A friend who has had a rough couple of years sent me a mesmerizing birthday present: Hard Travel to Sacred Places by Rudolph Wurlitzer. My generous and thoughtful friend recently lost his wife, and the book is about a couple who had recently lost their son, traveling to sites sacred, profane, heartbreaking and ironic in Thailand, Burma and Cambodia while trailing their own unshakable angst-cloud.
We all try to have a good time, to live good lives; we struggle as to how to do this in the face of so-called “reality” (materialism, shallowness, impermanence, loss, decline and death); and we struggle to be effectively compassionate to ourselves and others when the road gets rough—in parenting, in work and love, in our harrowing and sometimes transcendent journeys through life’s cycles.
While my friends and clients come and go from all manner of far flung places (some rough and some posh) I’m generally content to arm-chair travel and whether it be five star dining in Paris or nearly dying in a Calcutta hospital I rarely wish that I had been there—it’s more like through my friends and clients I know that some part of me was there, is “there” (and I’m increasingly happy to live the narrower part of me, of us, who is wherever I happen to be).
I guess we’re all having different sorts of summers, and yet together there is ultimately one endless collective summer, some sum of all our parts. One of my favorite passages in Hard Travel comes when Wurlitzer and his wife visit Tham Krabok (which means Opium-Pipe Cave Monastic Center), a sort of uber-detox haven for all manner of addictions catering to people from all over Asia and the world—hard core getting clean and sober (in the early days of recovery everyone drinks a potion of 150 secret herbs in the a.m., sauna sweats in the afternoon and then a group-puke into concrete troughs in the p.m.).
Here we meet Monk Gordon, “a broad shouldered, middle-aged ex-junkie from Harlem who has fought as a mercenary in the Falkland Islands, South Africa, and Cambodia, as well as in Vietnam.” Monk Gordon took a lifetime vow and does things like break rocks and burn incense when he’s not helping new patients write down their vow to follow the rules of the place and then eat the paper they wrote it on. Gordon says, “I’ll tell you one thing, dude, most of the people who go back on their vow seem to die. Tanah [grasping or desire] is tough, baby. No prisoners. That’s the way it is when you’re dealing with tanah or dukkha [suffering].”
It’s hard to know, as a man, how this reads to women, but I can tell you that all men are searching for Monk Gordon—we want to be made into men by Monk Gordon; we want to be Monk Gordon (and, of course, we also do not—do not want to renounce the world just yet; but this archetype, the peaceful warrior who is master of his addictions, who has seen the light, who has seen some shit, who is who he is… the better we know Monk Gordon, the more we’ve integrated him into the warp and woof of our being, the less of a pain in the ass to others we are likely to be, the less a part of the problem).
And so in this spirit of adventure, inner and outer, yet not much liking rough travel, this summer vacation is not a trip to wild and remote Asia, nor up the Amazon but rather a rented mini-van up to San Francisco, bringing along the likes of Scrabble, one of Nate’s friends and Agnes (the dog).
I awoke in a Victorian in the Castro, just blocks from Harvey Milk’s camera store (now a small shrine to courage and truth). Thinking of Hard Travel I opened my eyes as I oriented myself in time and space to see not a ceiling fan in Saigon, but an antique frosted glass light-fixture in a dwelling that withstood the earthquake and fire of 1906; Martin Sheen’s Colonel Kurtz echoed in my head: “San Francisco. Shit.”
But this wasn’t 60’s Nam, thank god; and so I unrolled my yoga mat and made my way, millimeter by millimeter toward Hanuman (basically the forward splits that I’ve never been able to remotely do, at least not after my second trimester in my mother’s womb). It’s been months, it will be many more, maybe years before I get that pose; some walk on knees to shrines, I’m slowly trying to get my root chakra to the earth so that the heart will quiet, or so I’ve been told that it will.
Not that I wasn’t happy to be in San Francisco. Instead of traveling all the way to India, we found a fantastic Indian restaurant. Pathetic, you hard-core seekers might say, but Dosa was damn good (and when your teens declare a new find delicious you are in parenting nirvana).
We didn’t go to Burma this trip either, but we did go to the Burma Star restaurant in the Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco where the green tea salad with crispy garlic touches upon the sutras of the stomach. The sublime is all around us. It’s so obvious, isn’t it?
Walking the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral, following my younger son, Will, through the mandala in a soupy fog, criss-crossing past Andy and Nate and his friend Ben we all met in the middle and stood silently together. There are no words for this; maybe that is why the Buddha simply smiles.
At the labyrinth I offered to take a picture of an adorable couple with their phone. They were Italian, fifties, one short one tall. I thought to myself that this cathedral in San Francisco is probably more inviting to them, as gay men, than their home town old-school schul in Rome.
Following the Italian thread we drove to Berkeley where my nephew Artie runs the superlative Gioia pizza. The pies too are mandalas of an edible stripe to compliment the stained glass windows of Grace Cathedral. Zucchini with Pesto and Ricotta; Fennel with Black Olives and Pecorino; anchovy and pepper flakes; crusts crisped perfectly in the smoking-hot oven; kids wanting third slices and all washed down with strawberry lemonade. If not enlightenment, damned fine silver medal.
After San Fran we headed out to Inverness, one of my favorite places, having visited pre-kids, with little kids and now with teens. Tomales bay parallels the coastline and then a ten mile peninsula juts out into the foggy windy grassy cow-nibbled hawk circled pacific; on the south face is Drake’s Bay and on the western-most crag sits the lighthouse where once, in a slash of sun, I saw an enormous whale and her baby right next to the precipitous rock.
I love western Ireland and find parallels in Inverness; except that while the Celtic monks of old escaped the reach of the church in lonely wind-swept abbeys, in the sea salt hills of northern California it was the Miwok people who lived for 8,000 years, wise enough to leave nothing so conspicuous as an abbey (as lovely as rock ruins are) but rather an unseen veil of spirit left to mingle with the fog and the artisan cheese-makers, whispering the same wisdom as Monk Gordon, as Celtic monks and as stalwart live oak gnarled upon tawny hillsides. It’s not all happy, in fact some of the spirit is hauntingly melancholy, but it smacks of earth and life and timeless horizons.
Thus I write these words in Pt. Reyes as a couple of narrow white clouds drift languidly over sun-dappled hills. The tide is out and the mud of Tomales Bay is visible in the distance through live oak and pine. Enormous hawks circle and swoop. Easy travel to places sacred enough for me—sacred to the Miwok who greeted Sir Francis Drake in the sixteenth century as if he were a veritable god; little could they have known that we was bringing the end of existence as they knew it, dazzled out of their knack for knowing how not to ruin things over the course of 8,000 years.
Now Will comes in from outside, from eating an apple on the deck, legs dangling, smiling with joy of the moment. He asks me why I would be writing on my vacation. I try to explain that I enjoy it—that pure pleasure’s the only reason left for me to write. He says that I can’t see the view from my spot on the couch. I say that I can see the clouds through the giant windows. He says that there are no clouds. I say that I was just about to mention that, now that the two lone clouds I saw before have drifted away (but as I revise these words it’s near midnight and the once-roaring fire glows in undulating embers; and again it’s rainy, writing in stolen moments, and we’re soon to embark on our hike).
In the forest, Nate, Ben and I talk about the purpose of life, about the importance of wanting what is, present to what we are doing—even if we don’t like everything about it; we talk about the struggle between comfort, meaning and being of use; we talk about the struggle to accept ourselves. Kids are smart and they are real. So is the forest. The combo is just grand.
We hike to Drake’s Bay and the lighthouse, a place reputed to have driven keepers to madness; one was even known to drink the alcohol cleaning solution sent to keep the lenses clean and be found lying beside the road out of his gourd (far from his Monk Gordon). Perhaps those keepers went mad because of the fog and the gloom; or maybe it was the spirits of the screwed-over Miwok seeking revenge; or maybe the Miwok spirits lovingly trying to coax the keepers to go native and return to joy and simplicity, to break with the conquering madness marched west until it tottered at the very precipice.
We arrived in Pt. Reyes on twelve August 2010, not by leaking and battered ship but by rented mini-van, the Town & Country. I had vaguely remembered that it was around the season for the Perseid meteor showers so with several laptops between us on our soft-road trip we Googled and learned that it was in fact the very day, the best day of the year for meteor showers; and further, we calculated that the sky, facing the north-east (the direction of the rental house’s giant windows and open deck) was just the perfect cosmic slice of velvet canopy for a night of shooting stars.
As we wound our way, after dinner in the town, up twisting climbing roads a sliver of crescent moon set softly in a summer sky… and on sudden, or so it seemed, sea fog came barreling in, utterly obscuring the night sky where, behind a thick and muffling cloud-curtain, the cosmos shot wild with excitement.
Googling now led us to the realization that Pt. Reyes is the foggiest place in America, one of the five foggiest places on earth. I love the fog, but like it or not, shooting stars had to be left to the imagination. Monk Gordon might tell us that there is no fog, there are no shooting stars—all is illusion, all is impermanence.
Being a guy, I didn’t read Eat, Pray, Love but on our easy trip I saw a poster for the movie version in San Francisco. Looking up from his laptop, Will mentions that Eat, Pray, Love got a 36 on Rotten Tomatoes; now that’s rough. Even with popcorn.
So, what’s my point? In the human bird-song in which we all chew, and love, and breathe, and die… speaking, each in our own ways and gestures, of the eternal now… well let me put it another way: at the Bi-Rite ice-cream in the Mission a family caught my eye: a couple who at first glance might have been a lesbian and a gay-man (whose fashion sense had frozen circa days of Milk and leather) who together appeared to be co-parenting a rather conventional looking teen daughter, sweet as the burnt sugar ice cream. Mom asked for a sample of said ice-cream, tasted and then gave the remaining half-taste to dad who took it like communion. Mom said, “Now wait for it.” He closed his eyes and did as told. The flavor washed over him and he opened his enlightened eyes, blue and slightly watery beneath his leather cap, and declared, “Lovely.” Amen.