The next time I met up with my guide Santos it was at the drum circle again. I’d come to love the drum circle, and showed up every Sunday afternoon, just to dance and show my support. Every free-spirit within a ten-mile radius makes an appearance on those occasions, crawling off the beach and from under the pier, stumbling out of cars and vans, cruising up on skateboards and bikes, banging on instruments, waving their freak flags. Homeless, hungry ghosts bang on garbage cans and strike the ground with sticks.
I saw where Santos was sitting, but it took me about five minutes to shuffle over to him. There were a few characters I needed to bump elbows with first. One, the Pied Piper, was always out there with his magic flute, using the intermissions to decry the hysteria that had sprung up around the pandemic. There was the Mad Bedouin. I recognized him, walloping away on his Middle Eastern drum. The Gypsy, in her long, flowing skirt, was shaking her silver bangles. Then there was the Mexican dude with the long black beard and fingers all taped up to play louder, drumming his way into a state of trance. I didn’t have a name for him yet, but he was rad, too.
Santos was sitting at the top of the amphitheater, keeping time with his walking stick, like Moses tapping it on the palace floor of the Pharaoh. If he’d tossed it to the ground and it had turned into a serpent I wouldn’t have been surprised. Right before I reached him, he snatched it up like a guitar and started playing a Jimi Hendrix lick on it.
After rocking out for a few minutes, we needed to move down closer to the pier so we could hear each other. Once again, Santos pointed out how there was only one beat, sometimes moving fast, sometimes moving slow, but it was the same beat all the dancers and drummers were moving to. The instruments they carried, or the individual rhythms they played on top of the beat, were their own interpretations of the same phenomenon. It was like what William James talks about in his Varieties of Religious Experience. In order to make a connection to a Higher Power, it is vital that your conception of it be one that is meaningful and relatable to your life and experiences. Listen to the beat, then contribute to it in a way that expresses who you are.
I mentioned what I’d noted in the reading he’d assigned me, the difference between a heavy drinker and true alcoholic, and told him I felt somewhere in the middle. Santos said if I couldn’t stop drinking, even after having a seizure, that might be some indication of a bigger problem than I’d previously been willing to cop to. Besides, I was a hungry ghost. If it wasn’t alcohol, it would be something else. Just like Steve McQueen, I was always looking to make the Great Escape.
Most people are familiar with the character of Jonah in the Bible, who spent three days in the belly of a whale. God had directed him to go prophecy in Nineveh and tell the people living there to repent of their wicked ways. Instead, Jonah had run the other way, on a boat heading in the opposite direction. God raised such a storm on the sea that the boat was nearly lost. Knowing he was the cause, Jonah had told the crew to toss him overboard, and the storm immediately calmed down.
Then God sent along a whale to swallow Jonah. During the three days he spent in the belly of the whale, Jonah prayed to God, giving him thanks for delivering him from the ocean depths. When he was spit out on the beach, he traveled to Nineveh as he’d been instructed, and told the people their city would be destroyed in forty days unless they repented. After the people and their King actually did repent and change their ways, God decided to spare their lives.
In a humorous postscript to the story, Jonah becomes upset when God doesn’t destroy Nineveh, after all the big talk he’d been talking, and goes off to sulk in a shelter on the east side of the city. God sends a plant to shade him from the sun, but then the next day sends a worm to destroy the plant and a scorching wind to blast him. Jonah gets so angry about the death of the plant that he wants to die. God questions how he can care about one plant so much, but not about the lives of one hundred and twenty thousand people who’d just been saved from disaster.
We all want things to go our way, and when they don’t may feel entitled to act out and let everyone know how unhappy we are. Even though I’d gotten my way in life many times, whenever I was frustrated or shut down, I’d get as dramatic as Jonah, holding my wilted plant in my arms, tearing my shirt in rage and grief, shaking a fist at the Almighty. Meanwhile, there were people all around suffering through much bigger losses and disappointments.
Like a great whale, the COVID pandemic had swallowed me up and spit me out on a beach in the last place I wanted to be, but Santos suggested it might have been exactly where God wanted me to be. If that was the case, the only thing I could change about the situation was how I reacted to it. That would be a chore.
For my next assignment, Santos told me to read Chapter 3 in the Big Book, More about Alcoholism, and then we’d get together and jam on that. After he left, I found an empty Coke bottle, put a few rocks in it, screwed the lid on, and went back to join the drum circle, improvised shaker in hand. If drastic times indeed call for drastic measures, some serious creativity was going be required.