Once I got up to the SF Bay Area from my transitional space in Ojai a couple of friends and I decided to take a short camping trip up to Stanislaus National Forest in the Sierra Nevada’s. It was a good time to further get away from the fray and meditate on where I was going, what I was doing and – more importantly – why.
It was quite extraordinary. While I sat within these woods, I set some clear intentions, got the energy and motivation to go forward with what I consider to be absolutely necessary for the advancement of my life purpose and the continued evolution of my professional, academic and personal life.
On the way back we stopped in the north side of the Sequoia National Forest and walked among the great giants. But it was this mysterious lady that captivated my attention.
Well, she was gigantic and was considered the mother of the forest. However, when the forest was first “discovered” in the 1800’s some idiots decided to strip her of all of her bark to share in an art exhibit. Can you see here heart?
Anyway, after this great moment in the woods we went back to Oakland and I was launched into the necessary movement of taking ownership over my future. But, this could not really, truly, commence until I had further lessons on death – I guess.
So, as I continue to get tired when studying (burn out), I decided to go to the bar instead of reading about trauma. Of course … the bar. But, as a serious baseball fan, I also wanted to catch the A’s game, since I hadn’t seen a game of theirs all season long. They would end up losing to the Angels, but that was not the matter of importance, as bad as it was. As I sat there, whiskey in my hand, listening to a live jazz band on a Monday night (did I mention that I am a huge jazz fan, as well?), I got a curious little visit from a butterfly in the form of a hip-hop enthusiast from New Zealand. There was no way that I could have imagined that in my sitting that this woman who loves hip-hop as much as I do would wander into my alone time, with her head phones on and play me song after song of incredibly great music. Throughout the course of this extended moment she would mention that “we need to have the Dilla conversation at some point”. Naturally, my mind goes into “he’s the greatest producer of all-time, blah, blah, blah …” That’s not what she was considering.
Nearly a week later she invites me to go see the Murs and Mayday show, which was really cool, but on our drive back to Oakland, she mentioned how the first time she heard J Dilla’s “Donuts” that she cried. I thought that was profound. But, after she smashed some bananas on the carpet of my Jeep and, somehow, left a nice strip of smashed banana on my dashboard, she went in the wind and I went to school.
During my Ecopsychology class, we went to the UCSB Nature Preserve to do a medicine walk. On this walk we were were supposed to ask about something that was important to us at this point in our lives. We were to walk passed the threshold, send offerings of sage, then in walking meditatively – see what was to be revealed to us.
I asked something in the vein of, “What do I need to know right now to get the most out of my life?” The walk was definitely medicinal. As I was journeying up the path I noticed to the left side of this winding part of the trail a bunch of feathers. Owl feathers. The Owl in some indigenous American cultures symbolizes death. That was not concerning to me. I noticed that the Owl must have had died right here because some of the feathers were still stuck together and they were scattered in such a way it appeared that the owl lost its life there. I offered some water, after taking a few feathers, then headed up the path.
Shortly after, again on the left side of the path, I noticed the spine of a dead animal. I wouldn’t be able to say what kind of animal it was, but there were about 7 vertebrae as well as a few other bones. I had to collect the spine. I offered more water at the sight and carried on. I turned back as I wanted to explore another part of the park that I saw in the distance, but when I got there I just decided to sit in the middle of the path. I began to contemplate impermanence. Here were the owl feathers, the spine and at this point (last week) I wasn’t even making the connection to my time in Ojai. But, as I sat there contemplating I asked myself, “What does impermanence mean to you?”
Living. In that moment, as I began to feel into the question the only answer that I could articulate was “living”. But, not only simple act of being, but living with intention, purpose and authenticity. The crucial understanding that comes along with this is not only that living authentically is a virtuous act in and of itself, but the fact that this moment in which we are fortunate to take oxygen into our lungs is truly the only moment that we are ever promised. Having experienced many yesterdays, with many highs and lows, it is only natural for us to expect that there will be many more tomorrow’s – with further highs and lows – but this expectation is speculative imagination. This moment is it. Because of this fact, I do not want death to find me not living the fullest of the capabilities that I have been afforded.
This was medicinal for me. My spine straightened, my tired energy transformed into fire, and the energy of the moment propelled me in a way that I hadn’t felt in quite some time. Life had entered in my body as I contemplated death. I felt renewed, inspired and ready to take on the challenges before me. But, before I could finish the walk, of course I found one more skeletal piece: a tiny head, maybe of a snake or a small rodent.
The next day I drove myself and a couple of friends/school mates back to the bay area. After I dropped one friend in San Jose, I was telling my other friend about “Killa Sway” (I call her Killa Sway because the way she sways listening to music kills me – so fresh), the fact that she cried listening to J Dilla, etc. on and so forth … and of course the smashed bananas that were still evident in my Jeep. He had never heard Dilla’s “Donuts” album. So, I ran it down really quick like, “Yeah, he basically made this incredible piece of music while he laid on his deathbed in the hospital.” It was released three days before he died.
I started to play the album, he fell asleep.
I continued to listen and not only did I continue to listen but the message in the music hit me in such a way that it had never hit me over the 8 years that I’ve been worshipping it. How had I not truly understood that this album is J Dilla wrestling with and confronting his death? He doesn’t rap on the album. The message is in the feel of the album as well with the samples that he used. It is such a masterful piece of work that by time I got to “Airworks” where in the middle of the song a voice says, “I don’t really care” … I could feel the weight of his experience sitting with me.
The next day i was talking to my life coach and as we were talking about trying to fuel the lessons from my medicine walk I noticed that a bat had flown into the grill of my jeep (probably the night before driving back from school) and was still stuck there. We were both astonished. What is being communicated, really?
However … that’s not all. I have listened to the monumental “Donuts” album a handful more times since then. But, none more beautiful than last night.
So, I take my books over to Lake Merritt to get some reading in. I start falling asleep after a couple of pages. But, you honestly won’t believe what happens next.
This kid sits down on the bench next to me. I smell beer. He’s done cracked open a can of Old Gold (“Old English ‘800’”) and lit a cigarette to go with it. Whatever … this is Oakland. He’s dressed in all black, with a black hat … young Latino brother. He puts his phone down next to him and hits play: Dilla Donuts. “Oh, yo, you a fan of Dilla?” I ask.
“Oh, shit, let me turn it up then,” he says. 🙂
A beautiful moment commenced.
A few seconds later he attempts to educate, “You know he died of a rare blood disease, right? That’s how they be fuckin’ with us, man.”
He then decided to roll a joint the size of my pinky and although I don’t smoke weed, I had to hit his joint because this was a special moment. So much for studying.
After he finished his joint, he sat there in deep, deep meditation on the album. I was so overjoyed that I couldn’t stop dancing the entire time. The many people walking along the lake must have been wondering about the space they were walking through as they passed us by. We could care less.
We listened to the entire album. It made him late for something. He bolted when I told him what time it was.
I had to tell Killa Sway about it. She sent me a link: “Did we talk about this yet?” Hilarious. Kind of, but not really.
“The songs on Donuts are not hip hop music as ‘hip hop music’ is typically defined; they careen and crash into each other, in one moment noisy and abrasive, gorgeous and heartbreaking the next. The samples and melodies tell the story of a man coming to terms with his declining health, a final love letter to the family and friends he was leaving behind.” (Of course I had to buy the book.)
That was last night. I woke up early this morning, went to the lake, and had another listen.
Dilla bared his soul on this album in a way that has rarely been done … if ever. He was dying and he was telling his story. As I sat and listened this morning I began to witness how these lessons on death became louder than ever. The truth is … we’re all dying. Every moment we step into is one more moment that gets us closer to the end of our time here. What does that mean to you? In feeling the essence of what J Dilla gave to the world, his coming to terms with the facts (of death) that we all must encounter, I understood more than ever that it is deeply – deathly – important that we give our all into whatever it is we find ourselves doing right now. That we live life in such a way where when death does come, not only we are not caught off guard, but we can make peace with it. What does that mean for you?
As a student of Jiddu Krishnamurti and Vimala Thakar (which I recently broke ‘free’ from) I am also aware of the importance of dying while living. The many yesterdays and yesteryears sometimes haunt us in ways in which we wish that we could turn down the voices that keep reminding us. In those moments, death is essential; letting go of the grip that those voices have on our consciousness and on our move through life. Dying to our old expectations of ourselves and others. Dying to our hatreds and contempts, our pains and pleasures … and continually reentering the stream of life with openness. (Easier said than done, but worth the work.)
So, yeah … Live and love the entirety of who you are and this life you have been gifted – now – and reciprocate that love to the world with such intensity that when death comes smiling on the final days of your life that you can walk into the unknown, with peace, confidence and no regrets.