Return to Ravenden Springs


I first went to Ravenden Springs in July of 2010 with my late brother-in-law, Bobby Flye as part of my research for my novel Lost Apple. You can read about it in these posts: Finding the School Cave, Part I, Part II, and The Town Without Children, Part I, Part II. As for this post, partly a postscript to my three part series on Bobby, I posted it on December 29, but was unhappy with it. This is a fully revised version.

Unexpectedly I was able to return to Ravenden Springs on this, my last full day in Arkansas.  I had hoped to visit the hamlet again, but weather and family obligations made it unlikely. For my family, experiencing the death of my brother-in-law, Bobby Flye, Arkansas has been a winter cocoon. Despite the loss I feel, I also feel rejuvenated in a way I couldn’t have imagined before arriving; Bobby’s reassurance has been with us all along, and I feel his presence palpably.  In my school of Buddhism we view death as a temporary state of latency in one’s eternal life. There is no afterlife so to speak. When someone dies, their consciousness remains close to loved ones for a while before fading out and transitioning into their next existence. Perhaps I will say more about this in a future post, but for now let it suffice that one essential difference between the living and the dead is that a living person can make causes through thoughts, words and actions. While in a state of death, or latency, one cannot make causes. It is for this reason that Buddhist prayers for the dead are vital to the deceased. One leaves life in whatever mind-state one is in at that moment, whether it be fulfilled contentment, joy, fearful uncertainty, or hellish suffering. How one goes out is how one stays between lives, and this same mind-state affects how you re-enter the world of the living. The prayers of loved ones have the power to ease this passage and deeply encourage the one who has passed. One connects heart to heart with the deceased, and there is a sublime joy amid the sorrow of loss. This is a very personal experience, and one that I cannot explain fully or completely. All I can do is show how it plays out in the life that I am living. And so, my return to Ravenden Springs.

Virtually Unchanged

After days of almost continuous cloud cover, I was encouraged to see sunlight breaking through in the early afternoon. I tell the boys, “We’re going to Ravenden Springs and the School Cave.” Their enthusiasm isn’t high, but I bribe them with a promise of burgers at the Side Pockets Cafe.  We drive west past soggy brown fields intersected by dark curtains of leafless woods. We pass through the depressed silo hamlets with their trailers, crumbling flea markets and boarded up restaurants. Then we take the high bridge over the Black River as interweaving skeins of geese pass over us heading south. The Black is the dividing line between the delta land and the Ozarks. Abruptly we are rising into wooded hill country, and a very different realm. This is Randolph County, a remote, isolated place that today is well off the grid, but historically had quite a bit going on, from the legacy of slavery and the Trail of Tears, to the Civil War.

Passing through several towns along U.S. 63, the main route to southwest Missouri, we come to Ravenden and the turn-off to Ravenden Springs. This was the point of confusion four years ago when I first sought out the School Cave: two towns called Ravenden. Later I would learn that in the heyday of Ravenden Springs, when it was a well-know resort, the lower town of Ravenden was the rail junction, then called “Ravenden Junction”. It was here that wellness-seekers caught the coach six miles north to the town and its healing waters. Making our way north, the hills rise quickly, and the road takes a few hair-pins among dense oak woods and small pastures. Signs of poverty are ubiquitous in the Ozarks, and Ravenden Springs is a good example of the perennial economic depression in the region.  Rounding the last bend, I see the village clustered around its knoll, virtually unchanged since my first visit in the summer of 2010.

Ruin of old bank.

Ruin of old bank.

Pulling up in front of the Side Pockets Cafe and I am disappointed to find that it is shuttered. I peer through the glass door into the dark interior and see the same tables and faux wood paneling, the counter where Paul had proudly displayed my framed note and five dollar bill. Nothing looks any different, and I suspect the place was closed not long after I came through. Paul and his disabled wife weren’t doing well and clearly couldn’t hold onto the business.  Like the boys, who had been looking forward to burgers, I too am discouraged. This was the only business in town. Now there’s no place to meet and connect with people. Side Pockets, as tenuous as it was, had been the heart of the village.  I step back into the gravel street and scan around. Just like the interior of the cafe, nothing looks any different. Aside from the change in season, I could have been here yesterday. I do notice that the cylinder water tower is much faded and rusted since my last visit, but that’s about it.  Suddenly a kid on a bike pulls around the corner and gives us a stare before riding off toward the church and a few ramshackle homes. A kid, in the town without children; a good sign. In 2010, I had described the town as dying. I now realize it is neither living nor dead, its just still here.

The moment the boys and I piled out of the car every dog for a half a mile began barking. Without the cafe to make myself known, I feel like a trespasser. I consider going over to the Marshall’s house, there’s a Sheriff’s car in the yard and a freshly killed deer strung up on a rack so I know he’s home. But I lose my nerve. We start walking toward the old school on the knoll that Alma Simmons, the Marshall’s mother, so kindly took me through, and filled out a Ravenden School library card for me as a souvenir.  Within a few minutes the dogs have all stopped barking and an uncomfortable silence settles among the houses and bare trees. I explain to the kids that this means people have quieted them down and everyone knows we’re here.  I can’t decide if my reluctance to knock on a door is misplaced fear, or common sense. Bobby cautioned me about backwoods towns: you don’t just arrive and start poking about; you find where people are and let them know your intentions. I was glad I at least had the boys with me.

Former school, now the town's community center and museum

We make our way up to the old Craftsman style school on the knoll, today the town’s community center and museum. There are two cars in the yard and the doors are open. Inside, two women work at folding tables in the auditorium, creating decorations for an upcoming wedding. They have two children with them who are shrieking and giggling on the tiny stage. I explain who I am, a teacher and writer who came here four and a half years ago. I ask about Alma, assuming they’ll know her. They did, and tell me that she died a couple years back in a vehicular accident during a family fishing trip.  I don’t know what to say. The boys and I look around the room a bit, but I suddenly don’t have the motivation to explore the building again, even though the women tell me I am free to look around. Nothing is changed, but everything is different. That is the way with death, and the great mystery of death.  Even in 2010 I’d had the feeling that I was experiencing a one time event on a magical summer afternoon.  Now I am seeing this intuition borne out as we step back out into the bracing winter air under an again overcast sky.

Devil's Bathtub from the mouth of the cave

Devil’s Bathtub from the mouth of the cave

We drive across the road to Hall’s Creek and park where Bobby and I parked his truck. We scramble down the same slope, now muddy and treacherous after all the rains. The absence of leaves allows me to see the creek bed more fully than I could in the height of summer. The springs are that odd color of pale jade, the old retaining wall as intact as ever, although now spray painted with the moniker “Devil’s Bathtub”. We find a good deal more graffiti painted in the cave below, as well as evidence of a recent fire built against the 19th century foundation wall. As before, there is a great deal of trash: an empty daquiri container, plastic bags, a crumpled card table, a hot dog roasting fork.  The School Cave–almost two centuries after Caleb Lindsay established it in the years after the Louisiana Purchase–remains a place known only to locals who regularly desecrate it. I thought seriously about pulling some of the trash out of the creek, but there was no way I’d get back up that muddy gulch with it safely, and besides, it will all be back after next Saturday night.

The school's stone foundation and modern concrete barrier in the cave mouth

The Cave School’s stone foundation and modern concrete barrier in the cave mouth

The air is cold and dank, and we don’t linger long. After a few pictures we scramble back up to the car and head down the road; we’ve spent barely an hour in Ravenden Springs. Rounding the first sharp bend in the road, the sun emerges from the clouds illuminating the hills in a resplendent golden glow. There is something mystic in the timing of this sudden change of light. I am not suggesting that Bobby is acknowledging us in some way, simply that he lived his life fully and completely, and, as a result, those who knew him are able to do the same in their own lives. I do not feel that my time with Ravenden Springs is done. I want to go back again, finish my research, do something more in my writing concerning this remarkable little place. This visit has been the completion of a particular round, and the gilded trees and light-softened fields past which I am driving are testament to the endless cycling of our lives.

Photos of the town and cave from both my 2010 and 2014 visits can be viewed in my Flickr album.

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Bobby, Part 3 of 3

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

serefieldIn 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 in this life. 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.

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Bobby, Part 2 of 3


Bobby meeting a child at Itoman, Okinawa, June 2000

The year before that first trip to Arkansas, Bobby and I convened under very different circumstances, in our wives’ homeland of Okinawa. This was not my first trip to Japan. I had visited six years earlier, but to the mainland islands of Honshu and Kyushu. Okinawa, I would discover, is an entirely different affair. An island kingdom for centuries before it was annexed by Japan in 1878, the Okinawa islands developed a unique culture that was heavily influenced by China. At the end of World War II the tiny archipelago was acquired by the United States as a war spoil. After twenty-seven years of occupation, Okinawa reverted to Japan with the stipulation that it continue housing one of largest U.S. military installations in the world. With this history, to suggest that Okinawa is representative of mainstream Japanese culture is akin to suggesting that Puerto Rico is representative of mainstream U.S. culture. I was about to experience culture shock all over again.  Bobby, however, had visited his wife’s family before. He would prove to be an indispensable comrade on this trip.

The Man and the Family

There is too much to tell about this remarkable place and the character of its people for this brief account. Besides, Okinawa is not a place for explaining. It is a place for doing. Just like that first night with the Flyes at Minako’s house a year earlier, in Okinawa one begins with intimacy and works toward familiarity.

One of my favorite memories with Bobby in Okinawa concerned an outing with Minako’s father in search of a golf course that was never found. Since no one speaks any English, and Bobby and I spoke barely a survival level of Japanese, we were left to our own devices. The wives certainly weren’t going to translate, and even on those rare occasions when they did, no one was listening anyway. Minako and Naomi’s family, with its large contingent of relatives who arrive and depart unannounced at all hours, are more focused on shoving food and drink into guests’ mouths, than hearing what might come out of them.  Kojiro Sahira, the sisters’ father, was a man just entering a post-wealth stage of life. At one time he’d owned several properties, which had now been reduced to one, a gas station still under construction. He had built a marvelous house with glistening wood floors and a tatami banquet room with elaborately carved transom pieces (ramma), as well as a garden replete with dwarf pines, papaya, and a pond with carp the size of small cats. “Jichama,” as he was affectionately known, decided that the men would go golfing, an important rite of passage for prospective husbands, that being me in this case.

So there we were, on a small highway headed north completely unable to communicate with our host, but immensely enjoying each other’s company. At one point, Jichama pulled onto a side road and stopped above a cliff overlooking the East China Sea. Two men in jimbei and wide-brimmed straw hats were squatting on the rocks fishing with long poles. Neither of them appeared to know where the golf course was located, and Jichama, who’d clambered awkwardly halfway down the steep rock slope turned about with a grunt and a dismissive wave of his hand.

Back in the car, and down the road we came to the intersection leading back onto the highway. To our astonishment, Jichama did not pull back onto the highway, but spun the car about, blocking the intersection and offering his broadside to the oncoming traffic. Putting it in park, he stepped out and approached the growing line of cars backing up behind us. “What in hell is he doing?” I said incredulously. I can’t recall Bobby’s exact words, but he chuckled and said something to the effect that Jichama was going to find that golf course one way or another. And that’s just what Jichama did, making his way down the line, talking to several drivers, before giving up and returning to the car.

Eventually Jichama gave up the search and instead took us to the Bankoku Shinryukan, an impressive resort and convention center set on a small peninsula before an extensive coral reef. In about two weeks this hotel would host the G8 Summit, and preparations were underway, with a conspicuous number of police and other officials milling about. Jichama wandered this way and that, entering dining halls and crossing terraces with no particular aim. Bobby and I followed along, chatting as I snapped pictures. Next to the hotel was a marine park with a long pier extending across the teal and emerald hues of the reef to an underwater observatory.  Standing in a room beneath the sea, Bobby and I watched as fish in every imaginable color and patterning sailed past the portholes. It was like a scene from The Beatles animated classic, “Yellow Submarine”. Jichama tottered about disinterestedly, waiting for us to have our fill. “You know,” said Bobby, “when we look out these windows, we see all these amazing tropical fish. But when they look out, they see breakfast. That’s bacon and eggs swimming by out there.” We laughed about that all the way back to the car.

There were many other episodes in Okinawa, but sadly, Bobby only stayed two weeks, while I would stay a full two months. He had to fly back on his own for work. During our short time together, I had a friend and sounding board at a time when my fiancé really needed to focus on her family. Wherever we went, though, I was always impressed by Bobby’s amiability and relaxed mien. He was a man who was comfortable in his life, such that location had no bearing on it. You could put him anywhere and he’d make a heartfelt connection with whoever was there. I recall a day in Itoman at the dragon boat races when a toddler waved at him. He was completely charmed by the child and said hello as we were making our way to the car. I took a picture of the scene, one that captures his open spirit well. For some, this might seem a trivial moment, but for me, especially the “me” of that time, I needed a model of how to be open to others, and to be spontaneous. This was another of the important lessons Bobby taught me without saying a word.

Another critical lesson I learned from Bobby was the primacy of family. I had been raised in the late ‘70s in northern California. It was a time and place of dislocation and disassociation for many, and my family was at the epicenter of rapid, often negative social changes. My parents had divorced when I was seven, sparking years of contentious court battles over custody. My father, who was the stable parent, and with whom I preferred to live, was kept at arm’s length by my wounded and vindictive mother. Cynicism had deeply sunk its claws in me, and what “family” was and should be was something of which I’d only had glimpses. On the morning Bobby was to leave for the airport he wrote a letter for Naomi to read to all of us once he was gone. I didn’t find out about it until Naomi shared it, but I recall Bobby acting strangely that morning.

I was just stepping out of the bathroom after my shower and he was coming down the hall.  I said something, along the lines of good morning and he glanced awkwardly at me without a word, quickly making his way downstairs. There were tears in his eyes. I immediately assumed he’d had a fight with Naomi, and when I asked Mina if she knew what was going on, she said he was just having a hard time leaving. Here was an outwardly strong man, very much a rural man, not the kind of man, according to my stereotypes, whom I’d expect to display emotion openly. Consciously or not, I wondered why he was such a mess. It wasn’t like anybody died or anything.

Later, after tearful embraces at the airport, Naomi read the letter to the family, translating it into Japanese. Again, there wasn’t a dry eye among us. I can’t recall details of the letter, but he’d written a full page about the importance of family. I was a veritable essay on the subject, and I remember thinking that I’d never considered family from such a serious perspective. For me, family was something I’d diminished in my mind all of my life, and yet here I was about to start a new one with Mina and her young son from a previous marriage. Moreover, I was in Okinawa meeting her family, people from an older culture where divorce is not an acceptable solution, and marriage outside of one’s ethnicity is suspect. Bobby’s letter made me sit up straight and start thinking more seriously.

Bobby was part of this process of opening and unfolding in my life, and I suspect I took his lesson to heart in ways I wasn’t aware of at the time. Several weeks later I was getting on a plane home and I didn’t just cry, I sobbed along with everyone else. The day I left Okinawa I loved Minako’s family no less intensely than my own. That we’ve sustained and developed our marriage for all these years can in part be attributed to the example of husband and father that Bobby modeled for me.

Eventually we did go golfing with Jichama (fourth from left). Here we are towering above our hosts!


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Bobby, Part 1 of 3


Bobby Flye at Ravenden Springs, Arkansas, Summer 2010

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

 Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

I came to Colorado from California in early 1999 after the sudden death of my first wife. Shortly after my arrival I met Minako and we began dating. We’d only been an item for a couple of weeks when her sister and her family came to visit from Arkansas. There we all were in Mina’s cramped kitchen beneath a wan bulb eating, drinking and laughing all night long. I’d recently had my life flipped over, and now I had met these people, but it felt as if they’d been waiting for me all along. There was no getting to know each other. We started from intimacy and worked toward familiarity.

Mina is one of four Okinawan sisters, three living in the U.S. Her older sister Naomi had, by various twists and turns, ended up in Arkansas where she met and married Bobby Flye. Meeting them was my first opportunity to get acquainted with the South, and Bobby was the best ambassador the region could ever hope for. I felt immediate kinship with him that night we met. Here was a man, soft-spoken, yet unhesitatingly direct in his lilting, poetic drawl that immediately put one at ease. I was from the guarded, factional cities of the California coast where one doesn’t easily open up to others, let alone strangers. Since coming to Colorado, I had been thrown off time and again by Mid-westerners’ neighborliness: the kindly store clerk, the accommodating rush hour driver, the considerate door-holder, etc. Who were these people? Were they all insane? What do they really want from me? These questions ran through my mind with each exchange in those first weeks in the state, but they more or less came to an end the night I met Bobby and Naomi. That night I realized, albeit not fully consciously, that goodness in people can be brought out by how you are toward others.

Bobby Flye, a man who had no reason to feel one way or the other about me, fell into the role of older brother in the way that the wind suddenly picks up on a hot, still day. The disconcerting feeling that we’d always shared our lives, despite having just met persisted. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but Bobby was that kind of person. What unfolded before us was sixteen years of adventures of the heart, and a deepening awareness of my own potential for love. A born storyteller, and a philosopher, he could make a casual remark about a trivial thing that set one to thinking about life differently; this happened once concerning a dog at a gas station.

This past week Bobby died after a valiant four year struggle with lung cancer. That he extended his life as long as he did is testimony to his relentless tenacity and optimism. Looking back over the years that I knew him, I now see how the scope of his life helped me to emerge from my own death shadow, to open myself at last, and to act boldly on behalf of the people I love.

The Man and the Land

Upon entering the South, one feels weight in the air, and in the soil itself. In summer a haze hangs perpetually over the fields and dense copses of the Mississippi delta. When the sun goes down like a slow-slipping egg yolk in the white of the sky, the land is submerged in Langston Hughe’s “dewy night”; air that one drinks as much as breathes. Some people, my wife included, hate the humidity of the South. I acknowledge that it can be overwhelming, but the immersiveness of the landscape takes the mind in different directions than the expansiveness of the West. On our first trip to visit the Flyes in the summer of 2002 I drove across the plains and entered Arkansas at Fort Smith. At some point on the drive northeast to Paragould we entered a stretch where the highway ran alongside the tracks, and it was then that I saw it for the first time, that raised gravel bed running beneath dripping liquid trees, their crowns a blaze of green, woods’ interior as dark as night, the sagging power lines, rusting rails in late day amber haze. It was an image I’d seen or read about numerous times in movies and books: the South. There is sweat and there is blood in that soil, going long, long back. It was palpable. I sensed it all around. Terrible things had happened here, to the degree that sadness is a natural feature.

Over the ensuing days, and in future visits, Bobby would give voice to this land with his countless stories and anecdotes. I’ve never met anyone so rooted and in touch with his home place. In talking about Bobby, it is impossible to avoid talking about the land; person and place are one entity. Our typical summer days in northeast Arkansas consisted of leaving the moms at home, taking the kids and heading out to wherever. Mina, Naomi and the third sister, Rico, who would come down from St. Louis for these family gatherings, preferred to sit in the air-conditioned house talking, cooking, eating day and night. It is an Okinawan custom called chirudai, or “sacred laziness,” that fits well with the Southern pace of life. Me? I’ve got to get out, and to my great delight, Bobby was of similar temperament.

Off we’d go, all day, Bobby pointing out this mansion, and that shack, telling the story behind each. “There were juke joints in that swamp back in the twenties, and distilleries. In those days you could hear them all night long and smell the mash in the air.” He told me about this one afternoon as we stood in a graveyard beside a spread of cropland fronting the St. Francis River, along the Arkansas-Missouri border. He’d pulled off the road to show me his father’s grave. He’d do that, spontaneously pull off the road and share a piece of his life that was part of the ground beneath his feet. He often spoke of wanting to move to Colorado, and brought the family out to the Front Range several times, even applying for a work transfer.  But it never worked out. And somehow I don’t think it ever could have. He was too much a part of Green County. For him to leave, it would have been like pulling a tree out of the ground and expecting it to walk away.

Crossing that river many times, to buy tax free gas and beer on the Missouri side, we were stopped one afternoon at a mini-mart. Bobby ran inside to use the restroom while I waited in the truck. In the baking heat across the parking lot, a mangy dog was sleeping in the dust, carefully tucked within a parallelogram of shadow beneath the gas station’s battered, rusting sign. As soon as Bobby climbed back in the cab, he pointed and said, “Look at that old dog sleeping under the sign in the heat. That’s the South right there!” He said no more, but I understood. Everything in that place, in that moment in time, in our lives was epitomized by a dog with limited shade. That was the wisdom of Bobby Flye, a man who spoke continuously, but who never spoke too much; who never said what didn’t need saying; who made his point with the silences between his words.

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If the “Hopeless” Have Hope, Then Who Can Justify Dismissing It?

In 1992 I took a survey course in Physical Anthropology at my local community college. It is not too much to say that it was a life-affecting experience–and I lay the blame firmly on Foley Benson, one of the finest teachers I’ve ever had.  So lasting was his impact on my thinking that I’ve forgotten very little of what I learned in his class 22 years on. One of the topics he focused on was the question of survival for the last several hundred mountain gorillas in Rwanda and the DRC. At that time, the Rwandan genocide was still two years out. Dian Fossey, though killed for her actions, had helped to change the Rwandan mindset about these close relatives of Humanity; there was a faint glimmer of hope for their survival. I known about these highly threatened primates before taking Benson’s class, but his knowledge and passion for them motivated me to keep up with the story through the genocide in ’94 and all the ensuing years of protracted civil war in the region.

Today there are 800-plus gorillas in Virunga National Park, more than in 1992, but still very low in number and more threatened than ever. That they have survived is almost inconceivable. But their continuing survival, along with that of their entire ecosystem is more in jeopardy than ever before: oil has been discovered in the Lake Edward area bordering the park. I will not go into details about the entrenched corruption that fuels the endless war, the international demand for rare metals, and the actions of governments both in the region and abroad, and the transnational corporations, etc., etc. Watch the movie, “Virunga”, now streaming on Netflix, and see for yourself. I watch all sorts of compelling documentaries, and keep myself in the know about the terrors and hopes driving our cankerous world ever closer to the abyss. I’m a really smart, well-informed guy, as bourgeois as they come. Yet this movie affected me. So much so that I feel compelled to do more than ponder it soberly for a night, talk about it with my wife over breakfast, and then get back to being myopically busy. You need to see it, think deeply on it, tell your friends, forward this post….You need to do something with what you see and hear in this film.

Most poignant for me,  are the park rangers, men who have dedicated their lives to saving this primordial island in a sea of destruction. They have chosen to die fighting rather than abandon the park to a vicious rebel group and an equally vicious oil company. Here is the front line in the battle against cynicism, a disease of the mind as virulent as Ebola. If these men, living in day to day uncertainty about their own survival are willing to stick it out for another species, what does this show us about human potential? At the end of the film a ranger, AK-47 in hand, looks out across a lake with surfacing hippos:

“I have accepted to give the best of myself so that wildlife can be protected beyond all pressure. Beyond all greediness about money. Beyond all things. All that could happen to me, I will accept it. I am not special.”

I took many things from this important film, but what stands out the most is that we are capable of limitless hope and compassion. In Buddhism this is called the bodhisattva spirit. It is a selfless altruism, but not in the Western sense. A bodhisattva is one who gives his/her whole life to a greater cause with the understanding that doing so benefits the giver as much as the receivers; and not in some rewards in heaven kind of way, but right here, right now. If you want benefit and fortune, if you want happiness, then serve others as you are, right here and now. This is what we see happening with many of the Virunga rangers. We are capable of healing every rift between people, as well between people and nature. Anyone who reckons that we’re doomed and resignedly, or even smugly puts self service before service to others needs to look to the rangers of Virunga. I read somewhere not long ago that presently the African continent is experiencing its own world war. I am reminded of the words of one of the ambulance drivers of  Liberia who is willing to risk contracting Ebola in order to serve his nation.  If the “hopeless” have hope, then who can justify dismissing it?

Ultimately, I ended up thinking about Professor Benton. He had a religious spirit about conservation that he shared with my class in an embracing non-sectarian manner. It was 1992, but he foresaw the crises of our present time. I recall him telling the class that man’s destruction of the environment has been a 6,000 or more year process, and so it is not our fault that the rainforests are dwindling, the ice caps melting, etc. But, he cautioned, it is our responsibility to reverse the trend. He then threw out the caveat that achieving environmental sustainability won’t happen without a religious-like conviction at the level of the individual. I remember that this idea really threw the class. Some students were clearly at odds with it. But, he explained, he was not talking about any particular religion, but rather the unremitting conviction that comes from a religiousness of mind. All religious traditions will one day come to serve the great project of protecting ecosystems and biodiversity. I was impressed then because his message closely echoed my Nichiren Buddhist concept of human revolution. And what impresses me today is the lasting impact of this one amazing teacher, his affect on me proof of the power of one individual to bring change.

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The Dream is Mundane: the Importance of Curbing My Amazement

Albion, William Blake’s primordial man

In June I decided once and for all to lose weight. A good friend and fellow teacher who advised me in this endeavor suggested I cut out sugar and carbs one item at a time, day by day, week by week. “No,” I told him. “With me, it’s cold turkey or nothing.” And so, the day after school ended in the first week of June, I quit eating bread and rice, and only took sugar in my tea. Quickly I began losing weight, more weight than I’d ever lost before, and without exercise. Within two weeks I’d lost ten pounds, by the end of summer, over thirty. I’ve dropped a waist size, something I never imagined would happen, and I have the happy problem of ill-fitting clothes.

But this post is not about weight loss, achieving goals, a new lease on life, etc. Rather, it is about personal ideation. The back story to this victory is that I’ve been overweight since I was about twelve. Not terribly overweight, but enough to where I’ve always felt self-conscious and uncomfortable. Again, not terribly self-conscious and uncomfortable, but enough to impact my self-esteem and social interactions. At the same time, I’ve never been troubled enough by my weight to challenge it until this year. Ostensibly, as I’ve been telling people, I chose to focus on my health now because I’m in my forties and concerned about aging well. Superficially, this is true, but there is a deeper motivation: I want to know I have power over my life and my destiny. As a Nichiren Buddhist, I practice a faith that is grounded upon taking full responsibility for one’s life. Still, in nearly 29 years of Buddhist practice, I haven’t been willing to challenge this issue of weight and body image, a problem that I almost effortlessly resolved in only three months. Why the sudden breakthrough? Quite simply because it is the time. There is whole Buddhist concept about the “selection of the time”, but I will forgo an abstruse doctrinal discussion. Let it suffice that for me, this is the time.

That being said, one of the impediments that has held me back in my life–and that includes my professionalism–has been my amazement over the realizing of dreams. Losing weight has been a result of activated imagination: for once, instead of passively imagining what I want and seeing the vision slowly fade, this time I acted directly upon it. But through this process, I continually found myself daydreaming of the goal realized: flab disappearing, a chest and stomach that I’m not afraid to show at the pool, a new confidence and a slightly heady demeanor, etc. So impossible did all of this seem, that the imagined possibility seemed just too fantastic, like winning the lottery and buying a flat in Paris. For this reason, when these daydreams emerged, I confronted them head on: Being in shape is nothing of consequence! Countless people either are not overweight, or effectively lose it. I will lose weight and it will be as nothing. My victory will be feeling unaffected when all of this is past; this dream is mundane. As this internal dialogue continued, I realized that what I really want, more than the goal itself,  is to be possessed of a quiet certainty about my power to transform my life; that is what I’m really hungry for. Thus, instead of fixating on a gilded future self, I embraced a stronger me that has always been present, always yearning to emerge, welcoming him like a family member returning home after a brief outing. One of the keys to this victory was overcoming fantastic conceptions of what might be. Victory is not about making my impossible possible. It is about making my latent possibility manifest. At the risk of sounding trite, I succeeded because I became viscerally, rather than intellectually aware that the only “impossibilities” are those in my mind.

And the education connection to all of this? I hope it is fairly overt at this point, but empowering students to go through this same process seems to me to be the whole point of gathering with them in government buildings every day; this, and nothing else, really.

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Filed under education general, Lost Apple, soka education

Some Back-to-School Thoughts

Anna Ikeda, a good friend from Denver, now living in the east is echoing my perspectives nicely here.


b2sOne day I was on the NYC subway, and an advertisement for a local college caught my attention. It showed stories of individuals who turned around their lives through education. With personal photos and short phrases, it conveyed some inspiring stories. And at the bottom of the ad, it said:

“For more consumer information about this program, go to…”.

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