Sunday, July 05, 2020

What a Jesuit priest, a Zen monk and a Yaqui shaman taught me about life, wine and Italy

From the archives

“There is a crack between the two worlds.” – Don Juan Matus

In time, the perception of things as they are and as they seem are two sides of a wall. Spending one’s life piercing that wall is the work of ones who aspire to a simpler existence. People run around looking for all manner of things they think will fill their life with meaning, from fame and acceptance to wealth and material objects, from power and influence to a total abnegation of the corporeal and worldly. Three influences during my time of earth helped to re-shape and reinforce an inner sense that I was instilled with at birth. And as I walk the wine trail in Italy these influences have been instrumental in directing my attention towards destinations that these teachers intended.

The Jesuit priest – He was a winemaker but we never really talked about wine. He was a solemn person, thoughtful and deliberate. He was also very busy, with a university to run. But he always had time for me when I showed up at the door of his office.

He introduced me to patience, the patience one must have when one works with grapes into wine. His specialty was sherry, which required calm and faith, both of which he had. I really had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up or when I would grow up. Living in tumultuous times, with change and peril at any juncture, coming into adulthood in an urban area from a childhood of roaming in the desert in an almost feral manner, it was often bewildering. But it was also exciting. I needed to learn my ways through the channels, knowing which ways were clear, which were traps. One day the Jesuit sent me to Napa to run an errand for him. I arrived at a large winery to deliver a package to a Christian Brother. It was the first time I had seen a winery like this one and every time I step in it I still have the feeling I had when I first stepped in it. The smells, the light the cool air. It was a cathedral of wine. It was breathtaking. It was my church.

A few years later, again he and his colleagues sent me to deliver a package, to Rome. It was my first time to Italy. I was to take the package to the Vatican, to the head of the Jesuits. It all sounds now very Illuminati-esque, but it was a simple transfer of a work of art. Inside the secret building I was directed to, the same smells from the Christian Brothers winery arose. But this time I didn’t feel the same way. There was power here. I believe I was sent there to witness that power, not to embrace it.

In the following days, as a roamed around Rome and Italy, I thought about my small life. A seed had been planted, but I was merely a mound of dirt. Nothing had sprouted. Yet.

The Zen monk – as part of a class, another Jesuit priest advised several of us to spend some time at a Zen monastery in Northern California. We would engage in all the activities (and non-activities) as members of the community for a set period.

It was during zazen that I experienced “one-pointedness.”

Once after we had eaten and cleaned up, a monk talked to us. He resembled Jackie Coogan (Uncle Fester) and he had something of the big city wise guy about him. He was an extrovert, no doubt, in his previous life, which he told us, had been Hollywood. In those days I was into film-making, and had flirted with going to Hollywood for an internship. But I was sitting on the fence, something was holding me back.

I asked him how he got from Hollywood to Mt. Shasta. His explanation was less about his particular path, for as I came to learn, the notion of self became less central to the idea of life as one lets go of the material possessions, memories and personal history. He likened it to a garden, which started out with all types of beautiful flowers and transitioned to a simple rock garden with a little bamboo and a trickling brook running through it.

I think about that when I look at wine and especially at wineries. Are they Hollywood, filled with flowers and innumerable objects of beauty? Or are they that simple rock garden? I’ve often thought about which wine I am drawn to. Sometimes it is the Hollywood version. And more and more, it is the simple one, if at all.

When it came time to leave the monastery I went out into my car and pulled out a wooden sword, a bokken, and gave it to the monk.

The Yaqui shaman – the teachings of this soul came through various channels. Through a teacher, through a Westerner, and through a ragged old man who gave me a dog in the Guadalajara train station. It was all so very much under the skin, not on the surface. It was between the shades of gray in the image that pierced my vulnerabilities.
Relating more to perception than to the other senses, and in the wine world, we rely so heavily on smell and taste. These lessons would make me a better taster but they wouldn’t teach me about tasting.

Italy is so much about tradition and history. Then, again, it is also about breaking rules and changing those accepted ways. It’s the dance of chiaroscuro, these two forces. Modern and Ancient.

Don Juan, though his channels, humiliated me on a regular basis, for my insistence on not jumping off into the abyss. I was afraid of letting go.

In the wine trade, everything leads towards the sale, getting it all. Letting go is not an option. Or so it would seem. But over the years, as I inhabit a body that is in the active process of letting go, I know a little more about what the Yaqui shaman was insisting upon. None of this really matters, not the cellar, not the by the glass placement, not the domination of the account, not the 90+ score. What does matter is the heart.

"The heart. Did you hear me?"

All the rest, all the possessions, all the desires, all the schemes, all the plans, all mean nothing.

The art piece I had been entrusted with to deliver to the Vatican, why art? The wooden sword that had been in the trunk of my car, where did it come from? And the dog the old man gave me at the train station, was it really a dog?

Things aren’t always what they seem. It may look like wine, smell like wine, taste like wine. I now know these three influences were coaxing me towards a perception away from my fears, my preconceptions, my history, pushing me through that crack between the worlds.

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