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creative nonfiction

108 Beloved Objects

Jeff Greenwald is the author of eight books, including Shopping for Buddhas, The Size  of the World (a journey during which he created the Web’s first travel blog), and Snake Lake. He recently co-authored The Nine Gifts with Christine Marie Mason, and Out of Nothing with Burning Man co-founder Larry Harvey. Jeff is also the executive director of the non-profit EthicalTraveler.org, a global alliance dedicated to creating positive global change through travel. He lives in Oakland, California.

by Jeff Greenwald

In Reflections on the Art of Living, Joseph Campbell talks about a ritual he attended in a Kentucky forest. Forty-nine people were asked to bring seven small, symbolic   objects representing “seven things for which your life is worth living.”

The people entered the mouth of a cave. As the ritual progressed, each person was asked to give up one thing after another until, by the end, they were left with the single thing they most cherished in this life. “And you found out what it was, believe me,” writes Campbell. “You really knew what your order of values was.”

The work-in-progress from which these pages are taken is a book called 108 Beloved Objects. One hundred and eight is a lot more than seven. But even that number represents only a fraction of the stuff I’ve acquired during my life as a travel journalist. By “stuff” I don’t mean rain jackets or serving bowls, my bass or bicycle. I’m talking about objects that encapsulate a moment. Sometimes a single thing—like a book of matches—is enough to bring back the smell of a jazz club in Hong Kong; a black stone can conjure a holy mountain. Like our genetic maps, such objects decode the priorities and attachments that have shaped who we are. We collect them, and cling to them, primarily for the stories they embody.

But Campbell’s lesson holds an immutable truth: Eventually, we really do have to give up everything. Rarely do we get a choice to do so in any meaningful order, or even with full awareness of the process. If we could, it’s not difficult to imagine what those last few things—those we would wish to hold onto until our last breath—might be. None of them, in most cases, will be objects: More likely they will be our time with friends and family; a beloved pet; our ability to taste a ripe orange; a night among the redwood giants, under the summer stars.

Yet give them up we will. Everything must go. And our objects will not be the most difficult things to part with.

*  *  *

Almost everyone who hears about this project asks: Why specifically 108 objects? Well, the number is deeply significant in Eastern spiritual practice, and beyond. It is the number of prayer beads on a malla (a Buddhist rosary), and the number of yoga postures in a full cycle. The number 18 stands for c’hai, or “life” in Hebrew. Multiples of this number in money—e.g., six times $18 is $108—are given as gifts at bar mitzvahs and Jewish weddings. Also, it so happens, there are 108 stitches on a baseball.  

This book is a way of challenging myself to tell a meaningful number of full but bite-sized stories (“flash non-fiction”), while breaking my attachment to the material world. Because once we’ve recorded an object’s story, what need of the object itself? To that end, this note appears at the front of the book:

As I prepare to let go of these objects, I wish to share the stories attached to them. The objects themselves will be given away. Let me know if one of them speaks to you, and why. If you make a good case, I’ll send it to you. 

It’s my hope that each, if not all, of the 108 beloved objects will find a new home. It might be yours.

Jeff Greenwald
Oakland, California

Avalokiteshvara Statue / Nepal, 1990

Known by many names in Buddhist and Hindu cultures the world over, Avalokiteshvara is a form of Chenrezig, the many-eyed god of compassion. Chenrezig is a bodhisattva: an individual who is qualified to enter nirvana, but has chosen instead to abide on the Earth, among its billions of imperfect beings, until each of us is liberated from suffering.

In 1996 I had the great good fortune to spend an hour interviewing Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, at his home in India. Revered by the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama is known to be a direct reincarnation of Chenrezig himself. The subject of my interview was popular science: especially as it related to Star Trek, which the Dalai Lama, himself an outer space aficionado, had watched gleefully as a young man. (Our interview appears in my 1999 book Future Perfect: How Star Trek Conquered Planet Earth.)

After we exchanged greetings, the Dalai Lama and I moved to an L-shaped sofa with a small table at the bend. I placed my pen on the table. As the Dalai Lama sat down, he swept his maroon robe over his shoulder and, accidentally, across the table. The thick cloth sent my pen flying. It hit the floor and rolled under another couch, across from us.

Before I could move or utter a word of protest, the Dalai Lama had leaped off the couch and onto the floor. His arm and shoulder disappeared under the nearby couch, stirring up a cloud of dust bunnies.

“Your Holiness!” I cried. “Please get up! I’ll get the pen!”

“No, no, no!” he boomed, his head now beneath the couch. “It is my responsibility!”

I learned more about the Dalai Lama in that moment than from any book I’d read. I tried to imagine then-Pope John Paul II in the same situation; it was impossible.

This 19-inch-tall wooden statue of the god of compassion has stood on my bedroom dresser for 30 years. It always reminds me of that moment, and of the meaning of humility. 

Dia de los Muertos Catrina Figure / Mexico, 1984

In October of 1984, Islands magazine assigned me to visit Janitzio—a tiny island in the middle of Michoacán’s Lake Pátzcuaro—to write about their beautiful Day of the Dead celebration. It was the first time I’d heard of Dia de los Muertos, and the timing was eerie: My father had died of a sudden heart attack, at 54, in September.

Janitzio’s all-night ritual was held in the island’s old hilltop cemetery. The intensity of the tradition—illuminated by candles and music, and fragrant with tobacco, frying fish and liquor—mesmerized me. I fell in love with the icons of the holiday: the candy skulls, chains of marigolds and pan de los muertos (“bread of the dead”), and especially the elegant Catrina: a worldly, materialistic Mexican woman dressed in European haute couture, reduced to a dancing skeleton.

Though Catrina originated in the early 20th century (as a satire of upper-class pretensions by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada), I had seen a similar image in Nepal. Citipati is a Buddhist image of two gleefully dancing skeletons, male and female, celebrating release from their bodies. 

After my father died, I discovered, among his private notes, a confession that he suffered from severe depression. He’d hidden it well, beneath a thick layer of joking, flirtation, and bonhomie. But it all came together when I realized with a shock that I’d never seen him dance. Not once. Not even at my bar mitzvah.

I thought about him often during that all-night ceremony in Janitzio’s candlelit graveyard. He departed this world when I was 30, but I barely knew him. I wondered, as I sat among the tombstones, who my father really was beneath his charming disguise—and where he might be now. Maybe it’s true, as a Hindu sage once said, that “Dying is like taking off a tight shoe.”

I hope so. Maybe my father is dancing at last, spinning Catrina in his bony arms.

Dolphin Tooth Necklace – Solomon Islands, 1987

There were no tour buses in the Solomon Islands, no local Wonders of the World, no towering temples or Monkey Dances at the ends of well-paved roads. Roads themselves, in fact, were scarce. It quickly became obvious that I would need to find my own way.

The South Pacific nation is composed of 1,000 islands. Nearly 100 dialects have evolved across the archipelago, each spoken by a small, localized population. A powerful loyalty exists among people who share the same language; this is called the wantok (Pijin for “one talk”) system. Wantoks are tribal kin; one wantok will always help another out.

I knew that a writer—of any nationality—would qualify as one of my wantoks.In the capital of Honiara, I met and befriended a local author named Julian Maka’a. He had just published a short story collection (The Confession and Other Stories), and his dream was to return to his family’s village on the island of Makira and record the traditional tales of his clan. His uncle Moses was a healer; his great-grandfather, a sort of mayor. Julian’s mother, fondly known as “Sau,” was one of Makira’s revered mystics. “She ‘dream dances’,” Julian told me, “and awakens to teach these dances—and their enchanted songs—to the village women.” During the previous 10 years, Sau had brought more than 25 such dances from the dream-world to Makira.

There would be a ritual feast in  in  the village in three weeks; preparations were already under way. With Julian’s blessing—and his uncle’s phone number—I took the inter-island flight to Makira, and was welcomed as a guest in the tiny village.

One night, Sau and the women of her village assembled to perform the dream dances for me. Eighteen women swayed beneath the stars, clapping and shouting in synchronous rhythm as Sau and three village elders chanted the mesmerizing songs. The dances were simple, but full of pantomime and innuendo that I could not understand.

I was rapt for the first hour, attentive for most of the second, drifting off by the third. But the dances went on and on. The women began to giggle, and lose their timing. Even the irrepressible Sau began to sound hoarse. Finally, Julian’s uncle understood the problem. He leaned over to me and whispered that—according to local custom—it was up to the guest of honor to say when the dances should end.

They ended very shortly after that. I left the following morning, this lovely but somewhat disturbing necklace my parting gift from the remarkable Sau.

Plastic Dove with Koranic Verses / Iran, 1999

It’s difficult to find souvenirs in Iran; one searches for that irresistible blend of beauty, authenticity, and kitsch. But as any visitor to an Islamic country soon learns, the most captivating expression of any Muslim culture is its calligraphy. This plastic dove bears on its wings verses from the Quran, along with a single Arabic expression on its chest: Masha’Allah. What wonders God has willed!

I hoped for an opportunity to utter this phrase in the thousand-year-old Iranian city of Isfahan, where—as the only American tourist in vast Imam Khomeini Square—I awaited a total eclipse of the sun.

It was a beautiful afternoon, warm and clear, and the square soon filled up with thousands of Iranian families. As the invisible moon began to move across the face of the sun, the crowd gradually became silent. All eyes were on the thinning solar crescent— until, shockingly, a group of bearded youths sitting near me unzipped a carpet bag, pulled out automatic weapons, and began firing into the air. Pumping their fists and shouting angry slogans, they set an American flag ablaze. Television crews from all over the Middle East, assembled in the square for the eclipse, rushed over to film the outburst.

At that moment, something extraordinary happened. Every man, woman, and child sitting close to me rose spontaneously to their feet and, without speaking a word, formed a tight ring around me. A little boy held my wrist; an elderly man placed his hand on my shoulder. Several women, cloaked in rusari,stood stalwart by my side. This circle of strangers shielded me until the pop-up protest ended—at which point the radical Islamists calmly stashed their weapons, and sat down to enjoy the eclipse with the rest of us.

As the sun finally disappeared behind by the moon, its fiery corona blazed against the stars. A spontaneous cry rose from the crowd. Masha’Allah! Masha’Allah! I joined right in. It no longer mattered that I’d found no key rings in Persepolis, or snow globes at the Tomb of Hafez. My souvenir from Persia is this story.

Sumo Wrestler / Japan, 1984

During my first visit to Japan,  a sensation erupted in the sumo world. The Hawaiian-born Konishiki—then only 20 years old—was defeating Japan’s best wrestlers, and threatening to become the first non-Japanese-born person to attain the rank of ozeki: the penultimate title in the sumo pyramid. Weighing in at 606 lbs., Konishiki could knock over his opponents with ease. His nickname was “The Dump Truck.”

There’s something deliciously peaceful about watching a sumo match. The vast energy and precise strategy of the combatants is belied by their enormous weight, which can give a honbasho—to the uninitiated—the sad hilarity of a freak show. I only attended one match, in Kyoto, and it seemed simultaneously majestic and balletic to me.

After the bouts, I waited in the vestibule with dozens of other fans, hoping for the chance to to pat Konishiki’s haunch—or whatever part of his voluminous physique I could reach—as he lumbered back to the “stable.” He waddled by, smiling, his flesh undulating from our congratulatory slaps.

A year later, my friend Nick and I watched a monsoon storm coalesce above the Kathmandu Valley. The clouds were huge, pale and bulbous, and as a pair of them tussled I told Nick of the sumo bouts I’d watched in Japan. Here, though, the warriors were weightless. 

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Nick said in surprise. “Clouds are the heaviest things around. Imagine how much water is in that thunderhead: millions of gallons! At eight pounds a gallon, your average thunderhead probably weighs half a million tons.”  

Some people believe science is the antithesis of magic; a little knowledge makes the miraculous seem drab. Stars are nuclear furnaces; rainbows appear through the diffraction of water droplets. Love is a chemical reaction; our lovers themselves evolved from apes. And a drifting white cloud weighs as much as a container ship.

Do you see that one up there? It looks like a cherry-blossom tree.

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