As a flock, twittering, rising, or overhead passing,
Borne hither, ere all eludes me, hurriedly….
I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,
Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them….
–Walt Whitman, from Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking
In the 2012 film, “Kon-Tiki”, there is a poignant scene when Thor Heyerdahl and his companions are staring up at the night sky from the deck of their raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. At this point in the story, they’ve been at sea for weeks, and have survived countless tribulations and life-threatening incidents. The film is essentially about faith in one’s self, in one’s inherent potential to transform any situation for the better. To put it in Nichiren Buddhist terms, each one of us is capable of creating value under any conditions. As the men are staring up at the infinite spread of stars, one of them says, “It is as if we are the only human beings left in the universe.” Another man, I think it is Heyerdahl, replies, “Maybe nature has just accepted us as a part of itself, like a fish, or a bird.” At this point the camera view lifts above the men, quickly rising into the sky until the great raft becomes but a speck, and then disappears altogether as the full hemisphere of the Earth rounds into view beneath the oncoming sunrise. It is a majestic scene that provokes both a sense of insignificance and potency in the viewer. Thinking about how to conclude this triptych for my brother-in-law Bobby Flye, this image keeps coming to mind.
The Man and the Self
Every time Bobby and I got together, we’d begin bouncing things off each other. We were each other’s sounding boards, and I often initiated the talks. Perhaps because I came from a different background, I sensed that Bobby had an insight into life that I did not possess, some outcome of experience that I had never attained, and for which I yearned. Those years that we shared were difficult ones for me personally. While on the outside I had everything going for me—family, health, work, etc.—internally, I’d never faced more doubt and uncertainty about myself. Bobby knew this struggle and how to deal with it. So I would rattle on each time we got together, sharing my angst, as we drove past the blazing green fields of Arkansas high summer. Our camaraderie was partly rooted in an understanding that we had each known disappointment, and were now following trajectories that neither of us had anticipated. In that sense, we are no different than anyone else, but still, there was something more.
Bobby was a highly accomplished musician, and music was his great joy. In earlier years he had come within a hair’s breadth of breaking out, and then, another trajectory interceded. He never spoke regretfully of this turn of events. As it was, his life was incredibly rich. Still, there are shifts at critical junctures in our lives where, if it is not regret that we feel, there is certainly a question. Unlike me, he managed the unpredictability of life with grace and composure. Where I panicked, withdrew and became despondent, he smiled, stood straighter and took care of the people around him. There were times when I saw his frustration rise to the surface, when I saw his discouragement, but each time he suppressed those emotions for the sake of others, taking command of his immediate circumstances. This behavior was instructive for me, because I had always confused suppression with repression, but the two are not the same. In my upbringing, when one is upset the world must come to a halt until one’s frustration is resolved, otherwise it will lead to greater suffering in the future. In contrast, Bobby showed me that rather than mitigating difficulties, it is mastering one’s mind the ends suffering.
Driving back from a gig in Jonesboro late one night, Bobby and I were chatting away. He’d been playing for hours and was completely wired, so the plan was to get midnight biscuits and gravy back in Paragould. I was going on about some issue of pressing concern in my mind that I can no longer remember—and perhaps there’s something in that. Whatever it was, it had to do with the question of regret and paths chosen. We stopped at an intersection, the only vehicle on the road in the streetlight’s dull amber pool. Bobby turned to me and said matter-of-factly, “But all that brought us to here, in this truck.” It was my Kon-Tiki moment, and in a Proustian flash, I saw all of the roads I’d traveled leading back to Colorado, and to California. None of them led to or from anywhere good or bad. There were just roads, and their neutral presence was the reassurance I needed that one can live fully in the moment.
Learning to see optimism as a choice, and an action was but one of the benefits that I received from our short tenure. The most important thing that Bobby gave me, however, was the capacity to feel again. When we first met, I was a young man who did not trust his own life. I dealt with this condition by turning off a hidden switch. Bobby, I suppose, had his reasons to do the same at points in his life, but he left the switch on. As a result, he was able to continuously move forward, whereas I was paralyzed. Yet, in coming back to Arkansas in December for his memorial (the first time I’ve ever seen the state in winter) I find that my voice catches when I try to speak, and my tears flow freely. Driving past sere fields and leafless woods, I reflect that in the past I was stoic
when confronting death, and people commented on my “strength”. Now I feel such sorrow, yet freedom, release, and perhaps the beginning of real strength; Bobby’s gift to me. Watching intersecting V’s of geese warp and shift in the overcast sky, I know that there are enough seeds in this fallow ground to feed birds all winter.