Mazes and Labyrinths – the Myth of Direction



He leaned over the coffee table, batik revealing just a little belly above his waist. The fried horderves and avocado had been cleared, and on a doily-like cloth sat a plate of papaya smelling of soiled legs. Into my glass he poured a few shots of margarita mix, channelling the living room light like a bulb of emerald candy.

His face had grown less owlish since he tried to kiss me in his car. This was when he took me out for barbeque fish and candelabra-lit juice, and I used every back muscle to lever myself out of a hug that hadn’t known breasts in years (I wasn’t surrendering anything), beneath the shade of my church tree.

I still wanted to find in him my grandfather, who I otherwise envisioned as a leaf somewhere, crumpled and brown, but actually dead, really dead, haunting me with memories of goodbye kisses in front of Danish boat paintings.

As I took my first sip from the margarita glass I watched him stand from his armchair, emitting a little grunt as he rose. He shuffled in slippers toward his wife, who had fallen asleep in the chair to my left. Barely sixty, she suffered a stroke that laid her fragile. He often, sometimetimes endearingly, called her “crazy”, delegated her need for bathing-assistance to his children. Now he dutifully supported her weight beneath her elbows and escorted her across the living room, at last lowering her onto the mattress in front of the television, where protagonists from “The Mahabharata” jingled.

When he returned to the coffee table, he put his paw on my knee. Now where were we? The wisdom of the Kancil folktales? The tiers of propriety leading from here to the heavens?

Was he my grandpa in his rocking chair, telling me The New Yorker wasn’t for dummies?

I had gotten used to the grey parameters of his teeth. They, too, matched my late grandfather’s, only my grandfather’s were yellow. They had the same way of twinkling when they lent a sip of something forbidden, or when they let gleam a hint of youth.

Absorbing the heat of the early afternoon, I let the margharita cradle my idleness. I confessed my urge—coming from my American drive—to leave company in order to create.

He said, there is a saying in Java that reminds us to “follow the flow of the river.” We believe here that if something is meant to happen, it will come to fruition in due time. We don’t have to be the log and the current.

From the mattress, his wife guffawed at the television, and my eyes fixated on the framed shadow puppet pegged on the wall: the wise Semar, crafted—regardless of modern deviations in the chosen epic—with his finger pointing forward.


Curiosity #78: Nymph of Ende

Anthropology, Indonesia, Religion, Travel, Uncategorized

People in East Flores say that water comes from a sacred place. It streams through the hills into the soil of cacao plants and cabbage, to a little house at the crest of a ravine, where a village surrounds a small school. At the source lives a guardian spirit who ensures the purity and sustainability of the water. This spirit takes the form of an eel, but most who have seen it say the spirit is deceptive to the eye, and that sometimes it appears as a beautiful woman, ass gleaming in the still water.

Several generations ago an elderly man visited the sacred pool, curious about the spirit who swam inside. There is little knowledge of who was there to witness it, but legend says the man leaned over the crag beside the pool looking for the beauty. At last an energy pulled him toward the depths, swallowing him like a child.

There was no sign of the old man, although for months his fellow visitors waited for him by the shallows. It was assumed he had drowned in the water, allured and then overwhelmed by the guardian spirit whose body glistened like the scales of a fish, whose hair undulated like a woven cloth.

At last there was a set of villagers who went to the water source to see if they could retrieve something—anything—that would allude to the fate of the old man. They brought with them a fishing rod, and with a wide cast sent a hook plunging into the center of the pool. The villagers waited, taking care not to lean too far over lest they, too, fall into the grip of the guardian spirit.

Line deep, team stooped in a crouch. From inside the water, they felt a tug. A weight pulled at the tip of the fishing rod so that it bobbed beneath the surface of the pool. With a heave they lifted the rod above the surface of the pond, feeling the burden of the catch compound as the buoyancy slipped off. The water’s membrane parted to reveal the crown of a head, then came a face, a frame positioned erect, as if the body stood upon an elevator rising from a flight below. The hook of the fishing rod had caught on to the hole that strained in the earlobe of the old man, where, according to the fashion of East Flores, an earring once was gaged.

So it was by the ear that the old man returned to the reality he knew: fully alive, fully aware, and not a drop of dampness dripping from his skin. He told those who listened the story of his stay in the kingdom of the guardian spirit, whose castle stood over a dominion steeped in tradition, not so unlike his own.

Curiosity #77: Buried Alive


200 mystics, equipped with fabric for shielding skin against dirt and nothing else, reclined in pits they dug themselves. They waited for men to cover their bodies, Allah to lend access to His portal between worlds. If they were worthy, they would be granted miracles where they lay.

Needless to say miracles don’t happen to everyone. Of the sages who volunteered for this 40-day burial, this must have been understood.

Spiritual trials captivated Java since before recorded history. Occult rituals still happen, varied in extremity and magnitude, though broadcasts of these happenings seldom leak because they raise a fuss among the “real Muslims” who bow and hum to the wagging of the Middle East.

Ancestry runs steeper than law. God knows the ancients still hold sway where the higher power takes root, and it would do us well to pay attention. We should inherit Javanese tradition, adhere to the path of the Mystics, rise in the ranks among the ascetics, or, if we’re willing to trade the clinical for the sensual, live on the island long enough to earn confidence of locals who encourage us to believe—at least not disbelieve—tales that step quite casually beyond reality.

Little did I know that at an acupuncture visit, I would learn that meditation challenged Death, literally on its own turf.

The lesson came from Tommy, a health couneslor and self-proclaimed Sufi spiritualist whose family held clout among the Central Javanese of standing. From his home near the “Flower Market” where the prostitutes lived, behind a banner advertising his trade like a mini-leaguer’s banner, He fused this spiritual expertise with methods of Chinese acupuncture, massage, physical therapy, chiropraxy, psychiatry. What were his credentials? Who cared? All that mattered was that he was a stand-up guy. He channeled qi under the name of Islam, placed gentle pressure on people who were lonely.

Dani was a most loyal patient. On the night he drove me to Tommy’s home, I ascended the steps to the second floor and entered a living room painted with assorted shades of spoiled milk. Four men lounged in the space around a low table with a tray of coffee and cakes, an open food storage container of stone rings, among the guests: cigarettes poised between their fingers as if they were dames in a renaissance painting, curves stripped to reveal featherlight bones puncturing the smoke they blew. The only man with heft sat at the end of the table with his stomach spilling over gym short elastic, held up by a durable net of skin that poked out from beneath faded cotton.

Tommy asked me why I had come. I confessed my anxiety about returning to the United States. “Kacau Pikiran,” marked by chronic stampede of thoughts.

He said “You want some acupuncture, yeah?” He stood up, walked over to a glass display case, and took out a container of needles all aligned in a row. It looked like a sewing needle kit. Bulbs gleamed at the ends of tiny shafts of metal. He picked up one needle, the smallest, and put it in the center of my head.

He left that needle balancing between my eyebrows like a radio antennae, sat back in his chair and patted his tummy, as if this finished the job. “I’m not a spiritual expert,” he said, “not compared to my ancestors. Back in my grandfather’s day, people had much more power than they do today. My grandfather was a legend, and people hardly have powers like his anymore.”

“Like what?”

“Like healing earthly ailments, traveling between worlds. There was one experience pivotal in building my grandfather’s spiritual strength, and that was the burial.”

“The burial!” I exclaimed, looking around. The other men still sat motionless, each wrapped in his own scarf of smoke.


His grandfather was six feet underground when he realised he could either meditate or die. Those participating in the ritual were wrapped in cloth, arms held tight against the torso like the dead. They would receive no provisions, no air or light.

Hours went by. Days. He hungered and he ached. But he knew that like with any meditation, after a period of discomfort the pain would pass and he would reach another state, be it death or some other reality. The ants bit with less frequency and the muscle pain subsided, or maybe it was that he was just drifting out of consciousness.

After a week, he blacked out.

Perhaps in some compartment of his mind, some might say on an alternate plane of existence, he woke up. In that waking state he was able to travel like any other man. He could eat, converse with other people, make new acquaintances. He could travel to any part of the world he wished. He was, in every sense, free.

After the 40 days Tommy’s grandfather was rescued from the ground. He was one of 20 (of the original 200), who lasted that 40 day trial.

Assuming that all these people were hungry, the rescuers gave the remaining 20 their first meal. Once the food was placed in front of them, most of the people grabbed the food and stuffed their faces, eager to fill themselves after such a long period of starving.

Their stomachs couldn’t withstand such an inrush of food, and so those who stuffed themselves died from bursting insides. After that first meal, 4 people out of the initial 20 survivors remained.

After that day, Tommy’s grandfather earned a great deal of clout in his community. People came to his house seeking his power. He could heal anything. He could communicate with the dead. He could travel across time and space to any any time and place he wished. He was unbound by any constriction, because whatever was out there, he could communicate with it, whittle it to his will.

I wanted to ask Tommy why his grandfather wasn’t around anymore. If a great man could avert death once, what stopped him from living for eternity? But if Tommy’s grandfather was wise enough to understand the elements of life and of other dimensions, he probably knew that each human needn’t be extended nor confined by one’s physical form.

Still I wondered where he was. Maybe he was in the heirloom swords of the Javanese people. Maybe he was in the stone rings at the center of the table. Maybe he was in the incense rising from the table-side figurine. Maybe he was under the fold of Tommy’s belly fat. Who who knew?

But was clear from the story was that his power arose from the ability to let go of what most people clung to. I’ll never forget that. I realised that even if I didn’t have the power to lay underground, maybe I could manage to let go of where I was.

Cognitively or spiritually, or even physically—some day I would be able to come back to Indonesia. Or not. And that was OK too.