Sunday, March 8, 2009

from perth

When every haughty head bends low
the salt will flavor the earth,
the yeast will raise the dough
and death will yield new birth.

Sunday, 8 march, 09, Perth, Australia

I guess Maisie’s driver Muhamad didn’t have anything else to do on Thursday morning because he showed up at around 9 AM. My flight wasn’t until 2:30. We called Maisie to see what was up (given Mohamad’s limited English) and she said that he was at my disposal if there was anything else that I wanted to do before the airport. Very kind, but there really wasn’t, so I just puttered around another half an hour, rolled up my yoga mat and we were on our way. I think Muhamad was happy to have me to himself––he had been very kind all week and must have thought I was some kind of VIP––and he was trying out his English on me, saying things like “vegetarian!” and “You like Jakarta? Coming back?” I noticed his prayer beads at one point around the gearshift and said “Tasbih?” and he got excited that I knew what they were and I showed him mine as well. We greeted each other with Asalam alakum and he was off.

Quite a show at the international wing of Jakarta airport, sheiks and imams, burkas, turbans and other headgear all mixed in with Western clothes and a good handful of us bule. I sat at the counter of a coffee shop, made a couple of phone calls, went over some upcoming talks, and then ate another taste treat: a toasted double sandwich with butter, cheese and chocolate, listed on the menu as if it were the most normal thing in the world. Now why didn’t I ever think of that? Talk about comfort food.

A sunny five and a half hour flight over the Indian Ocean to Perth. As I said, it felt odd to be leaving Asia; it was odder to be leaving Asia by flying further south; and it was the oddest thing of all to be leaving Asia flying south and winding up back in “the West.” I don’t really know what I was expecting of Australia. I’ve had some half-baked inchoate pre-conceived notions I’m sure, somewhere between Crocodile Dundee and Victoria, Canada, but nothing fully formed. But it is definitely the West. I was met at the airport by Meath, who I already know from both the Bede Griffiths Trust and meeting at Shantivanam last year, when the idea to bring me to Perth was first hatched; with him was Don Dowling, the pastor of the Wesley Uniting Church here in Perth. Wesley Uniting is what came about from the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregationalist congregations, all of whom were small in Australia, all coming together here as one congregation. It is he/they, along with the Christian meditation Community of West Australia, who have co-sponsored me being here and organized, very well, my time, with the help and gracious hosting of Meath, who is an intrepid pilgrim and speaker himself.

Meath and Don took me right away on a little tour of Perth by night. My impressions at first glance haven’t changed much three days later: it’s a pretty, neat and orderly, manageably small (2 million) city, with a modest but handsome skyline in a beautiful part of the world. The weather is moderate Mediterranean, with a cool breeze blowing in off the Indian Ocean just to the west each evening. It is also very quiet. The contrast with Jakarta (not to mention Bangkok, Kuala Lampur or even Singapore) couldn’t be greater. As we stood at a park overlooking the skyline and the Black Swan River that cuts through the city (I’m told there are actually still black swans in it), I had my first wave of culture shock. It was deafeningly quiet and blissfully cool.

I was off right away early the next morning. Gerard from the Meditation Community picked me up at 7:15 and took me off the John XXIII school. I was commenting to Gerard as we drove there that this place may as well be the US from the look of it, except cleaner and the cars are on the other side of the road. All the flat land that stretched out around me made me think of Idaho. John XXIII is adamantly a K through 12 school; they try to foster that sensibility in everything. We first were at Mass with a handful of faculty and students in their beautiful stone and wood chapel, presided over by their chaplain, a bustling friendly young Jesuit, who wasn’t quite sure what I was going to be doing there the rest of the morning. There was a small group of singers doing a capella music for the Mass referred to as the Gospel choir. After Mass we met the principal, a warm friendly woman named Ann, and Paddy, the religion teacher who did know what I was going to be doing that morning.

My first stop was a session with the same Gospel choir. This now of course is to be my first experience with an Australian group. It went well enough. They were not nearly as exuberant and interactive as the kids in Jakarta, but they were attentive and polite, sang along and expressed appreciation after each song I sang with them and when I was through. Then came a session with the 11th year students. Again, I could have been in the US. About a third of the class was attentive enough, about a third looked bored silly, and about a third were restless and couldn’t wait to get out of there. I was singing my best stuff with them and barely getting them to sing along, or laugh or clap or anything. Finally I was urged to lead them in meditation and it was about the same thing: about a third really tried, about a third went along for the ride, and about a third didn’t even try to make me think they were trying, but were fidgeting and talking and looking around. At one point I added to my instructions on the four basic elements of meditation, “And please don’t talk to the person next to you.”

I am not writing any of this to put them down or make fun of John XXIII school, please, and if any of you are reading this accept my apologies. I am just noting that the difference from my experience with the young people in Indonesia last week couldn’t have been greater. The kids there were so attentive, hanging on every word I said; they sang along with gusto; they dropped so easily into meditation, they hung around afterward to talk. What was the difference? Again the sense of culture shock was pretty profound. More on that later.

Meath has abandoned his apartment and left it to me, so after a meeting with the meditation group planning the retreat for the next day and another lunch meeting with Don and Meath planning the rest of the time, Meath left me to my own devices. I walked downtown and found a few things I needed, particularly an internet place with a very fast DSL line (and scuba diving expeditions, by the way). I located a gym, picked up a few things I needed and spent the rest of the evening at the apartment, mostly going early to bed.

Yesterday, Saturday I had a retreat day with the meditation community. Actually all I had to do was two sessions as the major presenter, two hours in the morning and an hour and a half in the afternoon. This crowd, of about 70, couldn’t have been better, so attentive, so responsive and so appreciative. It was one of the best Q&A sessions I’ve ever done (though it could be that I’m getting better at them too). Sharp questions ranging all the way from Shakespeare to points raised by a psychotherapist. Again I had the evening to myself, and a typically Cyprian kind of thing happened that also says something about this town. The girl at the gym downtown on the Murray Street Mall had told me that there was a form I could fill out online to get a special rate for a week’s worth of unlimited visits. So I went back to the DSL-Scuba diving place and did my stuff and then filled out the forms online, the last step of which is to print up the receipt that you have paid with your credit card so they will let you in the gym. Except that between the young woman minding the place and I we tried for 20 minutes and couldn’t get it to print. So, we wound up figuring out that I could e-mail the receipt to myself and I could carry my laptop in to the gym and show them the receipt on my computer. A little geeky, but all right, except that when I went to the gym, it was closed. Now that may not seem strange at first, but this was not even 7 o’clock on a Saturday night in the middle of a pedestrian mall filled with shops and restaurants and what not, which just the night before had been bustling with young people and vendors and music. As a matter of fact, the entire mall was closed down except for restaurant here or there, and a convenience store around the corner. At 7 o’clock on a Saturday night! This is not California. The gym is also closed tomorrow, Sunday, so I’ve told Meath come hell or high water I’m going to be at that gym when it opens on Monday morning, laptop in hand and start using up my $20 Aussie worth of gym time before I leave on Wednesday.