“The first forty years of life give us the text; the next thirty supply the commentary on it.”
– Arthur Schopenhauer
I am by myself but not alone. They are near me, always.
It’s another strikingly beautiful California morning and I have six hours before my flight home. Before returning, I want to say goodbye to the Pacific Ocean. Yes, I talk to water. I speak to the spirit within the forms of trees, plants, animals, and rocks. What is seen is made from things not visible. What is not visible can be addressed and, if I listen, can advise. It’s not an anthropomorphic tendency but a belief that I am truly connected to everything and that everything has a spirit. I sometimes fail to notice, not because there is no spirit, but because my vision is clouded.
The ocean has always been a special place for me and the Pacific coast is where I spent some wonderful days with my lovely daughter, Megan. Although born in New Jersey, there was always a touch of the California girl in her. As I drive toward the coast, I stop at Malibu State Creek Park for what was planned to be a brief rest stop. There’s a $3.00 entry fee, a bargain. I park the car, hit the restroom, and then, noticing the signs for the trailhead, I decide to hike around Stokes Canyon. Not always, but often enough, the spontaneity of such decisions yields positive outcomes.
I’m not in my hiking gear but the day is pleasant enough and I am drawn to the rugged terrain. Two groups of children, on what appears to be an elementary school field trip, are at the trailhead so I decide to go the opposite direction so as to stay away from the crowd and the noise.
The trail is well maintained and I walk past fallen trees, cut up and moved off the trail, and through a camping area where a few tents are pitched. The fauna is captivating and I am frequently tempted to stop and take a photo. But I realize that if I succumb to the urge, I will secure a pretty picture but surely lose a momentary pleasure that cannot be recovered. I remind myself that I am here to experience the trail, not document it. I put my phone back in my pocket and walk on.
After about an hour or so, I am back at the parking lot and thirsty. There’s a vending machine encased in a welded steel frame to prevent theft, which strikes me as odd in such a remote area. I put cash in, but it’s out of water so I settle for a Dr. Pepper. I return to the car and retrieve the tandoori curry chicken nuggets that I purchased at the Erewhon Market yesterday (such a California market) and sit down at a picnic table in the shade of a rugged arbor. A few other people are getting ready to head out on the trail. Some appear to be day hikers but others have Blue Water climbing ropes and helmets which suggests they are serious climbers.
The picnic spot provides a moment for reflection, a time to revisit the experiences and emotions of the past few days. I recall the dinner I enjoyed an evening ago with my dear friend, Kathryn. Chatting for almost two hours, we shared our angst and joys of living alone. I remarked how I sometimes wonder if I am becoming a weirdo recluse because I choose to live alone. Kathryn assures me I am not that weird, always a comforting thought. As I sit quietly at the table, the discussion echoes in my head and a smile comes to my face. Then the entire recent California wedding experience of my friends, Ashley and Michael, fills my head and I am brought almost to tears remembering the father/daughter dance with Ashley. In our heads and hearts, I suspect that she was dancing with her late father and I was dancing with my late daughter. It’s a beautiful moment.
I also recall doing my best disco steps to Donna Summer’s “Bad Girl,” and a delightful conversation with Ryan, who officiated the ceremony. As I continue to sit, the memories come and go and finally I am quiet and still. A breeze is gently blowing and although there’s a touch of melancholy, I feel content. Then a sadness begins to set in. Feelings of nostalgia and a yearning for something/someplace else arise and I want to be anywhere but here and now.
I am suddenly lonely in a horribly deep way and my first reaction is to get up and leave. Is such profound loneliness a pain from which I must always try to escape? My peace has been disturbed and nothing has happened on the outside that I can point to as the cause. I was fine ten seconds ago, what the hell happened? What is wrong with me?
I decide to sit it out. I feel emotions rising and falling. Images of my daughter at the oceans edge playing in the water, my own wedding, my childhood, and friends living and dead float by in a mosaic of a life I own. My imagination takes flight with each remembered experience and I start to cry. This is embarrassing. There’s simply no reason for this. But emotions don’t succumb to reason.
“Just stop this nonsense!” I say. I take a few deep breaths and the crying stops.
I sense there are people around but fortunately they are far enough away so as not to have witnessed my crying. Then I get a comforting sense that I am being watched. Spirits are nearby. They have witnessed my sorrow and the thoughts that gave rise to it. This awareness softens my emotions and I start to calm down. I begin to see all these memories as parts of a story that makes up my life and a pattern, vaguely discernable, seems to be visible. Moreover, looking at the pattern, I get a sense that I have been cared for, that something has an interest in what I do, that I have been protected and loved.
I know my personal narrative, first this happened, then that, then this, etc., but now there seems to be a plot, a design if you will. Whatever pretensions I have about being in sole command of the direction and meaning of my life, now seem suspect. A principal pillar of my life, that “God takes care of those who take care of themselves” now seems misguided. God takes care of all things, regardless, and this has always been true.
In his essay On an Apparent Intention in the Fate of the Individual, Schopenhauer remarks that as you grow old and look back over your life, it seems to have had a consistent order and plan, as though composed by some novelist. Events that, when they occurred, seemed accidental and of little import, turn out to be indispensable factors in a consistent plot.
Who composed the plot?
Just as our dreams are composed by an aspect of ourself of which our consciousness is unaware, it may well be that our whole life is composed by the spirit within. In short, we are guided and always have been. And just as the people we meet, apparently by chance, became leading agents in the shaping of our lives, we also serve unknowingly as agents, giving meaning to the lives of others. The whole story of our life plays harmoniously in one beautiful symphony. Even the crashing cymbals (symbols?) have notes to sound.
Schopenhauer concludes that it’s as if our lives are single features in one great dream in which all the characters also dream. Who makes the dreams? Jungian analysis suggests that dreams originate in the archetypal world where myths and spirits inform. Our spirit converses with these archetypal spirits and with the spirits of the oceans, rocks, plants, and animals. Most indigenous cultures understood this and spoke to these spirits and sought guidance from them. Our culture marginalizes or ignores these spirits and views myths as fairy tales. This is, I believe, the cause of much of our trouble and discomfort. We worship at very different altars and serve very different gods.
Someone shouts nearby and I snap out of my musings. Looking at my watch I realize there’s not enough time to visit the beach. I pack up and head toward the airport via the Pacific Coast Highway. At a red light, I roll down the window and look to my right. I wave to the ocean and say goodbye. The ocean waves back, again and again. I take it to mean that the ocean saw me and is grateful for my salutation. My trip home is blessed by this holy water.