balance (and cash flow), and it worked out nicely. 

The Final Word

Transcendence is inevitable.  You choose it, or you pass away and it chooses you.  All too often all too soon.  I was certainly no prodigy or prophet.  I just ducked and dodged when parents, society, banks, or women (even quite attractive women) invited me to get in line, tow the line, fall for their line, or sign on the dotted line.     

You need quality time to find the truth about who you are.  And, as I learned by watching society and the obituaries, that time is elusive for many.  In re-engineering retirement you can grab a handful of remaining youth with still enough deftness, sassy and madness to learn to ‘live inside out’ with power and relevance.

It takes time for us slow learners to realize our job is not to change the world but to change ourselves for the sake of the world.  This is what makes time so precious.  You don’t have to work your butt off to ‘have it all’, you just have to have enough.  And a Calling.  We all have one.  And if you’re not following your calling, whose life are you living?!

Bullseyes

Post Posting Preface: Good writers don’t revisit what they were trying to say with an explanation, apology or critique. So I will. The moral of the parable is to offer a solution to the present-day tendency we humans have to TAKE SIDES on an issue and disrupt our peace instead of 1. taking time to understand the other point of view and/or 2. appreciating we ALWAYS have a choice to SEE THINGS DIFFERENTLY for the sake of our personal peace and perhaps the healing of the world. You’ll forgive me for trying to be clever or sound too intellectual. I see the style is a bit heavy on fuzzy nuance and unclear irony. Like this Picasso. 🙂 Do the best you can. I did.

It was a chilly and thoroughly wet day.  Far more like Puget Sound than México City.  I had brought some warm layers from down on the coast but was unprepared for cold pelting rain.  For ten pesos I bought a piece of plastic the size of a small slice of toast that unfolded into a thin film which was supposed to be a parka.  My cotton cap and clothes took little time to sop up the weather sitting on a narrow concrete bleacher seat high above the bullring.  I understood that if the arena sand got too wet, they would cancel the corridas because the beautiful and no doubt expensive horses might fatally slip during the daring skillful work of the rejoneador.

Perception

I was primarily here as a writing exercise.  An appropriately debatable setting for an immersion teaching on how we can choose to frame and react to what goes on around us.  A canvas for a study in optics and the attempt to subdue the opinionated mind.  My objective was to call out and shame my inner critic by confronting him with written testimony.

In an earlier story I commented on attending a bullfight in the past when traveling with the family.  I further prepared for this lesson with some prerequisite study.  It was not a thorough study of course.  As you should know, I’m more inclined to just scuff by with feeble research and more content to just make stuff up.  But I got through Hemingway’s “Death In The Afternoon” and recalled how taken I had been with Michener’s “México” years ago.  I browsed TripAdvisor and Wikipedia, and discussed bullfighting with my friends on both sides of the border and both sides of the controversy.  With level consideration I took in opinions as confusing, colorful and sharp as a Picasso painting.

There is a teaching that we see nothing through our own eyes without hastily inventing a story to explain it.  And further, that the stories we perceive are likely untrue.  Once compiled, those inventions become the projection of ourselves back onto the world to create the make-believe movie of what we think we know.

“Caballeros”

This is a lesson you can accept or not, but we veterans of so many completely useless past battles and meaningless incidents find such explanations to be the key to peace and clarity.

Every waking minute and every setting is an opportunity to choose peace instead of misperception.  But being a drama hound, I just thought a location with its share of critics that also sported color and intrigue might be fun.  I decided to carry out my on-the-job training where they had colorful pre-event music and dancing among the exotic and chaotic food and beverage stands in a tailgating sort of way.  Kind of like a writers’ workshop and dinner theater all in one.

The Moment Of Truth

To share our personal narrative is simply to ask, “Where, What, Who, How.”  This applies to all storytelling – written, spoken, sung, painted, mimed, or whatever.  As follows:  Where were you?  What happened?  Who was there?  How did it make you feel?  With this outline we can unpack, analyze, and then color events to suit our audience.  Even so, what is real is only real for us.  While we can take ownership of the circumstance, we don’t hold sole ownership of the truth.  The real story is only how you felt because it’s all you own.

So we judge a lot.  Based on fixed ideas, biases, customs and the habitual.  With these judgments we video-edit the unique projection we throw at the screen.  Our own precious unique movie.  And we watch and we see our lives on stage.  And our friends, lovers, admirers and critics see a projection as well.  It’s their movie of us.  And it is nothing like ours.

So here I sat high in the Plaza México.  In several thousand different theatres watching what I knew were several thousand different movies.  The horses danced, the bulls charged, the bandilleros flew.  The raindrops fell.  My feet felt numb, unfeeling.  I strained to consciously transcend surroundings as much as I was able by meditating.  (“Close your eyes tight and try NOT to think of a..…”)

The crowd roared as the images and descriptors of images taunted me, attempting to invite my praise or criticism.  Thoughts and sensations neither necessarily good or bad, I told myself.  Flags, fanfare, history, bravery, perspiration, precipitation, blood, hoof beats, pride, poverty, power, ignorance, bliss, and so on.

Halftime Report

The Uber driver scowled in Spanish as my fully-flooded Sketchers sloshed into the passenger side.  I sheepishly winced back in English, and he pulled too fast into traffic.  I had ‘participated’ in three of the traditional six coursas of the afternoon and was eager to return to the airport hotel to dry off.  The sight of the elegant buffet in the lobby dining area lured me immediately.  I noticed the smell of fresh rare beef. 

Back at the room for the final act of my literary assignment, I considered how to conclude the creative essay I would write.  Maybe a bit of subtle irony would have my readers throwing their hats, wine skins, and seat cushions into the ring.  Something contrary and poignant, I thought.  But instead, finally warm and dry, I sat on the bed and watched my home country’s broadcast of the NFL playoff game.

(Flags, fanfare, history, bravery, perspiration, blood, pride, poverty, power, ignorance, bliss, and so on.) …Olé!

Oly Kid

Olympia Aerial to North 1963 Text

A Warm Summer Night

By the time we arrived at the log raft, it was nearly dark.  I was squinting for a place to pull up to the outside boom when the fiberglass hull thudded three feet out of the water to announce our arrival.  The lights from the port were just enough for the five us us to scramble out of the boat and haul the case of Olympia Beer across two acres of logs to the ‘party deck’.  That was Steve’s job as he was the most athletic, and we stood by as he hopped the huge timbers both hands secure on the carton with an open eleven ounce ‘Stubby’ bottle held tightly between his teeth.

This was my third summer out of high school and classmates were dwindling away.  This warm July night it was just me, Angela, Marcy, Mike and Steve, who we called Boo for no apparent reason.  He was the only one of the gang that was over twenty-one.  The others were behind us in school, and I was an age-delayed October baby.  And so we sat on the logs in the middle of the bay away from the law and offshore from the uncertainties of the daunting real world we were about to sacrifice ourselves to.

Summer memories in my hometown run deep.   I can still hear the shriek of the mill whistles announcing the graveyard shift and feel the logs that would pitch and roll every time a harbor tug set out from the docks to welcome the cargo ship that might load up and haul our temporary island sanctuary to Japan in the coming days.

I am happy to report that for all the times we walked the logs in the dark to the ‘restrooms’ at the north end of the boom, everyone returned from the shadows to pop another bottle cap until the case was empty.  Should anyone doubt this mid bay coming-of-age tale, there are multiple shards of brown glass on the mud floor of the lower harbor that lie peacefully in testament.

It’s The Water

I still find it amusing that a whole town could be so thoroughly branded by a malt beverage as was our little capital city (1970 population of 23,111).  Most of my grade school classmates’ parents worked at either the state offices, the wood mills or the brewery. Olympia Beer at the time was the best selling adult beverage on the west coast and enjoyed a reverence and loyalty that was never matched.  The local fire departments still have a logo that mimics the classic lettering style of the iconic label.  Olympia High students, whenever we could get away with it, would use beer advertising slogans to cheer and promote the football team.  The ‘Bears’ were the OHS mascot in name only.  The brewery tours in the summertime drew visitors from all over the world, and was the biggest tourist draw between Portland and Seattle.

Oly Label CroppedMaybe it was the exotic airborne odor of cooking beer mash that walked me to grade school on so many damp mornings, or my dad and his fishing buddies’ devotion, or my crazy Uncle Jim, the make believe Irishman, who rewarded ‘first sips’ to his preadolescent beer-fetchers up at the lake cabin, but eventually I too would become an Oly kid.  Thus it was with a great deal of hometown pride I joined the suds-sipping crowd once I got to college.   “The Drink of Moderation” and I became quite familiar.   A goodly number of ounces later, I can tell you there are malt and hops-flavored memories that stretch for many miles of my wandering history.

I have ceremoniously toasted Washington’s windy mountain tops, swirling rivers, basalt canyon walls, sunsets, lightning storms, freight train rides, backroads, and strangers-but-only-temporarily in small town taverns.  There was an old beer poster and billboard advertisement that depicted young handsome folks who worked hard, while vigorously enjoying life, nature, and freedom.  The clever hook line was my kind of arm-twisting: “You Owe Yourself an Oly.”  And so we would.

Olympia Beer, as we knew it, is no more.  The sad corpse of the once proud brewery sits empty above Tumwater Falls that powered the brewhouse in 1898.  But then, large-scale production of quality anything is lost in the past. And though aging and grownup good sense have tempered my proclivity for drink, I still have my rituals.

‘Best’ Wishes

I can’t imagine who would want to be anyone anywhere else my twenty-first summer.  A skinny cocky college brat who got a pass on a summer job because of back surgery that somehow allowed play but not work.  I would hang out around town and eye the girls hanging out around town and pretended they were eyeing me.  I remember having a secret crush on Angela while Marcy had a crush on me.  I would have been fine with Marcy, but she dyed her naturally blonde hair cinnamon red for some stupid reason which no one did ever in 1969.  But I digress.

Based on “seventy measures of livability,” Washington State has recently been declared number one in the country.  Number one “best place to live.”  Yep, I read it in The Times.  If you’re a native like me, you hold both vanity and nostalgic despair as you mourn the millions who have wandered here in my lifetime.  Because apparently the metrics of livability have changed.

I’ll make you a deal.  Kindly return my uncrowded freeways, and I’ll take back my sawmill smoke and low-cost blackboard classroom.  Ditch the waste and haste, fashion and fluff, and get back to ethical trade and the value of Enough.  Tear down the snobby nine-dollars-a-brew pubs, and set me on a raft of fresh-cut fir logs in the middle of the bay with with my high school homies, our small town big dreams, and a little honest beer.

Olympia logo

One Job Left – Part 1

The Departure Gate 

I was out of work, had no prospects, and, though I didn’t know it at the time, I had carelessly (or intentionally) overestimated my long term financial situation.  It was the year I first took a shot at guiding myself with my own feelings and instinct.

I stepped off the straight and narrow, made a plan with plenty of room for waywardness and surprise, and hit the trail.  I wasn’t seeking envy or greatness, but to prove to whatever spirits were watching that there is value in questioning convention and a secret sweetness in closing doors behind you.  I was raised being told repeatedly that I lived in the ‘Land of Opportunity’.  It was time for America to put up or shut up.

My pursuit of contentment relied on sourcing the inward call to self-awareness we all possess.  And supposedly defy at our own risk.  Simply put, I learned to trust my gut.  It’s important here to recognize the guidance of my wife in her loving support of my whims and for teaching me the value of intuition.   And if It sounds like I felt I was more enlightened or together than everyone else, it’s not arrogance.  It’s because that was the story I had to tell myself in order to turn my rut into a groove.

All For Nothing

Sensitized by the failed values and intentions of parents, peers and heroes, it became obvious that trading control of my life and wishes for someone else’s standards of success was ridiculous.  Add that to a resolute appreciation for finite mortality, and it made going somewhat rogue and being eccentric was more logic than impulse. 

Along with that, and quite importantly, I sought the mentorship of my own counsel.  Carl Jung suggested that the opportunities for personal growth arise from allowing your unconscious mind to strike up conversation with your consciousness and trust the answers that drop into your imagination.  I further read that to do this you need to step completely away from the source of your discomfort and to exercise ‘creative idleness’ to give space for the dream to flourish.  Good news:  Idleness of any kind was right up my alley. 

The same cautious sensibility that told me that I was free to be anything I wished also informed me I was free to do nothing.  I contemplated the vast difference between work and working-for-wages and how this ‘nothing’ thing could lead to something remarkable if reframed and attended to properly.  

 Snowgrass Flat, Summer, 1997

The sun hung above the Goat Rocks as I strolled into the large meadow below the peaks. I was alone and a mile high in a scene out of Sound of Music.  I stopped and watched the drizzling edge of a large snowfield watering newly sprouted grass and wildflowers as it retreated in the summer sunlight. The down-slope breeze blew across the land and filled my lungs with rebirth and promise.  (As the Sound of Music Orchestra played  “Climb Every Mountain” :))

Finding a boulder to rest upon after the morning hike, I spent an hour in solitary wonder watching frosted spring melt into alpine summer.  I imagined that it was a day just like this one that some wayward explorer named this glorious spot Snowgrass Flat. Perhaps he had walked off his job too.  I further imagined that my good fortune at choosing this high valley and allowing it to inspire and hearten me was a sign that God and nature approved of my recent decision to step out of myself.  

A day later, camping on the shore of the Cispus River, I took out a large left handed lined legal pad and arranged the assortment of possibilities and dreams into some sort of architectural drawing of my castle in the sky.  On the list were these:  To turn weekdays into weekends, to hike and jog, to get fit, to sip cold beer in the warm sun, and to hire out my dental talents as needed (for others, but on my terms).  To preserve and upgrade our sixty year old house and the surrounding land.   To question my fixed ideas and unbalanced values.  To wander and to write.  

I learned early and well that a person could either choose obligation to society’s standards and the bidding of others, or they could master their own fate.  One could compete, or one could create. Make a living or make a life. Dollars or sense. The year I turned eighteen was the year the discipline-laden fables of the Roman Catholic Church crashed against the ‘if it feels good, do it’ flower power of the sixties.  A mind-altering explosion of psychedelia and holy incense.  I grabbed the best of both cultures and set off to find a secret passage to self-discovery.  It helped that I was spoiled, superficial, frugal, and self-centered.  This made the journey possible and (eventually) showed me how much I had to learn.

Food For Thought

My dad would tell us kids at the dinner table that we should enjoy the good food and comfortable lifestyle that came to our family because when we were grown and on our own it wasn’t likely to last.  Whether that was a derisive challenge or a caution about how far the children of the depression had miraculously come was unclear.  When he paid for college for his four kids and never asked anything more of us, I guess it meant he was cheering us on to proving him incorrect.

I have struggled as much as anybody.  Struggle is essential to the release of the authentic highest self.  So say all the celebrated teachers going back centuries, though I had harbored denial about whether or why that has to be so.  One must suffer ‘the dark night of the soul’, and so on.  My experience was not so much hitting rock bottom in a single existential splat, but a more evenly paced series of sucky downfalls and doubts over a couple decades.  Which continues on to this day, God bless me.

I leave you and the world’s offspring with this legacy of parental advice from one who has only parented his own inner child:        Who are you?  What do you want?  Get out there and fall full face down in the mud. Suck at something. Then shine. That’s how we learn. 

Epilogue

This afternoon just before pushing the ‘publish’ button on this essay, I attended the memorial of a dental colleague and past friend of my father’s.  In fact, the three of us shared the same clinic building back in my early years.  He was a wonderful guy.  One of the few fellows that didn’t abandon dad when he suffered through his troubled final years.  At the service much was made of Tom’s love of life and family, his days as a sports star and fan, and warm tales of his support, caring and positive regard for his friends and relations.  We heard how much he’ll be missed and that his life should be a guide for others.  In a full hour of stories, memories and reflections, there was no mention – not one – of his life as a dentist. 

 

Esalen Song – Paths, Baths, and Empaths

esalen sunset for blog edited

‘Slate Springs’, California

Sometimes life seems like nothing more than thinking about life.  Chasing your tail and second-guessing yourself until work, duty, or sleep kindly break in to put off the inevitable return to the pestering questions.  When ‘sooner or later’ becomes mostly later, we tend to go all in on finishing it off.  And so it was I took to taking instruction in all the things we learned in kindergarten and ignored in college.

Recently I spun the wheel and signed up for “The Art of Empathy – An Exploration of Life’s Most Essential Skill” at a small retreat and learning center on the Big Sur coast.  Some theory, some dialogue, some ritual, some humor, and a few breakthroughs.

In one of our first discussion on emotions it was acknowledged that men in general have long been ‘exiled’ from the world of empathy.  Some are saying it is only culture and upbringing that have denied us boys the understanding and valuing of connection, self-soothing, and healthy intimacy.  Yay!  Off to a promising start!

By midweek I could recite all seventeen of the agreed-upon emotions and had practiced mirroring without rolling my eyes.  So I took a day off.  I slept in, had coffee and fresh baked raisin bread toast with almond butter, soaked in the famous hot springs, and walked the sacred grounds that for over a half century have catered to seekers, healers, thinkers, and yes, slackers like me.

For centuries before that, the Essalen Indians roamed here until the time of settlement when a pioneer/interloper named Mr. Slate homesteaded on this site where thermal springs flow abundantly from under the San Lucia Mountains and spill off into the Pacific.

The Religion of No Religion

Having studied the history of Esalen and being somewhat familiar with many of the innovative methodologies that have been preached and practiced, misunderstood and misused here has added value to my experience of the place.  Experiential, experimental, and transformational are the hashtags that connect Esalen to the modern movement for personal growth that some called New Age a generation ago.  The mission here has always been the ideal of holistic personal development of mind, body, psyche and spirit.  The Institute is not without doubters, misdirections and difficulties, but its international reputation and longevity beg attention, and it got mine.

And so, having curiosity, time and resources, I had to see what all the fuss was about around ten years ago, and I have returned regularly since.  I have been gifted here with stimulating points of view, meeting people like and unlike myself, and verifying my commitment to upgrade my social and personal demeanor – which could certainly stand improvement.  I have also been treated to contemporary alternative behavior, fashion, hairstyles, and some interestingly designed and located tattoos. It’s fortunate that I am now more allowing of diverse ideas and appearances as I attempt to further my effort to at last make something useful of myself.

There is no particular spiritual agenda here at Esalen, and all worldly and beyond-worldly points of view are welcomed.  The realm of higher thinking is best left to the legendary psychologists and philosophers, but given curiosity, bravery and wise teachers, even us amateurs can begin to stare existential angst square in the eye.  Oh, and where the hell does The Divine fit in all this amazing and amusing chaos we call life?  Speaking of which….

I did learn in Empathy School that angrily invoking God’s name, like cursing out loud in general, can be a healthy emotional regulation skill. In polling the two dozen willing foul-mouths in the room, the instructor found the darn f-word in all its colorful variations to be the most favored oath.  No great insight there.

Tears, Fears, and the Seven Deadly Sins

But emotions are serious business.  I learned that managed empathy is far more than handouts to panhandlers or crucifying yourself on everyone else’s needy cross.  Mature empathy allows one to “connect deeply, understand clearly, respond perceptively, and engage authentically.”  I hear it can be difficult, but I aim to try.

Because relationships are also difficult.  And apparently we need emotions and empathy to make them functional and personally fulfilling.  According to the author who guided this retreat, we would do well to broaden our ‘emotional genius’ to understand that creativity, art, nature, animals, and focused activity all can all be objects of our empathy, not just people.  Who can sometimes be real jerks.

As we were discussing our Esalen experiences over lunch, one young woman shook her fork full of kale at me asking, “Since you are in that class, can you please tell me why some guys are so sweet and sensitive and all the rest are just plain assholes?”  I’m sure she knows what she’s talking about.  I had no answer.

Empathy Book FinalBut with an attempt to make the American Male aware of his own unappreciated capacity for this top-tier emotion, the clever suggestion was made that ‘manspeak’ be used to relate to our empathically-exiled gender so manly men can use their might and their ‘tools’, to ‘construct’ ‘hearty’ relationships.  I couldn’t resist mocking up a book cover that would appeal to us guys and placing it on the Workshop Art Table Shrine.  (Shrines, symbols, rituals and expressive movement are “very Esalen”.)  Pictured here is a final rendering of my faux literary ‘manification’ of this ‘woman thing’ called emotion.  One participant in the class actually asked where he could buy a copy.  I’m serious.

Feeling Kneaded

Though widely famous, I had previously not taken my place on the table for an Esalen Massage.  This school of body workers and style of practice is (claimed to be) unique and is branded by the Institute.  Certification has been going on since the seventies, and the reputation has added not only a high-end mystique but also matching prices.  Should you wish to partake someday you should know that the tip alone for an hour massage at Esalen will buy you 75 minutes plus gratuity with my friend Xotchi on the beach in Zihuatanejo.  (Airfare not included)  Tell her I sent you.

Since I had excused myself from class, I thought on this trip I would see if the magic fingers near the sacred hot springs would help align all the emotions I had been learning of and release the unleashed power of my male empathy from its hiding.  The cashier at the main office invited me to state my massage preferences and physical ‘irregularities’ before she chose a suitable masseuse.  After confessing my flaws by including the words arthritic, strained, flaccid and titanium, she told me that the next day at one o’clock some stranger would find me in the tubs, wrap my unclothed body in a big towel and lead me to her bed.

Because my profile now likely said “old and fragile”, I presumed correctly I would be assigned, not to the “deep healing” side of the menu, but rather to “fluff and buff”.  It was like those old cowboy movies where the younger men – fit, fierce and macho – got all the good horses.  Horses that when they snarled blasted smoke from their flared nostrils as they shot from the corral.  Horses that meant business.  Horses with names like Dynamite, Bucky, Firedance, and Rolfer.

Me?  I got to saddle up “Old Buttercup”.  The sway-backed, well-seasoned, apathetic mare leaning against the back fence.  She was kind and capable, but I could tell she was not into roughing anyone up for the sake of showing her stuff.  The masseuse’s name was Amanda, and she looked tired. Closer to my age than the rest of the herd, she sighed as she told me she had been there for decades and had wanted to retire but felt compelled instead to begin harboring stray cats in her apartment, and they were very expensive to feed.  ‘Pet Hyperempaths’ need love too.  Just like us misjudged men.  The lessons around here never stop.

 

The Song:  I threw together this fun tribute after my first visit a while back. Our neighbor recorded it in his backyard. No disrespect or offense is intended. (Sometimes I just get carried away.)  

 

 

Beautiful Island

We Are What We Pretend To Be

“There’s a palm tree highway right outside my door.  Bikes and boats they glide along the shore.  There’s a sun-streaked blue-green sea –breaking on the reef, spreading endlessly.                 Beautiful Island — paradise to me.”

I had occasion to meet one of my musical heroes a few decades ago following a concert in Seattle.  No matter what you may know or think about Jimmy Buffett’s songs and impact on American culture, for a guy like me that always yearned to throw a guitar strap over his shoulder and show off in front of a worshiping crowd, he served as a reasonable mentor.

Most folks my age are familiar with “Margaritaville” and his party-themed sellout shows. But his lesser-known folk/country/Caribbean ballads of the seventies and eighties are honest, uncomplicated and lasting tributes to the simple, insightful, carefree lifestyle he celebrates.  On probably no more than six guitar chords, he made a bazillion dollars.  More than that though, when I was ready to start a ‘musical destiny’ late in life, you couldn’t find more playable tunes to impress your friends and neighbors quickly.  (Like before they leave the room.)

When we shook hands, it’s not like Mr. Buffett slapped me on the back and said, “Take it from here, kid!”  But I do remember sitting around a rather unstylish motel room at the Edgewater Hotel after the show and being impressed and inspired as he and his band mates crafted a song for the next album while sitting on the two double beds.  Bill, Barry and I perched on the floor as Bill’s wife Robin, whose pretty, pleading eyes scored the road manager’s invitation, worked the room and kept the conversation going.

As mentioned in an earlier story, I lacked the credibility (not to mention talent and ambition) to be a big star like Jimmy Buffett, having not grown up in the South, smuggled dope, or busked night after night in Nashville, but I had feelings and a story to tell.  As do we all.  And so I did.

Spiritual Privilege

Humanistic psychology suggests that we all hold the capacity to attain impressive individual awareness and self-actualization – the expression of our best abilities and creativity. I have accepted that we are inwardly motivated to craft our minds, bodies, spirits and psyches to reach our highest potential.

When I set about looking for myself at age fifty, the list of dream jobs came calling. One thing I grasped was that Callings must be honored, or at least honestly attempted.  No way was I going to tolerate regret in my later years. Or (said while chuckling) whether the gift of dementia might solve the problem of remorse for me.

Spiritual privilege is a term which has been assigned to our generation for having had access to the knowledge, culture, social networks, time and financial resources to explore the many worlds of the mind and soul. Those of us that were raised in educated, upper middle class, white, mid-century households amid a youth impacted by social upheaval and the liberalization of religious institutions were perfectly positioned to accept, integrate and design our own personal brand of alternative spirituality.

So it is that many of us are inclined to go deep and perhaps a little goofy. We may be materially blessed, but remain unsettled bohemians at heart. We fan the flames of our neglected creative fire and seek the big answers to bigger questions. We pick up our pens, cameras, carpentry tools, and paint brushes.  We pray, meditate, study and experiment.

Some of us aging seekers will shuffle along our path with songs in our head that just might bring forgiveness to the madness of day to day life. We become determined to climb Maslow’s self-actualization pyramid with an open heart in one arthritic hand and an out-of-tune guitar in the other. We commit to the certainty that six-string music, which has played the soundtrack of our upbringing, can provide musical accompanyment to our self-realization.

The Palm Tree Highway

And so I began my awkward quest to sing my life. Thinking 20 years ago that…

1. I would master any musical instrument easily as of course I had the hands of a trained surgeon,

2. I could write a song every bit as listenable and likable as Jimmy Buffett’s, and

3. I would bravely stand tall in front of 6, 60 or 60,000 people and be spot-on with voice and instrument while cleverly playing the crowd and stunning them with my sensitivity and wisdom in all things essential to a purposeful, feel-good life. 

JD overalls guitar crop edit for blog sept19

Oh yeah, you’re the ‘real deal’ alright!!

At the outset of the journey, along with purchasing a guitar and a series of lessons from ‘Betsy — Olympia’s Blues Woman,’  I bought a book titled “Guitar – An American Life” by Tim Brookes. In the introduction to his story about the legendary significance and iconic status of this simple wood instrument was the following deflating jab at what I had proudly thought was a unique and sacred pursuit:

“Guitar makers have single word for baby-boomers-who-always-wanted-to-be-great-guitarists-and-now-have-the-money-to-indulge-that-dream:  ‘Dentists’. ” 

I did not make that up.

The author’s condescending opinion would be worth a rant if it weren’t somewhat true.  But it seemed more tame to have a midlife-crisis affair with a stringed instrument instead of some seductive minx with borderline personality who would really give me something to sing the blues about.

I learned all the old folk songs, figured out how to fingerpick Simon and Garfunkel’s greatest hits, stepped up in song circles with my wife’s three perfectly harmonizing sisters, and stepped out on the stage at a quite a few open mics. Alas, I am not now, nor ever will be, a master musician or even close.  I learned that due to my uneven playing, an inability to keep a beat, and chronic stage fright in my fingers, I was no kinda performer. Though indeed I tried. But actually not very hard.

However, I did impress myself, and maybe few others, with the songs I personally wrote. Before long I was scribbling anthems of love, truth and glory. (It didn’t take me long to learn that melody and lyrics, despite a common myth, do not merely manifest fully-written while you sleep.) As an example of my early success, the second epic tune I composed was titled, “If You Won’t Leave Me Alone, I’ll Find Someone Who Will.”  I was on my way, right?

America’s Got Talent.  Me – Not So Much

I never completely stopped doubting that I was but a phone call away from stardom. I submitted songs to country, pop, and Americana songwriting contests, attended serious workshops, read books and studied YouTube demonstrations. I set up a cheap home studio. After hours of confusion and frustration, I figured out how to record capably enough to hire online studio musicians and producers to cobble together some of my “hits”.

I wrote about love, revenge, old age longing, and New Age spirit.  And laziness, peace of mind, beaches, past girlfriends, present wives, the open road and coal trains. I made music videos, opened websites and promoted in social media pages. It was, and still is, a fulfilling distraction. And to this day I’m still my biggest fan.

As promised, this creative melodic  outpouring of opinion and emotion has truly helped in my pursuit of authenticity and perspective. Not to mention humility and self-empathy.

Though I still wince when I listen to much of my homemade music, I have to insist that Jimmy Buffett missed out big time when he never returned my email inviting him to record “Beautiful Island”. If my captivating story of the tropics and finding your peace and joy wherever you are doesn’t out-Margaritaville his Margaritaville, it comes damn close. Just my opinion. Take it with a lost shaker of salt.

 

 

Free Love — Part 2

 

DH 82 Group Cartoon for Free Love 2

Teaching and Learning

After a couple years as a dental practice associate, I took a job in a recently opened community college dental hygiene program.  Being a youngish male in a uniformed swirl of hard-working youngish females seemed to suit me.  When I wasn’t giving a lecture on various tooth-filling materials or allegedly painless injections, I was in clinic supervising the scraping, buffing and upkeep of everything between the lips and larynx.  ‘Supervising’ was a legal term of the board of dental licensing, but it generally meant wearing a white coat, autographing all sorts of paperwork, and chatting it up with the students’ unending line of siblings, friends, cousins, and parents they recruited as patients.

Edna, our rather confused administrative assistant wasn’t really sure what it was I did for eight hours three days a week.  More than once she would explain to someone on the phone in her lazy southern drawl that Dr. Deviny could not talk right now because he was on the floor with one of his students.  There were any number of hilarious stories from those years.  Some bear repeating.  Some not.

Most of the faculty were clinicians, good ones to be sure, but we were not academics.  We received the textbooks for our classes at the same time as the students.  I did well to stay a chapter ahead.  Washington State was among the first in the country to have recently allowed non-dentists to give anesthetic and perform tooth fillings, and I made up the curriculum as we went.  Many of the students had been seasoned dental assistants, and I was more than humble enough to rely on them.  The teamwork and support was so very unlike what I had experienced in dental school.

Considering the background noises of spit being suctioned and handpieces whistling,  it was a most delightful place to work for a crazy low salary.  I loved it.

Job Insecurity

When it came to the classroom or clinical coaching, I probably thought I was more effective and entertaining  than I was. You’d have to ask the dozens of women and several men with whom I shared the experience in those thirteen years. As most teachers do, I loved the attention.  And because of the ‘dynamic’ — yes, that’s what I’ll call it — I was often called upon to fill in as a big brother, confidant, and a shoulder to cry on about boyfriends or the understandably more demanding female faculty.

In a way, I was just one of the girls.  I had sincere respect for them, their profession, their dedication and drive.  Though I made my share of mistakes, I didn’t pull rank with the students, and recall being consciously cautious so as not to lose trust and respect.  Somewhat insecure, I just wanted to belong.  Sort of like a mascot.

Speaking of which, one year I received a most ridiculous looking rooster for my birthday.  A few years later, another class who heard I owned an empty chicken coop brought a giftbox of baby chicks to my annual year-end party we called the “Interdental Stimulator”.  (What were these kids trying to tell me?!)

I remained single or rather single during those years, apparently unable to find any companions as energetic, smart and appealing as most of the girls with whom I spent my days.  What can I say?  In some cases the social connection extended (he confesses) to our ‘extramural program’ which consisted of parties, tavern ‘field trips’, ski excursions, and potluck dinners at my apartment chaperoned by my cat.

Yes, there was the occasional teasing remark and ‘appreciative’ glance.  And hugs.  Who doesn’t like hugs?  And even on the couple situations I was quite certainly – um – hit upon, I don’t remember feeling all that harassed, creeped out, or uncomfortable. 😉   Times are different now they say.

CoinciDentally – he punned – my wife Cheryl completed the dental hygiene program in 1980.  She claims she had a crush on me in school.  Could be she was angling for a good grade.  We had our first date eight years later and have been married going on 30 years.  How about that?  She gets an A.

Not that anyone is interested, but as I pretend to be a (mediocre) poet and (unmusical) songwriter, I will share a chorus from one of my more heart-felt and tolerable tunes.  It is supposed to be a turn of a phrase from the sixties when ‘free love’ meant something much less spiritual than I had in mind when I wrote:

Then it happened to you, and it happened to me.  We fell in love but kept our independency.  We were free to choose then, and we’re free to choose still.  Love loses all its power when you lose your free will.  Now all the world sees you and me — grow stronger as we honor what we’ve come to be.

Love is a surrendering to destiny.  So let this be our legacy:     -Free Love-

Up In The Air

One of the dizzying high points in any relationship is finding out what you didn’t know.   I must here add that considerable thought and household ‘negotiation’ went into how (or why) to recount Cheryl’s fortunes in the 8 years between coy, inscrutable student and not-so-blind date.  Suffice to say, she had been dating a quite successful businessman, an importer with a flair for the finer things.  No problem there, right?  Textiles, wines, unique third-world furniture, hand-woven carpets, ‘botanicals’, you know…such things…

From what I understand, Cheryl did on occasion cross borders with certain items that might have attracted the attention of authorities if she hadn’t been so darn beautiful, calm and unlikely.  Why do I tell you this?  Because I have an amused respect for her adventurous past, and concluded that the combination of naivety, confidence and daring that was required to partake in ‘international trade’ at the time would surely ready someone who had to be married to me!

She was reflecting recently about the night her boyfriend’s twin turboprop ran out of fuel in the skies over western Oregon. She watched as first one propeller then the other stopped spinning, but recalls “just knowing” they would not be killed or maimed as the aircraft repeatedly twisted and banked severely trying to slow its speed to land without dropping out of the sky or running off the runway into a cornfield.  The (thankfully empty) plane expertly touched down and coasted over to refuel. ‘Never a doubt,’ Cheryl says.

That’s the kind of attitude you want in a life partner, gentlemen:  Never a Doubt.

The Last Match

Here’s the deal. Cheryl and I have each been married once – to each other.  We are happy, lucky, and mutually faithful for going on three decades.  We’re free in love, and chances are we’re going to stay that way.  Life together, like all relationships, can only excel when you have the time to choose the self-forgiveness and fearlessness to get out of your own way.  Then it asks only that eventually we both see our own and the other’s perfection.

Never a doubt?  Well, the easiest lessons come hard.  But only because we put off choosing to hold the purpose of love differently.  That’s the Free part.  Only when we get over ourselves and trust in a deeper consciousness are we free to not just be in love but to BE love.  That’s the Love part.  Such was the lesson I came to embrace anyway.

Another lesson I learned, back in the day, was this:  If someone gives you a box of baby chickens, remember to install a heat lamp before tucking them in to spend the night in a rare June freeze.  Not my best day.  

 

Free Love — Part 1

Shasta Daylight Edited Free Love Pt 1

Hindsight Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

There comes a time in every young man’s life when his thoughts turn to love.  There comes a time in every old man’s life that his thoughts turn to those times.  I will share with you some of my reflections on affections, having learned much about myself through long ago loves and losts.  This isn’t just useless boasting.   All of us are students in each of our relationships, however brief or intense, wholehearted, selfish, or just possibly, transcendent.  And with that we become enlightened to learning what we already knew about who we already were when it came to love.  Later on I will try to explain what that actually means.  Stay with me here.

Today’s lesson comes wrapped in a song I once wrote about ‘love or something like it’.  A major goal of this life story is to talk about myself honestly and humbly.   I know what a turn-off both bragging and self-righteousness can be.  You will therefore find me dancing around details and attempting to be clever and self-deprecating.  Along with that, the last thing I would want to do is ridicule or put down any of the performers in my life’s play for my own benefit.  So if you are one of them, and find I have misrepresented or slandered you in the least, please do write your own damn book and set me straight. : )

Jennie, Get Off The Train

“Jennie, get off the train with me.  I know that we just met.  But I’ve fallen hard and can’t bring myself to say goodbye just yet.  Come with me, our destiny is waiting up ‘round the bend.  Jennie, get off the train; let’s see how this story ends.” 

The Amtrak Coast Starlight departs Seattle every morning at 10 a.m. as it has for decades. The route takes you south through western Washington, across Portland, through Eugene, Klamath Falls and over into California in the middle of the night.  In 24 hours, you’re rolling slowly through the graffiti jungle of Oakland, then San Jose, Salinas, Gilroy, Paso Robles, and Santa Barbara at dusk.  By 9:05 PM, a mere 36 hours, barring a delay, which are almost daily, you stumble onto the streets of Los Angeles.

I have taken all or part of this journey a number of times over the years, beginning at the age of 11 when I begged my parents to send me to visit my grandmother who lived on the then-respectable edge of downtown Los Angeles not far from L.A. High.  I can still smell the exotic scent of smog wafting in the palms and feel the good vibrations of the Promised Land in mid-century. The Union Pacific had started this inquisitive young boy on a life of allaboarding and chasing whatever’s out there.

I was single and free in the spring of 1978 and in the midst of the 20 year long mating season.  On a break from work, I grabbed a backpack of clothes, my journal, and a passenger rail ticket to San Jose, intent on joining up there with a few friends also on spring break.  They drove, and I chose to do the rails for a change of pace.  My solo adventures were ripe with imagination but never expectations.  It was enough to feel the tracks snap beneath me while musing out the train window at the clearing skies as we descended from the Pacific Northwest toward the Golden State.

The train stopped on a siding near Roseburg to address a malfunctioning steam heat system that turned all the coaches into 94 degree saunas.  The solution was to have a couple obviously stoned crew members jack open some windows.  I walked to the lounge car.  It wasn’t any cooler, but no one was complaining.  Some poor young fellow who had been playing guitar earlier had now passed out somehow wedged between the high-back seat and curved observation window. One eye was half open and his right cheek was pressed against the glass just enough to pucker his lips — as if whistling the final refrain of his last song.

Inviting myself to his guitar and plucking all four chords I knew, I proceeded to take the stage just as Jennie (not her real name) breezed over with a cold beer for me and a here-I-come-hither look.  The reason I’m not using her real name is not necessarily out of respect.  As happens now and again, I either forgot it or never knew it to remember.

Romantic Comedy

“Bare feet, tie-dyed, bell-bottom jeans; an embroidered peasant blouse.   Said you lived in the woods outside Eugene in a teepee not a house.  I was trippin’ on your hippie thing as you bought another drink or two.  As that train rocked on into the night, I wrote this song for you…”

With a sudden lurch the train leapt forward, but I was already head-over-heels.  In my mind, this quaint little romance from then on was like an old black and white movie.  The train sweltered as it pitched and swayed up the Siskiyou Mountains.  The wind was rushing in the open windows blowing Jennie’s (not her real name) waist-long chestnut hair back like a surrender flag.  I turned to look at her and tears filled my eyes — as some dust from a passing northbound coal train struck my face.  After a time, someone opened the car door, and we stood with our toes out in the cool breeze watching the moon rise over Mount Shasta.  We embraced.  We kissed.  The wind suddenly swirled and wrapped her long hair around her head.  It took both of us pulling and clawing to find her face.  At which time we kissed once more.

“By the time they closed the bar car down I knew we were meant to be.  By an open door racing over the track I kissed you tenderly.  Hand in hand we passed a joint and drank wine with the crew.  As that train rolled on into the night, I sang this song to you… “

Behold, The Muse!

Ah, young love!  My experiences and cautions on romance and love are written around here somewhere.  Maybe my Muse, Angelique (not her real name either), is still proofreading, because I hear laugh-out-loud laughing coming from a far corner of my right brain.  I will now try to clear the record and my good name by non-arrogantly clarifying my conduct in the boy-chasing-girl-chasing-boy days.Angelique Barcelona FINAL Frame and Title

My courtships were generally in keeping with the liberal times, but usually in a gentlemanly way.  I was not the aggressive type.  I fished from the shore.  Pretending to be sleeping with my back against an old tree and my straw hat tipped forward over my eyes.  I trusted my bait and fishing gear.   I was too lazy to get my feet wet in the pursuit.  I let the stream do the moving.  Could be I was naive, clueless, insecure, and perhaps terrified.  Could be.

I wasn’t indiscriminate, mind you.  I had a copy of the fishing regulations rolled up in my back pocket.  I followed the accepted rules regarding size, sex, length, and species.   And ‘catch and release’ was always an option.  What would I prefer to see at the end of my line?  Shall I dare say it?  This would be barbiedoll, surfergirl, sassy, enigmatic, smart-but-not-too-smart kinda gal.  Back then I strolled the zoo but stayed away from the lion cage.   I was looking for Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail.  I had a lot to learn about girls.  A lot.  So I went to school.  More on this later.

“Jennie, get off the train with me, my ticket’s to San Jose.  My buddies will be there to pick me up, we’re headed down to Monterey.   Please come with me, our destiny is waiting when the day is new.  Jennie, get off this train, I think I’m in love with you…”

When we last saw our hero, he was crossing the California border as the movie reached that moment where you just don’t know how it’s going to turn out.  All I can tell you is I wrote the final verse to the song years later with a virtuous sentiment.  And with only a mild curiosity of what the heck might ever have happened to her.

“Jennie, get off the train with me I whispered when daylight came.  Snoring in your chair with your messed up hair, somehow you don’t look the same.  And I don’t feel so well — my head hurts like hell.  Good luck, girl, wherever you’re goin’.

I smiled and looked at Jennie—and got off that train alone…”

The End 😉

https://soundcloud.com/john-deviny/jennie-get-off-the-train

The Hitching Post

Hood R Bridge and Mt Final

Another Roadside Attraction

A few years back, I was on an assignment in the Columbia River Gorge.  This remarkable stretch of the West’s largest river cuts through the Cascade Range which separates the arid golden east from the deep green, rain-soaked west.  On either side of the gorge, the earth rises up on rusty basalt walls to thickly timbered foothills, upland orchards, wind generators, and snow-covered volcanoes. Over the centuries, this river route has been a passageway for native tribes, the early fur trappers, explorers, the wagon-wheeled pioneers, and finally yielding to rails, highways, wheat barges, craft brewmasters and kiteboarders.

I was driving home after a day’s work and picked up a forlorn young man, maybe in his thirties, standing by the road at the north entrance of the Hood River Toll Bridge.  This structure is the only route across the wide Columbia for miles in either direction.  The vintage steel crossing allowed barely enough width for two lanes, and there was no allowance for pedestrian or non-motorized crossing.

Which is what this poor confused hitchhiker found out the hard way just before he got in my van and took a seat. He had been on his way to Portland to visit his sick mother and was holding a small pack in one hand and his $175 citation in the other.  In his pocket was the fifty dollars that he hoped would get him a return bus ride if he managed to travel the seventy miles one way with his thumb.

It had taken him all of three minutes walking on the drawbridge to earn his ticket and a ride to the Washington side where I found him.  The trooper didn’t even have the courtesy to take him across.  But since he now was in debt, he cancelled his journey and asked me to drive him to a nearby junction from where he could walk home.  I handed him a twenty, we smiled and shrugged at each other, and he stepped out.  Been there.  Lesson learned.

Our minds, trained by our nature and our past and our culture, face an array of choices with every interpersonal connection.  Circumstance, judgment, safety, intrusion, ignorance, mistrust, compassion…  That’s a big menu to sort through when you take the challenge of ‘loving thy neighbor’.  As perplexing  as these emotional plays can be, we should know that in any moment an upward shift in consciousness can make each encounter a wholehearted lesson if you relax into it.  The choice is always there to pause and transcend making it something it is not.

Hitchhiking helped teach me one thing no matter which side of the door you are on.  That would be the value and expediency of making eye contact.  With every human whenever practical.  “I see the you that sees me.  ”Simple and efficient, it may be the best way I know to keep in control of our rarely reliable ego-selves.  Songwriter John Prine had it right when he advised:  “Don’t pass them by and stare, as if you didn’t care.  Say, ‘hello in there…’”

A Shoulder To Try On

Hitching a ride — trading shoe leather for the chance to sit next to a complete stranger holding a steering wheel — was quite common in this country until fairly recently.  Beyond being practical and environmentally sensible, hitching a ride is a statement of self-reliance, a declaration of independence, and an adventuresome art form.

Jim Croce Hitching Text Border FINAL.jpg

In the nineteen seventy-somethings, among us twenty-somethings, thumbing around was accepted, understood, and in many cases, necessary.  It was not a terribly worrisome enterprise back in the day, and for a guy who didn’t own a car until he was 23, I was willing to run the risk.

I was in a hurry to get back to Seattle one Monday morning for a midterm exam and chatting with a driver who took me from Fairhaven to Everett where he dropped me off on the shoulder of Interstate 5. After mentioning my schooling and the two and a half years yet to go, he kindly wished me luck.  As I got out, he offered, “That sounds like a tough row to hoe.”  So far so good, I thought.

Just 25 minutes later a policeman coaxed me out from behind a shrub where I was hiding and proceeded to cite me for ‘Pedestrian On The Freeway.’  I saw him down the road just as he saw me hightail it.  Driving me off the interchange with my hard-earned ticket, we engaged in conversation.  I explained once again my current situation, to which he commented as I got out, “Well, good for you, that’s a tough row to hoe.”

Yessir, getting tougher all the time.

Thumb in Air.  (Tongue in Cheek.)

One sweet spring Friday afternoon, I was standing on the side of State Road 9 north of Arlington, Washington.  Passing cars were infrequent and indifferent in spite of my beaming smile and clean-cut grad student persona.  A newer huge four-door Buick slowed to the shoulder.

A  pleasant, well-dressed woman leaned over the passenger seat to crank down the window and asked me where I was bound.  What luck to find she was headed to Bellingham and was more than happy to share her front seat.  I would make it for the start of all the weekend parties on Maple and Indian Streets after all!

As we rolled north and got to know each other, she introduced me to her two attractive high school-aged daughters in the back seat who had initially escaped my notice.  They were on spring break and on their way to take a tour of Western Washington University.  I knew I was outnumbered three women to one vulnerable preppy kid they found on the road.

This was of course years before cell phones and 911, but they didn’t look too treacherous, so I sat back and enjoyed the ride.  On reflection I can see that as rather unusual by today’s standards.  I didn’t make this up.  Well, it might have been an Oldsmobile.  Could be none of us cared to assume that suspicion was an option.

Life is funny like that.  Who are the bad guys?  Who are the good guys?  You don’t really know, do you?  No, you don’t.  None of us know.  But it’s just as easy to start with believing the best in the other.  And ourselves.  And what if there really were no bad guys at all?

Released On Good Behavior

Several months later, my school lab partner Rob let on that he was leaving after class on Friday to visit his girlfriend across the state in Pullman.  November is a dark time to be out on the open road, but I invited myself a lift to see if I could scare up some old college pals in Spokane 80 miles north.

Night had fallen well before we got to Whitman County, and while shaking my hand as if he might never see me again, Rob dropped me off at the highway junction in Colfax, a sleepy town on the Palouse River that was damp and deserted at 9:30 on Friday night.  I located the best streetlight and waited with my little sign in the chilly air just as the rain began to fall.

The old pickup truck looked like it stood an even chance of making it the 75 miles north, even with its one headlight and dragging muffler, so I climbed in the cab.  My host had recently been paroled out of the penitentiary in Walla Walla and was understandably curious about life on the outside.

I did my best to answer his questions.  As the miles went on, the conversation lagged and I found myself wondering what he was thinking I was thinking he was thinking.  And so it went until we arrived noisily under the late night lights of downtown Spokane.  I’ve a recollection of his asking if I had a place to stay somewhere as if he were hoping to find a free place to crash.

Somehow talking my way out of sharing the rest of my night with a possible cattle rustler or serial stabber, I invited him to pull over.  I gave him a few bucks for gas and stepped out into the rainy streets well short of my destination.

One of my students gave me a small card some years ago.  I still have it, and yesterday I put it in my wallet.  It reads, “If you think you know what’s going on, you’re probably full of shit.”  That’s what it said.

Study Questions:

  • What states does the Columbia River flow through?
  • When did the 911 emergency system become nationwide? Who was the first woman to call and report her cat was throwing up?
  • The old term “tough row to hoe” is used. Was the author really hoeing rows at school?  Are there also easy rows to hoe?
  • Who the hell is John Prine?

Being Real — Part 2

mazatlan bch Final

Beginning With The End

Life couldn’t have been better or showed more promise when we arrived on that secluded Mexican beach north of Mazatlán in 1974. It was Sunday afternoon the week before Thanksgiving. We spent the first evening immersing our youthful awe in the tropical surroundings. The next morning my best friend got caught in a rip tide and drowned. On our first day there, a little way down the shore, out in the surf.  He and some boys we just met went for a swim, and he never made it back.

The days following the incident put me on a path of insight that has served me to this day.  There were dark directions that sought me out, but I somehow stood fast in a commitment to learn and grow from the experience.  Even as I spent those thoughtful hours alone in the camp listening to the immense waves collide to the beach and silently pull back, I knew what happened was not useless or senseless.  In an altered state, my logic and emotion became untied.  I went on instinct.  I surrendered.

There were no shoulders to cry on, just me and the freedom to craft any kind of explanation or understanding that came calling.  I managed to rise above the roles of enabler, denier, or victim.  Initially, I lived in a surreal clarity as if taken in by an unseen spirit, and then, after a few unblinking nights staring at the stars through the windows in the van, I somehow calmly accepted death as far too powerful to deny and too senseless to fear.  I would pull it over to my side, and with it, hopefully, fate itself.  Life doesn’t happen without death.  I would make death a personal savior, embracing confidently its role in making life real.

It sounds rather strange now, but at the time it was a comforting conclusion.  In the wisdom of my grief, I stumbled upon a critical fundamental truth: That the soul does not care about the boundary between life and death, and that fear of death is a self-limiting choice.  Over time, as God and Love have found context and identity for me, I came to appreciate how passing away just may be a gift.  I held all these thoughts as only a rough sketch back then, but I truly I remember a feeling of an unexplained and gently powerful peace.   It felt like wisdom.  It felt like forgiveness.

Angels Rush In Where Fools Fear to Tread

My brother in Seattle put my girlfriend Janine on a southbound plane assuming I would welcome company and emotional support.  I did, but I did not know it.  I told myself I had discovered the needed resilience to reframe circumstance by facing the truth as I knew it.  It was simple survival, as yet to become spiritual transcendence, but it seemed to be working for me.  So of course, I was not well-prepared for the grace that was being sent to me.  A key part of this memory is the reminder that we all have and we all need angels.  Brother Terry and now longtime friend Janine live strong in my heart.  Both charter members of the angels and muses syndicate.  You have yours too.  I hesitate to be pretentious, but mine were pretty damn heroic.

The week following Thanksgiving was daunting.  I recall phoning my late friend’s devastated parents from the embassy, transacting the purchase of a sealed casket and shipping the body back, crying a time or two, and bribing a fat police lieutenant in a dark creepy stationhouse for a typed letter allowing me to exit the country with the borrowed van.  After two weeks Janine and I headed north.  I was the worst of companions.  In my processing of the incident, I came to believe I did not need anyone in my life.  I honestly thought I would just stay in the country and go it alone.  Any reasonable person would have damn well just left me in Mexico.

On the long drive back to the Northwest I tested my new found superpower of invulnerability.  I recall leaning forward over the steering wheel squinting at where the interstate might be as we sped through the December dark surrounded by dense fog in the Central Valley.   Fortunately my spirit guides had advised me to keep awake with a half case of beer that Janine bravely, compassionately handed me one after the other until we broke into daylight at Stockton.

The Me in Mexico in Me

Once home I had a lot of explaining to do.  Clearly, in my mind, I was blameless — other than perhaps underestimating the power of the tides and my buddy’s midwest unfamiliarity with the ocean and inability to swim. I might have been playing lifeguard or testing the surf instead of taking a morning nap on the beach. When David ran up and told me Kansas didn’t return to shore, I pushed through the breakers and treaded water alone for an hour yelling his name until a surfer who paddled from the resort down the beach brought me to shore quite depleted.  Each time I recounted the tale, I again became exhausted.  And again the support of my ‘unwanted’ angels pulled me through.  And I am ever grateful.

Maybe it was because I had experienced and survived as I did as a 26 year old that gave me the urge and permission to return time and again to the Mexican coast.  I truly felt that after dealing with such tragedy I was completely protected from harm.  Seriously bullet-proof.  Every five years for a few decades, I traveled to Mazatlán to reflect and to offer some kind of tribute.  In ritual, I would sit with the long ago event and meditate on the power of the past and the danger of giving in to fear. Some call that just whistling in the dark.  Maybe that’s all it is.  But this is the story I tell myself:  I have accepted that to know death is the key to knowing life, and that the sooner we learn to not hide from the so-called unknown, the sooner we will find the peace of heaven, wherever we are.  We already know what is unknown, we just don’t think we know it.  Trust over fear then.  Love won’t survive where there is fear.  Where do we begin, we ask?  Here’s what I have been taught: You need do nothing.  Love just is.

I’ll wake up each morning and smile at the day.

I’ll live for each moment, put my worries away.

I’ve heard there’s one true way to heal.

Some say we’re just sleeping in heaven – dreaming of hell.

Maybe the greatest gift of living is dying well.

If you can hold that in your heart — you’re Being Real.

“Being Real” jd 2005