“Leave-taking is a universal religious theme. Jesus goes out into the wilderness. Buddha leaves his parents’ palace, and in the Jewish tradition, G-d says to Abraham, Lech Lecha, “You absolutely must leave.” Abraham must leave his father’s house, he must leave the place where he is from, and he must go to the land that G-d promises to show him. But Abraham does not know where that land is, and he can’t know, or be there, until everything that was once familiar is far behind him.”
~ Rabbi Alan Lew, One God Clapping: The Spiritual Journey of a Zen Rabbi
I read these words on the flight to the Kingdom of Bhutan, a small, Buddhist country nestled between China and India. Coincidentally, Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1 – 17:27) was the Torah portion this past Shabbat, the Shabbat I returned from my journey. The literal translation of Lech Lecha is “go to yourself.”
On the fourth day of the trip, I sat across from our tour leader, Tshering, chatting over a cup of coffee. She shared with me the Buddhist perspective and process of becoming aware, of seeing things as they really are and ourselves as we really are.
She explained that humans tend to wake up to life in one of two ways: Life “kicks us in the shin” invading our comfortable stride of complacency with a painful, unexpected experience, or we choose to turn inward of our own volition, to ourselves, and commit to the hard work of discovering our wholesome essence, creating what we were put here to contribute to the world.
Whether we’re kicked in the shin and forced to leave our mundane ways, or we embark on our own, we don’t know where we will end up, only time and patience can answer the question: Lam di gat hay jow mo? [Bhutanese for] where does this road lead to?
“Here, this is for you.” She handed me a sheer, light green bag, inside a black jewelry box, the same type of box that men on bended knee open with simmering trepidation.
That’s how I felt, like I was getting proposed to, but without the expectation, the commitment. It was our last day and she wanted me to have something to remember her by.
We met in the spring through email and Skype, and although we didn’t meet in person until 12 days prior, in the international terminal of LAX, our friendship felt years old. We connected through my writings, our similar experiences with heartache, divorce, single motherhood and a love for the South Pacific and the islands punctuating its surface.
As I opened the box, I drifted back 28 years, to the Tuamotu island of Ahe and the day my Polynesian friend placed a similar bag into the palm of my hand. We’d formed a deep bond despite our language barrier, communicating in broken French, sign language and a 9-year-old desperation for friendship on a sparsely inhabited, inverted volcano. My family spent over a month there, anchored in the bay, on a stop during our passage from the Marquesas to the Society Islands. We stayed an extra two weeks due to unexpected, sustained winds that whipped through the archipelago.
I opened the bag and emptied the contents into my hand — a large black pearl, the size of my thumb, not one of the perfectly round cultured ones, but wavy and misshapen, something only nature could procure. It was a brilliant orb, the most precious stone I’d seen up close.
When I showed my mom later that day, she was concerned and told me I couldn’t keep it, that my friend must have taken it from her mother without asking. My mom took me to their home to give it back, but it turned out that her mother had given it to her to give to me and she insisted we keep it, so hesitantly, we did.
“There’s a card in the bag, it will give you the information on the pearl, size and where it’s from.” I told her the story of the pearl I’d received many years before, and how my mom asked me to give it back, that it must have been a mistake. Through the haze of tears, I opened up the card:
“…produites dans sa ferme perlière sur l’ile de Ahe située dans les Archipels des Tuamotu.”
Pearls are a manifestation of the unfamiliar, a foreigner from the outside world. An irritant such as a grain of sand passes through the shell’s opening and invades its insides. In defense, it produces a chemical to protect itself and adds layer after layer of it, coagulating and consuming the invader, and over time, the lustrous stone forms.
Our legacy, the fruition of our lives is cultivated through our bruises, our wounds and the rocky, unmarked roads we’re thrust upon. We cannot discover our true nature or offer wisdoms with the world until we’ve faced the invasion of the unfamiliar and conquered it by turning inward, to ourselves, traversing roads we never knew existed, from start to finish through our resilient will and our desire to live with a meaningful purpose.
Before we boarded our flight home, I took out the bag to show my mom what my new friend had gifted me that morning. She marveled at it: “What a precious gift. That’s just like the one your friend gave you in Ahe.”
But this time, she didn’t ask me to return it. ~Rebecca
See my journey to Bhutan here.