Tao and the Art of Drowning
I've used quotes from Stephen Mitchell's Translation of the _Dao de Jing_ (Classic of the Way and its Power) to help me describe
If you realize that all things change,
there is nothing you will try to hold on to.
If you aren't afraid of dying,
there is nothing you can't achieve.
When I was eleven my brother, my paternal grandfather and I were driving home from the San Diego zoo when a drunken truck
driver lost control of his 18-wheeler and split our Buick in half. My grandfather died and both my brother and I nearly joined
I was in a coma for three weeks but with the help of my family, medical technology and dedicated doctors and nurses, I
survived. An experience I walked away with from that life change was a feeling of complete peace and synergy- a moment of
bliss. I never saw a white light or my ancestors greeting me. My Near Death experience was a wordless affair where I was
enveloped in a colorless atmosphere where one question was asked about my life, How did you love?
Twenty-six years, three blood clots, 20 operations, three continents and countless lovers later, I realize the question
was not separate from me. That the treasure of love is not necessarily in finding love or even doing loving acts; the preciousness
of life and love is embodying compassion for ones self and others. As a good dancer becomes the dance or a champion athlete
stops thinking and becomes their sport, one can become love itself by not interfering with a natural desire to live in harmony
with all things.
I began my journey to embody the tao when a theater director taught me several qigong exercises. I explained to her my
problem wasnt developing the content of my autobiographical Spoken Word pieces, it was that I felt too sensitive to criticism
before and after a performance. And that in working solo without the traditional fourth wall, I had no protection from audience
whispers or strong emotional reactions.
She taught me graceful tai chi like movements that when combined with a focus on allowing the energy of Heaven & Earth
to run through me, created a flexible shield that deflected unwanted drama.
Years later my theatrics have been disrupted once again. A fourth hip replacement with seven pins and steel down to my
knee has led me to a new daily habit of swimming at least two hours in a small (25 meter) pool overlooking Diamond Head in
Honolulu. The water, during what has turned into a two-year rehabilitation process, has been my greatest teacher of the art
of living without drowning or fear of drowning.
The water welcomes everyone. No one is turned away for their race or size or social status. All religious denominations,
intellectual abilities and ages are greeted by its refreshing receptivity. Even people ashamed of how they look in their
suits while on land are quickly smiling once surrounded by transparent luster.
The human body is made primarily of water. Our feeling of separateness from it is only temporary. I didnt know how to
swim a stroke when I started this project. Although I loved to dive and somersault, I thought with my partially paralysis
(from a spinal injury) and weak muscles, Id never be able to do laps overwater like the real swimmers.
But by letting go of my fears about letting others judge my uncoordinated attempts to synchronize my breathing with my
muscles and will, and by consistently doing what Im not very good at, my health and well-being have improved immeasurably.
Some days I cry about my fragility or feel overwhelmed by my efforts. Those days, I am quick to not compare myself to
anyone else or label my body as disabled.
It is a joy to see children kicking in what is now considered my corner or calling my attention to see the improvement
in their swimming and somersaults or to show me they are simply no longer afraid to put their heads underwater.
She who is centered in the Tao
can go where she wishes, without danger.
She perceives the universal harmony,
even amid great pain,
because she has found peace in her heart.
I used to imagine I was water, swimming through water. Now I merely get in, set my watch timer, keep moving and focus
on what muscles need a workout on that day. My hip, and now my knee get sore, but always feel much better after my quality
pool time. The lovely thing about moving in water is the water doesnt talk about relieving pain; it just does it.
Learning to Walk
I am learning to walk.
Actually, Ive learned to walk several times already. Its not that I had it wrong before, but anything worthwhile takes
time, effort and the ability to admit you messed up and have to restart from scratch. I dont mind relearning to walk or restarting
from scratch. Its not much fun, but Im learning a lot from the practice.
There are numerous ways to learn to walk. Im currently doing gait training, which involves learning to walk like everybody
else. I have some paralysis and broken bones held together by steel screws, which is outside the norm. I dont mind that I
will never walk normally. Everybody has a unique walk no matter how they get trained. I figure I might as well enjoy walking
while I can.
Ive avoided gait training for over two decades; mostly because gait trainers think they are horse trainers. Im like a
wild horse when I get scared but Im not really a horse. I have two good human legs as proof.
I would like to run like a fierce black Arabian stallion. Instead, I walk like the transparent Hawaiian sea turtle in
Christines window sticker display. Christine is my current gait trainer. She walks normally but doesnt appreciate it as much
as I do. Christine Tao is wise like the 20,000 year old Green back turtle but Christine likes to move fast and worries that
shes too old.
Sometimes I want to talk to Christine and treat her like a mysterious treasure chest covered in rubies and gold, but we
are too different. She doesnt like nicknames. I love all my nicknames: dolphin, Surfin Dolly, bluedolphin & now just
I dont like working with gait trainers and such. But Christine is like a friend, only better. Shes helping me to run
away. I want to run away, very far away. I want to run to a place where no one yells. I yelled at Christine once. I wasnt
really yelling at her; I was just yelling because I got scared.
Maybe being scared is why everybody yells. I dont know; I just dont want anybody to yell at me. I would do anything
to make the yelling stop, even pretend that I dont care about people. That never works but it feels like its running away
even when its really not.
I cant really run. I clunk along like a Hawaiian turtle. My heart-shaped grey-brown shell on my back. Its not much fun,
but I make up songs to stay happy and once I get in the water I am at home.
The first time I learned to walk it was the normal way. My older brother and sister helped me learn. Nobody learns anything
all by themselves so I was just lucky that my brother and sister liked to walk around Disney Land and ocean shores. We walked
all over the Pacific Northwest, the three of us even hiked in mountains and ran around racing tracks. Not all in one trip
The second time I learned to walk some of those gait trainers helped me learn. I didnt like the gait trainers and thought
they were stupid. They kept calling me a tragedy & telling me what was wrong with me as I couldnt walk very well. But
I thought my walking was ok, although my hip hurt too much.
I got around the house by hanging on to walls just like I did when I played Accident before I got into a big car accident.
I missed being able to run up and down the forest trails with my best friend, Katrina Reese, but I didnt see her anymore
anyway. I went to school in a wheelchair & my new friend Kelly carried it up the stairs for me. He scared me when he
pushed me fast down the hall but it was better than being surrounded by gait trainers.
People asked me if I felt lucky to be alive even though I couldnt walk. I replied that I was learning to walk and didnt
really understand the question.
Two years later, the third time I was learning to walk, the question was explained to me when peers asked me another question.
Was I angry at people who commit suicide when I had worked so hard to stay alive? Id shrug and reply that people could kill
themselves if they really wanted to, although it seemed most problems could be solved without anybody having to die.
The quiet, softest musketeer in my high school, Beth, had shot herself in the head. She was 14 and the brain examiners
had discovered a brain tumor the day before. In fifth grade the four musketeers were Kate (the smartest and my first kiss),
Katrina Reese (my best buddy & the funkiest--her parents were artists), me & Beth (the most feminine and easy to talk
to). After my accident Beth & Kate never spoke to me or looked at me in the school hallway. I knew Beth had thought
about what had happened to me before she shot herself. I wanted to talk to her, but it was too late.
That third time I learned to walk it was my dog, Scruffy who helped me. He was my birthday present when I was 4. We
both had curly blonde hair and wagged our entire backsides when we were happy since neither of us had tails. I couldnt walk
more than half a mile but Scruffy and I would go hiking in my suburban neighborhood. I loved Scruffy more than anyone in
the world. He sang along when I sang songs about walking and dogs. Once when I was lost I told him that I would follow him
if he led us home. And he did.
Once, when Scruffy & were walking, I fell down on the side of the road and got a concussion. I had to be pretty careful
not to fall down. When I did it was because of my trick left ankle. The gait trainers had given me a brace for it. But
I had wrapped it and a bulky knee brace up in a towel, so Mom wouldnt see, and put them in the garbage.
Christine Tao is a well-informed gait trainer & understands that it was hard to walk without those braces. Its best
for a girl like me to avoid gait trainers. But Christine has a good sense of humor and makes me laugh so I am writing this
story for her. She likes to get presents just for her. That way she knows people care about her.
This story is just for her. Because I dont like to show I care about her because Ill miss her when I say good-bye.
Christine is gait training me so I dont fall down. I made up a walking song for her, but I would never sing it for her.
Christine doesnt like presents from patients. But thats ok. It took me a long time to simply say thank you when people appreciated
that I helped them do something important.
Maybe Christines transparent turtles remind her to appreciate receiving. Turtles symbolize generosity without expectations.
I dont know what a turtle says when receiving presents. Next time I see a turtle I will ask it to go on a walk with me.
Sharing a walk is the best gift of all.
The most important thing about learning to walk is not falling down and getting hurt. Christine stopped me from falling
down 14 flights of steps during
a fire emergency. There was no flame or smoke so we walked slow. She thought I was testing her by stumbling in the staircase,
but its kind of embarrassing to have to admit Im the kind of person who often stumbles.
I think she thinks I test her because of the Christ in her name. I know Christians are supposed to be tested on the path
they walk. But I have no desire to play God and am too busy trying not to trip over my own feet to test anyone.
Christines last name, Tao, means the Way which is a pretty good name for someone telling someone (me) how to walk. I like
Tao more than she does because in the Tao, one stumbles a lot in order to learn how to walk without stumbling; in Tao stumbling
is ok and even desirable. I dont think Christine likes to stumble. I suspect shes been very well trained to never take a
step out of alignment.
I like Tao because its transparent like water; it doesnt try to hide anything or try to be strong or normal; it's perfectly
itself. Christine brings me little glasses of water, which I never drink. I think she thinks Im pretty transparent.
She doesnt like the word normal. What makes her unique and unnormal isnt her gait pattern. Its a small mischievous smile
that is perfectly shaped like a lucky horseshoe.
Christine is my lucky horseshoe these days. Something good always happens after I see her. My favorite moment with her
was when she put her hand over my heart while she prevented me from falling down the stairs. My other favorite moment with
her was when she held me tight to be certain I didnt fall when it was raining. Not too many people take the time to guard
me against getting hurt more.
Christine seems upset that I am not as openhearted as after the emergency fire drill. Im not very good at caring for
people if I fear they might be distractions from my quest for the holy land.
That is a secret few people know about learning to walk. That one can gait train or that one can go on a quest. One
can be an over-anesthetized patient or one can be ones own hero.
If I could give Christine a present, I would show her how to quest. Sometimes I quest for buried treasure; sometimes
I dont and find it anyway. I dont know if Christine is her own hero. Probably is. None of my business.
She might think I was sacrilegious (I am) if I told her Heaven is always right in front of our eyes. She probably wouldnt
believe me as I cry & stumble too much...but I know that Heaven is always in the palm of our hands. It isnt found by
looking elsewhere; its found when we open our eyes in the stuffy staircase where others catch our fall.
That is when we are lucky to be alive.