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Friday, November 30, 2012


Big cities are full of fear and larded with wonder. They exist as a confluence of ideas born from both the close terror of hate lurking like limed death in the dank alleyways and from the exhilaration of life flowering like unrequited wrong breeding in the light of steel and glass high overhead.
Though I am a creature of the night I am not without my vanity. Though I am on intimate terms with death I keep the company of life. Though I am a poor man in the midst of plenty I am at times granted a glimpse of the elegance I normally forego.
So it happened while visiting the big city I took a room high in a stylish hotel. Walking out on the balcony and looking down I could see taxis moving on the street below; they reminded me of yellow lady bugs crawling along the ground. People looked like ants.
I thought how much faster it would be to get down if I just leaped to the ground rather than taking the elevator. It seemed a lot easier to get to the ground from where I stood than it did to get to where I stood from way down there on the ground. I wondered if that was why so many people jump.
When heaven sends down calamities it is possible to escape them; when we create calamities for ourselves it is impossible to live. By being in harmony with the ordinances of God I find happiness in the midst of a suffering world.
These severe folk I meet here in the city are so busy, leaders and followers all. Their ways are different than mine. When it is proper to continue, I persist for a long time. When I am confused, I retire. When it is proper to withdraw, I depart quickly. By forcing others to follow me they do so without heart. They surrender because they lack the strength to fight. By subduing them with virtue I win their hearts as they sincerely submit.
Going back into my room I saw a newspaper lying on the table, perhaps compliments of the management. On the front page an article told of a man, a well-known and a wealthy man, who had leaped to his death from one of the high bridges that crossed the many rivers in this city of dreadful night.
I wondered why such a man would chose death over the richness that was his life. The article went on to say this man of fame and fortune had suffered from depression for many years. I thought how he might have tried living in the obscurity of poverty to see what depression really meant. He might have come to see death as a means and not as an end.
By using death as a guide I live each moment with full waking knowledge that it may well be my last. I know my death is stalking me; it sits here in this very room; if I glimpse ever so quickly to the left sometimes I catch it there shadowing me. At times it mocks me by winking.
Each moment is of utmost importance. To think that one moment is more important than the next is to misjudge death’s intentions. I know my end can come at any time and in any form so I am ever vigilant. Being here high in the sky is no different than the life I lead in the gutters of the world.
The feeling of commiseration for others is a principle of compassion. To feel shame and dislike is a principle of righteousness. Modesty and complaisance is a principle of propriety. Approving and disapproving is a principle of knowing. Everyone is endowed with these four principles yet many say they cannot develop them properly. They play the thief in the midst of plenty.
People are full of dreams. Their desire betrays them. By believing they are masters of their own fate they fail to take into account that death is always waiting for them, like a patient suitor who has been jilted too many times and yet is ever-ready to gather their lover into their arms when they are ready and take them home.
They all flock here to this metropolis looking to hit it big. They don’t realize that a giant lives here; it is waiting to eat them, to make them part of itself. They don’t see the giant; in fact, they run right into its waiting arms as invisible as the air we breathe yet as solid as the steel girders by which this building is able to stand tall and imposing in the sky.
By coming to the city these people believe they are full of courage. But most people live their lives on the gross level. They spend their days following the dictates of others. They spend their nights wishing for the work to end. They pass their time as quickly as they may so something else can happen.
But... it never does.
Is the maker of guns less benevolent than the maker of body armor? The gun maker’s only fear is that people will not be killed; the armor maker’s only fear is that people will be killed. So it is also with the priest and the coffin-maker. The choice of profession is therefore of utmost importance.
From the want of compassion and wisdom will ensue the absence of propriety and righteousness. Those who find themselves in such circumstances are followers of others and are not leaders, yet they are ashamed of their servitude like a coffin-maker being embarrassed by building coffins. Should I find myself ashamed I practice compassion like an archer who sets and shoots. If I miss my target I do not blame others but seek for the fault within myself.
To take example from others is to help them in their own practice. When I am straitened by poverty I do not grieve for what I have lost. When I am neglected and left alone I do not so much as murmur. I company with others indifferently while at the same time not losing myself. If I wish to leave but I am pressed to stay, I stay, not counting it as required by my purity to go.
I have a saying: you are you and I am I. Though others are mired in greed and desire for finery how does that defile me? By manifesting neither narrow-mindedness nor want of self-respect I follow the mystery leaving behind the lure of infatuation.
Courage is that by which intent is daring. Most people desire to be one of the fortunates that make it here in this city of awful darkness but they are not willing to be lucky. Since no one raises any objections to what they do not dare, they live a life of quiet fear while sequestered safely in lofty towers full of radiance shunning the dark places where the shadows of the mystery whisper and roam.
Those few who see the mystery may walk abroad at night without fear. They cannot be harmed for in them the knife can find no place to thrust its blade and the bullet can find no hole through which to enter.
Why is this so?
Because there is no place for death to enter.

Saturday, November 24, 2012


I dreamed of my son last night. I found myself straying in the dark under dimming streetlamps yet walking a familiar path with autumn leaves crackling under my feet. Looking up I found myself in front of his house. The door was open so I walked in as I always did, unannounced and without knocking.
He greeted me warmly as was his wont. We talked of things of no real import. When we tired of talking we sat silent reveling in each others’ company; looking into his glowing face I thought how fine it was to see him again.
When I woke it took me a moment to recall just where I was. It took me a few blinks of my eyes to remember my son has been in his grave for many years now. Though I knew my mind was but straying in dreams I thought how excellent it had been to see him once again. As my tears flowed I knew they were tears of joy and not of loss.
As I lay there coming more fully to myself I recalled one day in the mutedly remembered past how I woke in much the same way early one morning in a public park in western Wyoming as the clouds on the horizon were just twisting pink. I had left the dusty Pine Ridge Indian reservation a few days previously after quarreling bitterly with my lover over some perceived slight that didn’t amount to anything.
I couldn’t remember going to sleep there the night before; I must have imbibed a bit too much. My head pounding, my mouth tasting of dirt, I looked up to see a torch burning on top of a column high over my head, its flame fluttering in the chill of the early autumn morning breeze refusing to go out.
There was an iron plaque affixed to the white stone holding up the torch. Reading it the words proclaimed this was an eternal flame dedicated to the men and women who had lost their lives in all the wars ever fought. I wondered if it counted the millions of Indians who had been sickened and slaughtered and driven off their lands but somehow I didn’t think so.
I thought how that torch was like all the ideas passed down from one generation to the next in an eternal dance through time and space... ideas meant to illuminate those who were worthy enough to receive that knowledge. I pondered what would happen if that torch ever went out; I wondered if it would be like the day they came to tell me that my son had died.
If so the world might return to the mystery from which it sprang.
I can be imposed upon by what seems to be what it ought to be but I cannot be entrapped by what is contrary to virtue. The commencing of harmony is the work of wisdom; terminating it is the work of enlightenment. Wisdom can be likened to skill; enlightenment can be likened to strength, as in the case of throwing a stone at a target a hundred paces away. That I reach it is owing to my strength; that I hit my mark is not owing to my strength.
When I array myself in dreams and fine clothes and indulge in too much food and drink, my yard is full of weeds and my cupboards are bare. If I had just a little sense I would walk the main road and my only fear would be straying from it. But I become sidetracked easily.
This path I walk is never-ending; it goes on and on; often times it seems all uphill. When I stray, when I grow tired, when I feel so weary I fear I cannot go on, when all I want is to lay down and sleep, I let my desires slip back into that place from where they arise so they trouble me no longer. I go on.
My son taught me many things. As he grew into a man I learned to be a child again. When he passed away I died along with him until I learned of the mystery. By giving in to his memory I find he will never die. By letting go of that which I have no use for I give in to the mystery.
My son was my closest friend. On account of our virtue righteousness was our way and propriety was the door through which we walked together. The tendency of our mutual respect was like the tendency of water finding its own level.
Though I loved my father we were never friends. I always sensed I disappointed him in ways we were never able to discuss. Just before he died I remember him telling me I could have been someone if I hadn’t wasted my talents on dreams. I always thought I was someone: a writer, a son, a father, a husband, a business owner; but since my accomplishments were meager in his view I guess I wasn’t anyone to him.
As a boy I used to catch my father at times standing very still while staring out at the land that he owned; we lived on top of a high mountain and his land went on as far as the eye could see. I had no desires to work myself into an early grave in order to acquire that which I had no reason to own. I wanted only for the days to move easy. My father always told me the world was a hard and a mean place—that I should grab everything I could—but I suppose I never saw it the way he did.
Though I always loved them my father had all the trees on his mountain cut down so he could grow crops; the land was too poor, so what he planted did not grow. In time the rains fell and small tree sprouts appeared. But my father bought cows, pigs, and goats to put inside his fenced fields and they ate the sprouts. Years later no one remembered how that mountain was once treed. I thought how our love for one another was much like that sad denuded mountainside.
By hoarding more than I can use I forget the mystery and wallow in the world. By losing myself in desire I begin engaging in action rather than non-action; I begin to do rather than not-do.
This is not the way of the mystery.

Sunday, November 18, 2012


My grandfather lived in a run-down shotgun shack. He wasn’t my real grandfather but that’s what I called him. He was my mother’s step-father. He lived far away from us in the Deep South where life was very difficult, where the ground wasn’t dirt at all but just hard-packed red clay and nothing grew but tall thistles, poverty, and weeds.
My father bought an old run-down farm for next to nothing. Even though there wasn’t anything there to steal he worried someone might break in to the tiny cabin perched precariously on a hilltop so together he and my mother talked the old man into coming there to live and to watch over the place.
I was a less than ideal child. I could never get along with my mother; my father was always gone working. But when we visited her step-father way down there in Alabama I got along splendidly with the old man. So one day my father decided in order to ameliorate peace in the household that I should go and live with grandfather. I jumped at the chance.
The old man didn’t much care whether I went to school or not, so most days I didn’t bother going. We spent our time together smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and drinking moonshine whiskey he bought at the local pool hall and cutting posts to sell at the lumber yard. Each post had to be a certain length; each post had to be de-barked with a sharp blade, otherwise we wouldn’t get full price, which didn’t amount to much more than a few pennies each anyhow.
The lumberyard where we sold our posts sat just outside of a little town no one ever heard of called Finger. The town had one store, a general store, where all the old men gathered around the wood stove in both summer and winter. The cans lining the shelves were dusty as were the dry goods. The proprietor always watched me when we stopped there as if he was sure I had come there to shoplift what I could. While he watched me, grandfather filled his bib overall pockets with tins of beans and sardines and sacks of tobacco and packets of rolling papers.
Returning home in his rickety pickup truck that he let me drive the old man would laugh a toothless cackle as he pulled out the loot he had garnered while I distracted the store owner. Looking back I suppose it wasn’t right us doing what we did but we did it to survive. Cutting posts was a poor day’s pay. It barely kept us in gas and whiskey. And I suppose you could say the old man was half-loony by that time anyway. He probably belonged in a home but that would have killed him quicker than the whiskey and the cold.
The old man liked to tell stories of the days when he had been young and I liked to listen. I suppose all old people enjoy remembering the exploits of their youth. I often wondered if the fact of their memories was different than the memories themselves. Though I would never accuse the old man of lying it seemed as if he was apt to embellish the good while neglecting the terrible.
I remember that even though it was in the deep south of Alabama the winters were very cold at times. The shack where we lived had no furnace; we had an old rusted-iron wood stove in the living room that served to warm the house as well as to cook our food and boil up water for us to get up to our necks in when we had a mind to.
The front door consisted of an aluminum screen tacked onto a wooden frame. In an effort to keep the cold winter winds at bay we’d tape cardboard over the screen but it only served to lessen the freezing grip that the cold took on that old house.
Just as the cold began fading during my second winter there the old man began coughing up gray goop that he spit into a spittoon that he kept in the living room. From the rattling sounds of his breathing I knew he wasn’t feeling well but when I walked to the nearest neighbor to call my folks my father said the old man would be fine, not to worry about him.
A couple mornings later my grandfather didn’t come out of his bedroom. He always went to bed when the sun went down and rose when it came up. So by noon when he still hadn’t emerged I peeked into his room. I could tell by the lack of movement under the covers that the old man had passed on during the night.
I walked across the hollow on a dirt road to call my folks again. At that time there was only forest and grasslands; the people who lived thereabouts were very poor. They looked out for one another though in a way that was foreign to me being raised in the north. When I got to the door of the neighbor’s house to use their phone I broke down crying. I had loved the old man in my own way. I knew I would have to go back north to live in a place for which I had no love.
It was in the returning that I came to know myself better, however. I went back to my lessons. I graduated from high school with honors. I had grown determined not to end up the same way as my folks; though I loved my grandfather I had no inclination to become like him either. I entered a university out east; later I went to law school; I became a busy attorney working out of New York City with clients who trusted me with their livelihoods as well as their lives.
I grew wealthy beyond measure—counted upon for advice by both politicians in high places and judges sitting in high courts—yet something nagged at the edges of my psyche, like an itch that try as I might I couldn’t quite seem to reach to scratch. I thought about what bothered me and then I thought about it some more. The more I thought about it the farther away a solution seemed.
Finally after many years had passed I gave up the thinking, left my law practice, and buying an old pick up truck I set out for destinations unknown in an effort to capture the freedom of my youth. I thought if I left all my certainties behind I could find the answers that had so far eluded all my efforts at uncovering.
At first I though I was too late. I’d grown fat and full of knowing. I had waited too long to act. The tentacles of the city of dreadful night had wormed their way into my very being. As I headed west into high mountain places I felt like a man returning to the place of his birth. I missed many meals wandering the mountain trails. As my mind stilled the troubles ebbed along with my weight. I became light upon my feet once again; my mind became as clear as the cold streams from which I drank.
I found myself returning to the mystery.
Years later I returned to Alabama passing through on my way somewhere else. I saw how the old shack had been torn down. An immaculate brick home stood there instead. The old hollow once full of trees was now full of new homes. The dirt road was a highway. The old town that once sported a single general store now had a dozen fast food restaurants and a big hotel and neon-lighted casinos dotting its edges.
I thought how all the glitter of the money rolling into the old town had covered up something important, something no one else seemed to notice but me. It was all a lie intended to make the people happy. The real truth of living is in the suffering and in the poverty of pain.
I thought how it is better to live with a sad truth than to live with a happy lie. That which holds a person together is the values in their life. When a person desires happiness they overlook the sorrow that makes up the world. No one desires sorrow but it is the way of things to lose that which we love.
The mystery comes before happiness and sorrow, good and evil; the mystery has never been born; it waits neither patiently nor impatiently for everything to return to it. The wise seek out higher knowing but the mystery is unknown and unborn. The fool seeks to take what is not theirs but the mystery gives freely and asks nothing in return.
Returning is the motion of the mystery. I know by letting go of this, it will return. By curbing my desires and stilling my mind I know all I need will be provided.
Yielding is the way of the mystery. Rather than forcing my way through life I yield to the mystery. Taking and never giving is the way of the fool. Giving and never taking is the way of the wise. The mystery comes before it all.
The names of all things are born of being. Being is born of not-being. Returning to the mystery is the way of the universe.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Yin and Yang

How the petals on the flowers of the plum trees fluttered and turned in the breeze! I cannot help but think of you and the distance that separates us now. We loved the springtime; autumn now has hold of my heart.
She had black hair that shined like spun silk and onyx green eyes and when she spoke her voice was like the music of many waters to my ears. She told me our time together would be too short so I knew from the start that nothing I could do would keep her by my side.
I had yet to learn of not-doing. Being a man I thought I had to bully my way through life; I believed I had to make everyone and everything bend to my will. In time and through the course of knowing many women I gradually learned how wrong I was in my actions.
She wore a tiny smile and nothing I could do or say would ever change it. It was all part of the sadness of the world, like the rattle of skeleton leaves still clinging to the pin-oak trees outside our window in the dead of winter or the bitter smell of pine tree tea boiling deep in the mountains.
I gave her gifts each day thinking I might woo her in that way into staying with me. She accepted each of them with the same sad smile she wore when our lovemaking ended as if she knew she had no choice but to take what I offered.
She made me promise that when she had to go I wouldn’t stop her. I wondered why she would have to leave but she wouldn’t say. I caught the darkness from her words. I thought the worst; I accused her of having another lover. Rather than dignifying my accusations with denial promise me is all that she said. So despite myself I promised.
On the day she left I could have followed but I didn’t. I had always been aggressive but instead I embraced the receptive. It was the first time I'd ever been passive like that; it opened something up that I'd been missing.
I dream of you still; though I've taken other lovers since I've never been quite able to shake the glassy shards of your love from my heart. Sometimes during the quiet of that space in between waking and sleep I think I hear you calling my name. When I listen more closely all I hear is my own sighs.
I understand this is an indulgence, an unnecessary profligacy. Such extravagances lead to insubordination while parsimony leads to meanness. It is better to be mean yet it would have been better still to achieve an accord with my lover. By coming to a concurrence she might never have left me to the poverty of my tears.
These days I am satisfied and composed in my life while I notice those who are mean seem always full of distress. I achieve harmony when I gain by losing for I know I lose by gaining. I combine the forces of yin and yang by carrying yin and embracing yang. I keep the strength of a man and cherish the caring of a woman. In this way I achieve balance.
A man with whom I used to work came to me when his wife left him. I suppose he considered us friends or perhaps he didn't regard us as such; rather he needed someone to talk to and I'd always been a good listener.
I remember how he cursed her; he told me how she had been unfaithful to him; he said that she told him how she wanted to make the marriage work but each time he looked at her he could see the other man reflected in her gaze. I suggested that he close his eyes and talk to her then. I reminded him how empty his bed would feel without her there by his side.
Later I heard they had reconciled though he never spoke to me again except in passing. I imagined that he felt he had shamed himself in front of me by opening up or perhaps he simply had nothing left to say.
Those who are fond of daring and unhappy in their poverty of love will seek to usurp those whom they perceive have more than they do. So will such people should I carry my dislike of them to extremes. Though a person might be possessed of many admirable qualities if they are niggardly and proud those other things are not worth mentioning.
I learn knowing I can never reach my objective. I can find no name for it. Those who are fervid without being righteous, simple but not sincere, stupid and yet never attentive, these people I cannot understand.
No one likes to be orphaned, worthless, or widowed. Yet this is how I describe myself. I came into this world naked, scared, and crying; I will leave it fulfilled, confident, and laughing.
The mystery became one. One became two. Two became three. And three became the world. Becoming one with the mystery these four things I abjure: I draw no foregone conclusions; I form no arbitrary predeterminations, I embrace no obstinacy, and I cultivate no egotism.
I am without knowing; I am possessed of no knowledge. Yet should someone who is empty of answers question me I exhaust my response from the beginning to the end. Having no official employment I have acquired many arts. Though I exert all my ability I cannot follow that which is nameless; though the mystery stands right before me when I seek to grasp it I find no way of holding on.
When the year became cold I finally understood why the cypress and the pine were the last to lose their leaves. Do I not think of you in your distant house? It is the want of the thought of you that is distant; how far away is that?
By embracing strength I sit quietly and unmoving. By embracing compassion I nurture all things. By embracing laughter I will die laughing. This is my only lesson.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Stopping Short

When my children were small they loved to be a part of creating something, anything really. Early one autumn we built a tree house... well, I should say they built it. I was there to supervise but I allowed them to do all the work. They were very slow and meticulous, measuring each board to be cut and then taking forever to cut it. I had a power saw available but power saws cut off fingers very quickly whereas a hand saw if it slips might cause a scratch or abrasion but nothing more serious.
But more than that, I enjoyed seeing the rapt look of attention on their faces as the labor proceeded; I relished seeing the way they worked together as a team... the oldest one doing the measuring, the middle ones doing the cutting, and the youngest toting the materials from the sawhorse to the tree. They worked until they grew tired and then quit to start again the next day. As they walked away I could overhear them planning amongst themselves what to do next.
Once they had assembled enough wood to build the platform that would serve as a foundation they began securing the boards to the tree, again being very deliberate and laborious. The nails they used were long so it took them what seemed like an hour to drive each one. I wanted to take the hammer from their hands to show them the proper way of driving a nail but I told myself the only way they would learn was to do it themselves.
Sitting there watching them I began thinking of all the things I could be doing, more important things. I thought how I could have jumped in with my power tools and done the work in half the time... even a quarter of the time. I was sorely tempted more than once to do just that. But I stopped short, keeping myself apart from them, only offering instruction when they asked for it and making sure no one attempted anything dangerous.
This all happened many years ago and if memory still serves it took several weeks to complete the project. Each afternoon when I arrived home from work the kids would all be waiting for me in the garage, tools in hand and eager to get started on the next phase. Sometimes their mother would hear my car pull into the driveway. She would come out of the house to say leave your father alone for a few minutes; he just got home. But I would see the disappointment begin to blossom in their eyes so I would tell her thanks but we have a job to do, which of course was the only answer she expected.
I'll admit there were some days when I just didn't feel like sitting there watching. I felt as if everything was taking far too long to complete. Couldn't they nail those nails faster? Couldn't they position those boards more quickly? I wanted to brush them aside and say no, this how you do it, and proceed do the work myself with my big bad power tools in order to get it done more efficiently and quickly.
Despite myself I stayed my desires. I literally forced myself to allow them to complete that project on their own. And complete it they did. Though there wasn't a square corner to be found in that tree house by god it was a thing of beauty. They spent many happy years playing in it and now when the grand kids come to visit they play in it. Their parents tell them proudly how they built it all by themselves. I can still see the light of accomplishment shining in their eyes when they tell the story.
Now that I find myself alone again these memories invade my waking moments and lull me into dreams at night, good recollections and bad. My wife along with my love has gone back to that mystery from which we all spring forth. The children live far away and of course they visit when they can and call on the phone but I know they have their own lives.
These days I am a writer. It isn’t something I choose to do; rather I am compelled to it. I'd rather be sitting in front of a television set. I'd rather be making love with a beautiful woman. I'd rather be drinking and gambling at the casino. I stop short of all that.
Instead I write. I witness how others understand only the trifles of the world and nothing of importance. I see how the clever deceive the innocent. Those who are honored with wealth despise those who live in poverty. The strong take advantage of the weak. This is not the way of the mystery.
One day I decided to write a book, a magnificent book, one that encompassed the whole universe. But my ideas were so grandiose I had no idea where to start. The ideas themselves kept coming and coming until they snowed me under. So I kept putting off writing that book until the day everything became clear.
I saw that I did not have the right to decide to write such a book. The book had to write me. What do I mean by a book writing me? I sit here quietly letting the words fill this page of their own accord. I know if I try and force them into being the words will be all wrong.
When I am troubled the words do not come. My mind must be clear like ice. The world is full of trouble so how do I stop being troubled? I stop short. By not allowing the troubles of the world to pollute my heart it is clear like glass.
One day I poured a cup of coffee. I like coffee so being greedy I filled my cup all the way up. Looking out the window at the tree house built so long ago by my children I raised the cup to my lips. When I took a drink, though, the coffee dribbled all over me. I stopped short. I had a realization that led to the clarity I needed to begin writing that book.
If I fill my cup to the brim, look, I spill when I try and drink. If I stop short I do not leave a stain on my shirt. If I sharpen my knife too long on the whetting wheel it grows hot and loses its temper. Therefore the sooner it will blunt. If I do the work intended for others they will never know the joy of completion.
If I seek to gather a great store of silver and gold I will lay awake at night fearful of thieves. If I lock the doors of the fortress inside my heart I kindle a fire of desire that burns unquenched.
If I seek to climb high up the social ladder I have much farther to fall. Those who I have trampled on the way up will rejoice to see my descent.
Therefore I am content to stop before I am filled. I fade back to nothing when my purpose is achieved. I do nothing and yet nothing is left undone.
This is the way of the universe.
So this is what I write.

Saturday, November 10, 2012


As a boy I lived close to a raging river. If I kept my bedroom window open at night I could hear the waters tumbling over and over as they roared and rumbled into infinity, for not a half mile from my home an enormous waterfall thundered over a high cliff forming a deep swirling pool of dark water on the rocks below. This river was said to be the king of a hundred streams.
Each spring when the river swelled from the melting snow high in the mountains people who tried to wade or to swim in the treacherous river lost their lives by coming too close to those falls, and being swept over, drowning in the swirling undercurrents in the waters below. If they were lucky they wouldn’t drown; rather they would die brutal deaths by bashing their brains out on the jagged rocks lurking unseen below the surface of the water below the falls. Many times their corpses were never recovered.
But I took great delight in allowing myself to be swept over that waterfall. I would go into a whirl above and come out in a twirl below. The rocks were my companions. I knew them all and they all knew me. The waters called my name and whispered its secrets to me. I could feel the twisting undercurrents and follow their lead so as to make my escape from their grip whereas others only rolled back into the twirl, trapped until they perished. The jagged rocks were soft as feather pillows to my head.
Fearful others would see me hurtling over the falls and think me mad I made it a habit to rise from bed when the sky was just turning pink to go to the river. Early one spring morning while swimming to the shore below the raging waterfall I saw a man with a shaved head and wearing an orange robe standing there by the riverside. When I had pulled myself from the water he approached me speaking words in a strange accent. I thought he came to question me as to why I allowed myself to be swept over the falls but he surprised me by speaking of things I did not know.
He told me how he was but a small stone on a great hill; he said his path was plain and quiet; he was neither overjoyed to be alive nor did he count it a calamity to die. The man told me that what we reckon we know is not so much as what we do not know, that the time since we were born is nothing compared to the time before we were born. He said what can be spoken of in words is the form of things; what can be thought of as ideas is the subtilty of things.
He asked if I had learned the secrets of the water. I nodded. Tell me, he said. But when I opened my mouth to explain the secrets I had learned I discovered I knew nothing. He smiled and said we put into motion the nature set for us by heaven without ever knowing why or how we do it. He asked me if I thought it would be better to die going over the falls or to live while dragging myself through the mud. I said it would be better to die. He laughed again saying that he preferred dragging himself through the mud.
As he walked away he seemed to evaporate into the early morning mist. I wondered who he was, for I had never seen this man before. When I woke still in my bed I realized I'd been but dreaming but I couldn't seem to shake off the man's words. I thought about him for many years after.
In time my courage increased until I used to show off each spring when the river turned into a raging maniac; I believed how others witnessing my feats must have thought I was full of courage and daring. Sometimes a pretty girl would approach me as I emerged from the river dripping wet and touch me on the arm as if making sure what they had seen was real and not an illusion.
Each day more people gathered to watch my performances. I felt small and ashamed at first though as time passed my confidence grew as the people cheered when I succeeded in taming that waterfall. My pride grew until it knew no bounds. Nothing and no one could do what I did—not tadpoles nor frogs, not fish nor humans, not dogs nor lizards—and survive the plunge, and what's more, everyone knew it.
But perhaps it might have hit closer to the truth to say that the people watching me go over that waterfall must have thought I was a bit daft to attempt such reckless acts in the first place; more likely they knew with a certainty that I was as dim-witted as the water itself. They were all just waiting for the day I didn’t come out of the water so they could nod their 'I told you so's' to one another.
One day when I emerged from the twirl below the falls a crowd of people who had watched me go over in a whirl gathered around me. I anticipated their congratulations but instead all of them began haranguing for me to stop. They said their children were talking of emulating me. They were worried for them. But I wouldn’t listen. When I didn’t stop they talked to my parents. They called the police. They alerted prominent government officials. All these authorities berated me over my antics; they ganged up to forbid me to go back into the water above the waterfall.
Finally I promised them all I wouldn't return to wading in the river above the falls. I would no longer allow myself to be swept over. But the pull of the current proved too strong for me to resist. It was all I dreamed of at night. By day I drew pictures of the waterfall filling countless notebooks with my scrawls. Though I knew everyone was right—that going into that river might well one day cost me my life—I couldn’t stay away.
So I waited until the dark of night. I climbed out my bedroom window and going to the river above the falls I would allow myself to be taken away in the swirl. They didn’t understand. I had to be part of that raging river. I had to be swept over the falls; nothing else in life mattered to me but living like I was meant to live... or perhaps like I was meant to die should one precious night I might not emerge in the twirl below.
No one understood.
I moved away from that river years ago yet it is still part of me. That river taught me many lessons I could not have learned anywhere else. Though I haven’t seen that waterfall in many decades it is still my mentor and it remains my strength.
I have become the man of my long-ago dream. I am a small stone on a high hill. I am like water. I live in the world and yet I do not strive to be part of it. Like water I inhabit low places that others reject. I live close to the earth so that my toes might feel the soil under them and I might suffer the sun warming my back. By stilling my thoughts I go deep into my heart leaving desire by the creek side.
I take no initiative to produce either happiness or calamity. I respond to the influences acting upon me and move as I feel the pressure. I act only when obliged to do so. I have discarded wisdom and the memories of the past. By being placid and indifferent I follow the virtue of water.
I deal with others by donning a gentle smile and issuing forth with a pleasant hello. I am a blessing to everyone I meet. My speech is sparse and yet to the point. I treat everyone with equanimity. I do what I say I will do yet I do not act until I know the time is ripe. Like the four seasons I understand by acting at the right time not a single thing is injured.
To sow seeds in autumn is to starve in the spring; to laugh during a dirge is to bring shame on the family. Since I have no quarrel with anyone there is no one to blame.