Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Month of Reflections

I cannot see the Pacific Ocean. It is hidden beneath the clouds. We are flying somewhere between two solid white layers of sky that obstruct all color and form from the window of the airplane. Only the bright light of the sun streams in. Most passengers have closed their shades and settled back for the eleven hour flight to Tokyo. I keep looking toward the light. I have opened my laptop and decided to let the words flow. I am asking them to flow across the keyboard, to add form and color to a journey that began three years ago, in the fall of 2007.
This month I will spend in Bali, Indonesia. I want to go on record as saying that my journey had nothing to do with the book, Eat, Love, Pray, or with the movie by the same name. I was in Indonesia seven months ago on a scuba diving vacation. I fell in love with diving, the sea, and the vast coral reefs to the east of Sulawesi. I also fell in love with the Indonesian people. Collectively, they smile at everyone they meet. It is hard for me not to smile when I see a face. It’s the instinctive reaction of an infant, and for some reason, I still have that instinct. I loved being with people who reacted to others as I do.
When the dive portion of my April trip had ended, our group flew to the Island of Bali for our final four days. Our Balinese tour guide began his monologue from the bus’ microphone by saying that Bali would take on a different meaning for each of us. It would be up to us individually to determine what that meaning would be. To him, the B stood for beauty, the A for art, the L for love, and the I for imagination. I did not need to look for any further meaning. I could feel that I was in the right place; a beautiful, spiritual island, half way around the globe from my home.
The side benefit of Bali is that it is very inexpensive. Having limited funds and no career, I decided to return for an extended stay, as an experiment to see if I could live in Indonesia. I love the United States. It is safe, and it is my home. Now, I was considering the possibility of living overseas. There is an adventuring side of my personality that I had forgotten existed. I was doing things that, before my awakening from thirty-two years of marriage hibernation, I would never have dreamt possible; things as simple as checking into a hotel room alone for the first time, to swimming with sea snakes and sharks. Now, I would see if I could make connections that would last beyond the duration of a tourist experience in Indonesia.
For three years I had been looking for signs and listening to voices as to where I should go on this journey of my new life. No, I am not schizophrenic. The voices are not in my head. They come from God, and yes, I not only believe, but I know from prayerful experience, that it is through silence that the voice of God can be heard. I had made a promise to myself alone in meditative silence at sunset in the Badlands of South Dakota, to never miss another opportunity in my life. This promise led me to learn to scuba dive, to fly with strangers to Indonesia, and ultimately find Bali.
It had taken me three years from when I found myself alone, to have the courage to take a trip to a place as far from my home as Indonesia. I had just been accepted into an MFA program in writing and literature. It will take another three years to finish my degree. With a degree that qualifies me to teach writing, the reality of finding a job at my age is remote. I hear the objections of my friends as they shake their heads and offer the encouragement that all things are possible. Yes, and that possibility does exist. However, the reality of statistics for an older homemaker turned first time professional in this day and age is not as encouraging as my friends would try to believe. I have therefore decided to open myself to a more imaginative approach. I could live overseas for a period of time. So why not check it out? This is my last big trip of a year that I filled with travel and exploration, in an effort to make connections around the globe, as I search for my place in this life.
None of us know how much time we have to savor life on this earth. I have friends that have died of disease and by accident. Disease is not a shock. Accident is. Neither seems to come at a convenient time. My time clock is ticking loudly. All of ours are, in a cacophony of sound that we ignore for most of our lives. I hear the clock now, the screaming siren of warning not to waste a moment. Another voice to be heeded.
At this moment the icon of my plane shows me somewhere between Juneau and Anchorage. The sun is brightly streaming in from a blue sky. The distance has taken form. The shadows on the fluffy round clouds give them a three dimensionality and the appearance of solid and substantial structures. It’s merely an illusion. I could no more tell you the outcome of my three year adventure, as I could walk upon the clouds above Alaska. I cannot tell you if the path I have chosen is the right one, and if my plan will ultimately crystallize into a life of meaning and independence. This is my hope. It shines brightly as the glaring sun.
The landscape has changed again. It always does. The billows of clouds have transformed into a smooth ocean of white which spreads flat to the horizon. The streams of light from the sun radiates like a star slashing through a perfect blue sky. There is no sense of motion in flight as all reference points have vanished. The plane is as still as a prayer.
Tokyo is our first destination. I have never been to Japan. I was supposed to have spent the year after my graduation from Duke living with a Japanese family. I had studied Japanese art with the world’s leading authority on the subject. I had studied Japanese religion and been encourage to travel and experience the culture first hand. I knew no Japanese, but I had decided that Japan would be the place where I would attain enlightenment. My Episcopalian upbringing had been pushed aside for the seductive concept of rebirth and karma. I had a dark blue MG Midget that I sold for the price of the airfare. I was terrified and excited to be looking for higher truths first hand.
Then my father died. He was fifty-four years old. He died of a heart attack the week before Christmas. It was not the type of Christmas surprise a family wants. From that day, I have hated surprises. The fear of going to Japan alone, which had been subjugated by the excitement of travel, art, and enlightenment, returned. I dropped my plans for living abroad. I settled down at home, entered graduate school, and ultimately got married without finishing my degree. The thought of going to Japan in search of life was as remote and indistinct as the disappearing cloud forms outside of the airplane window. Now I am on my way to Japan.
Most people I talk to, lived their lives on the front end. They traveled through Europe with friends after college. They hopped in their cars and worked their way across America. They partied and lived each moment as if it were their last, maximizing every second. I guess they have earned the right to recline now and enjoy the peace they find as they grow older. I am doing it all in reverse order. If you know me, you are smiling. It makes perfect sense.
For the previous thirty some years, I thought my life was methodically progressing into the completed picture of retirement with grandchildren on a wealthy barrier island off of Charleston, South Carolina. I had the puzzle pieces of my life laid out on the table. I love puzzles. The box lid was face up, and I was on the lid picture holding hands with little ones in the surf of the Atlantic Ocean. It was a beautiful image. I was eager to put it all together. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the right picture for me. When the photograph on the lid was destroyed, I had no choice. I had to keep fitting puzzle pieces together. Without a picture I had to simple try and find which piece fit next, one at a time. I had no map to follow. I was in essence, flying by the seat of my pants.
Inexplicably to me at the time, the pieces were still fitting one to another. Each step I took followed in sequence from the previous one. I had been blessed in the fall of 2009 to meet the Archbishop of Canterbury. His message was simple. Our job, he explained, was not to save the world. It was to take one step at a time. And, in offering apologies to the Beatles, each step, he explained, taken with a little help from our friends. I knew that God had spoken through the Archbishop to me. I had made fledgling steps; my first steps toward independence, with my friends holding me up. I took a step a day with them beside me. What I did not know, was that message was not meant for me alone. It was for all of us, and given to me specifically to take to others in Africa a year later.
What a wondrous life with which I have been blessed. This year began with a letter at the first of January from the Archbishop to me, saying that he would pray for me. It has been a year filled with prayer and contemplation. April brought me to Bali, an island known for spirituality. September took me to Africa where the Holy Spirit thrives as I have never experienced before. The year brought new and lasting friendships throughout the United States, Canada, Indonesia, and Africa. All of these experiences were life changing. But as the landscape changes below me now, life changes with each individual moment. It is our job to savor those moments and live them to the fullest, one moment at a time, as long as we have together.
Finally after thirty-seven years, I am on my way to Japan. However, Japan is not my destination. It is merely a layover on a journey that neither begins nor ends with this flight. My trip to Indonesia is a step. One more step. The enlightenment for me will come not through a bash on the head while seated in a lotus position. Hopefully it will come while holding the hand of a child who has no parents, or helping to feed a man whose clothes are in rags and tries to sleep in the cold without a blanket, or dancing beside a woman who has nothing to offer in return for a gift except a dance offered from her soul.
We chase the sun as we fly west. We fly into the light. I will spend this next month remembering my year and my experiences. I will think how they have helped me grow. I am thankful for the opportunity to have lived them. This will be my month of reflection. In looking back, possibly a clearer image of what lies ahead will form. Perhaps without internet, television, or telephone, the time in silence, prayer and contemplation will reveal the truths for which I have been searching. One thing is for sure, this is another step; one in a series that I could not have made without my friends by my side.
We have left Alaska and the boundaries of the United States behind. There are many hours of water yet to traverse. The fear has once again been subjugated by the excitement of an adventure. The clouds are forming into solid billowy shapes again. I think I will get up from my row and see who I can meet. We are all flying this moment together, in the same direction, and to the same destination. Japan, here we come on our way to wherever. Let us all be blessed on our travels, wherever we are lead.
October 31, 2010

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