We live our four-score years a matter of genetics, family influence, personal choice, and, largely, luck. I’d like to think I make deliberate choices. I’ve bought into the American dream: individual freedom reigns. But I’m Asian at the core: interconnection determines not only the life we live but who we become. We are jewels caught in Indra’s net that weaves us into one, indivisible fabric.
While working at the USAF base in Angeles City, Pampanga, trying to forge connections to land me in America, I met one of the women in that weave of destiny. Mattie was an African-American nurse who one evening, from what goodness of the heart I’ll never know, invited me to her house on base for dinner.
I remember the feeling today. There I was a man-boy, desperately trying to put himself back together, the shining future he had once envisioned now shards of broken glass. The base was a capsule of America. On school buses, teenage girls chewed gum. Servicemen would fly McDonald burgers from CONUS and shared the smell and taste of home with his friends. The base insulated Americans from harsh reality. They shouldn’t have to deal with more war than the war in Vietnam. To me the base was the Promised Land, exciting and scary.
I don’t remember what Mattie served for dinner. I remember sitting at her spinet afterwards to play and sing American show tunes. She left me alone for a minute and came back with a book she felt I should read. I was Asian, of course, shouldn’t this be my natural bent? The Bhagavad Gita was every bit as wise and inspiring as the Christian Bible. I didn’t know what she was talking about.
Aside from my aunt, Dayde, Mattie was the first person to crack the door of orthodoxy into a whole, other world beyond. Back then, Asian art, religion and history were below my mind’s periscope. I was miserable and anxious only to escape. The West shone on the horizon like Abraham’s Canaan. There I would find home because where I was didn’t feel like home. No god dealt covenants to me. I had no choice.
It was only after I stopped attending church that my mind opened to other varieties of religious belief. In the early 1980s I found myself swept into the New Age movement. I went to gatherings in Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, New York and California, met new friends, tried on new practices: Sufi dancing, Midsummer festivals, channeling, unorthodox Franciscans, energetic bodywork, men’s groups, Gaia, etc. I was agog. Here were the inner fires I’d been missing.
Like breath, like water, the soul needs fire. We catch fire wherever we connect, whether we choose it or it flows to us from life’s amazing cornucopia of surprises.