Wednesday, July 25, 2007

I'm Still Running

Only not with these good folks whom I photographed at the start of the annual Wharf to Wharf race last Sunday. I no longer own the beautiful orange and red Nikes I wore when I ran the race along the Pacific coast from Santa Cruz to Capitola with my friend Gerry exactly thirty years ago this month. My wife at the time was pregnant with our daughter and she turns thirty at the end of next month. Milestones.

When I was many pounds lighter and my knees were still in good shape, I reveled in the joy of running. To jog around Harvey West Park, beside the river and along the coastline north to Natural Bridges, racing the pelicans, was a delight. I savored the runner's high at the 20-minute mark. Twice I ran 11 miles. I won ribbons (everyone did) at the fun runs in San Francisco held by the Dolphins South End club. and I toyed with the idea of running a marathon in Honolulu. But the earth turns and conditions change (always, according to the Buddha), and I stopped, started up, and stopped again. Now a brisk walk around the town is about my speed.

But I think of myself as still running the good race. The Apostle Paul sometimes writes in his letters of life as a race to be run. More commonly, we speak of it as a journey or a pilgrimage. But at times, like now, it feels sped up, like a race near the finish. When Gerry and I ran the Wharf to Wharf thirty years ago, we found a burst of speed at the end which allowed us to pass a couple of hot shot runners ahead of us. That little triumph was enough. But this life I no longer think of as a competition but rather as a task. Completion with dignity, not winning, is enough.

It was wonderful to watch the runners on Sunday. Their enthusiasm, even from those clearly intending to walk or wheel the route, was infectious. Over 15,000 people participated and it took the pack more than a half hour to pass under the arch of balloons marking the start in front of the Boardwalk. I walked over the railway trestle to watch them coming up the hill and enjoyed the sounds of the drummers, the live band, and recorded rock from giant speakers that urged them on. A man dragged the hose from his yard and sprayed the hot runners to cool them off. After the race moved on, I walked back along the bank of the San Lorenzo River and thought about the home I was leaving.

On my journey to Thailand two weeks from now, will I be running from or running to? Certainly I will be leaving behind a few unhappy memories, a broken marriage, a couple of failed careers (I never waited around for the gold watch), incomplete communication with absent friends, an enemy or two, unpaid bills, unspoken regrets. The slate is never entirely clean. The country I am leaving is in dire straights, its president a liar and a deceiver, the political opposition in shambles, impotent to stop the flow of blood. The economy benefits the rich and deprives the poor. My fellow citizens are too obsessed with celebrities and "reality" TV addictions to notice what is going on. The media, and much else, is in hock to the global corporations who pull all strings. Will it be much different in Thailand?

And what of my spiritual path? There are too many forks in the road. If you run too fast you lose the landmarks and get lost. But even though the old habits are dying hard, the absence of discipline feels refreshing. Still, I wonder: who are we and what are we to do? The questions must be asked and, as with so much else, the answers depend on context. I will certainly attend Catholic mass from time to time in Thailand, but I will also pay my respects to the Buddha in the many gold-tipped temples. In India I look forward to the round of ritual at Shantivanam Ashram and the blessings of elephants. Ganesha, remover of all obstacles, is my patron saint.

Here in Santa Cruz, I bid kind friends adieu. At the Sangha Shantivanam meeting on Sunday I am honored with cards, flowers, and a lovely cake baked by Sylvia with the words: "You are in our hearts, Willie!" Fr. Cyprian and the community stood around me with upraised hands and blessed my journey forward. I will carry them in my hearts to Southeast Asia.

Also on Sunday I participated in the afternoon service for St. Mary Magdalene, offering up intercessory prayers for the weak and humble of this earth, and honoring the "apostle to the apostles," the woman who arrived first at the empty tomb. The resurrection of the Magdalene in the public consciousness is a sign that Christianity might come of age after all.

But I cling to the Nietzschean notion that "the last Christian died on the cross." As Brother Martin in India often told us, Jesus came to free us from religion rather than to start a new one. Many of my friends are surprised by my formal abandonment of a Catholic Christian identity, some because they couldn't understand what attracted me in the first place to a religion with such a dismal recorded history, and others who were saddened by my departure from their beloved community. I'm trying to think of it as trading up from a narrow perspective to a big tent spirituality.

When I think of running, I also think of Robert, the Pink Umbrella Man. For a number of years he has been taking slow, tiny steps down Pacific Avenue, around and around, dressed in outlandish pink drag and carrying a pink umbrella. The tights and feather boa are looking a little bedraggled these days and his shoes are worn. Robert answers all questions and comments with a shrug. It is the ultimate presentation of the I-don-'t-know-mind, praised by Buddhists, although I don't think the Buddha had Robert in mind as a role model.

Robert is one of a cast of characters that people the Mall (although after the post-earthquake renovations, I don't think it's called the Mall much anymore except by old-timers like me), and I will miss them all: The beggars and the musicians, the Christian proselityzers, the beach bunnies and the hip-hoppers loaded with bling, the skateboarders (illegal) and the dog walkers (also a crime), the chess players in front of the Pacific Coffee Roasting Company, the tarot card readers, latté sippers, children's entertainers, window shoppers and motorcycle riders. Pacific Avenue is endlessly amusing and fascinating, an icon for the human condition.

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