We all know Pilgrims. Seekers. Wanders. Ramblers.
They may come and go in our lives, but their effect on our hearts is irrepressible. Though we know they will be leaving soon, off perhaps on another Walkabout, or doing another stint in prison or hopefully spending time in a hospital where they may be relieved of their suffering, we can't help but hold on to their beautiful, fragile spirits.
My friend Andy came into my life when we were 4th graders, and he didn't leave my life until he took his own, many years later.
In between those dates, like bookends, we filled many, many books with our stories together. About 20 years worth.
Andy grew up in a large family. He was right in the middle of 7 children, so he knew how to be a big brother and a little brother. He knew how to fight and he knew how to comfort, but as he grew up, he became a pacifist and a vegetarian. He was as tall and thin as a reed, and moved through every situation with grace and good will. Truly, he never wished ill of anyone.
But he was always on the outside. He was just a little different, even different for the late 60's, early 70's. So that was pretty different. He hated high school but knew he had to go. Smoking lots of dope saw him through those years--dope, and sitting on the radiator of any classroom he had to be in, just sort of stretched out like a cat. Our teachers were permissive, and because he was bright, Andy was always given a great deal of leeway. He came and went, even in class. But when he was present, there was always some brilliant observation offered, from his place on the radiator. He never thought of himself as brilliant.
Because we wore identical sneakers, we referred to ourselves as "Tretorn Twins". On school picnics, we ditched the softball game and snuck off to the graveyard to smoke together. I couldn't keep up with him. We spent afternoons walking all over our small town, just talking. We cut school and went swimming in Devil's Den, jumping off ridiculously dangerous cliffs into deep pools, then went to get ice creams, laughing, talking, always talking. When I needed a date, he always accompanied me. When I needed a shoulder to cry on about some boy, he always offered his shoulder. When my dog died, he gave me flowers, a huge bunch he had picked along the roadside, from his house to mine.
I remember one night at his family dinner table, with his father holding forth. There was lots of talk amongst the adults about the Viet Nam War, and I didn't really know anything, except that it deeply repulsed me. When his father got Hawkish, I spoke up and basically said, "no, no, no!"
All conversation stopped.
No one disagreed with Andy's father. Everyone just looked at me. I tried to explain, but what did I know as a 13 year old. All I could say was that the War was wrong.
We didn't stay at the table much longer. And I left feeling I had made a dreadful mistake. I had been disrespectful and silly, and would never be asked back again. Later, Andy told me how much he always wanted to stand up to his father the way I had, and every now and then he would mention it, as if it had become legend. I still felt as if I had made a mistake. But Andy never thought that.
As the years passed, I left for college. Andy worked his way out to San Francisco, found employment in a bookstore and read everything he could find about Buckminster Fuller. We wrote letters. I had the sense that he was drifting, both figuratively and literally. He bummed rides all up and down the West Coast, and just took off whenever he felt the need to get away. That progressively became more of the case. He had little money, and spent time in prison for harassing a supermarket about their produce freshness. He wrote to tell me that there was a little radio in his head and it would never be still.
I didn't know how to help him. My life was completely different, and very full. Married, raising a family, writing short stories, I couldn't imagine who he was out on the road. But I knew that was where he felt the most free.
He made his way back to Connecticut and lived with his father again. Once he showed me all the pills and tablets he took daily; they looked like toys, like candy or trinkets, and we laughed that what he held in his hand was what kept him sane. I was beginning to see the "old" Andy again, but there was also a profound sadness that effected our times together. Sometimes we would just look at one another, because we both understood that, and we couldn't begin to even talk about it.
The last time I saw Andy, he was on the road again, bumming a ride. I recognized him from several yards away, even though he was shaggy-haired, bearded and wore layers of clothing. I pulled over and asked my son to climb in the back--all three kids were with me, the youngest two in their car seats. Andy opened the door and got in, pulling his knapsack behind him. He was pretty scruffy, and he smelled as if he had been on the road for a long time.
But he looked at me, and he was so happy to see it was me. He just grinned.
When I dropped him off before turning down the road that would take me home, Andy got out and said a big good bye to the kids. My son said goodbye, but the girls just stared. "Oh, wait," he said, "I've got something for the kids". He rummaged in his knapsack and finally handed me an egg. "Here," he said, "It's good!"
I took it, but I didn't know where to put it. We were on the Post Road at dusk and cars were whizzing by. I needed to get the kids home and make dinner. I felt harried, slightly disgusted and so, so sad, and I didn't know what to do with all of that.
I handed the egg to my son over the back of the seat. And he took it, and kept it for several days.
Andy headed into the woods where I left him. Maybe he was staying in a tent back off the trail. Maybe he was just going to smoke some weed, if he had any, then hitch a ride back to his father's house. Maybe he was resting up before making another trip to the local supermarket, where he could keep an eye on the produce section--they knew him there, and if he didn't cause too much trouble, they let him stay. Other times, I know the police came to escort him away.
Andy was a pilgrim. In our early years together, I thought of him as a classic wanderer, like a character in a Phil Oakes song. But of course, those characters were always tragic, and met difficult ends. Andy's mental illness was another road to wander, but he was on that road alone. Yet I still thought of him as a pilgrim and a seeker. His heart was open.
Namu Amida Butsu.