Part 2, chapter eight
I was so grateful, and in a way so disbelieving, of all that had happened to me on the coast, including all the unique and brilliant people I had met during my travels, that at one point a while back I wrote another whole book, during a five-week all-out frenzy, which was mostly about all the eccentric folks who had come into my life in Vancouver and on my excursions up and down the coast, and I was going to call the book The West Coast Kumbh Mela , honoring the numerous unbridled characters hiding or running free out there.
I was thinking then of folks like the fifty-year old, long-haired, big-bearded, insane clown who, as a young man went on scholarship down to America to play both university football and basketball, was a tennis pro, and an exceptional athlete about to be drafted into the big leagues, and then gave it all up for the wilderness, living four winters out on the furthest edge of the rainforest, and then existing in a teepee for a year and learning Native American spirituality from shamans. At the time of writing this he was spending every autumn in the American desert, every summer in the Canadian Rockies, and every winter in the Himalayas doing self-driven biological and ethnological research. And a true madman to boot. He would do the most ridiculous things, like inventing a method to keep his agility perfectly tuned by jumping up and down on a trampoline, blindfolded, while throwing a medicine-ball against the wall and trying to catch it without knocking himself silly.
Then there was Crazy Al, a man I kept hearing about in a town which I lived in for six weeks or so, and by the descriptions of him I kept envisioning a sixty-year old, wild-eyed, toothless soothsayer, but wasn’t I surprised when I was introduced to a thirty-one year old man in a tank top, who was built like he belonged on the national gymnastics team, and this was Crazy Al. And so we sat down beside each other in the pub, and started to chat and I guess he saw something in me which allowed him to feel like I’d understand him, because he leaned over, peered into me with a deep, serious, mature look, and declared, without a hint of holier-than-thou in him: “The problem is that these people are godless.” And I could tell that he knew what he meant by that, and yet as the night went on I could tell also that he cared for others like little retarded children who had not the acumen to understand their limitations. Among many other things which we discussed that night he also claimed that, since he and I were approximately the same age, and of similar consciousness, we were both going through a zodiacal shift called ‘Saturn return’, which he attempted to describe to me though I didn’t really get much out of it because all the while I was hoping it had some connection to the old Roman Festival of Saturnalia- the celebration of wine and orgies, when the slaves are set free for a week to change places with their masters and make up for the rest of the year in bondage. Feeling somewhat like a chaste slave at that time I was fairly enthralled with my take on his supposition.
And another odd soul: an American wanderer in his mid forties, whom, at the time of our meeting, was managing the small, illegal hostel I had taken refuge in for a couple of days, although he was mostly just hanging about, enjoying the crowd and waiting for the skydiving season to begin in the southwest where he had been teaching for years. Otherwise he roamed about with a small backpack, smoked the occasional joint, and told splendid tales about his own wilderness adventures, guiding experiences such as photographing an ascent of Everest, and the ten years he had spent up the coast on a tug which hauled log-booms through the harrowing, shifting currents of the narrows, and whose ship’s captain, according to him, was a saint who listened to Beethoven’s seventh constantly. There were no international borders for this man. There was only the earth, one earth, and he strolled about it like a lone wolf who had no concern for boundaries or working papers.
And then there was the red wine guzzling, acid popping, footloose Zen nun, who lived like a feather in a breeze, not worrying if she came down because a strong enough gust would come along to lift her up again and move her on to God knows where but somewhere, and she’d make her way doing this or that with intense passion and delight and then move on without a thought that it might be difficult ahead and wouldn’t it be better to just stay where you are. No way. Keep moving, keep flowing, keep living, keep loving.
The coast is a limitless banquet of odd and indescribable sorts. There were draft-dodging geniuses, dope-smoking ministers, shaggy-mane drummers and didgeridoo players, wandering sailors, autodidactic naturalists, carvers, painters, explorers, heresiologists, blasphemers, and converts. The full spectrum of humanity is offered up there in its greatest extravagance within the most spectacular venue on the planet.
Everyone I speak of, and have written about earlier, certainly had no shortage of fears, insecurities or sorrows, just like all the rest of us. To be human has its requirements. But these folks inspired me and made me appreciate, as best I could, the unique chance we all have simply by being alive. I suppose it was for this reason that I had written the Kumbh Mela book- to tell the stories of those who most likely would never tell their own.
Soon after completing the book, however, I was given to understand that the ‘powers’ upstairs weren’t all that pleased with it, most likely- it seemed from their ostracisms- because it was a horribly lopsided work, showing everyone in their best light while making no mention of their transgressions and towering faults- and so I burned the book a year later and never thought twice about that decision.
What I wonder now, however, of my time with all those magical people I met along my way, is this- did any of them make it across to the other side? And by that I mean, did any of them have the subtle lucidity and humility necessary to dissolve away from themselves and merge into the undying One? Or did they cling to their talents, idiosyncrasies, and skills, which allowed them to break out boldly from the norm, but would in the end become their undoing, if they were not able to relinquish these divisions to the whole? These are questions for which I have no answer. I have only the assumption that none, or very few, went the full distance. And I say this not out of pessimism nor scorn, but out of realism. For to cross over you can take nothing superfluous with you. No desires, no dreams, no longings, no regrets, no unfinished business. You walk through with a clean slate. You emerge without anything on your person except for the rose, which you are allowed, and even asked, to take back with you.
Unless the indefatigable intent is there to dissolve away the hard parts and ease back into the One, the individual is bound to continue being but a puppet of the ego. For none of us can cross to the other side with any characteristics, idiosyncrasies, talents, or pride. We must all melt nondescriptly into the fabulous wave, or remain ignobly isolate and separate like a turd floating about in the bathtub of a knave. Until we release all that makes us stand out like sore thumbs amongst our fellows and the world, we are destined to wrestle with the only Titan who can beat us on this earth- ourselves.
The way of sin must abate, and the way of absence take over. For you make it across when it doesn’t matter if you make it, because you don’t know what it means to make it, and so you stop trying. Then you make it. You cross over from the death of separation into the living moment of God when it comes time to lie down, because you have finished with this chapter in the eternal story of your being. That is when you must fall away completely, stop everything, forget everything, shed a final tear, and …lay down.
And so I say, perhaps none of the fabulous folks I met during those years of wandering had strong enough intention to stand tall, and then to lie down. And yet I have met one who did make it. And if, at the end of this life, I am able to say that I met only one true man amongst all the people who came and went before me, I can say that I met at least one. One man who began to show me what it meant to be a man, and that it had nothing to do with unique abilities, physical strength, machismo, stoicism, handling strong drink, or screwing multitudes of women, but that to be a man meant to see clearly the abject follies of the world and to choose instead the one and only way in which to be on this earth- the way of integrity- and to choose that way at every turn no matter what the cost, and to know that the cost would often be dear.
I say that I learned about this costly integrity from Ed- a person so full of noble humility and priceless honor that he might be aghast right now were he to know how I had seen and truly felt about him- or perhaps I did not learn about such integrity from him, perhaps I still have to learn that lesson, but at the very least I saw the living example of a man who had chosen to stand strongly against the tide of greed and desperation which consumes the lives of most of us on the planet, and to let the world carve its own path to its own destruction while he forged on alone in the night with an irrevocable force and conviction to never join in on the looting and loitering with the masses but instead to set to bailing out the sinking ship while everyone else was busy pissing into the hold.
It was back a few years, when I arrived for the first time in Sitka, that beautiful little Alaskan town surrounded by snow-capped mountains and islands leading out to sea; a vibrant little oasis of charm and personality standing out like a flagship on the magnificent outer coast of the panhandle. But I arrived there as adrift in life as a piece of flotsam thrown overboard by foreign fishermen which then bobs about aimlessly in the indifferent swells of the great Pacific before being cast up on shore as a chunk of refuse belonging to a different people from a different land, and even they don’t want it. These were my lost and existential days of nomadic rambling, when nothing mattered but to keep going and going and pretend that I hadn’t lost what I had lost and that I was going to find what I never found back then, which is to say- peace.
I had ferried down from Skagway after working a short contract at the Whitehorse fish hatchery, clipping the adipose fins off of six-thousand salmon fry during the day, while my female co-worker bush-hags held outlandish belching contests, and then I would spend the night drowning my estrangement to life in pints of stale beer at one of the town’s many ignominious blues bars during the evening. Day and night it was culture at its finest, let me tell you.
Anyway, I ended up in Sitka as less a part of the earth than I had ever been in the past and took on serendipitous employment with Ed’s two-man kayak operation, where I would end up doing all manner of things including guiding, instructing, selling, purchasing and running the show one month while Ed was away on other business. Mostly though I found myself for two summers working alongside a man who in my mind came to embody a paradoxical hybridization of the Buddha and Robin Hood; a man who’s intransigent honesty, intent, and maturity of soul has remained unparalleled by any other, ever since our time together.
Ed came to Sitka as a young man to work for the town’s main employer, the pulp mill, but upon completing his agreed-upon one year contract, and having seen the reality behind that rapacious and unconscious industry, he promptly quit, turned on his heels, and became the town pariah, a traitor, intent on preserving what was left of the surrounding forest and shutting down that gigantic, belching cyst forever.
It was a vicious battle and Ed’s existence was threatened and impeded on more than one occasion, but in the end his sedulous conviction and uncompromising conscience would become the pivotal stroke in closing down the pernicious scourge.
I came upon him a few years after all of this was finished, by which time he had become the unassuming epicenter of the environmental movement in Alaska. His office was the control room of sedition and attack, filled from floor to ceiling with newspaper clippings, government documents, legal texts, and conservation periodicals. It was a sight to behold the inner passion of this individual, manifested in his nature-lover’s Sorbonne of the day.
As well as this monumental aspect of his character, Ed was also an innovative computer programmer, engineer, house builder, paddling equipment designer, and perhaps the most knowledgeable and honest businessman ever to tangle in the world of industry. It was quite a tremendous apprenticeship which I underwent those months we had together, for, along with all of the knowledge and skills I gained from his expertise, it was his character- and perhaps his character alone- which allowed me to exist with one foot in the world and the other dangling out in the chaotic ether.
I say his ‘character’, although I am not certain how well that limited word describes his characterless existence. To be sure he had qualities, idiosyncrasies, and imperfections, but there was a purified emptiness about him which was unmistakable- a vast, inhuman, impenetrable depth lying like a bottomless ocean right behind the unflinching pupils of his deep brown eyes. It was as if no one of any describable personality existed within him; no little ego waiting impatiently for recognition or applause, no little cares or needs or wants directing his every move, no little self struggling to prove or express itself to the rest of the world. He seemed absent of all the insecurities and petty needs which lie like bandits in the skulls of the greater part of the rest of humanity. A Buddha, as I said, as hollow, transparent, and unflappable as the sky.
He had reached that august neutrality in which the reception and rejection of other people’s spirits blend into a singular, harmonious non-reaction- an inner event which not only brings great equanimity, but also pivots other individuals, upon meeting one such as he, back onto their own dualistic selves.
It was this particular, remarkable absence of the little qualities within him which made other people, who were still crippled by the shoddy weight of their infantile psyches, become uncomfortably self-conscious in his presence because, among other things, whatever lay behind his eyes would offer no support or acceptance to any ego’s pathetic theatrics, and would only react to a true and natural gesture coming from within another, and since most of us have been built up on affectation, warped predispositions, and histrionics alone- he would react very little. And it was this lack of response, this vacuum of consciousness into which the unwitting person, caught in the void of Ed’s limitless being, would fall that would begin the little uncomfortable quivers which come when you run into a mirror that offers no reflection. Or perhaps a perfect reflection.
Ed was a living piece of litmus paper, an acid test for fake persona’s; a hollow canyon into which one could scream and scream but out of which would come nothing, not even the echo of their own voice, only the sense of falling ever further and further into the dark expanse of non-existence- a place where all sentient beings are horrified at the thought of going.
Ed was a finished product, a philosopher’s stone, an individuated, accomplished, established, true and living aspect of the One.
And so it was in his presence and mentorship that I began, or perhaps continued, to whittle away at the false structure of my false being, slowly carving away the learned responses, hidden conditionings, and trumped-up characteristics.
All this I can declare in retrospect, but back then I hardly knew what was going on except that all my games were over because I was in the presence of a master. I was being tempered in the purifying fire of his stainless consciousness. And I would even go so far as to say that Ed himself most likely had no clue of his own effect on others- that was how unaffected, sincere, and innocent he had become. I say innocent, but not docile. No, this was a man who could not be blown down by the putrid breaths of people who had only learned to parade their peacock feathers around but were really mere hatchlings scratching about in the turf. Ed was indeed as innocent as a virgin, but he was also as powerful as a bull. A gentle, unobtrusive, relentless man, fighting the good fight in a land of people who grabbed for anything that appeared as if it could keep them from drowning and who still drowned nonetheless. A colossus of a man, hidden within a thin and wiry frame, carrying about on his shoulders the smoldering remains of a dying fire.
Looking back I wonder how worthy a neophyte I was- back then at the time in my life when I had been so ripped to shreds by the world’s futility and my own insatiable contemplations, and what was left of me had been scattered into the winds, until I had no center in which to turn and confront and receive this marvelous specimen of humanity; I was on a path that had no direction, no footing, no mileposts nor ease. I was at a stage in my development which the alchemists of old might have called the dissolutio- the tearing down of the old self so that a new one can be rebuilt from the rubble within. And yet, that perhaps, more than anything else, was why Ed was in my life- because there was no more stable pole on earth than himself- a pole by which I could orient myself and hold myself to the ground.
There were times of slippage however, when I would be out guiding or instructing and in the middle of a sentence in which I was orating a paddle maneuver or explicating on a natural wonder to the impatient ears of customers or clients I would all of the sudden freeze, and there I would be looking out at them, and they looking in at me, and I looking in at myself, and a rift would form and widen within me and the distance back to earth seemed immeasurable and I could see the uncomfortable gestures beginning as the clients waited, wondering and worrying that perhaps their guide had become catatonic or had entered into a flashback or hallucination; and part of me would be struggling to make it back to earth, to continue on with the discourse and the life I was struggling to lead, and another part would be hovering off in the distant outskirts of existence, unconcerned, and coldly removed, watching the stop in the play from which I had become fully detached. But then, thankfully, the unasked-for, extemporaneous pauciloquium would abruptly end and I would come out of it and go on, and the bewildered clients would snap back into their interested and submissive roles and somehow I’d make it through that day, and the next day, and so on for two intense summers of life in the world without being in the world.
This is the type of occurrence I carried around with me like a carbuncle swelling inside my head which, every once in a while, released a septic load of disorientation out into my world. And yet I have no regrets over my imperfections during those summers. I have no worry that, had I been more attentive or more together I would have received and taken a greater gift from Ed than I was capable at the time, for I have learned enough by now to know that you can’t learn anything from another which you must in the end learn better from yourself, and you can’t teach another what in the end they must learn better from their self. And in this sense we are all free from each other; free to pursue our own paths, find our own truths, and live our own lives, and if anyone tries to tell you different you can bet it’s because they need something from you which they have neither the courage nor tenacity to get from themselves.
The one time I believe I struck the inner chords of Ed’s immense spirit, albeit inadvertently, was on my last day of work when we were saying our goodbyes and I was handing him back my office key, which spurred me to remark, “Well, so now I am keyless again”, which I was. It was that comment which sort of stopped Ed for a moment, as he stood there somewhat spellbound and perplexed, and then, with a hint of amazement- as if perhaps he had not heard me correctly- he inquired, “You mean you have no keys?” And I said no, I didn’t own anything which had a door or a lock on it: no house, no office, no car, no mailbox, no storage locker.
As I was stating this I remembered how shocked my friend Rick also had been when he found out that same fact about my existence; he was shocked because he was toting about with him a heavy chain of the horrid devices. And it was the same with Ed, who now, for the first time I had ever seen, showed a hint of envy and admiration towards another. Oh, it wasn’t a feeble, impotent form of schoolboy envy or admiration; it was his mature way of saying, “Well done man, now there’s a worthwhile accomplishment.”
We all come here to take our own tests, face our own trials, and have our own experiences, and no one can accomplish another’s life for them. Such is the way of the growth of the spirit.
I learned this necessity often and always in my travels up and down the coast during my decade of wandering and growing. One such experience came while in Sitka, during this period of my unpredictable instability which I now see was unavoidable and caused largely by the unrelenting contemplations which hounded me unforgivingly about the all and the everything and my unrequited queries as to my proper role within it. I was endlessly seeking answers for which I did not even have the proper questions, and endlessly seeking destinations towards which I did not even know the way. But a time came during that summer when I would learn a lesson, a way of being, regarding the folly of my desperate seeking and probing and looking ahead- a lesson which would stick with me, and return again and again as I lost and refound it, in many ways, under many guises, but always with the same underlying message.
It came about on a kayaking trip I had decided to take alone down the outer coast of Baranof Island. It was no huge expedition or perilous venture, but it was undertaken as a personal quest to extend myself beyond the tiring round of thinking, drinking, working, contemplating, writing, and sleep. And I remember paddling out of Sitka a little timid, a little concerned about my abilities to handle the full-on coastal waters, but I headed out nonetheless and pushed southward through the islets and reefs, away from all that had come to weigh upon me and which continued to carry only the pretense solidity.
It was a terrific first few days as I paddled below looming snow-capped peaks, and past gigantic rafts of lethargic sea otters that floated indifferently along in the swells. I have often said that if I had to come back to earth again as an animal- other than a free flying bird that is- I would return as a sea-otter, those Taoist priests of the water; I would spend a life of leisure and disconcern, floating in the swells alone, or entering into the pleasant orgy of the rafted community, and I’d eat urchin caviar all day, and watch the stars and make love all night.
Anyways, along with those otters, humpback whales flipped and flirted about during my trip, and wildflowers and eagles abounded in the earth and sky as I meandered southward. I landed my kayak for a while near a hot-spring, twenty miles or so down the coast, and soothed my bruised and broken spirit in the Mother’s steam. It was a beautiful holiday from myself at the beginning of the trip, but soon enough I was back inside, back into the old, relentless brain, pondering over this or that, wondering what it was all about and where it was all headed and who was I to be a part of it, and why didn’t I know who I was who was a part of it? I ended up camping on a lonely island and drinking a load of bad American beer and walking about aimlessly on shore without being able to still the chronic investigations which continued to plague me.
But then it happened- as all cries into the ether must eventually have their audience- that as I was paddling back up north a few days later, at no more peace than when I had left, and I could see the final cape looming off ahead of me, at which point I would turn north-east and head for home, that a shift in the weather occurred and a thick blanket of fog came whistling across the water and engulfed me completely, totally blocking out the world around me. The wind, waves, and swells were still minimal, so I continued on my course, heading into the mist in the direction I had already set. I paddled on for perhaps half an hour or so and then without recognizing the subtle movement of my consciousness, something altered within me, something sublime and yet incredibly profound; it came about because I could not see much further ahead than the bow of my boat, and so I had lost all onward vision and sense of destination, and what happened is that I realized that for the first time in my life I was not looking ahead- because I couldn’t- I was doing nothing except what I was doing. I was paddling. There was no future, no outcome, no goal, no awaiting experience, there was only the kayak, the sea, and …me. It is impossible to describe the magnificence of this sudden disentanglement which happened to me. In a goal-directed culture, in a time and accomplishment driven world, I had just fallen through the cracks. Throughout the entire course of my life up until that point I had always been looking ahead, always planning, always waiting for a goal or an answer to appear, always existing where I wasn’t actually existing. And then the blinding mist of beingness descended all about me and I could see nothing ahead, plan nothing ahead, and expect nothing ahead. I was just being where I was being, being what I was being, and doing what I was doing, and nothing more. I was right where I was, and only there. As if I had set foot in the true present presence of existence for the very first time. I had attained to the absolute actuality, the bare-bones of beingness. And then I understood why Zen practitioners spend their entire lives pursuing the now-time of being. Yet I knew something better- that it could not be pursued, it could only be lived and allowed and you could not grab hold of it, you could only dance with it, become it, and let it go.