No Reason

Wednesday mornings I read the Port Townsend Leader online. I remain loyal to the Pacific Northwest, especially Port Townsend, mainly because of the heart felt friends that I made during my stint living there 15 years ago. A peninsula on a peninsula, like where I live today in southern Marin, Port Townsend is a quaint Victorian seaport village with views of both the Puget Sound and Olympic mountains with an alternative flair of many artists, writers, musicians and spiritual seekers who love their sense of community as well as the peacefulness.

I’ve always been fond of the Port Townsend Leader because of its ability to preserve itself as a weekly publication that prints big news about the county in a small town way. Its news goes something like this: Fred, the fireman, retires after 30 years; Bud, the school bus driver had a fender bender; Quilcene, known for its famous oysters, now has a sushi bar! Today’s headline, though, took the cake. “Local resident dies in a random mountain goat attack in the Olympics” was the last news that I expected to hear partially because I knew the man and the other reason is that I’ve never in my life heard of a mountain goat being vicious. As I read on I learned it to be true and I must say that my heart went out to family and friends. I could not help but stop and appreciate my life with its many twists and curves and stories, both pleasant and not so, that make me who I am today.

Bamboo rustles tenaciously in the wind. I hear its hollow call, distance. For 1 year now I’ve been on the road, an ex-pat now living in Sri Lanka. Life in Kandy is good and living in Upulas house is never boring. What can I say about Upula? His very name says it all–Upula means lotus in Sinhalese and Upula, like the lotus, opens in the morning and closes at night. His ways are mysterious but he is a kind man, at least I think so.

Seeing the sun’s reflection in the lake, I close my journal. I’m proud that I have stayed in one place long enough to know time by light. My upstairs rented room is perfect. I’m particularly fond of this time of day as it is when Norbert begins preparing food for dinner. I’ve taken a liking to him and we have an unsaid mutual agreement that our time together benefits us both–I learn both Sinhala language and Sinhalese cooking and he polishes his English. Frankly, I think he likes the company as at 40 years old and single he has little interaction with life, the outside world comes to him.

Norbert’s story is this:
Born to a poor family of tea pickers in the hills outside of Kandy, Norbert’s life began as a child’s life anywhere would unfold. He amused himself chasing birds and butterflies and identified animal shapes in the billowing clouds passing overhead, but when he turned 7 Norbert grew bored. His father recognized his keen sense of learning and saw no other choice than to place him in a Vihar nearby in Kandy under an elder monk’s care so that his basic needs were met—food, shelter, clothing and, most importantly, an education. Norbert remembers his mother’s sad smile when he waved goodbye, her head greatly weighted down by a huge basket of tea leaves strapped under her chin. He also remembers well the bus ride down the windy hills with his father to Kandy and the tears in his father’s eyes as he left, alone. Both of his parents died shortly thereafter.

Malwatte Vihar, on the south side of the lake in Kandy directly across from the Temple of the Tooth, provided a good life for young Norbert, who took his monk vows 2 years later after long hours dedicated to his studies in Buddhism. As he grew into his teens, Norbert appreciated Malwatte’s solid religious upbringing and the chance monk hood gave him in helping others. Norbert loved to see people smile. It’s no wonder he was attracted to an enticing offer that presented itself one day while walking for alms.

At 11AM the monks strolled together to the nearby bakery for day old pan which the baker always had waiting for them. Along the way Norbert saw a young woman sitting on the sidewalk in the heart of the town with a sign—palm reading, what will your future be? Half curious about what life held for him and the other part wondering how he could help this poor girl, Norbert stopped and said hello. He was asked to hold out his left hand and turn it palm up. Without touching his hand, as monks are not to be touched, she pointed to a line long and curvy and told him he had a long life. She pointed to another one, a hub for many other lines and said he had a good heart. This short one standing unattached means he would always be alone.

Norbert smiled. He wondered how she could tell all of this by looking at his hand. She said her name was Chandra, like the moon, and offered to teach him how to read palms for the cost of food and a place to stay. The trickster came out in Norbert, being the good hearted man he was, and he readily agreed to the terms. Everyday Norbert gathered enough alms for two and every night after the other monks retired he let Chandra into the kitchen to sleep, to be gone by first early morning prayer call. One day, the head monk went to the kitchen earlier than usual. As if being there was not enough, Chandra told the entire story to the elder monk. Norbert was so ashamed when confronted with the event that he left the monk hood. The girl fled Kandy and left the job of palm reading to Norbert, who could be seen sitting daily in the spot that she once sat with a sign for palm reading.

Upula used to walk to the nearby bakery for tea each afternoon. He had seen the girl many times and passed her by, but stopped when he saw Norbert, who he recognized as having been a monk. Upula asked him what happened and Norbert divulged his story. The answer was simple. Upula needed a cook and would not take no for an answer. In exchange Norbert would be given a room to sleep in and would be allowed to pursue his career as a palm reader. That was that!

“Pepina- cucumber, belunu,- onion, banche-green bean, alleh-potato, kasa-jackfruit!”

How was your day, Norbert?”

“Interesting–I had two women come for palm reading. They were rich in money and large from eating too much food. Their palms each said the same thing. Although they a husband and children and lots of friends they were very lonely. They coveted material possessions and both of their lives would be short.”

“You told them that, Norbert?”

“Not really, I wanted to see them smile. I told each of them that they had a big family, lots of friends and many beautiful things. They had a big house that they would live in until they died. Life would be good. They were happy and each of the women gave me 500 rupees. I served them tea until their driver came to take them home.”

“That’s a lot of money! What are you going to do with all those rupees?”

“I will put the rupees in the box with the other ones. I have a nice place to stay and good food to eat. There’s nothing that I need. Life is funny, how-different things happen to different people–for no reason.”

That lesson comes to me now, how life happens and how odd that life can be.