The river babbled at him: 'Aren't you going to brush your hair? You are going to wear that? Honestly? Sid! You will never get a girlfriend if you dress like that, and then how will I get grandchildren? Tssk tssk, what am I going to do with you?'
In fact, it was not the river that babbled, but a reflection of his mother in the river. In fact, I lied, it was not a reflection of his mother; his mother had passed away. It was her memory projected onto the undulating water's surface. Her waggling finger of disapproval quivered with the river's current.
Sid dropped his gaze and walked away, into the forest, kicking a pine cone with great force at a tree trunk. The pine cone shattered into an explosion of shards.
Sid was not accustomed to feeling angry, and was not at ease with his act of ill-tempered violence. He apologised to the pine cone for demolishing its essential unity and life purpose. Little did he know, the pine cone was more than happy to be split in this way to spread its seeds further.
The Sid of his mother's disapproval was a seed of the past. The sapling of the present had grown up and got a haircut and a real job. He let his girlfriend choose his clothes and no longer shopped at Salvation Army stores. He cooked stir-fries and listened to jazz. He had graduated from university and volunteered at a nursing home in his spare time. He had done everything to gain his mother's approval after she died, and nothing before it.
His soul was dishevelled. He came to the river on any occasion when he got a free moment to try to fix this, to try to undo the past. The sapling grew roots and did not want to move from the spot by the river.
Of course, the past could not be undone, but the more Sid became aware of this, the harder he tried to undo it. He thought that the only way to soothe the suffering was to release the trigger of it.
'Sid, lunch is ready!' Mary yelled from their cabin up the hill.
'Coming,' Sid replied, and paced up the hill.
Mary, the girl with cascading brown locks. Mary, the girl with delicious chocolate eyes. Mary, the girl with a smile that could melt said chocolate. Mary, the girl he met in philosophy class who spent most of the semester muffling her laughter at the theories they learnt. Mary, the girl he always knew he would marry someday.
Smoked salmon, avocado, baked ricotta, aragula, bagels. This lunch could have been prepared by Sid's mother. Mary hoped that by preserving Sid's mother's legacy that this might settle him. That's why they lived in his family cabin. This is where his roots burrowed under the soil.
How do you let go of something when it left long ago? How can you drop something that is no longer in your grip?
'Sid, I have been thinking. Maybe we could take some time off work and go travelling. We could use some time out,' Mary said. It was not time away from work that she thought he needed, but time away from this place, from all the memories that lived here.
'I don't know if I could get the leave,' Sid responded. This was code for: I don't know if I can leave this place. His stomach churned and his chest tightened at the thought of this.
Mary had a special way of convincing people to do what she thought was right for them. She had immaculate timing and knack to make someone think her suggestion was actually their idea. Argument and confrontation were simply not her style.
Mary, mother of Jesus, Blessed virgin, devoted wife, protector and provider of salvation and redemption, full of grace, without sin, beautiful and fair, maternal and caring, an icon of womanhood.
In the absence of Sid's real mother, Mary could not help but lap up the edges of this maternal role.
Mary did not raise the issue again for a few months, but eventually whittled her way to drawing out his enthusiastic agreement.
After several more months of deliberations over where to go, they settled on a three-month coast-to-coast road trip. Flying to San Francisco, they hired a camper and travelled as far as New York City, camping in national parks along the way.
No itinerary, no agenda, no predetermined path. Sid and Mary did not believe in straight lines, so their coast-to-coast road trip involved incessant meandering up and down like the path of a languid river, to wherever took their fancy.
Climbing the peaks of Yosemite, they lost themselves. A view such as this should not be accessible to mere mortals. It is liable to mess with the mind and open up questions about the nature of the universe. About the nature of society. About the nature of oneself.
Craggy peaks extended for miles in each direction. Pencil pines dotted the edge of an azure lake. On the other side, bears fished for salmon in the river, while salmon urgently flung themselves upstream.
Sid took a breath of fresh mountain air to clear his mind.
'We could have picked somewhere warmer!' Sid complained; somewhere in Oregon. 'I know how to get warmer,' Mary said with a wink and a slap on his butt. Sid did not need to be told twice, and the two of them got warm.
In fact, they got so warm that they sweated. Oozing out with the sweat came his buried angst.
Sid was not a man consumed by paroxysms of passion as a rule, but on this one occasion all the vitality of the universe coalesced in his spirit and something inside of him was set free. He looked into Mary's eyes and said: 'Thank you. Where would I be without you? Probably moaning by some river like a whiny mama's boy.'
Mary the Blessed virgin? There was another Mary, Mary Magdalene, portrayed as a fallen woman. Women have different rules. Women must be pure. Men can do what they like. Well this Mary did not buy into this, her lovemaking was pure and healing.
Their next camp was amongst breathtaking scenery in a national park in Washington State. They parked by an aquamarine river, surrounded by snow-capped peaks, shrouded by a blanket of pines.
While Mary had an afternoon nap, Sid went for a walk along the river, as his addiction dictated he must do.
'Sid! Didn't you feed the dog? Why are you so lazy? Help out your poor mother!' the river burbled.
So apparently running away from your problems didn't work. Who would have thought?
This time, for the first time, Sid decided to talk back. 'Mom, don't you understand, I've grown up now. You would be so proud if you knew who I have become.' He sighed.
Idaho, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York. Stars, rivers, mountains, lakes, canyons, deserts, snow, waterfalls, trees, birds, reptiles, mammals, insects.
Amidst the fury of New York City, Sid sat on a park bench in Riverside Park, staring down at the deathly still Hudson River. A squirrel jumped up beside him and feverishly nibbled at an acorn. This grabbed his attention for a brief moment and he averted his gaze.
As he looked back into the river, all of a sudden the current had picked up its pace into a gushing furore. In his mind, the sound of the river took on the furious rattle of a subway car.
Sid's mother stood at the edge of the train platform and yelled back to him: 'seriously, you are going to wear those pants to your grandmother's house? Have you no respect?'
'Mom what's wrong with my pants?' Sid replied defensively.
As she turned to argue further, Sid could see his mother stumble off the train platform onto the tracks as the subway car approached.
'Good-bye mom,' Sid whispered.
In Buddhism, suffering comes from attachment: to things; to ideas; to loved ones. This attachment comes from the ego and the need to draw things towards oneself instead of seeing the world as one.
Suffering ends when the person can let go, to see the world we live in as an illusion, or Maya, to see the separateness of beings as an illusion, to see everything as one.
For Sid, the visions of his mother were the first Maya. The next were the world itself and his attachment to Mary. Sid was not prepared to loosen this attachment, he would rather ensure inevitable future suffering than give up this catalyst for meaning in his life.
They flew back to their home state, then got a bus, and finally a lift from a neighbour to their cabin.
Sid once again returned to his beloved river.
'Sid, I can see that you have grown up. I am happy and proud of who you have become. But seriously, those pants? What were you thinking?' the river gushed.
'What's wrong with my pants!' Sid yelled out, 'I have been trying to please you all this time and still you disapprove! I am a grown man and I'll wear what I like.'
'Oh my darling son, I was just kidding. That's the spirit, Sid. Be your own man. Now it is time to give yourself to another woman and let go of me. If you keep dedicating yourself to me, Mary will miss out. You need to get out of the past to find your way to the present, and Sid, this is important, it was not your fault,' the river burbled.
With a rapid gush of current, the echo of the past was gone, and the river was still once more.
'Okay,' Sid replied, 'Okay.'
AN - written for the July 2011 WCC.
The prompt for the contest for this month was the following quote:
"Siddhartha was taught by the river. Incessantly, he learned from it. Most of all, he learned from it to listen, to pay close attention with a quiet heart, with a waiting, opened soul, without passion, without a wish, without judgement, without an opinion."
- Siddhartha (novel)