Saturday, August 4, 2007

paddling upstream

In dwelling be close to the land.
In meditation, go deep in the heart.
In dealing with others, be gentle and kind.
In speech be true.
In ruling, be just.
In daily life, be competent.
In action, be aware of the time and the season.

No fight: no blame.

Tao te Ching, #8

I was here in Durango for the Animas Festival again this year. John and I performed with trumpet, bass and piano (Rick Modlin, of course), a new array titles that we have talked about doing for years. I called it "Sacred Secular," so-called secular songs that were reflective of the sacred, Stevie Wonder's "If It's Magic," Sting's "Message in the Bottle" and "Fragile," Kurt Elling's "The Beauty of All Things," for instance, along with some of our own pieces. It was a lot of work, but ultimately worth it. At the same time, when we finished I decided that that was as far into the secular realm as I wanted to go in concert. (Not to say that I would be opposed to a coffeehouse gig singing a dream set with Elvis and Danny Black some evening in Santa Cruz.)

After the concert among the people who came up to talk to me was a guy named Jojo. I took him to be Nepali or Tibetan (he later told me many people mistake him so; he is Filipino). He was very enthusiastic about all the music, and declared himself a kind of devotee of Hafiz' poetry which he carried around with him all the time. He had won tickets for the concerts on the radio during the interview John and I had done for KDUR on the campus of Fort Lewis College. We ran into each other again the next morning at the gym as I was working out and Jojo was coming out of yoga class, and talked again, this time a little more in depth about yoga and each others' paths. He said something like, "You're a minstrel going around the world singing about God's peace." I liked that description; it surely is what I want to be, and I was glad that we were able to get that across in the more secular set as well as our regular one. He left me with his phone number and told me to call next time I was in town, and he would take me kayaking or something. I found out early on that he was a great devotee of outdoor sports, skiing and surfing especially, but also mountain biking.

So I called him when I got in on Thursday, and we set up to get together on Friday, yesterday. After a series of missed phone calls we finally hooked up around 11:30. He had a canoe strapped to the top of his old Honda Accord, and was dressed in his quick dry clothes and big yellow goggles, a visor and Chaco sandals. I was of course in my blue running/swimming shorts with a grey t-shirt and sweatshirt. We put in up river a little bit and canoed upstream (it was a lazy current, so not too difficult, but still good exercise). Jojo immediately started asking lots of pretty insightful questions about my life, monk stuff and music stuff, and then I turned the tables on him and asked about his. I found his life more interesting than mine. He had lived on his bicycle for a year and a half, camping in National Forests and campgrounds; and lived in a tree house for a while also. He was headed from Chicago to Santa Cruz (of all places) 15 years ago when he stopped by Durango and never left. He also wound up marrying some years ago but that dissolved only recently. He is very active in outdoor sports, and is also a collector of re-usable things, building materials, old trailers, firewood. As a matter of fact he couldn't go canoeing until late morning because he had gotten a call about some wood to be retrieved and had to get to it right away, first come, first serve. He was living with his surfing partners here in Durango, but also owns a piece of property in nearby Bayfield that he is slowly working on.

We drifted to shore after about a half an hour on a little shrubbed beach and began the second part of the adventure. He had brought with him a set of baci balls. I had never played before, and he was delighted to be able to teach it "to an Italian." Only this was a little different. "Usually you play on a rectangular sand court, but we are going to play 'all-terrain baci ball'," he said as he tossed the white ball into a clump of shrubbery. He won most of the matches, but it was great fun, and we continued to talk and talk about many things even after we stopped playing, sitting on the sand, comparing notes on lessons learned. Out of the blue at one point he said, "Do you want to eat frozen cherries by the creek side?" I asked him to repeat that, thinking it was some kind of code, before I said "Sure." What he meant was going back to the house that he shared with his surfing partners that is built on a large piece of property with a hillside abutting Junction Creek.

Now, I don't know what "living with my surfing partners" conjures up for you, but I was imagining a house full of young guys, etc. etc. His surfing partners are a married couple in their mid to late fifties named Sarah and Robert. Robert apparently has lived on this particular piece of property since he was a little boy and inherited it from his father. It is a large piece of land filled with every kind of salvage: old cars and trailers, bike frames and motorcycles, building materials of every sort. The house is full of all kinds of creative energy and artifacts from all over the world. What a place! After being introduced to Robert and Sarah we went to sit by the creek side––to eat frozen cherries––which had been picked locally this Spring––with just a dash of yogurt.

There is a little clearing on the shore below the house that seems well-used, with a chaise lounge and a table with three chairs. They talked among themselves about how high the water was compared with this morning, and how much silt was in it, people who obviously know the land on which they live. And then I found out a little about them. Robert spends most of his time on various handiwork, mostly car and motorcycle repair and woodworking now, and is apparently, according to Jojo, a fantastic mountain biker. Sarah is a sixth-generation storyteller, but has mostly retired now and has been travelling the world quite a bit. They all go to a certain village Mexico in the spring, hauling a load of re-furbished bicycles and surf boards for the local kids with them, and spend some weeks happily surfing.

What really got the conversation going was that Sarah was a devotee of Baba Hari Das' same guru (I have forgotten his name again!) for some years in the early 70's in India, and actually lived for a time, at her guru's urging, as a wandering sadhu, "a total renunciate," she described it. She had carried with her only the cotton cloth with which she was wrapped and a little bag with a hair brush and a toothbrush, and spent three months wandering. Amazing, she said, how many times poeple woud come up to her and say, "Have you eaten today?" or "Do you need a place to sleep?" India being perhaps even more then than today a culture amenable to wandergin sadhus. She said she was following the example of St Francis of Assisi. Later she showed me a picture of herself superimposed on a version of Psalm 150 that she had handwritten, a text that she used to love to sing.

After a time Jojo said that it was too bad that there was not a guitar, that we could sip tea and I could sing for them. Well, as a matter of fact there was a guitar, a nylon-stringed one, and there was lots of tea, so we adjourned to the house. There was no guitar pick however, so Sarah handed me an old plastic lid and a pair of scissors which I happily fashioned into a makeshift plectrum suitable for an impromptu recital. And so, while we sipped tea, I mainly played for them things from the "Dream Album," the new India pieces. Sarah recognized the melody of "Vedahamatam" immediately, and said, "That's Tvameva mata..." which is actually the second verse in my version. I told her the story of writing it at Arunachala, and its connection with Bede and Abhishiktananda, and then played the whole thing. She sang along strongly when I got the second verse. I had such a strong memory of Joseph in Rishikesh that I felt like he was right there with me. She also enjoyed "Spirit in the Cave of the Heart" very much, and sang along with gusto.

Last week at Esalen a woman, who was not a Christian, wanted to talk to me about meditation and her experience of it. She had been most taken with John of the Cross' teaching about nada nada nada, or at least how I use it to speak about going beyond the psychic to the spiritual. I was more than happy to do so, and afterward when she thanked me for that and for the retreat in general I said, "It's all for you. It was all for you!" Meaning to me, I had studied these other things, even the other traditions, and had come ot Esalen this weekend just so I could be of service to her. As Sarah was enjoying the music, and reconnecting with her own spiritual roots––getting inspired to go back to the Upanishads––I was thinking to myself, "It's all for you! It was all for you!"

I wanted to see Harry Potter that evening, but no one else did, but we all went to see "Ratatouille" together instead. Good enough.

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