I believe in not knowing where you’re going but going forth with eyes and heart wide open. “Push on to ultimate emptiness,” I always say, “guard unshakeable calmness.” If I had a motto, that might be it. That, or maybe “Solvitur Ambulando”, figure it out as you wander along. The idea is to look neither to the left nor to the right, just take the next step and then the one after that until you get where you’re supposed to be, a place in the heart where you’re at rest, if there is such a place in this world. “I don’t know where I’m going,” my friend Professor Trolldust likes to say, “but I’ll tell you when I get there.”
Our world has become a marketing magician’s mirage. Whether in Canada, Thailand, India, Cambodia, or Sri Lanka, the terrain is still vaguely familiar after forty years of travel but it’s also vastly different because it’s now an animated caricature of itself, a not-so-funny cartoon, fast-forwarded and force-fed to dazed and dutiful consumers everywhere. Globalization lockdown is what we’ve got, the new Shopper’s World prison. Local variations in cuisine, costume, culture and language notwithstanding, the Garden Path now meanders through a bling-bloated mall. The No Exit sign flashes red but nobody notices because they’re distracted by another important announcement: “Attention Shoppers, don’t miss today’s giveaway sale on peanuts and Porsches Carreras in aisle six and Downy adult diapers in aisle three.” Yet another announcement. Yet another bulletin. Always more Breaking News breaking wind.
Years ago, driving home for Christmas with my sister Pat, a seasoned sister of Saint Joseph much used to stormy weather, we managed a spectacular 360 degree slow-motion wheelie on Highway 401 somewhere between London and Windsor. Pat was at the wheel and we were talking about grace and good luck, and whether or not they were the same thing. I maintained bad luck was grace because it brings blessings in the expectation of good luck to follow. Things don’t stay bad forever.
“Every bed of roses has thorns, nasty ones you don’t expect, but…”
The words barely crossed my lips when the car started spinning.
As we came out of orbit Sister Pat blessed herself.
“What was that?” I ask.
“Grace!” she said. “Amazing grace, if I’m not mistaken… or maybe just good luck.”
Thirty years later: May 30, 2015, Korean Flight 651 from Toronto approached Bangkok’s sultry swamplands clear for landing. Four inflight movies, Big Eyes, Samba, Einstein and Still Alive followed by Shubert’s’ String Quartet No. 13 (Rosamunde) and Chopin’s Etude No. 9 (The Butterfly) brought us down soft and sweet, a perfect passage after twenty hours airborne. The luggage porter who greets me at Suvarnabhumi wears a “Be kind to Zombies” t-shirt. I’m in good hands and definitely in the right country.
First thing I do when I come to Thailand is visit the good-luck turtle at my hotel in Sathorn, Khun Thong Di, Mr. Golden Heart. I’ve known him since I could hold him in the palm of my hand and stroke his belly. If I call his name he will come but these days he’s a big bruiser and the passage across golden pond is slow. I can barely lift him out of the water to look into those wise old eyes. I order a saucer of his favorite fresh papaya, banana and watermelon kibble salad and feed him in the pond using a soda straw.
Tuktia, the housekeeper on the 2nd floor, and Nana and GuGu on the 3rd have been around longer than Thong Di and help me arrange room 323. They get the old blue Panasonic table fan out of storage and set it up so I don’t have to use AC. This hotel dates back to the American War, which is what Thais call the Vietnam War. Not much has changed. They bring me an ashtray even though it’s a non-smoking room and I don’t smoke. Just in case. Thai people understand backsliders. Their economy depends on us.
In the early afternoon someone rings the bell. I forgot to put out Do Not Disturb sign. Probably GuGu and NaNa. I ignore them. They go away and I fall back asleep. I’m riding a bus to Wat Hualumpong. All the way there, a black dog chases the bus, lunging up at my window every time we slow down or stop at traffic lights. I change my mind about getting down at the temple but too late. At the last stop before the temple the dog races past an old woman boarding the bus nearly knocking her over, tears down the aisle to my seat and sinks his fangs into my right heel. An unbearable stab of pain wakes me up drenched in sweat. I get out of bed to turn on the AC. My foot is on fire, the right heel especially. I ring room service for coffee and lay down again. How am I going to “solvitur” I wonder if I can’t “ambulando”?
I once went deaf in Thailand for no known reason and remained that way for four months until I left for Sri Lanka. Metaphysical malaise abounds in the tropics; things western doctors know little about. People put hexes on you. Creepie crawlies die buried in unsuspected orifices. But this can’t be voodoo. I just arrived the evening before, and though a zombie, I felt perfectly fine. Hardly had time to unpack let alone offend the local gods or anyone else.
In Chiang Mai the two hundred year-old Mungkala Traditional Medicine Clinic on Thep Phitak Raksa Road treats metaphysical and more down-to-earth complaints with acupuncture and related forms of Chinese medicine. Nothing can be more down-to-earth than a sore foot. I expect Dr. Rungkrat to work miracles and get me back on the road to Sri Lanka the next day. She is a soft-spoken woman who informs me that, unfortunately, this will be a slow miracle. I have plantar fasciitis, which is a condition that takes time to heal. Meanwhile I should come in every day for a week for treatment and see how it goes. She advises me to stay off my feet, maybe ride a bicycle to get around, preferably one with brakes that work.
I do as Dr. Rungrat suggests riding around town reading t-shirt oracles. Empty Hands Open Heart. OK Enough. Lawless. Only Believe. Beautiful Once Too. Same Same But Different. One toothless old crone selling sticky rice and fresh mango at a roadside stand wears a T-shirt that reads, No Teeth No Toothache. Her smile is worth a million bucks. I stay In Chiang Mai for about ten days receiving treatment with little change in my condition. I decide to return to Bangkok to my hotel, one of the few places in the world I watch TV, or rather, zealously study it. I know it seems odd to travel half way round the globe not to park yourself in front of a TV in Bangkok but I can’t do it at home because I don’t officially have a home or a TV, and here I can go for a swim in the pool if I need a break from the grueling routine. CNN, RTN, Al Jazeera, BBC, and Fox News. Very important to know what the Fox is up to.
A white kid in Charleston South Carolina enters Emanuel Methodist Episcopal Church, kneels down with the black congregation and pretends to pray. Then he stands up and opens fire with the 45-caliber Glock handgun he brought to church killing nine people who really are praying, sending them straight to heaven. This is what I mean about bad luck being grace. The gun was bought with money given to him as a birthday present from his parents. President Obama says, “We have to get this right. This kind of thing does not happen in other countries. Only in America. We have to ask ourselves: Why?” The immediate and overwhelming response from the people in Emanuel Church is to forgive Dylann Roof, the kid who just killed their family and friends. This floors me. They teach the whole world about forgiveness, immediately after this horrific event, without missing a beat. “Wrong church,” one old preacher says, “wrong people”. The assassin intended to unleash race war in America but instead he opens a floodgate of love and forgiveness that inspires the entire planet. Emanuel AME Church becomes a beacon of hope in a world benighted with violence.
My problems suddenly seem trivial compared to what people in Charleston are going through, and in Syria and Nepal and Tunisia and Detroit and who knows where else. In fact I don’t have a problem. I grab a cab to Bangkok Christian Hospital where Dr. Yuttha drives a two-inch spike filled with corticosteroids into my plantar fasciitis. Within minutes I‘m walking on air. It doesn’t last long but never mind. Just knowing there is an alternative reality to pain brightens the day. Back to work, Po!
I have to continually remind myself about work, otherwise I will fall forever into the dream world. What is your job people like to ask. How do I tell them I’ve never had a job, but I never stop working. It’s like Allan Ginsberg said: “We’re here to do the work. What is the work? To relieve the suffering of the world. All the rest, drunken dumb show.” Simple as that, but not easy to explain.
President Obama goes down to Emanuel Church for the funeral of the nine martyrs. He walks tall. He speaks from the heart. He keeps long silences. Either he’s a great actor or he really means it. Probably a bit of both. He sings. “Amazing grace … how sweet the sound … that saved a wretch like me…” Arguably his finest hour. Everyone sings with him, a mighty chorus of solidarity. I wonder if a president ever sang before on national television. Eisenhower? Nixon? Clinton? Bush? I somehow doubt it. Maybe Regan. Irish Eyes or equivalent drivel. What, I wonder, is the sound of grace? Is it the sound of silence? The sound of one hand clapping? And what am I doing here immobilized in Bangkok watching a funeral in Charleston, South Carolina, on TV?
Who will save this poor wretch? I doubt whether a shooter will appear and put me out of my misery. That would be good luck! O clement, O loving O sweet Virgin Mary, look what is happening to this poor wretch, “nunc et in hora mortis”. Now and at the hour of death, look what is happening to our beautiful world!
June 27 / 2015