“What if today were our last?”
I. The California Coast
It took me 12 hours and 400 miles to drive from Anaheim to San Francisco. I took the long way – two highways, one interstate, and hundreds of miles of coastline. I watched the carpet of fog draw back to reveal the ocean and the horizon. The road, twisting and turning, nestled itself against the folds of coastal bluffs. Every now and then, I rumbled onto a turnout, and clambered down nearer to the water. Two teenagers, in slick black wetsuits, plunged into the surf, seaweed swirling around them like tangled locks of mermaid hair. I drove with the windows down and tucked the smell of wild dill, scottish broom, and coyote brush into my olfactory memory. I watched the landscape give way to rounded hills the color of caramel, oak trees tucked into their smooth cleavages. No one is waiting for me, I’m not running out of gas, there’s no traffic; I try not to rush.
II. Purisima Creek Redwoods
In the morning, I rouse myself from the couch into the stillness of my sister’s empty house. I am still pacing myself, still trying to not rush the delicious victory of my temporary escape. Within the hour, I will be walking alone amongst second growth redwoods, the path damp and soft. Listening to the fog drip from the boughs, feeling the forest inhale and exhale, I will feel my soul unclench. I will press the backs of my hands against the soft moss along the trail. I will encourage the tired and sweaty mountain bikers I encounter with a small, but well-meaning lie: “Don’t worry! You are almost there!” And, I will feel something I haven’t felt in months. I will feel…good.
III. 1396 La Playa Street, San Francisco
Sitting at Java Beach Cafe in San Francisco. I can hear the trolley rumble by. I know the Pacific Ocean is behind me, just a few hundred yards on the other side of Highway 1. An old man at the bar chats with the barista and I am delighted to find out that a particular beer he likes can be found at a store up on Divisidero, but hell if he’s gonna go all the way up there for it. A young man with a loud voice stirs his coffee, proclaiming, “I’m just like the Beastie Boys, I like my sugar with coffee and cream.” I try to eavesdrop on two software engineers, their laptops crowding the small table that totters between them. In two minutes I realize that I don’t know the meaning of any of the words they bandy back and forth. Nonetheless, I am endlessly delighted. I come here to fall in love, over and over again, with this city. And I do, without fail. Even though I often get stuck in traffic coming down 19th, and forget that it’s better to take Lincoln into the Outer Sunset rather than suffer the stuttering journey through the stop signs to reach the end of Judah, or that trying to find parking anywhere here can make or break a night. I don’t know if the city loves me back. But, such is my nature, I will keep returning, in hopes that someday it might.
IV. Mision Flamenca
I can see Bissap Baobab’s flashing sign as I stroll down 19th Street towards Mission. A busker on the corner is singing the blues, God bless his soul. I stop to listen for the length of a red light, and drop a dollar or two into his hat for this audible treat. I can safely say that Bissap is my favorite Senegalese restaurant, as I believe their aloko and yassa are unparalleld in flavor, but also because it’s the only Senaglese restaurant I’ve ever been to. Half of San Francisco seems to share my opinion, as the place is packed. Please, I entreat the hostess, I’ve come a long way to be here, couldn’t you find a place for just one more? She finds me a seat at a long table near the flamenco stage. My luck continues as the gentleman to my right, David, who is also alone, happens to be a flamenco guitarist, and a friend of the artists on stage. In between sets, we share conversation, he helps me find the beat in the flamenco rhythm that has always eluded me. I share my aloko with him, and savor the last sip of my ginger honey
tea. That lady, he points out, she’s the grand dame. I can tell, I reply, she dances as if this was her only and last dance. Yes, exactly, he agrees. David and I exchange the pleasantries that signal the end of the evening, and I think of a question posed by a dear friend, if somewhat rhetorically. This. This is what I would do.
Bodhisattvas (click for audio version)
It’s been a thick summer for me and for a lot of people I know. The luster in my eyes, that beacon that shines outward from my soul, is in need of a serious revival. This brilliant light is much like that one trusty headlamp you take on every adventure and keep as close to you as a prayer, or, for the non-religious, as close as a multi-tool. It’s the light you rely on to cut through the darkness, the one that illuminates the way whether you’re trying to make it up a mountain, or back down. In the Methow, I had a really crappy headlamp. Hundreds of feet above the ground, my climbing partners and I had to put our heads close together and shine our synchronized lumens in order to find the next rap station. Friends – the ones you can count on one hand, the ones that would always make first draft pick on your kickball team even if they had two broken legs, the ones that say, “I asked for help so you didn’t have to” – are remarkable for that sort of thing.
Tonight, with their gospel rock sound, Whiskey Dick Mountain shone their light in my direction, and so did a very honest conversation with one of my good friends. I met Jack in 2008, when we found ourselves the only two students in an anthropology class who hadn’t decided to drop after the first week. Jack appreciates a good Tom Collins, knows how to wear a pea coat and scarf without looking like a d-bag, and once arrived unexpectedly on my front porch as dusty and travel worn as if he’d just stepped off a bus from Kinshasa. He is also a combat veteran. Jack has experienced life and death in ways so outside of my reality, and understands the world with such a unique perspective, that I’m in constant awe that he hasn’t yet transcended into nirvana. He’s Christian, so maybe they transcend into a different place. Anyway. Keep with me here. Like most, if not all people who have seen war, and waged war, Jack didn’t come out unscathed.
The night was getting chilly. We were sitting on the lip of a sidewalk that was still warm from the long gone day, waiting for my other friend who was ordering a pint of liquid courage from the bar. I don’t make it a habit to ask vets about their war time experiences, but Jack and I had known each other a while now, and he knew how heavy life had become for me, too.
“Tell me about your troubles, Jack. I need to hear about other people’s troubles, so I don’t feel so alone in mine. Would you take it back? What was it like?” I asked. Jack paused, then looked at me thoughtfully.
“You know, it’s crazy, it’s like nothing else, with all the adrenaline and stuff…you feel most alive when you are so close to death. I was a gunner, so I was mostly exposed on top of the MRAP. All of a sudden, you’re getting shot at, and I can hear the bullets coming at me, I can feel them go by my face. And then I turn around and look at the wall behind me and it’s just blasted, full of holes. And I’m like, “I’m alive! I’d better get down.” When we first got to Iraq, our commanding officer told us to look at the guy to our left, and then to our right. Then he said, “Before the end of this, one of the three of you will be dead.” So, it was like we were already dead. We had to think of ourselves as dead men. That’s what we had to do in order to make it through.”
What do you say to something like that? Nothing. I just nodded.
“On a single day, we got hit with eighteen IEDs.” Eighteen chances for you, or the soldier to your right, or your left, to meet their maker. Jack told me the hardest thing for him was when he worked as a medic assistant, but the thing he cherished most was the time he was able to help an Iraqi man, whose home had been destroyed in the fighting.
“What are your days like now?” I asked.
“Some good, some bad. Like, sometimes I’m driving downtown, and there are all those potholes in the road, and suddenly I’m already calculating the distance and time I have to get around them like there are explosives in them.”
I’d wrapped my arms around my knees, “How was today? Good? Bad?”
“Both.” he said.
I asked Jack once what he wanted to do with his life. Help people, he told me. And he does, as a disaster relief worker with the Red Cross, and in his goal to help other vets who made it home, but are still embattled by what they’ve seen, maybe even by what they’ve done, or should have done.
The last time I was in Asia, I’d brought back a small medallion depicting a Bodhisattva and gave it to him as a gift. My mentor said that a Bodhisattva sacrifices their own chance at transcendence in order to aid in the awakening of all beings – to aid all rather than themselves. According to the New World Encyclopedia, the bodhisattvas emerge from “an engaged form of Buddhism that does not run away from the suffering of the world, but actively seeks to end it for all beings. They are famous for embodying compassion and other noble qualities.” They are the beacons that shine when your own is not enough.
I let our conversation trail off, and slip away with the evening. Our beacons were both a little dim, I understood, but there were at least two shining in the same direction tonight, and I knew there was at least one more coming, to help light our way.