Giving thanks

December 2, 2013

Even though I’m an ex-pat American and have been living in Tasmania for close to 29 years, I still harbor a love for the holy day of Thanksgiving. Last week I didn’t roast a turkey and bake a pumpkin pie, but I did reflect on those times in my life for which I am deeply grateful as they eventually led me here to Roaring Beach. Here’s the story of one such seminal event.

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Back in November of 1968 I was fresh out of Harvard and in Hawaii on the Big Island preparing to go to Korea as a Peace Corps volunteer. Part of the training was to spend three days/two nights on our own with little or no preparation, supplies, maps or substantial protective gear. I was dropped off along a fairly deserted southeast coastal road and proceeded to walk with zero idea of what or how to “survive”.

One must remember that back in 1968 there were relatively few visitors to the Big Island of Hawaii with most people only flying into and staying in Honolulu. Hilo had just opened up an international airport, but no airport yet on the drier, western Kona side of the island, and little or no infrastructure on the southeast coast.

While at Harvard I quickly learned that my intellectual capabilities for memorizing and spewing forth facts and theories was rather deficient and not comparable to most of my peers. But what I did have — that most others didn’t — was a Detroit born-and-raised street cred coupled with Daniel Boone summers in the woods of northern Michigan. In today’s jargon, I had stacks of “emotional/earth intelligence”.

So, back to Hawaii. Even though — on the one hand I had no technical knowledge or training on how to forage for food, build a shelter, survive the elements — on the other hand I intuitively knew that this didn’t matter and that I would/could survive, even it meant going without food for three days and getting soaked at night with a tropical downpour. With a quick summation of the present circumstance I found myself in, I wandered along the road joyfully and replaced fear of the unknown with a delight in the beauty of this very sensual, tropical, fragrant, deeply green landscape.

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In the afternoon I came upon a deserted beach. I didn’t know it’s name at the time, but could appreciate its beauty. Unlike Roaring Beach where the sand slopes gently [photo above] Punaluu Black Sand Beach was steeply inclined with deep water immediately following the back wash of a wave. It looked a little treacherous, but being a former competitive swimmer I felt it presented no real problem. I stripped off and just as I was about to dive into the breakers, I black fin broke the surface eight feet in front of me. Talk about an adrenaline rush.

Squatting with a certain amount of relief and gratitude, I continued to watch and soon learned that the black fin was one of the two tips of a rather large manta ray’s flippers and that this ray was mostly likely looking for bits of food in the churning surf. Dangerous? Who knows? But I didn’t proceed any further other than to get my toes wet.

I did, however, proceed over to the headland at the southern end of the beach and walked up a gentle incline to the grassy cliffs some 50 feet in height (if memory serves me correct). Perched above the rocks and breaking waves straight below, I decided this is where I would spend the rest of the afternoon, evening and night. I had no food or sleeping bag, but this was of no concern to my exuberance at being in raw Nature. At the young age of twenty two, I was beginning a life long pattern of choosing beauty over the “necessities” of survival.

And the reward for gambling on beauty? At sunset a group of four people wandered up from the beach to the cliff top, cast fishing lines, pulled up fish and then invited me over to share in their meal. They only spoke Japanese, but their smiles spoke heaps more. And laughter; especially as I, for the first time, tried to use chop sticks to eat fried fish, rice and vegetables. There might even have been a glass or two of saki.

Now, here’s the powerful part of the story as all the above is but a prelude for what happened next.

Dinner is finished. It is night. The stars are out. A toast is given to life (or what I think was said as “life”) and the four Japanese (two couples, old and wizened) pack up and begin the half mile walk back to whence they came.

Their bodies become indistinguishable as they meld with the blackness of night, but their four lanterns bob along the path like four little moons. As they slowly diminish in size and fade away, a near full moon peeks its head up across the darkened skin of ocean and sends a golden ray of reflective light across the water, touching them, touching me.

With an appreciative full stomach and standing on soft, grassy earth facing the moon and ocean, I am drunk on the double blessing of communal food and wondrous nature. The increasing moon light intensifies the whiteness of the breaking waves below. The salty air mingles with earthy smells and a night chorus of sound. The beauty is almost too much to handle.

Then… I turn around and see the dark volcanic Mauna Loa erupting red from a newly rent fissure on its side.

My emotional/spiritual/physical body explodes/implodes and I can’t contain the energy. Clothes feel a “civilized” encumbrance and are ripped off. Within seconds I am a dancing panther “with whiskers wider than my mind”. My skin is animal alive. My senses are sharpened beyond human norms. The whirling and spinning of my body becomes the whirling and spinning of the Milky Way, planets, moon and tides; of cycles, of years.

I had not yet heard of Sufi dervishes, but this landscape’s anima mundi allowed me entry into the vortex of creation.

Eventually, I collapse from exhaustion. Somehow I sleep and wake the next morning on grass cold and wet with dew. My soul remains on fire, though, as it knows it has been given a rare, visceral lesson in the essence of an authentic life.

I walked slowly down from the cliff top on a quest for breakfast, yet knowing all the while that my hunger for life as just experienced would be a long way off from ever being satiated.

I also, for the first time, knew — with an intimacy born of magic — that my decision to join the Peace Corps was an important beginning in doing something, however small, to make the world a more peaceful home for all.

It was there on the cliffs of Punaluu Black Sand beach where the notion was burned into my soul that the sharing of food with the “unknown guest” — in conjunction with a healthy and lush environment — was key to fostering a peaceful world.

This, to me, is what Thanksgiving is all about. When I walk on Windgrove’s Peace Path and look out across Roaring Beach, I cannot but feel the deepest of gratitude for having ended up here.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

John Caddy December 2, 2013 at 11:57 pm

Hey Peter, A young Rumi or Hafiz story! Well told. Thank you. A smile for my day.

Debra Frasier December 3, 2013 at 1:04 am

Great to read this story and see the World in Color, as gray winter has settled here. Like imagining you dancing naked with the fire and the waves and the moon–makes me grin in the gray. xo

lou spaventa December 3, 2013 at 7:40 am

In 2011, 43 years after touchdown at Hilo Airport, I went back to Hilo to find Rainbow Falls. It was still there, stronger and more majestic than I remembered it. The rest of the long downhill slog to Hilo seemed changed in a way that I couldn’t make sense of, yet the town of Hilo had barely changed at all. It was just as sleepy and made of spare parts as it was in ’68. I wanted to take back something from Hilo to keep its memory alive with me on the mainland, but there was nothing that caught my attention. Just the memory of a second visit. The ride to the once barren Kona side of the island was a return to the hustle of tourist town USA with a stop in the mountains at Waimea, surely one of the weirdest one company towns in all the USA. No skateboarding signs were posted in its outdoor mall along with a bunch of other signs prohibiting being young and rebellious. Everything, I guess, was owned or operated by Parker Ranch.
Did my drop off in the autumn of 1968 change me? The cane fields of the Big Island were a helluva lot different from the asphalt streets of Brooklyn. I made my way to a Salvation Army hostel run by Filippinos in a village that seemed to have been settled by Filippinos. I met up with other trainees there. We set out for Hapuna Beach on Day 2. That’s where I spent the second night. Beautiful, but not a catalyst for change in me. I began to change when we got off the plane in Seoul on that cold winter’s night before the curfew had ended. In the yogwan, I found Nowakowski, Tugman, Murphy and others, drinking and playing music. What they were doing meant something more to me than just music and booze. It was the beginning of my own picaresque novella.

Fern Vella December 3, 2013 at 1:01 pm

I grew up on a small mixed farm, with a veggie garden & milking goats. We had no electricity, emptied our own toilet bucket & carried the water in from the well, in buckets for a family of 10 people. I had a similar deep connection with nature, which has never left me! You may be interested to know that it is an old Irish custom to set an extra place at the table in Ireland – to welcome the unknown stranger or traveller into ur home to share food.
Regards, Fern

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