The Still Pond
This is the story of how I almost died just after I got reborn. It’s one thing to leave your old self behind, molecule by molecule, in therapy—to take apart your fake self and find that there’s someone real inside that you actually love, then start genuinely being present in the world for real, for the first time—actually being here wholeheartedly and not checking out. That’s one thing. That’s all well and good.
But it’s a big world out there; that’s what I hear people say. Maybe even a vicious, brutal world. A world that contains people who are living up in their egos and fake selves—split off, acting out, not present, violent, lost, trying to be cool—all that shit. And now I can feel everything. Now I’m alive again—really alive—and it’s time to go out there and live in the big, bad world with everybody else. Time to leave therapy. Leave that dreamy twilight between wellness and sickness and get on with it—get on with living the life I’ve got left, armed with a whole lot of new tools against fuckwits—stuff like acceptance, grounding, feeling my feelings, empathy, self-expression, healthy boundaries, lots of self-love, and an inexpressible, wordless understanding of the true nature of existence; it’s just a pile of buzzing dots and a whole lotta love. Time to see if that ship floats. If that shit sticks. If peace and love and all that jazz really make a difference in the real world, whatever that is, with all of us freaks in it.
I drive up the drive and out into the world beside my true love, Jimmy James, in an old, white truck we call Squeaks. We’re leaving behind the Best Retreat Center Ever, where I got hugged and loved harder than I can ever remember being hugged or loved before. Where I danced and bathed and cried and worked and learned lots of really important stuff—not just the hippy stuff, but the actual, real stuff. The good, proper, honest stuff. We drive up the drive. We overnight at the Hilton in Oakland, are almost shot in a car park looking for a taco truck, fly early in the morning to Hawai‘i, and start having a go at it, trying again—a new life.
Before I tell you about it, I just wanna tell you about the pond. I’ve told a few people this story, but I’ve never told anybody about the pond; you’re the first.
Eddie takes us there. He’s kind to us, looking back, maybe our only friend. He comes and picks us up from the Yoga Paradise and takes us on an outing. We haven’t left that place as free people for months. He’s lived in Puna on the Big Island all his life, knows everything and everyone. He takes us out on an adventure to this lake—maybe called the Green Lake—in or near a volcano, through a locked gate, whispered words with a friend, and we’re in.
We park on a grassy hill near some campers, and he leads us down a long, winding path through luscious jungle until we come to a perfect, round, pale green lake, reflecting the clouds and the sky, with all the trees staring in, looking at their own pretty faces. It’s the stillest, quietest place I can ever remember visiting. Like too quiet. Like hushed. Like the trees make a blanket that keeps out the world, and the pond radiates a glassy stillness, like a powdery green jewel held delicately in a bed of trees.
There’s a boat. An old boat. Not a dinghy, but wider; two seats side by side with a middle armrest made of white wooden slats—like one of those boats people glide about on lakes in 1920s novels, only there’s green stuff growing up the sides. Two oars lie across it. When I see it, I think, Only a fool. Eddie jumps in first. Or maybe it’s Jim. They bounce and wobble around and say they think it’s ok. I shake my head, crouch low like a sick dog, and hold onto a tree.
Here’s this question again: whether I’ll be sensible and boring, or whether I’ll be fun and stupid. I’ve spent a lot of my life alternately trying each, and neither has worked out well enough to make a policy from. Plus, just from sitting in the boat, I’ll probably get wet and dirty. I’m wearing my nicest clothes—my favorite T-shirt, no less—because it’s so special to have gotten out of that ghastly Yoga Paradise for an afternoon. So nice to be clean after being filthy all the time. I look at Jim and Eddie looking at me, let go of the tree, and put my foot into the boat.
The edges of the lake are filled with such thick weeds that rowing through them is almost impossible. They aren’t drifting weeds; they come up from somewhere, seem to be connected to something down deep, and hold tight when we push against them. It’s as if there’s a creature down there that they’re part of; us working our way through its thick hair with its scalp somewhere just beyond the scrape of our oars. Except the lake is bottomless, so, you know, who knows what the creature might be standing on to be just there.
Jim and Eddie work hard to row us out into the tiny, little bull’s eye of clear pond in the middle. When we get there, we lie back and drift, staring up at the circle of sky for as long as it takes for someone to speak, which is a good while. Then, Eddie says something. He tells us about the bird that lives there, the bird that guards the pond—a big, still, old bird, like no bird we ever saw before. We peer into the branches until we see it. It’s a strange, soft, pale green color. Maybe it’s really white, but is reflecting the light that’s bouncing off the trees and leaves all around it. It sits perfectly still, staring back like a totem, like a sign, like an object of import, like if this was a movie, you’d put a sound in the score especially for it. Eddie has some kind of story, a legend or a tale, but I’m not sure if we ever hear it or he ever tells us. Instead, we talk about rowing over to the other side to see if we can see it better, decide against it, then the boat starts to sink.
Jim and Eddie panic. I laugh from nerves and feel embarrassed. Jim and Eddie start rowing as fast and as hard as they can. I try to weigh nothing and propel us forward with only the weight of my head and the force of my will. The weeds stop us, catching the oars, slowing us down to almost nothing. We row and row, but we’re just nosing under, sliding in like a shovel into the earth.
I start to think that we truly might not make it. You know when you see a danger and you think it could happen but it probably won’t, and then it starts dawning on you that it actually is happening right now, is unfolding before your very eyes? And maybe you think, Really? This is how it goes? We just die? No fanfare? No nothing? It just feels so ordinary that it’s hard to get your head around. Life simply going on, not doing anything special, just keeping on doing what it always does, only leaving you behind. That’s what the Buddhists are always trying to tell me: death is always here, and everything I think of as secure or permanent is an illusion. It’s not permanent. I was just pretending that it was, and now I can’t pretend any more.
Yeah, we’re sinking. The nose is almost completely under. And to swim amongst those weeds is gonna be difficult, maybe impossible. They’ll tangle around our legs. It’ll be hard for me to move or kick or swim, like being grabbed by a whole lot of long, thick, sticky hands. It’ll be hard for Jim and Eddie too, but probably impossible for me. They’re big man surfers, and I’m not much of a swimmer at all. I don’t even like to get my face wet in the shower. The weeds will tangle around my legs and arms, wind around and around, clammy and cold and strong, and stop me from going anywhere but down. I feel scared. I push my heavy skull farther still toward the shore, hold my breath, and pray.
I can only remember the last bit like I’m watching someone else doing it; three people I sort of know in a boat rowing for their lives, inching imperceptibly through the weeds, all the while sinking deeper and deeper, until suddenly—I don’t know how—they miraculously slide back into the place they started, just as the boat goes under.
Then I’m back in myself, reaching out my hand, leaping onto the bank, clutching the tree, the others landing on my heels. We turn and look back—the boat up to its neck in pond. Somebody laughs.
“I don’t know how we could’ve swum back,” says Jimmy James.
And I don’t remember what Eddie says ‘cos I’m imagining being sucked down by those weeds, pulled under that pond, looking up through that big, glassy mirror through the circle of trees to the sky, watched by that big, quiet, old bird forever, so far from home.
They say each island is different. Each island will open its arms or not. Jim likes the Big Island from the start. I don’t like it much, but it’s better than the one we’ve just come from—better than the place we just left.