Lisbon. A Sunday afternoon like so many. The routine of it is what made the meeting with the drunk sea captain so surprising.
For my Sunday afternoon ritual, I would sit on deck of my sailboat home– my floating private hermitage–called the Raven.
I would sit and gaze at the waters of the river Tagus (pronounced Tay-jew,) where my boat was docked.
I would look Westward; watching the widening water expand to become a bay, and then onward, finally spilling itself out into the Atlantic some 20 miles further.
I would turn my head to the left and watch the opposite shore of the river.
That is where a fruit freighter boat from African docked. Occasionally these huge box boats would leave floating presents in the form of crates of bananas, oranges and mangoes floating to be picked up by a poor primate like myself.
Then I would look beyond all the action at the port towards Cacilhasto Bay where the great Lisbon bridge that was a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge stood underneath a massive towering statue of the beneficent Jesus with arms outstretched; a replica of the Jesus statue in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.
After a while, I would pick up my sax.
I would play this horn while watching the sun setting just behind the bridge, the flowing river, the towering jesus as the sky turned from blue to cream to purple to black.
And so it was on this particular Sunday.
Two days before the time of this story, a curious boat from Hamburg had sailed into port. This was no big deal.
Afterall, curious boats were arriving daily from all over the world.
Sometimes, I would meet the captains and their crew. When it was right, we would end up meeting. Sometimes we would have dinner together, exchanging stories through the night by lantern light over bottles of good Portuguese wine.
There was the Norwegian Captain who kept repeating; “I’m so depressed” even though he sailed in the most beautiful vessel I had ever seen — a 19th Century passenger sailboat — a huge wooden piece of art.
Then, there was the British sailor who spoke of green sunsets over the southern Pacific. He was a passionate old hippy genius who had built his sailboat himself.
There was the French Captain whose wife had left him for his best friend, and who after that, decided that his wife would, henceforth be his sailboat, but he had lots of human mistresses at ports here and there, one of which gave him syphilis.
I will never forget a Norwegian amazon woman — possibly the most alive and gorgeous woman I ever met — who jammed with me; accompanying my sax with a djembe. We did this all night long and then she sailed the next day for Africa without so much as a wink of sleep.
There were the secretive Russian sailors who were stuck in Lisbon, because their fishing/canning ship was being held until they could come up with docking fees. One night I got drunk with them and listened to them sing Russian fishing songs through the night.
But mostly the boats would come and stay for about a week while their passengers would disembark to explore the wonders of lovely Lisbon. I would never meet them.
Still, I intuited that there was something extraordinary about the German boat, but I didn’t give it much thought.
My horn playing on this particular Sunday afternoon was a meditation on the emotion I felt most deeply and most often, in those days — loneliness.
As I got into my horn playing I was feeling into the soft melancholy of my solitude.
I heard a noise from below, next to my boat.
It was a man from the Hamburg boat I had seen coming into port a few days earlier. I guessed immediately that he was the captain. It was something about the way he walked, peculiar to sea-captains, like a man of authority who nevertheless is more comfortable on the ocean than on land.
He had a balding gray head, a matching gray beard, shiny blue eyes, a strawberry pudgy nose, and a bulging watermelon belly.
He beamed a bright smile up at me and asked if he could come on board and listen for a while.
I nodded yes, and so he climbed on deck, and sat across from me as I played.
I continued to play for some time.
Now, in saying that I was playing my sax, I don’t mean to imply that I was playing songs.
I was not.
I was just shaping sounds; Sound shapes to describe the feelings of the moment. And, as I said, those feelings were sad ones; feelings of loneliness and longing and nostalgia; feelings the Portuguese call soldade.
He sat in complete stillness, a gentle smile on his face, his eyes closed until I finished.
Then he opened his eyes, sighed, and we sat together in silence for a nice long moment. Then he said that my playing reminded him of what it was like to be all alone in a cave in the desert.
I asked him to explain.
As he began to talk I noticed the smell of alcohol on his breath.
This gave me pause.
I was not a big fan of drunks; especially German drunks. Drunken conversation tended to be too loud for me, too verbose, too sentimental, often nonsensical. Besides, this was my sacred Sunday ritual, playing my horn while watching the sunset, and I wasn’t about to compromise it for some mindless encounter.
Still, something about his manner of listening and being reassured me.
So I listened to his story.
“One day, twenty years ago, I woke up with a strange feeling.
At the time, I had been married to my second wife for 11 years and had been working at an automotive shop as a manager.
I woke that morning with an intense and scary feeling.
By noon it became clear what that feeling was telling me, and it could not be ignored.
That feeling was telling me that it was time for me to leave and start a new life.
I was to quit my job that day. I was to leave my life as it was, including my wife — for no reason at all.
This feeling was so strong and clear that I did not question it.
My employer looked at me with disgust when I informed him I was quitting and would not return another day.
Then I went home. My wife was there waiting for me with a prepared dinner — like always.
We sat and ate. Then I told her that there was something important I had to say.
I started by saying that she was a fine wife and that there was nothing wrong with her in anyway. I then cleared my throat and told her that I had to leave. There was no reason I had to leave. It was simply time to go.
She became quite scared and started yelling at me.
She said I had gone mad and then she ran to the front door and locked it and took the key to try to keep me captive until I came to ‘my senses’.
But instead of changing my mind, I suddenly knew that I had to leave that very moment.
I felt that if I stayed in that house one more minute I would suffocate. I slapped her in the face hard and she fell to the ground.
I ran to the door like a bull and smashed it open, breaking my arm, but also breaking free.
I had gotten out.
For the first time in my life I had no money, no wallet, no place to stay.
That weekend I stayed at my son’s best friend’s house.
I dared not stay at the house of any of my friends. I knew the authorities would be looking for me.
I left town the following Monday never to return. For the next two years I lived hand to mouth, doing odd jobs, going from room to room. I wondered about aimlessly.
Then I joined a buddhist monastery and stayed there for 6 months. I liked it there, but one day the head abbot came to me and said that my time there was finished and it was time to go.
So I went back to wondering about. In that time, I spent a year in the Sahara desert, and then Tibet, and then a cave, and then I met a clan of Sufis. (muslim mystics)
They took me in, but again, after a while, they told me it was time to leave. Then I met a group of gnostic monks and stayed with them for a while. Finally I learned to sail.”
When he finished this summary of these 2 decades, we sat in silence as we drank in the magnificent sunset.
Then, at once, he looked deep into my eyes. “All of it was for nothing.” He smiled as he said this.
I was incredulous.
“Nothing? Nothing? You were in the Sahara! You were in the cave! You were in Tibet! You lived amongst the buddhist monks! The sufis! The gnostics! You lived among exquisite holy men after you courageously followed your heart!!! And now you are saying it was for nothing??? You must be kidding me!!!”
He simply laughed, stood up, directly faced me and explained; “What I finally realized was my search was not needed. All the thinking about sacred things. We don’t need to think about all this. All we need is to accept the beauty of diversity and contradiction.”
“The problem is,” He continued, “everyone wants Unity — to be one thing only — and they want it THEIR way and therefore all the wars, competition, judgments, and suffering.
But unity is no longer the primary condition. Unity was the PREVIOUS condition.
Now we move, not towards greater unity, but towards greater diversity; away from unity.”
I told him that I didn’t understand.
He pointed to my sax; “Look at your sax, man. You don’t want to be that sax, do you? You want to play it, right? To play it, you must be separate from it. And for me to sit here and listen and enjoy it, I must be separate from you.”
This made total sense to me. I finally understood the beauty of not being one, but being many.
But then I felt that feeling. That feeling I have been carrying around forever, it seemed.
I asked in a quiet voice: “What about the ‘me’ inside that is all alone with no one to talk to, with noone to understand me — so lonely?”
He answered: “That is Unity, or God, if you prefer. It is One and nothing else and that is a true feeling — one with itself. It has no one, and has a burning desire and longing for reflection and communication. I longs for something other than him/her self. Hence the dance and push to the condition we now enjoy: Diversity!”
Suddenly, in a flash, I understood this man through and through.
Better than this.
I was at home with that in me which was completely alone.
Then I looked into him and it happened.
I became fully aware that the alone part of myself was also that alone part of himself.
I saw myself as both alone, complete in and of myself, and yet at the very same moment, only complete in the joy of communion, of loving relationship.
I understood in a flash how the one condition of my aloneness was beyond space and time and the other condition, of diversity, was performed in space and time, and both conditions were who I am!
In this way, I was enlightened.
I shouted: “Hello Me!” and he answered: “Hello Me!”
There was no tension between us.
We cried and hugged and danced.
I saw how lucky it was to be a human; capable of being both God in total and vulnerable fragmented individual, one of billions; merely part of the whole.
I looked into his eyes and saw ME staring back from HIM and said nothing.
I simply picked up my sax and played a sweet melody as he jumped off the Raven, and danced his way down the plank to his own boat.
The following morning by the time I awoke the curious boat from Hamburg had already departed; leaving me nothing but a smile and this story.