The Deer Musk
Adam was, and I quote him, “the only son and child of a Jewish mother” who happened to be a psychoanalyst with a PhD and recently deceased. Whilst the intellectual accomplishments and professional achievements of a mother, and Jewish at that, would have been hard for any son to surmount, it was her dead condition that was the hardest of all and which Adam was still dealing with when we met outside the meditation hall of the Buddhist monastery we were both staying at Mt Koya. He was mourning not only the loss of a mother - an accomplished mother - but also the only fixed female presence and archetype in his life and that gap had left Adam yearning for a replacement.
Perhaps that’s what we both had in common at the time of this encounter, mourning the loss of someone close to us - I had recently lost a good friend to cancer - their regrets and by association our own fears of them. My friend’s regrets had become associated with my life crisis, a wake-up call that asks you all these typically annoying existentialist questions.
Within weeks, I had moved from an encounter with a much younger Israeli man to a much older Jewish American man. My stay in Japan seemed to have developed a Jewish theme… Whilst the first was in search of casual vegan sex, this one was in search of companionship and good food - preferably in that order - with which he could fill in the void in his life. Adam had already tried good food as vacuum filler but he was still left hungry for companionship. And here I was, in the middle of these two male Jewish encounters, wondering what it all meant…that I was perhaps looking for a bit of both, sex and companionship - but not committed to either? Obviously, good food, vegan or not, was something I could easily provide for myself.
I have always liked older men for their minds and their experiences; or rather because they know about events that happened long ago and are able to understand their significance. The link between their individual and collective past has always been a subject of fascination for me. But I have always been attracted to younger men too, and not only for their youth and virility as you might surmise …rather correctly, but also for being free from the past - their 'unlived' yet past - of that very past that I envied and relished in older men.
But it was a serendipitous encounter I promised to describe and not its analytics, so here is how it happened. We were both at the meditation hall that afternoon and on the way out he stopped to talk with other fellow traveler-meditators. I knew he was American because he spoke so loudly I could not miss his accent. This encounter lasted just one or two minutes with me offering, in passing, information about a devotional Indian music event that evening in one of the many Buddhist monasteries that I could not motivate myself to go to on my own.
He did come but much later, sitting near me on one of those piled up multicolored floor cushions we all sat on, in a ‘pretend comfortable’ cross-legged position, surreptitiously shifting in the semi-darkness to ease off the numbness of our legs. I was already lost into the music that was transporting me to another place; an India I had once experienced in one of my travels, around a campfire with dancing Rajastani gypsies. One of those serendipitous travel encounters that stays forever in memory. Tears were streaming down my face and my body was swaying along the waves of mystic sounds, liberating me temporarily from my surroundings and connecting me with my grief for my lost friend. Once I resurfaced at the end of the evening, I realized that I now had to talk to this stranger who was there upon my invitation.
So, we found ourselves ejected out of the warmth of the monastery and into the freezing dark night of Mt Koya. And… we talked. And that was that. We talked nonstop all the way to our monastery. Once we got there, we clearly did not want to stop, so we stood outside in the bitter cold talking, for what felt like a very long while, on just about anything, a kaleidoscope of topics between two complete strangers clearly in need to converse in a language that both felt comfortable with - the way hungry people eat when offered many plates, gorging down on just about everything, not wanting to leave anything untried.
By then I had been in Japan for a few months and having an intelligent conversation in a language I was fluent, even about something as trivial as the weather, was such a relief! And that was it. Perhaps a 30 or 40 minutes of talk while standing in the cold risking to be locked out of our rooms.
We continued online as he asked for my email to send some Indian music he had come across through his travels in India. This was a well-travelled man, who had many incarnations in various professions but still longing to be a published poet. We ended up corresponding intensively for several weeks until we met again once more and for one last time in Nagoya where I was visiting for work.
It was in our emailing that we allowed honesty without the restrictions of the physical presence to infuse our communication that became almost confessional. It was through our emailing where our conversation about our life crisis, search for meaning, love and creativity flourished and became a sort of online therapy session, the kind that reminds one of an old, stern, be-spectacled therapist that does not allow the patient to hide behind their finger.
Kindness was not our approach, rather directness, honesty, intellectual sharpness and exposing the other to their self-imposed illusions. He did not let me off the hook when I returned back home and dived back to my ordinariness and security of the familiar; he called me back to those declarations I had made about the need for bringing change into my life and dared me to practice my love for arts.
Perhaps the essence of this online friendship can be seen in one single story Adam shared with me which I quote here as it tells much about our shared search for the authentic self.
Reb Zusya, a righteous rabbi, lay dying. His disciples surrounded him, and were astounded to see that their teacher and sage, a man whom all regarded as a model of appropriate thought and deed, shook with fear at the prospect of death and judgement.
“Master,” said his disciples, “why do you fear God’s judgement? You have lived life with the faith of Abraham. You have been as nurturing as Rachel. You have feared the Divine as Moses himself. Why do fear judgement?”
Zusya took a deep, shuddering breath, and replied:
“When I come before the throne of judgement, I am not afraid that God will ask, ‘why were you not more like Abraham?’ After all, I can say, ‘O God, you know best of all, that I am Zusya, not Abraham, how then should I have been more like Abraham?’ And if God should ask, ‘Why were you not more caring, like Rachel?’ I can respond, ‘Master of the Universe, you made me to be Zusya, not Rachel. If you wanted me to be more like Rachel, you should have made me more like Rachel.’ And should the True Judge say, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Moses?’ I can respond, ‘O Mysterious One, who am I, Zusya, that I should be like Moses.’ But, I tremble in terror, because I think the Eternal will ask me another question. I believe I will be asked, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Zusya?’ And when I am asked this, how shall I respond?"
And that was what was all about this serendipitous encounter. I loved the story "but what a life to live", I had commented, “in fear of not having met some preordained life expectation!” I would like to have an element of free will injected in pre-destination... I preferred the idea of many paths available to you upon birth and free will comes in choosing who to become...
“So you don't believe in determinism?” Adam replied. “The nice thing about being Jewish” he continued with his typical Jewish wry sense of humour “is that we can argue about free will/determinism until we are blue in the face, but what we believe doesn't really matter, since Judaism, perhaps like Confucianism, is an ethical path--deeds matter, not beliefs.” I had missed the point. Reading this again now I can see what Adam was trying to say to me. “Our task is not to try to be like someone else, however famous or important, but just to be ourselves”.
This reminded me another reading I have recently come about, by David Whyte, whose poems and prose have a meditative effect on me. He talked about life as collection of parallel options that lead us to different paths with those untraveled ones being as real as the one we choose to take:
When we speak of parallels we speak of accompanying possibilities, like a life or a partner we did not choose, the refusal of an uncertain other life influencing this certain and familiar, present life; we evolve as much with the parallel as we do with the present; as the years pass, our relationship to the path not taken […] changes as much as it does with the one we did. There are many deathbeds where the path not taken is far more real and present than the one actually chosen; .... There is also the questions of depth; we may have taken a certain path but only half-heartedly, without convictions, sacrifice, bravery or sincerity. ...a source of shame, a life un-braved unlived, misunderstood, no matter how much it whispered conspiratorially in our ears. A parallel life we wished could be our own.” (D. Whyte, Consolations, 161-2)
How about adding this to the above mix of pre-destination, determinism, free choice, and ethical paths? The dilemmas we have to battle with! About life choices, the ones not made that run in parallel with those already made, half-heartedly or not, always wondering about those “what ifs.” Would I be like Zusya at my deathbed, wondering if I lived the right life, the life I was pre-ordained to live but I missed?
Our online friendship came to an abrupt end when Adam sent me a message declaring that he needed commitment from his friends. In other words, he wanted more speedy replies to his messages. He was lonely and had plenty of time in his hands, while I was having a full time job and social life that did not allow me to keep up with this intensive online interaction and at the speed he required.
Around that time Adam was searching more actively to find companionship and a new purpose in his life. Among the many interesting options he was exploring was the suggestion by a friend to marry a young migrant woman who was a single mother because, as his friend said, the responsibility will give him a new lease of life. This saddened me, and it wasn't because I was denying Adam his right to companionship, but rather because his quest for purpose and meaning in his life was outwards driven. This endless anguish prompted me to share with him the story of the Deer musk I had happened to read just the day before:
It is said that the musk deer had an acute ability to perceive a certain musk smell. The pleasant aroma was compelling, yet the deer didn’t know where the musk aroma was coming from. It travelled far to the north, to the south, to the east, and to the west trying to find the source of this wonderful scent. Finally in exhaustion it fell down, turning its head inward to where the musk gland (which it had within itself) was located and thereby was able to find the source of that musk (Cousens)
The allegory of the story was not lost on Adam, but that does not mean he liked it as he felt perhaps confronted by a sharp truth that was harder to accept than his loneliness. I deliberately did not seek to continue this friendship, simply accepting his earlier announcement of “if you don’t have the time, then I am not willing to invest in our friendship.”
Sometimes I think of dropping him a line but then I think that some encounters should end when they have run their course...
* Visuals provided by the author
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