For the number of you that are undoubtedly perched on the very edge of your seats (or more likely, thinking, “What in the Hell is he writing about, again?”), you need wait no more.
My quest was successful. I found it, at last!
As I’ve mentioned, something had told me from the start that it wasn’t likely to be an ordinary kind of journey. Yet it began simply enough. I tied up my kayak on my adventure-mobile, and parked just over the first bridge to Key Biscayne, to put in.
So there I am, making good time going nowhere in particular, when an unusual craft glides across my path, utterly silent. I think, “What the-– Isn’t that an old cypress dugout canoe?” And I guess the sun had gotten in my eyes a little. Can’t quite make it out. Whoever it might have been, they seem to be making excellent time.
I kind of look around for a minute, just to make sure that I haven’t wound up in some episode of The Twilight Zone I’d somehow missed, or something. My quick scan of the area reassures me that I am indeed definitely still in the Bay, making headway in my little kayak. The backdrop is the Miami that (for better and for worse) I have always known.
So I’m cruising along, and pass many a wondrous sight. It surely is a beautiful day to be alive.
Wow! I’d never seen Miami’s silver bluff from this perspective!
Then, all of a sudden, another strange sight captures my eye. I can hear the wind hitting the sails, the rope and metal clanking rhythmically. It glides quiet, but I’m still close enough to hear it cutting water. A good-looking young guy on board waves friendly greeting. I fumble to wave back without losing my paddle. “Hmmm,” I find myself thinking, “Do they still make ships like that any more?” I had thought not, yet here it was.
I close my eyes and rub them, for just a moment. When next I look, all of three seconds later, it isn’t there at all! No ship, no boy. “Better talk with my doc about those new meds,” I added to my mental list of projects. “Probably priority, that one!”
Just a couple minutes later, I have arrived. My journey is near its end. I spy the Devil’s Punch Bowl at last, exactly as described well over a century ago!
A little strange, I think, because I’ve gone directly past this very place before, even on foot, looking for the punch bowl. Yet I’m too excited to waste any more time thinking about it. I’m here! The experience is documented, in a few photos and video, at these locations:
OR I should say, part of my experience is documented. O.K., here’s where things get a little strange. Call it my imagination, if you will, but it’s exactly what happened. I’m just sitting there silently for a while, to kind of take a minute, and start to feel this presence. I can’t exactly describe it, but it’s there. Most definitely. And it’s old, and its bigger by far than any of us. It’s not unfriendly, or anything like that. I do get the sense that this… whatever… is aware of me, but it’s of a welcoming spirit. It knows I have come for a reason. In guess in that sense, it’s one up on me.
Maybe a better word to throw at it, is presences. I know this sounds crazy, believe me. What am I, nuts? Alan says I’m a fool for even talking about it. And God bless ol’ Alan, he always means well; I mean he’s really looking out for me, in his way. And in this case he’s probably right, because there’s no way I can really put all of this into words, even if I was in top form and not exhausted after hours of writing, and even if I gave it everything I had. I guess I love a good challenge.
Yet, to be clear, it’s not like I’m asking you to believe me, or anything. I almost certainly wouldn’t myself, if the experience had not been 100%, lock, stock, and barrel, ‘mine.’ I’m just sharing what happened, maybe in case some other freak out there “gets” what I’m trying to describe, and can then maybe explain it all back to me.
But I suddenly know that these “presences” have all been flesh and blood once, just like you and me. Some much, much longer ago than others, I knew that much. There were so many different kinds, some I could maybe put a name to, and others– forget about it. But none of that mattered anymore. None of the distinctions that they had gladly fought and died for, back when dying meant something to them—mattered at all. Not in the least.
Sounds completely nuts, I know, but they showed me things. They were like, “We are all one,” but it was so obvious even to me that I felt like saying, “Hey! Give me some credit here, already!” To the heart of the matter: they had all known keen thirst and needed to drink; each had loved, and grieved, they’d held and tickled their grandchildren and taken up weapons to engage in bloody battle at such times as the call had come. They had all enjoyed sweet interludes here, I mean here at the punch bowl by the bay, and to each, in his or her way, the gift of the cool sweet water had felt like a great gift, an answer to the only prayer that had then seemed to matter.
In a sense, this extraordinary spot on the bay had been only a way station, true. Yet at the same time, it had also meant something to them much, much more. They had all at last finally gone on to their rest. That’s right; they were dead. But not really. It hit me that, with only a small handful of exceptions, no one would ever again remember their names.
What difference did it really make, now or ever, what clothes they had worn, or language spoken, or what they’d believed about this or that? The punch bowl was still here (and by the way sure didn’t look to me like it “had gone dry,” as asserted by Kleinberg and otherwise generally assumed). It was here, just as it always had been, and that simple fact alone seemed some kind of sacred promise.
Looking directly down into the spring. On the bottom right is what appears to be a step carved elegantly out of the rock, leading downwards.
I suppose I allowed my mind to wander. It had been a little intense; so I get up to stretch a little and just walk for a bit. Then I hear this sound behind me. Nothing all spooky or anything, it was some kind of natural noise one hears out in the woods by the bay. Maybe an unusually playful breeze hitting the forest canopy, or the lurching creak of a huge tree-branch far above. Honestly, I don’t exactly remember. I do remember wondering “Is that smoke, I’m smelling?”
So I just casually turn around, and am stopped suddenly short.
I am not alone!
Hey, I warned you things were going to get a bit…”unusual,” didn’t I? “They look surprised to see me, too,” I thought. Strange. My first thought. “What must I look like to them?” I was not afraid; and I could see that they weren’t, either. I was being extended an invitation, of sorts, and though I could not know much else about it, it had everything to do with Love. Where love is, fear shrinks away as shadow.
And these were family people. I could see that the grandmother, who was most proper, had been having serious conversation with the little girl, and the men had been gently tossing up and down the little ones, to make them laugh. For the moment, they all just kind of took an “out breath,” to assess. I felt like saying “Hey, me too!, and laughing out loud, even if they’d think that I might be a raving lunatic. Because it was looking to me pretty much like I already was, anyway!
Forgive me if I sound flip, but you must realize that I had entered a realm where part of me could not and would not let myself forget that I was walking a path in which the only real danger might arise from my trying to hang on to, or fighting, anything in particular. Any of that would just wear me out, and keep me from some experience that was being offered to me. “Only in Hollywood does the postman always ring twice,” I thought, nonsensically. “A moment comes, and then it’s ‘Goodbye, Charlie.‘ Moment gone.”
“Shut UP, Paul! For Christ’s sake!” I earnestly chided myself as I resolved to walk over and meet these people. The terrain was kind of funky, and the bay’s mucky bottom had claimed one of my flip-flops for good, so I looked down for just a second, I swear, to check my footing before taking my first eager step. My heart pounded with the strangeness and thrill of it all, but I was so excited! I exhaled and strode forward in great anticipation.
And this I what I saw.
“Oh, no!” I blurted out. Where had they gone? What had I done wrong? Had I offended them somehow? Think what you will, I have to tell you what happened next, anyway. I all but crumpled to the ground, just about fell right on my ass, weighted down with a sorrow beyond my understanding. I looked, and looked again, and quietly gasped.
I pulled my knees to my chest, hung my head, and wept. I just cried and cried. I couldn’t stop. “They were just here!” I babbled incoherently. “They were.” In that moment I realized that my entire life I had wanted no experience more than to sit down and take a meal with the ancient innocent people. To experience and witness them, and they, me. I had always known that I didn’t really belong here, somehow. Not like everybody else.
Yet they were all gone now, every last one of them. Call it crazy, but I knew in the searing pain of that moment that I was the last of my tribe. I had been somehow left behind. And there was no one left to hear my cry, or ever to sing to me again any of the old songs as lullabies, by the still-warm glow of the dying camp-fire, under the vast open starry sky above.
Although I knew that I have my people, who I love most deeply and am loved by, in return, the specter of ravenous AIDS arose in my awareness, and I realized that the more ancient pain that had knocked the very wind out of me, was not really so very ancient, at all. I remembered the one I had most loved of anyone on Earth, and how he’d one day just slipped through my arms. I’d tried so hard to hold him, to keep him with me, but I had failed. Like sand between my fingers. “And he was just here.” I saw the faces of the many, too many by far, that had been lost to me too soon.
And I saw the faces of my American brothers and sisters armed in military garb in hot desert places, far away. They were lost and confused and scared out of their wits in foreign lands, because it’s a cruel thing to subject a soldier to death or serious injury, without letting them in on what the mission is. They surely loved their country, but had never been given an honest answer to the questions most fundamental to them: “Why are we here?” or “These people that we are killing; what did they do to us, again?”
I saw the faces of young Iraqi people, beautiful and fine, who loved their country as we love ours. Although innocent of any crime, they were being made to pay a truly terrible price. And yet much more than two different “sides,” I saw one people, bonded in inhuman anguish, suffering, and loss.
And there sat the punch bowl. A single white cloud floated serenely by, high above.
“WHEN WILL IT STOP?” I cried out from my gut, as if someone were listening. I finally began to calm down inside, and my labored breathing slowed. I looked out upon a bay so serene, so beautiful and blue, it seemed emblematic of beauty itself, and promising of forever. I shall never forget the moment. And all I could feel was: nothing.
And I wept.
At length, I knew that my time at this forgotten, sacred place in a world that had grown far too profane was done. It was only hard rock, on some fat cat’s appropriated “private property,” steamrolled (like everything else) away from the people by sufficient quantities of cash. And this friggin’ hole in the ground? BIG DEAL! I was grateful that my grandparents, at least, had lived in less mean and cynical and proprietary times. I was glad that they had enjoyed one another, and young beauty, and kissed here.
I willed myself to stand, and take the heavy steps back to my kayak, and return to those waiting upon me for dinner. So I embarked, pushed out, and headed back out into the blue. Who really cared?
And for some reason, I allowed myself just one last glance backwards. I could not know why. Here is what I saw.
The boy knew me, though I could not remember him, at all. Even from a distance, I could feel the stillness and focus in his eyes of deep brown. He understood. He actually understood! He certainly knew sorrow, and radiated quiet compassion. He needed no words to tell me: “Remember: we meet again. Always.” I could no longer speak his language, so he bravely persevered in mine. Without hesitation.
“Same spirit, always. For all, together. Everybody. Everybody.“ “Do what you must do, for now. Only for now. Always.”
“Every day, new. Every moon, sacred. Remember!
We see you.”
I laughed out loud, and waved my cap at the little guy with the big soul and the brown eyes. I gave him a big “thumbs up,” and smiled. I felt him receive the smile as a gift, yet his face betrayed no expression. He stood still, finally lifting his arm to wave just a little, as if shy. “Always, my Brother!” I shouted back. I never looked back after that, didn’t have to. A terrible weight had been lifted from my shoulders.
“Always,” I repeated softly to myself as I paddled back, grinning like an idiot. And the Bay had never seemed so sweet.