N’aie pas peur – Don’t be afraid

It’s been two months since heading out from Minneapolis for Seattle, and an entire month void of anything of substance concerning a trip out West that I have been wanting to write about. Believe me, I’ve tried. I couldn’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent in front of my computer screen long after I should have put it and myself to sleep. Drafts have been produced, and more drafts, unfinished entries that have been placed on the backburner for so long that by the time I actually get around to working on them again, they’ve begun to mold they’ve been forgotten so long, my taste for whatever it once was, long gone. Not this time, or so I hope.

You know why this will be the one to survive, to make it to the window in time to be taken out? Because expectations have been drastically lowered from this idea concocted a month ago about how I would write the next greatest adventure/travel novel. I would call it, On the Road 2, or The Motorcycle Journals, maybe Zen and the Art of Holding Your Bladder. Bad joke, I know. I’ve never been the super witty, quippy type, more of the physically demonstrative, semi-big-gestures, dry humour kind of amateur comedian, seche like a picnic orange forgotten in the sun, like a pair of chapped lips that have been licked and licked until they’re cracked right down the center and the person owning those lips will do anything to avoid laughing. This book was even going to have an introduction, chapters, and maybe even a dedication page in which I’d be able to write something so personal and nonsensical that only I and one or two other people would feel warm reading it.

BUT, as you can see, that idea has been balled up and eaten.

Here’s the trip:

I left by myself on July 15, 2013 for the west coast by motorcycle, and after spending a few days in Rapid City, SD, a night in Bozeman, MT, and another in Coeur d’Alene, ID, I had reached the Puget Sound. There, I was able to stay with a good friend from school, a musician and photographer with a shock of brown tangles and a soulful voice that makes the stoic, teary-eyed, and the weary, sprightly and nimble. Seattle passed beneath my feet, before my eyes, I sat on it, sang to it, wrote to it, and drank it in one glass of unabashed hard cider at a time. Not a single rainy day to report.

Puget Sound was great, but when I had envisioned myself and the west coast, camping on the beach is what I had imagined. Thus, after spending six days in Seattle, I made my way to Lookout Cape, stopping in Portland briefly to catch a glimpse of the utopia that I had heard so much about and pass up the opportunity to get a tattoo; I didn’t know what of, and there was also a high risk of infection being on the road. Misjudging the distance from Portland to my destination and attempting to camp off the side of a logging route, and then bailing, I found myself dancing with death as I road through 50 degree weather in the dark on deer-clustered roads to Lookout Cape. Eventually, I made it and spent the next day poking squishy sea life clinging to rocks at low tide, chasing seagulls, holding warm cups of coffee in hands that were hard to open, and taking oodles of good pictures.

After two days of doing this, I decided to head back to Seattle, but I didn’t make it back right away. A sign off of the highway for Skydive Toledo caught my eye, and that old phrase from France took over, profites bien, profit well. 10,000 feet up, I fell from the sky, and from there, I was treated to a royal view of the PNW, a truly intimate glimpse of being able to see it all at once, like a lover who finally bares it all for you in the daylight.

Then, I made my way back to Hanna’s house and the familiarity and warmth of its interestingly colored walls and artistic nuances to be found in every corner of the house, a plant hanging from Gabe’s ceiling whose vines had grown out onto and down his walls, the cowboy lamp in the upstairs bathroom, the neon green door to the downstairs bathroom, gold-colored, board-eating, great whites outlined on her faded purple living room walls, and the wood chopping axe for wood chopping parties in the corner. In six days of living there, of being greeted warmly every morning with a hug and a “how did you sleep?” it became a place of great comfort and a reminder of how important people are concerning one’s sense of place.

Last summer, an idea popped into my head to experience monastic life, and this was before I had known anything about Buddhism other than the fact that shaved heads seem to be in style, and with its gardens and residents always sitting in meditation or going for walks, a monastery seemed to me like a peaceful place to visit. Thus, while I was in Seattle, I attempted to find the monastery in California that I had located and wanted to visit a year before. With no luck and little money left to spare for gas, I found another in a small town in Oregon that graciously took me in for an indefinite period of time. “Come, please,” they told me in response to a lengthy email that I had sent outlining all of my reasons for wanting to visit and current circumstances. I ended up staying there for five days during which time I was able to meet Karen, really feel what hunger and discomfort felt like by giving it attention, and spend five days in a simplicity so unlike anything I’ve ever felt that I often revisit in thought to quiet my heart when it begins to beat too fast.

Here’s how the monastery went:

I usually wore the same thing everyday, a borrowed, comfortably-too-big, knitted, mint green sweater and a pair of baggy grey wind pants. I only wore shoes when I would work in the garden, and only sometimes. I worked in the garden pulling weeds and watering the crops twice a day for three hours at a time. We would wake up at 3:50 am everyday and begin meditation at 4:30 am, ending around 6:30 am for a half an hour of studying script. Then, we would proceed to the cafeteria for a communal meal, much of the ingredients either from the garden or donated. We would show appreciation every meal for what we were given through an offering to the Buddha. Aside from meditation, work, and sleep, there was a festival that I had arrived in time for in which we made paper lanterns that guided us through the woods to find and bring back lost souls; we picked blueberries for a day from a local blueberry farmer, and we, the residents of the monastery, got to know one another well. In essence, everything that we did came down to mindfulness and being present. Life at the monastery was about being present for it, no phones, no facebook, no to-do lists, no money concerns, no jobs. I can’t describe it for you anymore than this. Just know that it was the most pure and elucidating experience of my existence, and I can say with 100% certainty that it wasn’t fabricated out of subconscious desire; it was real.

After those five days, I had decided that it was time to go home, and over the course of three days after leaving from Seattle, I pulled up next to my house in Uptown, unloaded my things, and gave my roommate, Rory, a hug. From there, I don’t remember what happened next, but a lot of processing and adjusting.

I had set out looking for something to change my life. I had wanted it so badly, and it was constantly in the forefront of my mind, intruding on my experiences and tampering with them. The problem was is that there are only so many factors that can be controlled by the individual. Deciding to do the trip was a positive move. Trying to control the outcome became a hindrance. Luckily, the questions that I had set out hoping to answer were answered. I’m not just saying this to write a good story. Somehow, it actually happened the way that I had hoped for from the beginning, the way that I had pleaded for when I was left in the parking lot of the Whole Foods Market with $6000 cash in my hand watching a stranger drive my car away, as I was stranded due to mechanical issues on the side of the highway in Albert Lea, MN the first day of the trip, not having even left the state, as I was longing for someone to be there when I was wearing all of my clothes in my sleeping bag on the beach in Oceanside, OR and thought I had nowhere to sleep for the night.

When I came back to Uptown, I got that tattoo that I didn’t get in Portland. It is of a picture that a friend of mine found, Annika, of a boy riding a whale. Beneath it is written, n’aie pas peur.

Don’t be afraid.


One thought on “N’aie pas peur – Don’t be afraid

  1. Matt, I have been waiting for this entry and I’m glad you took your time. The sense I gathered during your trip was precisely what you wrote: trying to control the outcome could be a hindrance, and it seemed like you were transitioning into more of a stance of acceptance and presentness. I’ll write more in the next letter, but wanted to thank you for sharing. Miss you!

    PS Love the tattoo. It couldn’t be more perfect.

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