How the Life of Pi Changed My Life

*Spoiler Alert for those who have not yet seen the movie, The Life of Pi.

Last Saturday was a tough day. It rained. Hard. I fought. Harder. I cried. Hardest.

I replied to a text sent by one of my best friend’s asking me how I was doing. I told her the truth. I wrote that I’d just spent three hours lying on the floor like an infant begging for God’s grace and that now I was going to a movie by myself for sweet mercy.

I haven’t been eating lately. After those emotionally draining hours, I was suddenly starved. I felt like a wet rag; limp, red-eyed, tear-soaked and heavy with pain. All I wanted was something light and soothing to fill my empty stomach. Something soft; and kind and easy in my senses. There’s a popular Chinese restaurant next to the movie theater that serves these amazing dumplings and steamed buns. There’s a window right in front where you can watch a staff of Asian men dressed in white prepare these delicate morsels.The wait is always over an hour, but I thought if I hung out in the bar, I’d snag a lone seat and be out in time for my movie which started in an hour. I waited awhile. I was going to miss my movie if I waited any longer, so I left and found the first place that could serve me warm food, quickly and allow me to be done in time to see my movie.

I was not supposed to see The Life of Pi on this night. I was supposed to see The Life of Pi last weekend, but as I approached the ticket counter two weeks ago I changed my mind at the very last second (for I don’t know what reason) and saw Silver Linings Playbook instead. SLP was a great movie, and just what I needed that night. But last Saturday, I was definitely going to see The Life of Pi.

I read the bestselling book by Yann Martel many years ago. I remembered the premise. I remembered being impressed by the ending, but I wasn’t ecstatic overall. I wasn’t ready for all the layers of meaning and messages about God when I was 25. But now, I was more than ready.

I ended up at an Indian restaurant eating a creamy, soothing  Tikki Masala with a slight hint of curry and a side of warm garlic naan. I sat at the bar staring in a daze. My eye happened upon a lotus flower. I’d been thinking of lotus flowers lately and this reminded me, once again, that I must call my friend, the wise yoga teacher who wears a lotus flower around her neck, so that she could explain to me the meaning.

I ate in a hurry and literally ran to the theater. The only seats left were the seats way up front, or the single seats in between couples. I didn’t want to crane my neck at a 3-D movie so I sat in between strangers. How fitting, I thought. I’d spent the day feeling so lonely I might as well sit in this theater surrounded by couples with nowhere to lean.

Soon after the movie started there was a scene of the writer and the adult version of the protagonist, Pi, beginning to tell the story over a lunch of curry and naan bread. I was still tasting the warmth of my Indian dish on my lips and this made me smile. Not only was the movie adapted to be about a writer trying to capture a story, but they were eating what I still tasted. I settled into the thought; that I was exactly where I needed to be in that moment. I’m sure this was a result of my emotions being raw as white bone because I was ready to receive whatever was coming to me.

The year, God has been trying to teach me to surrender. I know this. Just look over the body of work here and it is clear how I keep coming back to one simple theme… letting go. My trip to Nicaragua was a pinnacle of this message, and while I was there a month ago, I picked up this postcard that now sits wedged on the edge of my bathroom mirror. It’s my daily reminder of what I know I must do.

shakti cards

Even though I am fully aware that this is the message Life/ God/ The Universe is trying to relay to me, I have not fully understood, until last Saturday night. I am finding that even when you understand a thing about life, it’s not the same things as knowing it.

The protagonist in The Life of Pi, is about an Indian boy and his journey in faith. As a child, and in present day as he’s relaying this story, he claims himself to be a Hindu, Muslim and Catholic. His parents each believed differently, his father, the eternal pragmatist, put his faith in science; his mother is a devout Hindu. Pi’s family owns a zoo in India that has fallen on hard times. They are now transporting all the zoo animals to North America on a Japanese shipping boat and Pi and his family are along for the ride toward a new life in Canada.

The writer whom the adult Pi is relaying the story to, does not believe in God. When the writer asks him how it is possible that he believes in so many different religions, Pi says, “Faith is a house with many rooms.”

The writer says, “Then there’s plenty of room for doubt.”

And the adult Pi says, “Yes, on every floor.”

This metaphor reminds me of a Halloween house party I went to in college. It was in one of the large, old, craftsman style houses. The kind that are more tall than wide. When you enter, it feels like a maze of small rooms and corridors. There were so many rooms that it was hard to figure out where you wanted to be. To add to the confusion, everyone was in costume. In the basement there was a loud DJ playing techno music. In the kitchen, a bunch of fraternity boys holding cups around a keg. In another room, dread-locks sticking out of knit caps surrounding a hookah. I found some rooms that seemed empty, but in the darkness I heard moans. There where rooms where the only girls congregated and still others that were merely functional and of course there’s always that one guy in the corner playing acoustic guitar. Even the front porch had its own feel packed with the claustrophobic and smokers. This is how I view faith, as one big party.

In my life, Jesus invited me to this house party for the purpose of introducing me to God. Of course, God and I, we hit it off smashingly. To this day, I can sit for hours talking to God, just him and me. But sometimes, I must admit, when the music is too loud I can’t quite hear what he’s saying. There are often miscommunications.  It’s just like when you’re at a loud party and someone is smiling at you while talking, but you have no clue what they are saying so you just nod your head and smile back.

Sometimes God is saying, “We need to leave, the house is on fire!” And I’d sit there with a big smile on my face nodding like I know exactly what’s happening. Then I smell smoke and all the sudden I’m really interested in knowing what God is saying to me. That’s usually when Jesus steps in to translate over the noise. When I finally understand what God was trying to tell me via Jesus, I look to God for confirmation. He always gives me this knowing nod. I do as he asked and then ask for forgiveness for not listening the first time. Of course, God always forgives. He’s a gracious host.

I often stay in the room where Jesus is the DJ because he plays some sweet beats that I really love. But sometimes, I’m not in the mood for those tunes. Sometimes I want to chill out with some Bob Marley or I need to talk to my best girlfriends and I have found peace and happiness and wisdom in those rooms as well, because God, he loves Rastafarians, too… and frat boys, and claustrophobics and even the dark, empty rooms where no one seems to be. So I call myself a Christian. I certainly believe in God and I believe in Jesus. I do not, however, believe that Jesus is the only way to meet God.

In the movie, little boy Pi comes upon a priest and the priest explains that Christ is God’s only son and God loved the world that he allowed his only son to suffer so that we might understand God’s love for us. Little boy Pi questions this fact. It doesn’t make sense to him. Frankly, for a long time it didn’t make sense to me either. Like little boy Pi, that logic didn’t sound very good to my little girl self.

The Japanese ship wrecks and Pi is the only survivor stranded on a life boat with a zebra, a orangutan, a hyena and a Bengal Tiger. From here, everything is a profound metaphor for life and our relationship to ourselves, adversity, and God.

Soon, it is just Pi and the Tiger on the life boat. All the others suffered and were killed and eaten by one another in fear and hunger. Pi is a vegetarian so he did not eat these animals. The tiger, whose name is Richard Parker, did.

It is clear to me that Richard Parker is a representation of Pi’s ego and/or adversity. He must now face down this force in order to survive. The entire journey is a test of his faith in God.

His situation seems insurmountable at first. The tiger is fierce, relentless, wild, veracious and a strong carnivore that can easily over-power a skinny, vegetarian, Indian boy. Pi works hard and builds a raft outside the life boat to put distance between himself and Richard Parker. He obtains some supplies and a booklet on survival from the life boat’s hull. The booklet is a metaphor for any sacred text, such as the Bible. He uses the information in this booklet not only to survive, but to devise a plan to outsmart the tiger by making him sea sick. When the tiger stumbles and gets weary, Pi tries to over power the tiger with aggressive behavior. The result of this has only angered the tiger more. Pi realizes that this strategy does not work; that adding anger to anger does not produce the desired result. He realizes that the booklet, although it has much practical information that ultimately contributes to his survival, does not contain precise instructions for exactly what to do when you’re trapped on a life boat in the middle of the Pacific with a hungry Bengal Tiger.

Pi then decides to win Richard Parker over by giving him what he craves most, food. Pi reasons that if he gives Richard Parker food, the tiger will see no need to eat him. Pi is unable to keep up with the demands of a tiger’s appetite and soon, the tiger gets greedy. Not only does he want Pi’s portion of the food, but he wants Pi. The tiger jumps into the water to catch his own fish and comes after Pi on his raft. It doesn’t matter that Pi has fed him, he doesn’t discern Pi’s generosity from his need to survive. Pi then climbs onto the boat and the tiger is left clinging to the side unable to get himself over the edge and back into the boat. Pi learns that you cannot stand up to adversity by being 100% passive and submissive.

Now, Pi could be rid of the tiger if he just lets Richard Parker get tired enough and drown. Pi would no longer have to battle this demon. But then Pi must watch this beautiful creature suffer, and in turn, Pi will suffer with the pain of watching him die. Richard Parker does not deserve to die, he is merely doing what tigers do. Pi realizes that if he allows the tiger to die, a part of him will die, too. Pi understands that sitting by and watching another living thing die just so you can survive, is not the answer, either. Pi works hard all day and prepares his raft with more supplies for survival and then helps Richard Parker back into the boat.

Pi finally comes to the conclusion that he must learn to tame Richard Parker. Not with aggression and hostility, but with love and respect. Respect for the tiger, and respect for himself. He uses fish and a stick. He pokes Richard Parker and yells at him when he over-steps his bounds, but still feeds him and allows him space on the boat. He creates boundaries using love and respect. This works.

When you think his problems are solved, at least in terms of the tiger, a whale breeches next to the boat and all his vital supplies are lost. Pi reaches a point of hopelessness. He has no food, no water, no supplies and is still living with a hungry Bengal Tiger on a life boat in the Pacific Ocean. He says, “Okay God, I surrender. I just want to know what’s next.”

Of course, the surrender part is correct, but we can never know God’s plan. We will never know, “what’s next.” It is not a matter of Pi just accepting God as a powerful force and the determiner of his fate. Now he must know the meaning of letting go of fear and expectations.

Just as Pi and Richard Parker are both at a pinnacle of suffering, they wake up on the shores of a magical floating island. It is inhabited by edible roots, Mere Cats and pools of fresh water. Both Pi and Richard Parker have all they need to live. One night, Pi finds a human tooth inside a flower that resembles a lotus flower. As he becomes fully aware of his surroundings, he realizes that the island is carnivorous. Sure, the island would give him and Richard Parker everything they would need to survive, but it would also eat them. This island is a metaphor for the many ways in which we ignore and numb our lives; the panaceas such as drugs, alcohol, sex, food, gambling, you name it. They will let us live comfortable, we can manage our hunger and pain, but they will kill us.

Pi realizes he must leave the island, or die. He works hard and prepares his boat, yet again, and then sets off onto the ocean to face down his greatest fears again. This is Life.

Next, they are hit by another storm and all is truly lost. There is no hope. Pi says in the midst of the storm, “God, I surrendered, I have done everything, what do you want from me?” Then, Pi finally accepts his fate. He knows he is going to die, he is seemingly no longer afraid of the tiger because he sits and takes Richard Parker’s large head onto his lap stroking it in an act of compassion, camaraderie and pure love. He has given up the need to know what’s next.

Lastly, they wash up on the Mexican shore, barely alive. Richard Parker disappears into the jungle without looking back and Pi is taken to the hospital. When they ask him what happened to the ship and everyone in it, he tells them the story of him and Richard Parker the hungry Bengal Tiger.

Of course they do not believe him. Who would believe this fantastical story of carnivorous islands and surviving on a boat for so 247 days with a hungry, Bengal Tiger? They say he is lying and crazy so he tells them a different story. He tells them a story of tyranny, cannibalism and murder. This is the story they believe as truth.

So the question to us the audience becomes, do we believe in the God we cannot see that is filled with magic and light and signs and wonder?  A God that is around us always, speaking to us, warning us, loving us, wanting us to trust him without question? The same God that brought me to see this movie about an Indian boy in existential crisis, after spending three hours myself begging for grace and mercy, with serendipitous curry on my breath? Or do you believe in the God of tyranny, cannibalism and murder? I left that theater knowing exactly what I believe and what God had been trying to tell me. I also had an idea of what I was supposed to do next.

The very next day, while sitting in a room where I have placed much of my hopes for my future, my eyes filled with tears again. I stared off into the corner. My gaze landed on the back of a wooden chair. The design was lotus flower. I still didn’t know what that meant. I looked it up, because at this point, I am sure it is vitally important sign from God. This is what I found: Lotus flowers represent rebirth. They represent hope. The represent magic and possibility. They take three days to bloom up through muddy, murky waters and when they do, they are pristine, untouched and beautiful, still.

By the time I left that room something had changed.

Since the moment I was lying on the floor on Saturday in the fetal position while the heavens opened up around me, while I begged for grace and mercy, then was given signs that I must not only surrender to His will, but I must give up the very thing I was hoping to find on Friday afternoon… hope, something profoundly shifted inside me. Come Saturday night, I gave up that wish for hope. I realized that hope comes tethered to the idea that you know what you want. That you are holding out for some kind of solution to your situation that makes you happy and fulfilled. I realized that hope is a panacea.

God sat me in that theater with naan bread in my stomach with no direction to lean because he wanted me to lean on him, without hope, without questions, without expectations. But he clearly told me I must still work. I must still prepare. I must not give up doing the hard things, but I must give up the expectation that they will bring me closer to what I want because there is only one person who knows what I truly want… and it’s not me.

If I can surrender, truly surrender and live without fear or hope for what I want, he will lead to the shores of salvation and they will never be what I imagine them to be… they will be better.

On this night God brought me inside the room of two artists, Yann Martel and Ang Lee, so that they could show me what I could not hear through Jesus’s sweet melodies or the words inside my booklet on survival. This is why I want to be a writer; because I know that stories change the world.

I know that many will be tempted to tell me I’m wrong. Anytime I talk about God I get those emails. People will point to Bible verses that speak of this truth, and I will tell them that I have read those same verses. But MY truth is, those words did not speak to me the way this movie did. I am not naive to think that everyone will enjoy this film and get out of it the same things I did. I was meant to walk into that theater last Saturday night and I was meant to sit alone and see the world this way. It was perfect for me but others may not have the same experience and that is okay because art is a subjective thing… but so is religion.

Faith, however, is a house with many rooms and God is the only host.

Amen.

Now scroll back up and look at what the woman in the postcard is holding… and the miracles continue to abound.

The name of the Indian restaurant I went to was MokSHA. I went to their website to see if I could get a picture of the lotus flower that I saw while there. This is what the name means: MokSHA-A Sanskrit term used to describe the attaining of eternal bliss or “highest happiness” by the soul… it’s a magical world, people. 

The Story of a Boy Who Went to Prison

I have many things I should be doing right now. I didn’t turn in my homework last night for my writing class because I couldn’t seem to focus all week. I know I should be working on that, but I can’t muster the inspiration for fiction. Someone from the online journal, Literary Mama, a publication I respect immensely, and a place I have hoped to be published, asked me to write an essay on something in particular. But I can’t get my thoughts together enough to write the first sentence. There’s also laundry… and showering.

Have you ever tried to sprint through sand dunes? The sand shifts under every foot fall. You have to use your whole body to compensate for the sliding ground. Forward progress is slow. Have you ever lost your shoes in a puddle of mud? At first glance you believe the ground is hard enough to support your weight, but you’re in a hurry so you jump right into the thick of it realizing instantly that you’ve made a mistake and your foot protection is now gone leaving you vulnerable to the next step. Have you ever had to hike in waist-high snow? Every step takes enormous effort; step, sink, pull, lift, repeat. Each of these ways of moving in the world leaves you exhausted. You quickly become desperate and appreciative for solid ground.

That’s what I feel like right now. I am going through a rough patch in my marriage and I feel like I’m climbing a mountain of obstacles all of which are sucking me dry of energy, time and hope. Energy and time I can manage… it’s the hope that takes my breath away and it’s hope that I feel desperate for right now. That is why a true story of hope is what I want to tell today.

I once knew a boy who went to prison. A long time ago, when I was just a girl and before he went to prison, I really liked him. He didn’t like me in the same way. I thought that if I gave him everything, he might. He didn’t. That was a hard lesson to learn.

This boy was tall and solid as an oak tree. His fists were the size of an elephant’s heart and he could smash a baseball to the moon. He was known for not only smashing baseballs, but people’s faces. Sometimes he was a very angry person.

That is what most people knew of him, but I knew him for something different. I knew he quivered like a sapling when anyone said the word “haunted.” I knew his eyes widened in real trepidation if he saw triple sixes. He was a bully in many ways, but I could see the tenderness in his heart as I watched him kiss his mother and call her “Mommy” in front of his tough teenage friends. His mother knew that I liked her son. She knew her son did not like me and she knew what I was willing to do to change that, and yet, she treated me with respect.

Every time I gave this boy something of mine, and then asked for something in return (for which he never gave), he did not laugh at me. He didn’t even pity me. He looked at me as if he was disappointed in himself for being so selfish. He didn’t want to hurt me and tried to get me to stop giving him things, but he was a just boy, and he did what boys often do.

Eventually, I let him go. I moved on. He dated a friend of mine for several years and into our early twenties. After a short stint in the minor leagues, he became addicted to meth. I heard stories about how he beat people to near death. He went on stealing things from people and friends to support his addiction and all of that landed him in prison for over a decade. I didn’t know him when he went in there. Shortly after going to prison the sweet woman he called “mommy” committed suicide.

I stole something from him, too. I took a photograph from his house that I still have tucked somewhere in a yellowed photo album in my parent’s basement. It was a picture of him at about the age of three. It is a close-up of his round, boy face. His hair is a deep monochramtic brown and straight as straw. It’s cut bluntly across his forehead covering the tips of his ears. His eyes were wide and lit up like sunlight dancing on muddy waters. Soft brown freckles were smattered across the bridge of his nose and sat on the peaks of his cheek bones like they’d been painted on a doll. He’s wearing a little tie, seemingly dressed for church on Easter morning. His smile is not big and happy, but contented. Only a mother would take that picture of her son and I felt bad for taking it from her because I’m certain now, that like him, it was her treasure.

I wanted that picture because that is how I saw him. I kept it to remind myself that I gave everything to that boy, and not that man who would later go to prison.

Every now and again, over the last decade he was in prison, I’d think about him. I’d think about what he was going through in that place compared to what I was going through in my life. I’d think about all the things he was missing and if he knew he was missing them, or if he even cared. I cried as I tried to imagine him learning about what happened to his mother while surrounded by bars and concrete. A couple of times I looked up his mug shot on the state’s website of incarcerated people. Over the years the tattoos grew, the eyes shrank and there was no smile. Sometimes I’d imagine running into him at a bar when he finally got out. I would know with just one look if that boy with the eyes as big as moons was still there, or if the harsh realities of a decade in prison had taken him away forever.

He’s out of prison now. I haven’t met him in person, but thanks to Facebook, I still know.

That boy is engaged to be married. He’s having a baby girl. He makes fun of himself for going to prison. He has no shame and I see that as a sign of internal strength. He’s still not afraid to tell the world how much he loves his mother and that same unabashed affection is now bestowed upon his fiance. With much regularity he writes posts about his great love for her, too. His declarations are cheesy, over-the-top, the grammar is all wrong and from anyone else I might roll my eyes and doubt the sincerity… but with him, I can’t help but smile.

That boy whose picture I took, who took things from me and then went to prison for taking things from others, did not let life break him. He lost his beloved mother while in that place, but he did not lose himself. When I see his picture pop up on my computer screen now, I wonder what sand dunes and mud puddles and snow-covered mountains he conquered while stuck behind those walls? Sometimes I wonder who he beat up, if he stopped beating people up, and when he decided he wouldn’t be beaten? Seeing his picture  today, his features are hardened and aged, like mine, but I can still see the joy in his eyes and the love he has for life and the people still in it, and when I see that… I feel nothing but hope.

Hope that the innocent child in us all is strong enough to overcome any obstacle, be it mountain or marriage. And that is the story I want to tell today.

I Do Not Want To Be A Lie

As much as I would like to be the kind of person who hears lines of poetry narrating their day-to-day life… I am not. I like poetry, I do.  I even write a rhyming poem for my Christmas card every year (although I hardly think that counts as “serious” poetry). As much as the self-proclaimed “serious” writer in me crumples in shame, I must admit that there is a lot of poetry that I simply do not understand.

I heard a saying once that goes something like this: a failed poet is a short story writer, and a failed short story writer is a novelist. In other words, the sentiments and potentiality for beauty and Truth in the art form of the written word is most distilled, potent, and most difficult to achieve in its most succinct form… a poem. Poetry is difficult to do well because it requires a mastery of language, imagery, and a penetrating sense of the world. It is why the great poets are pure genius. Perhaps this is also the reason I do not understand most of it?

But there are some poems, that when I run across them, feel like I’m looking at someone else’s heart on a page. And although it’s someone else’s heart, they have shown me mine as well. It’s the same with a song. Whenever I am moved to tears by music, inevitably, I will think of an off-handed line spoken by Vince Vaughn’s character in Ron Howard’s comedy The Dilemma. I’ve seen that movie only once. I can’t even tell you the plot, but I have never forgotten the simple truth in this line. Vaughn, in a spurt of nervous banter says,

“People say music is the highest art form. It can go the furthest, the fastest, emotionally.”

What is great music but poetry with an accompaniment? Now I’m just musing on art form. Let’s reign this in. Everyone has recognized good art in their life. A moment of pure emotion brought on my the words, sights, sounds of another human being’s creative powers. Poetry, it all its precision and depth, is thought by many, to be at the top of these creative endeavors.

In middle school I memorized Edgar Allen Poe’s, The Raven, on my own and not as an assignment.  I was enamored by Poe and his dark, brooding rhythms. I loved the way that new word “Nevermore, Nevermore” came after me line after line in increasing terror just like the caw of that raven. After hearing Maya Angelou recite On The Pulse of Morning at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration, I sought out a copy and kept it folded in a blue treasure box under lock and key. I don’t know why really, much of it flew right over my head, but I knew it was something beautiful that deserved to be kept somewhere safe. There are certain poems that speak to me in that way. I will not say that I understand them all, but they are beautiful and feel like tiny miracles. I ran across one such poem by Ranier Marie Rilke just this week:

RilkeI can’t make every minute holy.
I don’t want to stand before you
like a thing, shrewd, secretive.
I want my own will, and I want
simply to be with my will,
as it goes toward action.
And in the silent, sometimes hardly moving times,
when something is coming near,
I want to be with those who know
secret things or else alone.
I want to unfold.
I don’t want to be folded anywhere,
because where I am folded,
there I am a lie.

~Ranier Marie Rilke

This is what I felt inside as I took up a pen and started to write:

I can’t live every moment fully aware. I can’t take the high road in every conversation. I can’t be holy, benevolent, pious, contented and non-reactive in each minute of every day no matter how hard I try. I want to. I want patience to rival Gandhi and compassion to make Mother Theresa proud, but I just can’t. I can not. At least not now. But I don’t want to be ashamed of myself either for not possessing those things. I don’t want hang my head low and beat myself up because I am not perfect and happy and well-behaved in every minute of everyday. I do not. I want to know what I want from this life, and I want to seek out those experiences and the highest Truths with all I have and all that I am. At times when those Truths draws near, when I am pious and benevolent and can quiet my mind long enough to feel the pulse of my life and the holiness in my breath, I want to be  surrounded by wisdom, by goodness and Love. If I cannot have that, I want to be alone. I want to be open. I never want to shut a piece of myself off because it is in the dark places where fear lives. I know that much. And I know that when I am afraid, I am a lie.

I’ve certainly heard of Rilke. When I hear a poem that strikes me as certain and wise, often times, it is Rumi or Rilke who wrote it. I looked around for more on Rilke and found this gem from one of his most famous works, Letters to a Young Poet written in 1908:

I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. ~Ranier Marie Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

And that right there is what this blog seems to be about. Letting go and living in Love and Truth because anything else would be a lie.