Excerpts from the book...
Billionaire Buddha Excerpts
The hills lay golden, ancient in their stillness, cracked with drought. Crisp grass stems stubbed the contoured cheeks of hillsides. Cattle lipped the blades with caution as the sun baked their black hides. Twisted oaks, gray and gasping, withered under the relentless assault of unbroken sky. Tired clusters of leaves dotted the fingertips of their branches, offering one last breath to the earth before they toppled. The crumbled bodies of their brothers lay sprawled across the California foothills.
The dirge of the cicadas sharpened. Tension quivered in the hills. The haze of dust froze. Tears of crusty sap ached from an old tree. A groan wracked its wooden torso. The roots surrendered their tenacious grip on the bone-dry soil. The oak fell in a retort of snapping, brittle limbs. The thunder of its trunk exploded across the hillsides.
"You missed," the man said.
Inches from the crushing weight, he spoke the words simply, without rancor. It had been a valiant act, a desperate sacrifice by the tree.
The man sat down beside the fallen trunk, leaning his back against the armored bark. The fall reverberated in the tree. The man waited. The air stilled. He watched the dust settle back to earth. The trunk trembled. The man placed a hand upon a limb.
This was not the first time a tree had tried to kill him. The man's eyes swung the length of the foothills, falling beyond the oaks and cattle to the seam of a once great river, now dry. The winding curves muttered and glinted, but there was no water there. Instead, a line of cars rushed up the canyon, flashing metallic. The engines mimicked the tumult of the river as they defied gravity to scale the slopes.
The man spoke.
"Look at them," he said. His voice slid out soft and quiet, muffled by the expanse of hills and endless sky. "Rushing, always racing, spending the hourglass of their lives in pursuit of phantoms, sucking the lifeblood of the future to gain speed in the present, climbing highways desperately, trying to get to the top."
A sting of bitterness laced his tongue and he paused to swallow it. He stared at the cleft where the road passed between the slopes and vanished. Beyond the rising foothills lay Gold Mountain.
The man bent and removed his cracked and dust-lined shoe. He peeled off a sweaty sock and poked ruefully at the holes. His second shoe had split; its sole flapped like the tongue of a thirsty dog.
A cow lowed resentfully at him. The man looked up.
"This mess began in haste," he said. "It will not end by rushing."
A branch splintered as if to reply that every day the trees were falling; time was of the essence. The man nodded in agreement, gazing at the glinting thread of cars below.
"The view from the top is not what they think," the man said to trees and cows that had never dreamed of Gold Mountain; never yearned to climb it; never begged, borrowed, lied, or stolen. Yet, the oaks were dying from those that had sought its luxury . . . including him. He had not built the road, but he had sung the praises of Gold Mountain. Yes, he had lured the never-ending stream of pleasure-seekers with his siren's call.
"You were right to try to kill me," he said, patting the lifeless bark. He pushed himself to standing. His bare toes splayed in the bone-dry dust. His shoes hung from his hand. He bowed his head to the fallen oak. Then he turned and started walking.
"Look at them," he said. His voice slid out soft and quiet, muffled by the expanse of hills and endless sky. "Rushing, always racing, spending the hourglass of their lives in pursuit of phantoms, sucking the lifeblood of the future to gain speed in the present, climbing highways desperately, trying to get to the top."
"The view from the top is not what they think," the man said to trees and cows that had never dreamed of Gold Mountain; never yearned to climb it; never begged, borrowed, lied, or stolen. Yet, the oaks were dying from those that had sought its luxury . . . including him. He had not built the road, but he had sung the praises of Gold Mountain. Yes, he had lured the never-ending stream of pleasure-seekers with his siren's call.
Her bare back turned on the stars that gleamed like diamonds, but twinkled out of reach; stars that could not be bought or sold; stars that would never touch a human finger; stars that belonged to no one, but blazed equally for all.
"And now they want to see the stars!" the congressman burst out. "Imagine! Suing me for negligence over those smog regulations - they say they have a right to see the stars!" The Senator delivered the words with the perfect touch of patronizing arrogance and indignation. He had rehearsed the line all day, polishing it through repetition. He waited expectantly for the sympathetic burst of laughter at the preposterousness of the situation.
Susan Grant regarded him impassively.
"Well, don't they?" the short, formidable woman asked.
"My house in Los Angeles is just as smoggy as theirs - "
Susan's lips twitched. That might be a good reason to pass smog regulations.
" - but you don't see me whining about the right to see the stars!" the Senator concluded with an aggrieved air.
"The urban poor, Senator, don't have second homes in the High Sierras. Technically, the smog is denying them the right to see the stars."
"They have national and state parks," the Senator replied sternly. "They can visit just like I do. Stars, Mrs. Grant, are not a right. They are a privilege in the modern world, a reward for hard work and diligence."
Strange, he thought, that he had come so close to death and still missed the point of life. It took years of near misses and close encounters for him to understand the simple truth . . . life is the point unto itself: to live, to sense, to see the golden slant of light, to watch the dance of lengthening shadows, to hear the solitary lowing cow, to catch a scent of night in your nostrils, to be the conscious eye of the Universe, the mirror of the world.
Oh human, look beyond your limbs. Your body is the looking glass of the One. Self knowing Self, loving what Self sees.
There is more to life than vanity, Dave gently chided the Universe. He settled down in the grass as shadow conquered light. There is suffering, pain, and ignorance. We're here to ease our agony and end the causes of poverty, sickness, and destruction. We're not just here for navel-gazing narcissism -
Who says? the Universe mocked him.
I do, he replied, and that's good enough for me.
If love is madness, hate is insanity.
He breathed deeply as the silken caress of wind traced his body, carrying the vast coolness of the sky and the warm heat of the valley. The somber outlines of the hills stretched for miles in all directions, but he was not lonely. Loneliness is being untouchable on the top of the world. Loneliness is lying invisible as you starve on the streets. Humanity was a master chef in the flavors of loneliness. He counted his blessing not to have tasted them all. He had never swallowed the loss of a motherless child, or the ache of an old man by the grave of a fresh-buried wife, or the desperate aloneness of a destitute woman as she submits to the thrusts of a stranger.
He knew only his own nuances of the vast tragedy called loneliness: the isolation of wealth, the subtle space carved around him by power, and the hesitancy of connection under the pressure of prestige. He should have kept a calendar, he realized belatedly, a notched stick of days like a man marooned on an island, one tick for each time the sun set without a single touch from a human.
Life is creation. Life is destruction. Our footsteps annihilate the existence of others. Our actions ripple the web of connection. We cause harm even as we eat to survive. Around and around the cycle goes, but what is needed? What is not? How much destruction must come to pay the cost of our lives? Do no harm sounds noble, but do less harm is more practical. Our lives are borrowed for a moment - that is all.
"You'll have me one day, worms," Dave promised.
He stretched and stepped forward. The last foothills lay before him. In a few days, he would be climbing Gold Mountain. A swarm of misgivings rose inside him. He sighed. Calculating the cycles of suffering caused by one's actions was a tricky business. After a lifetime as a serial entrepreneur, Dave dreamed in the second language of cost-benefit analysis, but capitalism's clumsy dialect lacked the vocabulary for analyzing the economy of the heart. It had no words for externalities like love and regret.
A poetics was required, Dave thought, a song of the world to describe the causes and conditions of the heart, soul, and emotions. How else can we calculate the risks of one action, the benefits of another, the cascades of reactions, and the ripples of change?
Trust, the wind whispered. When the fledgling leaps, the wind catches.
The song of the world is not something to calculate. Economics and science will never speak in this language. The song of the world is not an equation or explanation; it is something you join into and lose yourself in. You leap and it catches. You ride in its current. Right and wrong are but two strands of the stream. Humans were not born to live outside this song, rationally calculating its twists and its turns, trying to fathom economics and budgets.
Give it up! the wind laughed.
Dave smiled in response. Just give it up, he echoed, give up wanting to know all the gears and the cogs. Surrender to your place in the whole. He climbed the hills, a small solitary figure outlined against the curve of earth and sky. Seven years of giving it up had emptied his pockets, his bank accounts, and his mind. No baggage, no illusion of safety; just a raw flesh-and-blood figure walking the Earth, empty even of his concepts of that. He had given up fear, desire, anger, hatred, the urge to control, and the longing to know.
How much more must I give up? Dave asked silently. He squinted into the expanse. The weather lines on his face splintered like cracks in dry earth. The blue of the sky met his eyes. The answer returned from the unblinking Universe.
The fear of having nothing hurts worse than the reality, Dave reflected as he slipped his ragged shoes back onto his leathered feet and scrambled up an embankment toward a gas station. Broken glass and the treacherous tongues of sardine cans glinted in the noonday light, threatening his soles. Grimy plastic bags waved weakly from their tangled positions in the weeds. Mysteries of human stories lined the slope. Dave paused beside a teddy bear that bore the marks of a child's love along with its weather-matted fur and sun-bleached hairs. He stared at it, humbled by the unknown tragedies that sweep the lives of billions. The bear's leg sank halfway into the dust, paying tribute to the duration of time it had lain forgotten on this slope. The child that once clutched its stubby body might have grown into a teenager now, clutching a cellphone for comfort instead of a bear. That awkward adolescent might be eyeing his parents suspiciously, haunted by murky childhood memories of tears and loss and his parents' refusal to turn the car around, resentful of the inherent injustice that scarred his capacity to trust and love.
Then again, the arc of the Universe is long. Dave crouched down by the bear and pulled it from the dust. He tenderly brushed the lumpy fur. Perhaps this battered bear was a great sacrifice in the Universe's grand design. Perhaps that boy, imprinted early in the aching pain of injustice, did not accept it as humankind's fate. Perhaps that boy, now churning hormonally through his rebellious teenage years, was wearing black and soaking up anarchist philosophy, playing hooky from the tyranny of teachers and public school dictatorships. Perhaps he is, at this very moment, trembling in a fifteen-year-old blend of desire and awe as the radical college girl cries revolution and justice at the local cafe. In his yearning, perhaps he dares to love, dares to believe in what she says, dares to think that tyranny and dominance are not the fate of humankind, dares to imagine that cruelty and violence are not inherent to human nature, but inimical to our souls. That boy - despaired of by his parents - was probably failing in his courses for refusing to memorize the litany of wars that pass for history and demanding to know why they were being taught the supremacy of capitalism when he and his generation would be chained to debt for life.
Somewhere, Dave encouraged the forlorn bear, your boy might be growing into a courageous spark of change.
Dave set the bear upright among the weeds and gathered up the other sacrificial losses that had been tossed out from car windows: a baby's shoe, an illegibly wrinkled notebook, a set of earphones, a lottery ticket stub. He loaded his hands with remnants of broken hopes and dreams abandoned on the littered slope. Each carried the echoes of a thousand stories and too many possibilities to discern. Dave knelt before his roadside shrine and murmured words to all the gods and spirits that might be listening: May the losses of these people give rise to great awakenings, may we grow stronger despite our suffering, and may our painful moments lay the foundation for courage in our future.
"Where's the rest - "
"They're for customers only," the cashier snapped at him, cutting off his question.
Dave looked around. Sodas, candy, a poisonous-looking apple that could have been straight out of Snow White: there was nothing to eat in the whole place. He bought a newspaper. He tucked it under his arm and held out his hand for the men's room key.
"Gas customers only," she qualified.
"I don't have a car," he told her.
"Then I don't have a restroom."
"You're joking," he exclaimed.
She pointed to a sign in the window: Hitchhiking is strictly prohibited on this highway.
"I'm not hitchhiking. I'm walking," he explained.
She raised her penciled eyebrows in her puffy face.
"We don't serve vagrants," she informed him.
"I'm not a vagrant," he answered.
"You look like it," she retorted.
"Look," he sighed, "water and bathrooms are human rights - "
"Go talk with the United Nations," she snapped back unsympathetically.
"Couldn't you just - "
"Ma'am, I'm not going to graffiti the walls, shit on the floor, shoot up heroin, plug up the toilet, leave the water running, or spend all day in your restroom - "
She craned her neck and looked past him.
"Can I help the next person in line?"
Dave pivoted. Four people glanced away in an mixture of embarrassment, pity, and irritation. He stepped back from the counter.
"The dignity of all human beings," he began softly, "resides in our kindness to one another. The refusal of common decency does not lower my dignity; it lowers yours."
"Next!" the cashier barked, blushing red.
"The same is true for all who witness cruelty and stay silent. Your honor falters when you remain neutral toward unnecessary suffering. It would be easier for me to leave, shame-faced, and go defecate in the bushes then to cause a stir in our well-ordered world. But who will speak up for the next person in line? If I don't say something, how long will culturally-approved cruelty continue to mire this gas station in shame - "
"I'll call the police," the cashier threatened, tired of his sermonizing.
"You would use law enforcement officers to deny my basic human rights?" he questioned.
"Go shit in the bushes," she snarled back.
The line of customers stirred uncomfortably. Dave looked sadly at the cashier. She glared angrily back at him. Beneath her scowl, he could see the flush of embarrassment intermingling with her irritation, and also worry. Her eyes glanced at the security camera, wondering what her boss would think. She scowled at him, just wanting him gone.
A thick hand fell on the counter.
"Give me the key to the john," a trucker muttered.
The cashier hesitated.
"I ain't got time for this crap," the man growled. "I gotta take a piss and get back on the road."
She handed him the key. He gave it to Dave.
"Get in there and be quick," the trucker warned.
The cashier started to object.
"Shut up," the trucker snapped. "You'd probably make Jesus go shit in the bushes."
He stalked toward the restroom, jerking his head at Dave to follow.
Dave pissed, shit, washed and dried his hands in record time and handed the key to the trucker with a sigh of thanks.
"Don't mention it," the guy said as he shut the restroom door.
The TV news station at the bus terminal blared out that the Supreme Court had ruled that waterboarding wasn't torture. Dave, the bums, and the Guantanamo prisoners all lifted bleary eyes and dared the judges to try it out for themselves. The prisoners went on hunger strike; the bums just went hungry. The torture didn't stop for either group. Cold laced his marrow until he stopped bothering to shiver. He could chatter his teeth into pulverized bits before he warmed up in this downpour. Cheap alcohol worked better, but even that ran out.
He stood in the gloom of the rain under a tree downtown, cursing Gautama Buddha for his bourgeois privilege of living in tropical India. The Buddha didn't awaken in the monsoon season, Dave thought belligerently. No one gets enlightened in the rain . . . they just get wet.
His eyes wept rain as he scanned the storefronts trying not to envy the mannequins poised inside the windows or the yapping shop-dog that lived inside the boutique across the street, growing fat on treats from wealthy women who made him dance and beg. The little bastard had bitten Dave once. It ran out and snapped off a chunk of his leg as he admired the window display. He kicked the vicious beast and the shopkeeper screamed bloody murder as if he were the menace to society! The monster had drawn blood! It could have rabies! The cop who came running shoved him down the street and told him to get lost.
Dave flipped the middle finger across the street to where the red-eyed little devil was curled up in a dog bed in the windowsill. He couldn't read it through the rain, but he knew there was a greeting card taped to the window with a Gandhi quote in gold embossed typeface.
"The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated."
The boutique sold those cards at twelve dollars a pop to women who carried Chihuahuas in their designer handbags and walked stiffly past the panhandlers on the street. Dave had heard one woman mutter something about lazy bums who wouldn't work - to which her companion had shrilly laughed.
"But darling," she exclaimed, "you've never worked a day in your life, either!"
"True," the first woman replied, "but I'm rich."
As if that explained everything. Laziness is a sin of the poor. The wealthy call it leisure.
"Ah," Edna sighed knowingly. She folded her hands in her lap and waited. A man can't help but want to rattle on about the woman he loves, even if she's whipping his sorry rump into shape. 'Course, Edna amended her thoughts as she snuck a glance at Dave Grant, she would bet her winning bingo ticket that those two were like blacksmiths at the forge: anvil, fire, steel, hammer, smith, and smithy all at once.
"So, who is she?" Edna asked.
"Joan’s like drowning in the well of truth."
"She'll kill you if you don't learn to swim?" Edna chuckled with familiarity.
"Oh, so you know," Dave replied.
"Oh yes, I know," Edna said, pursing her papery lips together.
They drove quietly for a moment as the sun touched down on the peaks of the hills, spilled its golden farewell, then ducked out of sight, leaving them in shadows. Dave flicked on the headlights. When Edna spoke, her voice was thick with the past and her eyes saw memories invisible to Dave.
"You're just sitting there talking," she murmured, "when the eye of the Universe opens and sees itself looking back."
He nodded. Swallowed. Nodded again.
"Yes," he agreed.
"And you're not sure whether to be terrified," she said, "or fall desperately, madly in love with yourself in ways Echo and Narcissus could never even imagine."
"Yes," he whispered.
"Rumi and Shams, words of the beloved, Ram and Sita: it all makes sudden sense, but you can't find the words to explain it."
"Yes," he agreed.
"You want to shout your discovery from the rooftops, shake people in the street, and say hello! Hello, my beloved self, hello!"
"No," he shook his head. "That part comes later. At the moment your eyes meet, you can't bear to look away. You fall into the grace of seeing through her body, through yours, as if eyes and flesh were but ungainly telescopes and you are seeing the face of God mirroring your own because she is the mirror, polished, empty, quietly serving to reflect the truth - and in her eyes, you see - "
" - that you are the mirror, too," Edna finished. "God seeing God, seeing God seeing God."
"But there is nothing there - not you, not her, not God as something other than that reflection of what is."
"The paradox that annihilates us all," Edna whispered.
"And then you fuck," Dave concluded.
Shocked laughter shot out of Edna.
"What else is there to do," he said, "except reignite the cosmic spark of creation that turns this whole Universe around?"
Edna wheezed with laughter. Tears trembled in the gutters of her wrinkles.
"What else is there to do?" Dave repeated. "Wash the dishes? Take out the garbage? Get into petty arguments with your neighbors? Come on," he rolled his eyes. "The Universe just said hello . . . the only logical response is to give her a tremendous welcome!"
Edna howled until laughter shook the rattling car. Her gnarled hand patted his arm over and over. Her other hand curled its pale fist to her mouth trying to hold the laughter in, but every time she looked at Dave it exploded from the narrow birdcage of her chest.
"You'd better stop," he chuckled. "You'll have a heart attack."
She cackled harder.
"What a way to go!" she gasped. "I always told this world, sex or laughter, that's how I want to die, but at my age . . . " she trailed off.
His grin crinkled up the corners of his eyes.
"It would be a great inconvenience to me if you kicked the bucket at the moment," he mentioned.
"Me too," she wheezed. "The story just got interesting. Too bad you didn't meet this Joan back in your Gold Mountain days. I like her already."
"We're all the eye of the Universe - just some of us have our eyelids squeezed shut. The trees never blink, you know, nor the stars, or the rivers. Seems like humans are the only ones telling lies to mask the plain and simple truth. I used to go around with my eyes wide open like a submarine periscope, a spy of the divine, undercover in ordinary life."
Up in the mountains, thirty miles east of town, he lived in a tiny Japanese teahouse complete with tatami mats. He had rented it on a whim, intending to live in the main house on the property, but he had rolled a futon out one day to take a nap and that moment of quiet ease became an obsession. Tucked under the towering redwood trees, surrounded by a giant bamboo grove, the Japanese teahouse was a gem hidden from the world. The owner let him rent it for a living space, along with the nearby wooden deck with an outdoor bathtub and a little toolshed converted into a kitchen. He cooked on a hot plate, showered under the stars, ate at the wooden picnic table when the weather turned warm, and shivered under three down comforters when the winter rains came.
It was as if he had never lived before. Years of luxury had dulled his senses, but the cold nip of winter rains and the hot breath of summer awakened his sensuality. The crack of a twig underfoot, the crunch of pebbles, the scrape of dry, papery leaves, the silent settling of the dust - these revived him. He crackled with aliveness. He breathed in the sharp cleansing tang of the redwoods. He watched the ripple of daylight shift through the bamboo grove. He listened to the evening lullabies of blue jays roosting and the soft hush of leaves scraping stone.
Then there were the buddhas.
Thirty carved stone statues stood silently throughout the property, some standing, some reclining, one kneeling; all life-size, six foot tall, imposing figures that watched him mutely, hands raised in mudras, palms outstretched, one up, one down, the old chant on their immobile lips: Fear not, I shall not transition without you.
"So," Joan said, returning him to the present, "you read Buddhist sutras?"
Her casual tone was laced with intense curiosity. He glanced up and caught the dark stare of her eyes searching his face. A frown furrowed her eyebrows as if this information had caused her to suddenly reconsider every aspect of the man who had appeared in the teahouse this afternoon.
"I read them every night," Dave joked to break the tension. "They put me right to sleep."
"Joan," he said calmly, "you do know why all the bodhisattvas come back from the edge of enlightenment, don't you?"
"To liberate all beings and end suffering," she replied confidently.
"No," he made a face. "That's just propaganda for the Buddhist temples."
She blinked. He drank his tea and smacked his lips as he waited for her to ask . . .
"So, why do they come back?" she challenged him.
"Sex and chocolate."
She rolled her eyes at him.
"It's true," he insisted.
"That's ridiculous," she retorted.
"Think about it," he urged. "Why else would they come back?"
"To end suffering," Joan answered indignantly.
"Exactly. Sex and chocolate equals no suffering."
"No," she argued, "no suffering equals no suffering."
"Are you saying sex is suffering?" he teased. "Sounds awfully Roman Catholic to me. Have you ever had an orgasm?"
"That is none of your business!" she burst out, shocked.
Not yet, anyway, he amended silently. He drank his tea nonchalantly and put his cup out for more.
"Maybe," he drawled slowly, teasing her with his eyes, "I was meant to come here today and save you from the cloister."
She raised one skeptical eyebrow.
He stretched his hands behind his head and smiled winningly.
"Tell me, Joan, if all beings are liberated already, what good does it do to lock yourself up in the temple?"
"Where do you get this notion of self that's locked up?" she shot back.
"I don't," he laughed. "My notion of Joan doesn't involve cloisters and locks."
"Your notion of Joan is an illusion."
"Ah, but so is yours," he countered.
Her eyes pinned him sharply.
"Who are you?" she asked him with an intense frown.
He froze. The look in her eyes broke the confines of time and space. Lifetimes unraveled threads of connections. He had known her before - once, twice, a thousand times over. Their fates had spiraled through the centuries. Who was he? Woken before dawn to read the perfection of wisdom, drawn to a red door that said pull, brought to this teahouse to meet her at this moment . . .
"Perhaps," he said softly, "you should think about that before joining a monastery."
"The rich are only viewed as job creators because they hold all the capital," she pointed out. "If their massive fortunes were dispersed among the people, every Tom, Dick, and Harry would be popping out small businesses, jobs, and stimulus to the economy. The wealthy and their mega-corporations are not - and never have been - job creators. They tend to be poverty-inducing, minimum wage-producing, part-time job-inflicting, union-busting, healthcare-eroding, worker rights-violating, democracy-destroying monsters."
She heaved for breath and the man stole an advantage.
"Well, without those jobs no one would have any work."
"Are you insane?" Joan shot back. "The wealthy elite are sucking up money like water and the whole nation is cracking with drought. The dam of their fortunes is amassing into a huge reservoir that no one has access to, except for the rich. Break the dam, I say! Turn the water into the desert and you'll be amazed at the vibrant economies that will grow."
"You're hardly an economist -"
"No, I'm a Buddhist," Joan retorted. "Which simply means that I observe things as they are."
"I think you're overestimating the size of the dam," the man argued.
"Actually," Dave interjected, "she's underestimating it."
She raised an eyebrow at him, picked up the neglected tea pitcher, and refilled all the cups as he spoke.
"The richest handful of individuals in this country owns more than the poorest forty percent of the populace. How much do you make a year?" he asked the youth sitting next to the college student who had started the conversation.
"On a good year?" the young man pondered, thinking about his three, post-college, part-time jobs. "I'd say about thirty thousand dollars - but only if I get a sweet summer gig with good tips."
Dave calculated rapidly.
"The wealthy make that much in an hour and fifteen minutes," he pointed out.
"You're making that up," the man objected.
Dave smiled grimly.
"No, I can assure you, I'm not."
The number was based on his Gold Mountain income, not including investments or interest from his offshore account.
"You're just parroting the protestors," the man grumbled.
Dave folded his arms across his chest and stared steadily back.
"I have been a serial entrepreneur for over three decades," he stated. "I know more about business and economics than this entire room put together. I have been a multi-millionaire since the age of thirty and I built the most exclusive resort in the western United States. If you knew what I know about the wealthy, you wouldn't be arguing about those protestors . . . you'd be joining them in the streets."
He folded his hands in a steeple against his lips, staring up at the ceiling. Wealth in this country was inseparable from capitalism. Fortunes grew from the brutal history of stolen capital, first the land of the continent, then the resources, the labor of the enslaved and immigrants, and most recently, the robbery of their potential bound up in loans and crushing debts.
Dave's expression fell into deep shadows as he grappled with the parasitical nature of capitalism. The spine-shuddering vision of a massive beast haunted his thought; he watched capitalism sink its talons into living creatures and suck their blood and sinew until the emptied sack of bones and skin collapsed. In the New World, capitalism had unleashed its seething violence to massacre a continent of civilizations that objected to its parasitic invasion. The coasts of the east, the farmlands, the Appalachia’s fell to the all-devourer. No more! the natives cried, but the Spanish conquered Mexico at sword point and sucked up the California coast. The French trappers wormed into the tall forests. The English, the Irish, the German, the Dutch: the hordes continued to advance as greedy European elites consumed wealth, food, equality, and justice, thrusting thousands more into desperation, and ultimately, onto the ships departing for the Americas. Manifest Destiny delivered divine rule to white-skinned masses; opposition was plowed under, along with the arrowheads and blood of massacres and battles. Darwin broke onto the scene and out of a hundred pages of cooperation, collaboration, and compassion, the marketing racket caught the line "survival of the fittest" and trumpeted it from the rooftops of the burgeoning city skyscrapers. Adam Smith's invisible hand met a similar fate as the Wall Street robber barons reached eagerly to strike a deal with a hand that was mentioned only once in the economic treatise. John Locke's theory of the right to private property was truncated at the clause " . . . so long as the well being and good of the commoners is assured." A heartless novelist capitalized on the ill-founded myths and a well-funded foundation ensured her books were read. A thousand false premises paraded around in the psyche of a nation without a single courageous child to cry out, "Look Mommy, the Empire has no clothes!"
It had no clothes, no heart, no decency, no shame, no foundation in truth, no reality. Capitalism was Greed unleashed like Satan's right hand man, justified by convenient misinterpretations of the Bible, and rationalized by sciences that failed to account for the reality of the world. Capitalism had the gall to proclaim its superiority to all other economic systems when Europe lay in crumbled ruins and bombed-out cities after two world wars had tromped across its back. Capitalism dared to vilify its main competition in a twist of bitter irony - the system that lauds competition as its main insignia would not duel fairly with communism or socialism, but instead fought dirty and aimed low. Never has a day risen or set upon an equal opportunity capitalist economy. Never has competition proved survival of the fittest. Instead, the lowest, vilest, meanest, cruelest, most heartless villains who hold nothing sacred and will stoop to anything for a profit have risen and risen and risen.
Dave Grant bore no illusions about his former life. From personal experience, he knew capitalism in practice was a vampire wearing the historic cape of colonization and imperialism. Its success was built on others' ruin. Predatory, voracious, insatiable, it devours lives as resources and then moves on to greener pastures, leaving the emaciated in its wake along with toxic wastes, birth defects, poverty, and devastated landscapes. It crunches down the rocks and licks the minerals. It drinks the water. It sucks the air. Then it collapses and finally lies forgotten in the dust of human extinction on a barren, empty planet spinning through the lonely void of space.
All this and more pounded through Dave as his temples throbbed with thought. Capitalism ends in collapse, lives in a state of collapse, and preys on collapse. It is the accountant for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It is the all-devourer of the ancient spiritual prophecies. Capitalism builds up value, then destroys it, buys it up cheap, resells it for a profit, and builds something new. But in this tidy equation lie billions of lives thrown into ruin. Disaster, debt, imprisonment, and despair: it's all just par for the course on capitalism's green.
As for socialism, communism, he could not say. He could only speak for a system he knew with great intimacy, one he had excelled at, witnessed first hand, manipulated, perverted, dominated, succumbed to, escaped from and been chained to again. He could only speak for himself and perhaps for the creatures without voices, those who were resources or externalities to capitalism's eyes.
"Capitalism will destroy us unless we destroy capitalism," he said, half in a trance.
When the groove works, it sings, Dave reflected. You can go on playing the same beautiful song through your whole life, occasionally flipping the record for variation, or resetting the needle to the beginning.
"There's no such thing as a rut that heads nowhere," she declared, crossing her arms and giving him a hawk-eyed glare. "Ancient cultures rooted in the feminine understand that, in an impermanent world, the new horizon is the same one we look at every day. The world is, in fact, recreating itself anew, right before our eyes. We cannot step in the same river twice, and a groove changes with each revolution."
"And is the feminine - the yin - any less destructive? Everyone thinks of nurturing mothers and Kwan Yins, but water is the most corrosive force on earth. Rot, decay, darkness, death, autumn, winter, these are all yin elements."
"I think they're both destructive in the excess," Dave replied carefully.
"Yes," she agreed before emphasizing her point again, "but is it right to think our lives are about growth? Or is that just a left-over concept from the patriarchal invade and conquer mentality: clear the forest, kill the natives, set up the homestead, build a town, develop a city, raise the skyscrapers, consume the world's resources . . . "
"That's just one model of growth," he replied, latching onto the firmer footing of economic models and development plans. "And, if you oppose the global industrial growth society, you ought to stop drinking tea shipped from China."
"I know, it's a moral conundrum, isn't it?" she replied seriously. "Everyone has their indulgences. I wash my plastic bags and reuse them, bucket the gray water into the garden; support local, organic agriculture; I became a vegetarian because of climate change; I don't drink alcohol because the grain should be used to end world hunger first; I bike around town and never travel on airplanes . . . but I drink tea from China." She frowned. "I suppose shipping tea to the United States is more fuel efficient than flying there to drink it."
"There's a lot you don't know about me, Dave Grant," she warned him.
And even more you don't know about me, he countered silently, thinking of champagne Jacuzzi baths, daily massages, and truffles flown in overnight from France. He considered telling her, but quickly decided she would shun him for being the epitome of the self-absorbed, greedy billionaire who had left his wife for a young blonde and drove a red sports car at reckless speeds through school zones. He pictured her bailing out her bathtub and lugging a five-gallon bucket to water the plants, doing her small part to help the ecology in the drought-prone central California coast.
His golf course had guzzled a million gallons of water a day.
From the perspective of his former business and political associates, her lifestyle activism was not only pointless; it was downright pathetic. With a flick of a wrist, legislators could subsidize renewable energy, end fossil fuel use, and free up the billions of gallons of water consumed by coal plants. Wealthy billionaires could write a check to put solar panels on every home and business in the nation, thereby ending the cause of the climate crisis. And here was Joan, bucketing her gray water.
That's how the system works, though, he thought. The powerful do nothing; the powerless labor and sweat and beg and plead for change; using every bit of time, energy, resources, and skills they possess; exhausting all possibilities while the powerful rake in millions of dollars on systems of destruction, sitting in their chaise lounges, sipping bourbon by the pool, criticizing the lazy, drunk, good-for-nothing poor.
He wandered into the forest, stumbling over roots until, exhausted, he leaned his head against an oak - the property of god-knows-who - and wept into the Spanish moss that climbed its bark.
"You," he informed the tree, "are a slave."
He pushed away from the trunk and pointed his finger at the other silent, gnarled trees.
"You . . . and you . . . and all of you are slaves. The earth - the soil - that your roots curl into is a slave. The water that runs in creeks is enslaved. All of earth is enslaved to humans!"
He climbed onto the toppled body of a fallen oak, carved by chainsaws into sections and limbs and then forgotten by the loggers. The dampness of the coast enveloped them. A dreary bank of rain clouds made the branches shiver and the moss droop forlornly like rags across the thin arms of the trees. Dave tripped drunkenly on his tongue as he addressed the silent oaks.
"Property - hic! - property," he paused, shaking his head. "You live out your days, thinking you are free. Then, one day, you discover you are not. The whole lot of you belong to your owner."
He waited for their gasp of horror, but the oaks stood stoically, barely rustling their tiny leaves. He was, after all, a mere human, drunk on the madness of his species. But, Dave warned them silently, he was a human who had made his first fortune butchering their brothers to the north.
"Ah," he continued, eyeing them shrewdly. "Property is all delusion, you say, but whose? Humanity writes its claim to you on the backs of your parents who were toppled and pulverized into paper."
Again, no answer. Perhaps a sigh of wind slipped through the hanging moss. Dave scratched his head. He examined the grime of his scalp that clung beneath his fingernails. He tottered on the fallen log, grabbing a twisted limb for balance.
"Isn't it wrong," he cried, "to be enslaved to anyone?"
The hubris and debate over slavery merely exempted humans from the definition of property . . . what a failure of vision to have stopped our logical examination. An African should not be enslaved because an African is not an animal, but should an animal be enslaved? Captured, domesticated, kept as house servants or locked in pens, bred not by natural attraction but by the genetic selection of human owners, sent to slaughter by decree of the master: all these are objectionable when applied to fellow human beings, but are they any less objectionable when applied to other species? It defies logic.
Dave's audience stood silent, weighing his words or ignoring his ranting. He could not tell. He did not care. Thoughts burned like fire in his chest and rose in flaming outbursts. Words have made humans more ferocious than dragons - those mythic beasts could only scorch and burn, but with words, humanity has touched the moon and scraped the sky with towers and spanned the ocean with wires and sent satellites into space where once only gods and angels dared to fly.
With words, humanity raises up a single man to rule all others. With words, the ruler kills entire populaces. With a word, the bombs begin to fall. With a word, the nuclear warheads could annihilate the world. They say dark mages are only legend, yet the spells of words still bind us all. Orders, commands, legal words on paper . . .
"And you," Dave said to the oaks, "are caught by words - paper words backed by chainsaws, protected by guns of state, bought by paper money and electronic transfers. You are slaves! The mighty oak has masters! Your worth is calculated by weight and length. You have no value as a living creature. Only your death will turn a profit for your owner, so you live on borrowed time, thinking you are free. You are like cows in a vast range that never see the fence. Or like humans in the modern world who never wonder about these things!"
He wept. The rain drizzled and choked his words. The corpse of the oak grew slick. He slipped, falling painfully on the hard wood, banging his ribs and collapsing in the loam, muddy and moaning, shivering against the decaying bark.
You are not free until all are free. Equality is not a half measure. While the animals cower in the feedlots, and the dogs yap behind the fences, and the trees, rocks, rivers, and valleys are owned by human beings, our species is no better than the plantation slave owner loftily claiming that without him, his negroes would degenerate into wild beasts.
Dave groaned on the ground. The wilds - that which we called the wilds - was nothing more than a perfectly content ecosystem going about its business until our fear came along and choked on it. The wilds once humbled humanity, keeping our species into the natural system of check and balances. They cast the arrogance of human beings into the democracy of the species, the round table in which elephants and ants are all created equal. And for this reason, humanity holds nature's egalitarianism with deep disdain and lauds the hierarchies of man. But as the slow quest for equality between the human races, genders, and classes begins to bear fruit; humans are also starting to wonder . . . what is humanity doing on a pedestal of our own construction?
The meadowlark, the sequoia, the humpback whale . . . how can humankind maintain its arrogant delusion of superiority when confronted with the truth of every species' beauty? Our scientists prove the language of the birds, the intelligence of the dolphins, the social structures of the bees, the use of tools by primates, the emotions of the elephants, the alteration of environment by beavers. Nothing sets humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom - except our penchant for folly. At that, our species exceeds all others.
No, we can claim no superiority to other species. Our desire to tame the wilds is nothing but the lust for domination, an attempt to escape the inherent equality of Earth.
Dave laid his head against the damp bark of the fallen tree. The scent of loam swelled up from the disturbed earth. In the aroma of wood, rot, and soil lay the scent of Joan - dark, inscrutable, and woman. In the woman lies the wilds - not the lofty peaks or rocky, windswept summits, but the hollow places twisted with bracken, damp with hidden streams and fertile with life.
The western man sets out to conquer that, to clear the nonsense, establish order, raze the bushes, plow rows, plant fields, and sit on his porch, the master of it all.
And yet, she seethes. Beneath the surface, the woman pulses with resentment, strapped into corsets that bind her as tightly as the property lines that encircle the Earth, ordered to obey her master-husband's beck and call. The woman erodes him, rots him, pulls him back from lofty quests, clings and burrows into him. The man thrusts out, raises structures, towns, and cities. She holds him back, pulls him down and in, wraps him between her legs, and never lets him go.
Go where, my love? the woman asks. Where are you going without me? The barren moon? The flaming sun? The mountain peaks that hold no seeds of life?
Progress! He shouts. Onward!
Onward where? She taunts him. There is only one place that you and I are headed.
He sees in her the beginning, the end, the womb, the grave, the endless cycles, the net, the trap - and he struggles to break free. He seeks to fly, to excel, to shine, to live forever, to be omnipotent like the gods. She folds her arms across her breasts and closes her legs to him. He has missed the point completely.
I'm here, she whispers. Immortality, resurrection, birth beyond death, the emptiness that births your form, embraces your form, gives meaning to your exclamation point of existence.
And still, the man rages. He shaves the forests as severely as his culture insists that women shave their legs, armpits, pubis. He blows up mountains in brutal rapes for coal. He pisses his sewage into oceans as if defecating on his lover. He cruelly exhales toxic smoke into her face. He sprays her with disfiguring, cancerous substances. Then he kicks her in disgust, saying she is old, worn out, useless, ugly; her vagina stretches wider than a whore's; her breasts hang like an old sow's.
In her brokenness, she mocks him. Missing a tooth, she sneers at him. Go find yourself a virgin, fool! She is the wilds, the woods; the Earth. She says to humankind: in this entire Universe, I dare you to find another planet as hospitable as I. She stands on rickety knees, naked and hideous. She waggles her flabby hips.
I was beautiful, once, she reminds man. He groans, remembering. She was beautiful once, beyond belief, beyond compare. The very memory of Earth stirs his loins and quickens his pulse.
Dave wept into the forest floor. His mouth grew chalky on the crunch of loam. The musk filled his nostrils. She is there; the maiden, mother, crone; every woman he's ever known, the friends, adversaries, ex-wife, fantasies, lovers . . . and Joan.
Joan with her half smile at the old cosmic joke and with eyes that had seen life and death a thousand times. Joan who hid her softness behind gates of fire. Joan who floundered in the modern world, trying to make sense of womanhood in a landscape built by men. Who was Joan with her hair undone, with the sisterhood of the wilds around her?
He rolled over on his back, staring at the dark swallow of the storm. Suddenly, he stilled. His eyes swept the sodden clouds. His ears tensed. His skin crawled with the sense that something moved through the dark, leaving no footsteps. The mists whispered and swayed in curtains. Pinprick droplets landed on his skin.
"Who's there?" he asked bluntly.
The night stilled.
Something was out there. If it had been nothing, the mists would have kept moving, brushing, hissing and sliding onward, inland. Yet, at the sound of his voice, the mists hung, static.
Dave clamped down on a shiver. He felt the presence of the unseen growing thicker around him. The sense of invisible forces was not completely unfamiliar. He had felt them during the construction of Gold Mountain, swirling around synchronicities and unusual events. But these were potent, strong, and present. He could feel them rustling out of sight. Beyond the stillness, he sensed the great bank of storm clouds swirling. Images of migrations ghosted in his mind: peoples on the move, armies, peasants, ranchers herding cattle, protesters marching with streaming banners.
Dave breathed in a thread, barely moving. There are layers to life that we cannot see, masked by our focus on reality. The madman's consciousness grows blurred and he stumbles into streams of ghosts, demons, invisible adversaries, seraphim, and angels. Western man tried to conquer the sages, druids, shamans, ghost walkers, spirit intermediaries with the singular dogma of Christianity, but they still lurk beyond our sight, hidden.
It's all true, Dave thought. His eyes darted to the unseen that hung in the night. Every story of ghosts and spirits is all out there in some layer of the Universe, like waves of infrared or sound outside our normal range of sensing.
I'm going mad, he thought. His chest constricted in a fit of panic. I'm unhinging from reality, he worried. He lurched, lunged, and smacked his head against the tree trunk.
"Ooh," he moaned, clapping his hand to the spot and leaning back against the solidness of the trunk to stop the spinning sensation. He squinted into the rain, but he saw nothing otherworldly - only the bulky shapes of oaks.
He sat for hours, listening, but nothing extraordinary occurred, just the sigh of wind through oak leaves and the tap of rain. An occasional animal rustled through the forest. The tang of the sea rode the storm. Salt hid in the low clouds.
Yet, he could not shake the sense of movements, as if out of mortal sight the angels marched and the spirits embarked on great migrations. He listened, wakeful, until he sensed that he sat at an invisible crossroads, leaning against the great oak as if it were a signpost. His arrival here was no mistake, Dave realized with a chill. He had stood at the crossroads of the realms and delivered a speech. He scrambled to remember his drunken rant. His thoughts skittered and dodged beyond his grasp, disappearing into the mists and the night, taking on a life of their own. He remembered only vague concepts of oaks, trees, slaves, property, and the ultimate emancipation of them all.
He stood. The sinews in his legs protested. He carried his damp clothes to a sunny patch and laid them out to dry. Glancing left and right in case of wayward hikers, he returned to the grove of oaks, hesitated, then spoke.
"Naked as the day I was born," he told the trees. "Naked as you stand right now."
The oaks said nothing, but seemed to watch him curiously as he scrambled up the side of the fallen oak and sat cross legged on its back. He pivoted to look around at the ring of trees.
"I wish to tell you a story," Dave began uncertainly. "A true story, and an uncomfortable one . . . a tale that has no easy answers, and may be long in telling, but our fates are twined together as deeply as the air we breathe. My exhale is the inhale of your lungs . . . and without your breath, my species will crumble into dust."
Dave trembled at the madness of addressing trees! Now, when he was no longer drunk, but stark and serious, not in the depth of night, but in the morning's clarity and light! He took a breath and plunged deeper into insanity.
"And I will say this at the crossroads," he declared, "inviting all the realms to listen."
The forest halted. The buzzing insects stilled. The wind hung in place. Not a single leaf rustled. A shiver ran down Dave's spine, for this was real; he was not imagining the reaction of the woods. Sunlight touched his back with its warm encouragement to continue. He swallowed, a pale, naked human being, hairless and defenseless, without fire, knife, or clan to back him up.
"If I tell this story right," he murmured, "perhaps it will help you understand."
And perhaps, it would help them all - oaks, humans, animals, and Dave - find the freedom that they sought.
"My first memory of a tree is a whipping stick smacking across my back."
He must have seen a tree before then, but the red welts of abuse drove all other memories from his mind. He remembered crying - and being whipped again for the cry-baby tears. He remembered hating the willow from which his father cut the switch.
"My second memory of a tree," he confessed to the silent grove of oaks, "was hiding in the branches as my older brother lobbed rocks at me."
He swallowed. The memories ached raw and red, swollen with bruises and unspoken words of childhood anger. He had known the taste of hatred long before the taste of love. Even now, the flavor returned to sting his mouth. He winced and continued.
"My third memory of a tree," he told the forest, "is the shaved and sawn up body of a hardwood board of lumber. My father sent me to pick a whipping switch. Fat or thin, stinging or smacking, I was to choose the method of my punishment."
Instead, he had hauled a two-by-four board into the kitchen. Barely six years old, he had struggled with the awkward length, throwing it at his father's feet.
"Why don't you use this, Dad?" he spat out angrily.
His father's face crumpled in dismay.
"My father never beat me after that," Dave said, "so my mother took on the task."
He closed his eyes to the gentle sunlight. His lips tensed and trembled. Mothers are meant to be nurturing, comforting; his screamed with fury, hustled her wayward sons into line, set her mouth in a line thinner than a switch and attempted to beat the impudence out of her younger child.
"I hated her," he whispered.
He hated them all: mother, father, brother, their house with the white picket fence, the dog he was allergic to - that dog received more gentle pats, treats, and cooing words than he did.
"I studied forestry in college," he told the trees. "I applied early, and at the age of sixteen, I was reading instruction manuals on how to murder forests. I read profit spreadsheets printed on the backs of your brothers. At the age of twenty, I wrote my thesis on your mother's skin. The study covered how to take the sapling youths and scrub brushes, grind them into chips, and make a fortune off the paperboard. By the next year, I was verging on making my first million off of flaying trees alive. At twenty-one, I could legally drown the last scraps of my conscience in alcohol."
He could not count the acres he had razed.
"I remember the first time I cut a chainsaw into a redwood trunk," he told the oaks. A primal rage had pulsed in his veins; a sense of power and victory crashed through him as the giant trunk thunderously toppled. "I felt no remorse. No guilt. No twinge of sorrow that I had ended eight hundred years of life." Dave forced himself to be honest with the oaks. The wind shifted uneasily, almost angrily. His naked flesh rose in goose bumps. He held up his hands.
"Hear me out!" he cried. "If my story ended there, I would not be here today."
He had been raised with hatred, whipped and weaned with violence. His mother's accusatory eyes cursed the weakness of his father for refusing to whip their son. He learned at his mother's hand that real men were expected to beat this world. Strength lay in conquering. Little boys must mow the lawn and beat the bushes back from the edge of the house and lift the heavy loads. Men must work and earn good wages, providing amply for the family. No standing in solidarity with those striking for better wages could supersede the importance of a roof over her family's head. No moral quandary must threaten the bread upon their table. Principles were a luxury of the successful or the foolish. His mother was neither. His father worked for the oil company until they fired him six months before he could retire with a pension.
"Pay attention!" she barked at her youngest son. "This world is survival of the fittest. It's dog-eat-dog out there. Work hard, but act smart. A man's got to be on his toes to get ahead."
She laughed when his older brother tortured him, telling Dave to buck up and be a man. She snapped at him to stop being a crybaby when his brother's taunt cut him to his heart. He grew iron armor around his soul. He learned to fight and win.
"You were always an odd child," his mother had murmured as she lay dying. Her eyes had searched his face, hazy with pain medications for the cancer, seeing double visions of the child-son and the man-Dave.
"You were a stoic, remember?" she said.
He had slept on the floor and trained as a warrior, lifting weights and doing pushups, taking vows of silence, jumping in ice cold showers.
I was a child in a warzone, Dave realized all these years later. Given the circumstances, there was nothing odd about imitating Spartans in a suburban San Francisco house.
"Will you be alright after I'm gone?" she asked him anxiously.
"Ma," he said hesitatingly. Perhaps she didn't know . . . "I'm a millionaire."
"Are you?" she murmured, biting her lips in pain.
She closed her eyes for a moment.
"That wasn't what I meant," she whispered.
"There is a point to all of this," Dave reassured the listening forest. "When my mother asked if I would be alright, she echoed the concern of a million mothers in this country. In her eyes welled the sorrow of generations of broken women who came to this continent hoping for a better world, but found hardships and misery stretched from coast to coast. In her heart burned the remorse of all women who learn cruelty to survive. Her determination to succeed came at the price of her compassion. We are the children of these women, all of us in America."
His mother came from the lineage of the New World, a saga of greed and lust, murder, backstabbing lies and avarice, broken hopes and shattered dreams, and worst of all the myth of survival of the fittest in which failure is the fault of personal shortcomings, not the result of systemic oppression. If you fail, his mother told him in a thousand silent ways, good riddance. May your faulty genes rot in the grave, and may only the best perpetuate the species.
So Dave had plundered, robbed, and cheated his way to the top. Forests built his first fortune; computers supplied the second. From there money begat more money. The resort was simply the icing on top of the cake. He strove to prove himself a survivor, to escape beatings and his mother's scorn. He built fortunes to buy access to the golden club of the survivors, the champions of domination.
Then one day, he looked around. On top of the world, part of the elite, he had won - he had surpassed most men of fortune, he owned hundreds of millions to their mere millions.
"Ten thousand years of human evolution," Dave told the trees, "has given rise to this: the socially successful are a set of psychopaths. The richest victors - with few exceptions - are broken human beings. Not one of us had happy families; not one of us understands how to love. We were barbarians on top of the world, cruel and avaricious. Our human hearts had been encased in lead. Our minds were poisoned by profits. Yet, the whole world strives to emulate us. Everyone wants access to the elite. But we are not human beings - we are rotten husks without any hearts. We drown our emotions in alcohol. We numb sympathy and close our hearts to stay at the top. It is insanity! Yet, humanity persists in holding such sickened individuals aloft."
Dave shuddered on the fallen oak. The consequences of this cultural insanity were dire. As long as humanity believed in the colonizing lie that survival came by destroying others, nothing on this planet would survive. The forests would be clear cut, the indigenous mowed down in genocide and wars, the earth torn open in search of minerals, the oil burned into the skies, the people devoured by a machine of greed that knows no bounds or limitations.
"Somehow," he told the oaks, "we must stop the madness of these beliefs."
He built a small fire awkwardly, fumbling with half-forgotten methods he had learned in boyhood, cursing his own incompetence until a tendril of smoke finally sparked to flames.
"Do you mind?" he asked the oaks, listening carefully for their reply.
Do you mind, the forest whispered, if the birds build their nests from the hair that falls from your head?
"No," he answered, "only if they pluck it from my scalp."
And so it is, the oaks replied, thus it is so for us.
He squinted at the flames. A furrow creased between his eyebrows. For a moment . . . he swore he had . . . no, there! Dave dragged his palm across his eyes. When he looked back in the fire, the images remained: a dark haired woman, a twisted hedge of briars, and behind the brambles, him. Dave held his breath as the hairs on the back of his neck raised. The dark haired woman - Joan - pivoted and spun, seeking passage through the bracken, calling out to him in words that made no sound. In the flames, his figure wandered aimlessly - as if sleepwalking - and did not appear to hear Joan's cries. At every twist, the briars scratched her and raked their spines through her clothes. She frowned and her soundless voice repeated the same phrase over and over. Dave leaned toward the fire, desperate to read the words on her lips.
The fire crackled. Sparks shot off like fireworks. He flinched. The flames curled into thick vines; each bramble held dark images inside it. Dave's eyes watered and ached as he tried to make out the forms. The images in the fire reflected on the burning blue of his eyes.
His life twisted in those thorny brambles, every story, memory, assumption, myth, fact, thought, belief, or idea he'd ever conceived. The briars sprouted in his footsteps as he sleepwalked through his days. In the fire, his figure's breath hissed spells of words that clung to the dark vines. Joan struggled to break through, but he spun his stories faster than she could move.
Wake up! her soundless lips cried. Wake up!
And still he continued muttering the stories of his past, throwing them up like stinging barriers between them.
The coals of the fire suddenly collapsed. The flames lurched. The images vanished. Dave furiously rubbed his eyes and glanced around at the darkness. He shivered.
"So, my stories are getting in our way," he murmured, thinking of Joan and the twisted brambles keeping them apart. In his hands, he gripped a thin stick - a perfect switch, he thought. The kind of switch his mother preferred for beatings. His knuckles clenched white around it.
Laughter rang like bells through the dark outlines of the oak grove. He spun. Nothing. He recognized that laugh - Joan's laugh.
You're the one holding onto the stories.
"Who spoke?" he demanded.
The trees refused to answer. The night hid itself in silence. He looked down at the switch in his clenched hands.
What would it be like to put the stories down . . . and never pick them up again?
The voice whispering in his mind sounded like his own. He pondered this, staring at the stick, seeing in it all the beatings he had received, his mother's scorn, his brother's abuses, his father's silence.
Why not let it go? he thought.
He threw the stick into the fire. It smoked, fizzled, curled and ignited into flames. He watched it burn and saw his memories char and vanish into ashes.
He sat back.
Why not let everything go?
He reached for another stick, a knobby branch with a whorl that sneered like his brother's face. He dredged up memories - fire ants dumped in his bed, the time he had unzipped his fly and pissed on his brother in retaliation, the day his brother locked him in the closet and told his parents Dave had run away. He let the painful memories roll out and lodge inside the stick. Then he chucked it in the fire, watching the whorl's expression scream and collapse into coals.
He threw his father in the fire, his former girlfriends, and treacherous business partners; all that was a part of his past, every gesture, every thought, every twitch of expression, every sentiment and cliché statement, every slogan, tagline, business motto; every memory of his actions, every motivation, every rationalization for his behaviors both good and bad. Into the flames he tossed the drunkard on the street. The playboy writhed in hot coals. A smoldering fat branch burned up the weight of his former obesity. He threw it all in the fire. Twigs, branches, sticks: a small blaze mounted. He thought of Indian cremations, pyres of logs burning bodies into ashes by the river. In utter clarity, he knew what he had embarked upon: he was incinerating his self, conducting a cremation in reverse. His body remained seated by the fire while flames consumed his inner world.
Time stretched in ancient patience. Those who gathered at the crossroads stood witness. His actions echoed rituals and rites of passage. He evoked older times and civilizations now crumbled into dust. He sat on the ground and stared at the fire like countless generations of human beings who had walked this earth before him.
The flames twisted into shapes and figures. His memories danced for brief moments before vanishing. Long forgotten times and places emerged in the twisting curls of the fire. He saw battles and ceremonies, lovers and bitter enemies. Ten thousand years of human history swirled in the flames, only to fall as still and silent as his own meager past.
Lightness filled his being. A sense of vastness stretched in the silence between his ears. His mind expanded like the night, empty as space with stars of thought scattered across his awareness. One by one, he plucked them from the sky of his mind, turning them like diamonds in his fingers before tossing them into the fire.
Long bouts began to pass between his feeding of the fire. He sat quietly, watching the coals settle in the white ashes. The stillness grew profound. The coals burned down into nothing until only one ember remained, a tiny spark in a vast pool of night, no bigger to his eyes than the stars overhead.
What happens when we let it all go?
The thought streaked across the vastness of his mind like a shooting star. On its heels, the Universe replied.
Everything. Something. Nothing.
The ember flickered. Dave waited. It sputtered. He fixed his eyes on the last spark of existence. The night crept closer. Darkness stretched its fingertips toward the void. The coal blinked. Dave froze.
It died and his self extinguished with the light.
Darkness loses meaning in the total absence of light. Nothing becomes something when that is all that seems to exist. This place would terrify the mind, except there is no mind to experience terror. There is no one to sense the vast eternal stillness. There is nothing to worry, rejoice, or think.
Here, eternity is presence; the present is eternal. Time ticks out the meter of human memory and cognition. When the grip of the mind releases, time dissolves into sheer illusion.
The world is dead until it learns to love.
"Where have you been?"
In her tone of voice he heard the dangerous riptides of the past threatening to drown the waters of the present.
"Quiet," Dave answered as if quiet was a place. Then, with a sigh, he slowed his pace.
"Lost," he replied truthfully. "I have been lost."
For fifty years, he had wandered through life, sleeping on silks and lying in gutters, absolutely confused about where he was and why. He had built houses without finding a home and traveled the world without knowing where he started. He had bumbled around inside his skin and flesh and bone container all his life, utterly and totally lost.
"I came," he said softly, "to end the delusions of separation and permanence that cause people to long for money, wealth, and property; the delusions that cause them to amass fortunes in defense of change; the delusions that allow them to pretend that the suffering of others is not hurting them, as well. I came to teach my wealthy colleagues to unclench the fists of grasping, to release the grip that harms so many, and to trust the nature of reality. To let go and be embraced; to release and find companionship; to rest in the ever-changing, interconnected web that is us all."
They burst out laughing in a shock of sound that reverberated around the kitchen. It is ludicrous - outrageous - to teach such truths, to intend to say such things to the madness of humanity's delusions. It is audacious to think awakening is possible for the world's wealthiest elite . . . and yet, the Buddha smiles slightly. Because all things are always possible and the audacity of the awakened ones truly knows no bounds.
"Why join a monastery when you can live your enlightenment on the street?" Dave asked.
At the root lay an ancient unfairness that had embedded itself in the psyche of generations, passed from father to son like blonde hair and blue eyes. For millenniums, humankind had believed that one man could rule another, own another, or set himself above another. According to the rule of law, a cop could snatch a man off the sidewalk and press him into servitude. Dave saw his freedom gone forever, stolen by the iron weight of convictions. The cop had stolen his ability to live as he pleased and forced him to bend his labor to the will of society. He had stepped into a cycle as old as Viking ships and galley slaves chained to oars to provide manpower for the captain's voyages. It was as old as conquerors and kings; as old as the abolishing of the Commons. It was as old as the Great Enclosure that kicked the people off the land. It was as old as Columbus claiming the New World for the Old. It was as old as the genocides of native tribes. It was as old as the conscripted labor that built the Great Wall of China. It was as old as slavery on the Nile, Russian gulags, plantations in the South, and the warring tribes of Africa.
Dave traced the threads of imprisonment and enslavement back through history, pondering each era like a bead on a meditation mala. He saw bodies stretched in bunks, in rows, shoulder-to-shoulder tight, three layers high in chains, the dead rotting above the dying, the living sickened and terrified. He saw bodies thrown in graves, lining the ditches of every war. He saw pale bodies emaciated into bones, the white snow of the German winter tight around them, the smoke of incinerators black and churning. He saw mounds of Jewish hair, heaped like bodies in the ditches, stacked like bison skulls, piled up in mountains. He saw the heaps of bison bodies, dead across the plains; the bodies of the people who held them sacred, dead across the continent. He saw the herding of human beings in long lines, on the Trail of Tears, into ghettos, into camps, into gulags; train loads to Siberia, busloads across America.
He saw rare emancipations sparking moments of freedom in this world: Moses raining down God's plagues, parting waters, leading Jews from slavery; Frederick Douglass revolting from chains and death; Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman racing through the darkened woods; indigenous uprisings, the Levelers and the Diggers, the workers' movements for cooperatives, the cry to occupy for equality in wealth. On and on, the recitation went, one prayer bead recollection at a time. The mala stretched longer than the night without scratching more than just the surface of the truth.
There were the women standing throughout history, thin-lipped, frowning, subjugated to the men, imprisoned in obedience.
There were the slave-wage workers chained to a paycheck, selling their labor to the owners, their sovereignty and dignity eroded by the economic grind of titans who forced generations into poverty.
There were the masses of animal species, locked into pens and pastures, driven off cliffs, chained to plows to labor for human beings, caught in nets to be devoured.
There were invisible ropes of property lines, binding up the planet, this great round orb of Earth which existed long before humanity walked the surface, which will exist long after the last human falls extinct, upon which the mightiest man of wealth and power is but a flea in the circus of humanity . . . a flea devouring the globe's skin, sucking the blood, leaving poison, itching this great mother to no end.
And there was himself, imprisoned for existing in a society gone insane, locked up to labor for a lifetime because he would not own another being. He had been locked up for refusing to own property, a home, or rent one from a richer man. He walked the Earth and slept in forests, performed small tasks to buy some bread. But freedom is an illusion in a world bound up in chains. The flea upon the slave's back becomes the property of the master, as does the child in the slave's womb, the knowledge in the slave's head, the songs in the slave's mouth. The worker is a slave to the business owner; the prisoner is a slave to the jail.
"We are not free until all are free," Dave murmured, thinking of animals, land, forests, fields, women, children, and planets.
A set of eyes flew open in the bunk nearby. The breath of a man without a name paused. His muscles tingled. His eyes rolled to the side, wondering. The silence stretched long as he waited for the next word to be spoken.
But Dave lay quiet, his mind spiraling through the ages, watching empires rise and fall. Over and over, the old cycle of enslavement continues, taking freedom from the people and forcing their muscles to labor for the profit of another. With wealth, humans buy power; with power comes authority; with authority comes law; with law comes control; with control comes more profit, more power, more authority, more law, more control, more profit.
So rise the kings, the tyrants, the presidents, the Pope, the tycoon, the billionaire, the chief, the Queen, the Empress, the noble, the nouveau riche . . . they are lifted on the backs of the masses. Both willingly and through coercion, populaces raise one man above another and surrender themselves to be ruled. Some people fawn like lapdogs, groveling, and unashamed. Others conduct themselves like dignified hounds and offer unquestioning loyalty to authority. But a third set are wolves, imprisoned and starved, viewed as dangerous because they yearn for freedom.
Freedom is ferocious, wild and uncivilized. It will never be part of respectable society. Freedom cannot be controlled or forced to build fortunes for others. Freedom will not die for another man's profit. Freedom will not starve children to put feasts on the tables of the wealthy. Freedom will not tolerate classism, racism, sexism, or discrimination of any kind. It will ever advance the concept of radical equality, for one who is free cannot condemn others to slavery - to chattel, debt, work, marriage, or prison - no form of enslavement is tolerable to the free.
Freedom is not a concept that swears allegiance to any flag! It defies nationalism! Patriotism! Boundaries and borders! The wild birds are free! The wild fish are free! But the wild human? Such creatures have gone extinct. Out of seven billion humans, not one knows the meaning of freedom. Humankind enslaves their species by culture, society, history, and law. In blind ignorance, they utter the word, freedom, to launch wars, spend money, make laws, and imprison others. Freedom is not free, their bumper stickers read . . . but such a twisted convolution of logic baffles the brightest thinkers.
Freedom is free, you fools! It is war that is costly, that takes your sons' lives. It is protecting the empires of the rich that is expensive to the people. It is the fortunes of the few that enslave the lives of the many. It is the imprisonment of your mind that bankrupts your freedom.
As such thoughts rolled through Dave, a sense of ancient injustice opened its maw and swallowed him whole. He sat in the cold prison while he fell into the hell of human history that stretched back through thousands of cultures. What was the point of hiring a lawyer to argue a mere technicality of an unjust law when the entire system of law, order, nations, and ownership of other humans, animals, plants, land, or the planet was fundamentally unjust. The notion of property was nothing more than a euphemism for ownership and enslavement.
Dave began to laugh in silent consternation as the construct of his society collapsed like an imploding building. His eyes darted around the jail as if the solidity of concrete might dissolve along with his delusions. The concept of a jail to imprison wandering human beings lost its moral authority. The system of government that imprisoned a man who had caused no harm to others fractured its legitimacy. The society that blindly obeyed and upheld the laws of such a government toppled from the grace of his respect.
The people of the nation fell from his esteem. One by one, they would have to redeem themselves in his eyes. One by one, they would need to decry the injustice of their society. One by one, they would have to take action to undo it. Only then would his respect for his nation return. The fire of conviction stirred in his guts. He slapped the mattress with the flat of his palm and heard a few bodies shift in the semi-darkness. He glanced around. A pair of eyes stared blearily at him, lost in the hell realms of delusion and injustice, so deeply entangled that Dave nearly lost the courage to attempt to speak truth.
What did Moses say to the Jews who argued that they would never be free of the Pharaoh? What did the African mothers whisper to their sons and daughters who had been born into slavery? How did they convince their children that they were not property even though the slash of the whip, the gunshots of the masters, the fearful obedience of even their own mothers told the children they were slaves? What did Mother Jones say to the laborers who deserved more than misery in the workplace? What did Gandhi say to the naysayers who believed the British would rule India forever?
Dave sighed. It is one thing to realize truth . . . it is another to help others awaken.
"We are not free until all are free," he repeated in the barest whisper of breath.
They released him through the south gate. He stared at the road for a long time before slowly, achingly walking northeast toward the county line.
"Get out of the area," the Warden had warned him. "The local kids beat up the homeless. Get a cab, stay in hotels, don't play any of your games around here."
Dave didn't have a dime to his name.
"Money, money, everywhere and not a dime to spend," he chanted as he crossed the county line on foot. He walked bone-weary along the rural road until he came to a busy intersection on the outskirts of a town. He leaned against a metal street lamp and put out his hand to beg.
A car stopped, the window rolled open, and a hand passed out a to-go container of soup and a plastic spoon. Dave fumbled his fingers around the warmth of the container, bowing his head gratefully to the couple in the car, and opened his mouth to speak. Too late! The light changed, they drove forward and never heard his thanks. Dave stepped away from the intersection and sat on the mowed shoulder of the road. The trucks and cars roared past. The air tasted of the black grit that clings to the undercarriage of semi-trucks.
Basho meditated under a bridge, Dave thought, remembering the old Japanese tea seller who chose to practice in the worst of conditions. Unattached to form, he let the traffic and bustle rush over him with absolute equanimity. Dave bowed his head over the container of soup. The heat licked the bones of his hands and slowly spread into his wrists. He opened the lid.
The aroma brought tears to his eyes. The scent of fresh rosemary and thyme added to boiling broth, the undercurrent of potatoes, a hint of carrots - a whole world pulsed in his nostrils, reminding him of soil and moist leaves, determined plants reaching for the sun, the myriad insects hanging onto dangling fronds, bees resting on green stems as they searched for pollen, the rustling of human hands harvesting, the way they paused around the fibrous stems of a carrot clump, the tensing of sunburned arms yanking carrots free of the earth, orange and audacious.
He couldn't speak. He could barely breathe. A whiff of soup brought him to utter humility and transformed his blood into gratitude.
"Thank you," he whispered to the world.
As the first touch of warmth touched his tongue, he wept. He heaved with messy, ugly sobs as the pain of the past weeks screeched through his limbs and wracked his body with agony. His mind watched these reactions with curiosity as the biological memory of his body protested the pain it had endured. Grimaces twisted over his face; the mortal human being named Dave Grant shuddered at the suffering he had endured.
Then he ate. Slowly, spoonful-by-spoonful, with lengthy pauses when his throat closed and his eyes shadowed with emotion, he swallowed the soup. In between mouthfuls, he sat for long periods of stillness as the beauty of life overwhelmed him. Common things like soup and the kindness of strangers touched his heart. It was not just herbs he tasted in the soup; he chewed on the flavors of the world. He let the sensation of nourishment linger on his tongue along with the bitter twinge of human cruelty. Guilt twanged metallically in his mouth as he thought of his fellow prisoners, waiting for some sign of justice dawning on the horizon.
And, as he licked the last traces of the soup with his finger, he thought of Joan.
"You were right, Joan," he said out loud, "the bodhisattvas don't come back for sex and chocolate."
He started laughing on the slope beside the road.
Soup and kindness were good enough for him.
With a deep breath, Dave Grant entered the belly of the beast.
He scoured endless stacks of plates and cutlery until the caustic stench of disinfectants curled his nose hairs. The hot steam and spray soaked into his sweat. The crashes and bangs and hollering of the kitchen filled his ears. His arms ached. His back screamed obscenities. He mopped his brow on the shoulder of his sopping shirt and plunged back in.
On the first day, he saw only dishes. Heaps of plates flew down the line like rubble from a gold mine. He bent his whole body to the stream that poured from the narrow shaft. He swiped the crystal wine glasses from certain shattering and placed them in the customized dishwasher installed by order of the sommeliers. No trace of soap ever touched these goblets. Boiling water scoured them inside the state-of-the-art machine that cost more than a decent car. No lowly dish boy’s hands ever left smudges where a wealthy debutante brought her lips to shining glass.
The plates and bowls received cursory scrapes and rinses before being piled into crates that slid roughly into the industrial dishwasher. Dave dove head first into the enormous cooking cauldrons, wielding the long-necked spraying hose like a fireman as he attacked grease and soot.
He pulled clean dishes from the dishwasher, hot as buns from the baker's oven. The plates and bowls hissed steam as he sorted them into place on the shelves. That evening, after the dinner shift concluded, he looked soberly at the glistening stacks. Tomorrow it would all begin again. Every plate scraped today would return the next, smeared with crème brulé and béchamel sauce. The thought of the endless rounds exhausted him.
Dave slid down the stainless steel counter and laid his head in his hands, knees tucked close to tired ribs. His eyes darted around the empty kitchen as he calculated how many dishes he had sent down the line to unknown dishwashers when he dined in the luxury of Gold Mountain. Six? Ten? Twelve per meal? Several meals a day, most days of the week, fifty-two weeks of the year . . . plus the chef's equipment, knives, chopping boards, pots, frying pans, graters, ladles.
Dave ran his reddened hands through his hair, laying his head back against the cool steel cabinet. There was no grace to this work, no pride or satisfaction. His humanity was chained to the pace of the constant stream of dishes. The pores of his skin felt sullied by the grease and bits of discarded food. His spine wept from the day of bending to se