Tag Archives: wakan tanka

Forty years ago, when I was heartbroke, uprooted, unemployed and deep in depression, I would regularly ride the ferry across Puget Sound from Seattle to Bainbridge Island. It was a cheap ride for a pedestrian and I could go both ways for one fare. There was breakfast to be had onboard and the early morning light, often through mizzle and mist, was the perfect visualization of my inner state. 

Sometimes I would get off on the island and hike through woods just north of Winslow, the town with the ferry slip. I saw goldeneyes and grebes, cormorants and wigeons, mergansers and coots. The Northwest is mostly made up of Douglas fir and western redcedar, but Bainbridge Island had a great stand of maples. Wildflowers bordered the roads. 

I was alone on the crowded ferry, with the constant churn of the motor under the deck, staring out the rain-spattered window at the expanse of water. There is something about water, and about moving across its surface that I found soothing in my loneliness. A band of sunlight  would blast the waves and quickly disappear again. 

Yonkers ferry

I have ridden many ferries over the years. The first I remember was the Yonkers ferry from Alpine, N.J., across the Hudson just north of Manhattan. I went with my uncle to visit his in-laws. I remember very little of the trip — the ferry was discontinued in 1956, so I had to have been less than 8 years old; more likely I was about 5 or 6 — but I do remember the river, the waves, the expanse from one shore to the other and the low skyline of our destination. I have absolutely no recollection of the in-laws. 

It is the flatness of the water, disturbed by the wind into a disruption of skitter that sticks in my mind each time I take the boat. It is both calm and nervous at the same time. The Hindu idea of māyā is immediate: an ideal world brought to motion by the wind on its reflection. The early lines of Genesis also comes to me: “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Breath of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” In some Native American mythologies, the Great Spirit, Wakan Tanka, is manifest as wind, which animates the prairie grasses very like sea waves. 

Perhaps in times of distress, the ferry ride puts me on that sea and I can breath the same moving air that animates the waters. It can calm or at least give me the sense of being part of something bigger than myself. All of which sounds mighty grandiose when you are considering a boat made of iron and grease that rattles across the Sound so that commuters can get to their jobs. 

At any rate, ferries give me a kind of mythic jolt. Which is why when I was coming home from a visit to my brother at the beach, where he lives at the head of the Outer Banks, I opted to take the Knotts Island ferry across Currituck Sound. The Sound separates the barrier islands from the low-lying and swampy mainland. It is about a five mile trip across the water from slip to slip. It takes about three-quarters of an hour on the water. 

Unlike the huge Puget Sound ferries, the boat across Currituck Sound is puny: It has room for only about a dozen cars. Its main purpose seems to be to carry a schoolbus from Knotts Island to schools on terra firma. 

Knotts Island, for the sake of honesty, isn’t really an island, but a peninsula that hangs down from Virginia into North Carolina, through the Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge, which is half water, and full of waterfowl, reeds and water lilies. The island is mostly in North Carolina, but its top bit is still in Virginia. 

In years past, when I taught in Virginia Beach, I would take my photography students down to Mackay Island. There was everything to photograph. I went there on my own many times, sometimes just to soak in the brackish air and watch the stretch of water. There is a yearly “Peach Festival” on Knotts Island, and my wife and I and several of our friends went to the orchards to pick bushels of fruit. We spent days processing the peaches into jams and chutneys. 

So, I have history on the island. And now that my wife is gone, the trip back across the island to take the ferry brings up a whole life, its aftermath, its redolence, its meaning. 

Unlike the Seattle ferry trips, this one is sunny. The waters are calm, shivered by only a small breeze, although that is enough to provide the flat waters with texture. The channel markers are home for bird nests. There is an osprey on one, and cormorants spread their wings to dry on others. The ferry chugs past them, some to the right, some to the left. 

The water is wide enough that the far shores are a horizon line, and toward the south, and the spread of water around the curve of the earth, there is no far shore to be seen. The flatness of the day erases the line between water and sky, between life and death, between now and then. You can still make it out, but barely. Waters are deep, and so is the sky. In revery, like Ishmael hypnotized by the sea, I fall into fascination with the obscurity of horizon, of border, of things that have names, but whose names are merely tags to hide the essential sameness, the unity. 

There is a startling beauty to this state, I gaze at the line, horizontal, that seems to exist, then doesn’t, then exists only because I know it’s there. Am I inventing it? Māyā. 

The sky circles the top half of heaven, the water, the bottom. It is a circuit. The sun arcs from east to west then continues west to east underneath our feet, underneath the boat. I am laughing at myself for my seriousness. But I am put in mind of circles and spend the rest of the trip finding circles everywhere on the boat. Can a circle be the primary form of the cosmos? Can it be the crown of a hat? The ridiculous and the mythic are comically the same, same as the sky and bay, water and air. 

Well, I am an idiot. I am alive, still, and what does any of this mean other than I can breathe, inhale and exhale and feel the swelling of my lungs and the beat of my heart: “Close on its wave soothes the wave behind.”

All is lost; nothing is lost. The breath of the gods moves upon the waters. They shiver.

Jack Nicholson with cigar

It is one of the mysteries of the universe that the cigar that smells so delightful to me when I’m smoking it, smells so rank to me when the other guy lights up.

The author

The author

There are few adult pleasures that can match the nerve-settling effects of a draft on a good, a really good cigar. And few adults who can bear the stench of someone else smoking one.

So I sympathize when someone complains that cigars are unbearably nasty. They are, hands down, the most fumigatious pestilence this side of old tires burning in a city dump — except, that is, for the one I’m smoking.

Of course, I would never ignite one in a restaurant. It is the height of brutishness to fire up a stogie in a closed and inhabited space. Maybe even worse than smoking a cigarette.

And I would never smoke in someone else’s home. The stale odor penetrates the furniture and hangs in the air for days.

But that doesn’t change the truth of the matter, that a good cigar is one of the greatest joys this planet affords.

How can I explain it to someone who has never tried or has only managed a few acrid puffs of a grocery-store panatela? I’d rather suck the exhaust fumes of a city bus with a bad turbocharger. groucho

Cigars are often compared with wines. There is a difference between a screw-top muscatel drunk from a brown paper poke and Chateauneuf-du-Pape. If one makes you gag, it’s no reflection on the nobility of the other.

The appeal of a good cigar is strong. On the evening before he signed the Cuban Trade Embargo in 1961, which made Cuban cigars illegal in the United States, John Kennedy sent his aide Pierre Salinger out to scour the streets of Washington to buy 1,000 Havana cigars for him.

Cuban cigars are still contraband, but other fancy cigars have taken up the slack. churchill

Although the cigar business has declined overall since 1964, when 9 billion were sold — current annual sales run just more than 2 billion — the figures for “premium” cigars, those that currently sell for more than $1.25 each, have gone just the other way. In 1974, some 50 million were sold, while today, that number is 100 million.

That speaks of a rise in taste among cigar smokers. No longer must the cigar be the skag-end of a butt chewed to a gooey wad in a mouth full of uneven brown teeth. It has become upscale in the polished smile of an Arnold Schwarzenegger or a David Letterman.

But I also fear that could be the death of the cigar experience. Yuppies know how to trivialize anything: The point seems to be who can pay more for a hand-wrapped Dominican robusto. Is a $23 cigar really that much better than a $2 cigar?smug smoker

The pricey glossy magazines that feature photographs of movie stars, metrosexuals or smug investment bankers and their single-malt scotches and tailored suits make me want to give up my cigar. That is not what I mean. Like prayer, let me smoke privately, not to show off my income level. cigar girls

Yet, a good cigar, like a good wine, is complex. It has tastes and aftertastes, aromas and essences. And one should not forget the visual aspects of a good smoke: The twining strands of rising smoke and the exhaled clouds that spin and curl in the air.

American Indians knew this part of smoking. The so-called peace pipe was really a religious ritual. The smoke, swirling about in the lightest breeze, revealed the existence of Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit. The smoke made the invisible visible.

It is easy, almost unavoidable, to wax philosophical under the influence of a good cigar appreciated slowly with the time and attention you give to a fine brandy. cigar ladies

It takes a good half-hour to go through the ritual, from clipping the end, to lighting it while holding the match flame just off the surface of the tobacco, to rolling the tube between your fingers while exhaling, to tapping the ash off the tip, to the final decision to extinguish the cigar butt after one last lingering puff.

The ritual is like entering a cathedral: You enter a different time frame, one where the pulse slackens, blood pressure relaxes, and the buzz of everyday concerns stands off for that space of time and leaves you be.

I feel that way when my friend Alexander and I climb out his second-story window onto the roof and light up at night, watching the stars and the smoke, and talking about the things that friends talk about.

We don’t smoke inside; Alexander’s wife would kill us.