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In Search of the Holy Grail
By J.D. Messinger
A free excerpt from JD’s upcoming book
A Lost Watch, November 1976
United States Naval Academy
The experience of having the last bit of oxygen depleted from my lungs is actually quite beautiful. Minutes before, I am above the surface, sailing, pointing my ten-foot single-person Laser dinghy hard into the wind for the final leg of a practice race. Despite two layers of clothes and a good set of foul-weather gear, I am still freezing. As the bow of the Laser smashes through the choppy water, a fifteen-knot wind slaps the waves right back into my face, soaking my hands and driving water down the inside of my coat and pants. My hands are cramping so badly that I alternate holding the mainsheet between my teeth and hands as I hike out over the rail, trying to flatten out the boat and increase my speed. One hundred and forty five pounds on a five-foot, six-inch frame is not quite sufficient to do the trick. Just seven minutes, and the race will be over. My cramping hands and frozen feet convince me right then that if I get into Annapolis I am going to do something inside, where it is warm. Five minutes to go. I glance around the horizon. I’m in the lead. Damn, this is exciting! Too bad it’s so cold. I glance at my wrist, checking the time on my new Seiko watch, a gift from my father on my eighteenth birthday. It is the only gift I remember receiving directly from him.
“Here Jon, this is for you,” said Dad from the sunken position of his old yellow leather recliner. There was no kiss, no hug, no wrapping. But it didn’t matter. Receiving a present directly from Dad meant more to me than all the other presents combined. “Thanks Dad, this is the nicest watch I’ve ever seen,” I said. I put the watch on my wrist and walked through the foyer. I stopped just in front of the gold-framed mirror hanging on badly worn blue wallpaper. In the reflection I could see on my wrist the most expensive gift I had ever received, and, just behind me, Dad, looking languid in the chair he’d had forever, with its cracked covering and broken footrest. I turned back and glanced at Dad. He was sixty-three, and his health was failing. His face was pale and he had lost thirty pounds in a few months. He was dying, but I had no way of knowing. No one did. “What’s the matter, Dad?”
He was silent for what seemed like an eternity but in Reality was less than a minute. Finally he spoke. His voice was deep and his words were garbled. “I’m sorry that ah, that it has taken me so long, taken me awhile to give you something new. I hope you …like it.” With five children and a difficult economy, there was not much to go around. I understood. That’s why it was so special, because it was not easily paid for and it was given to me first. It wasn’t passed down. It was also the last thing my father gave to me before he died of malignant melanoma three months later.
Four minutes to the finish. The closest boat is at least a hundred yards behind me. My teeth are starting to ache from holding the sheet. I take my left hand and grab the end of the sheet dangling from my mouth. I make two quick twists and wrap the sheet around my wrist. I open my mouth and let go. My arms are weaker than I thought and the force of the sheet tugs at my hand, yanking it into the pulley. The Seiko saves my wrist but the impact breaks the band. The watch flies off and bounces on the white fiberglass hull. The rest happens in slow motion. I watch in horror as my special gift slowly slides across the Laser. Above the storm and the whipping wind, I hear that gentle “bloop” sound that signifies something small yet valued beyond its weight going in the drink. My reaction is instantaneous. I let go of everything and leap into the water. I can see it, seesawing back and forth like a leaf falling from a tree, slowly sinking into the depths of the Severn. I reach left, but it zigzags right; then I reach right, and it zigzags left. I swim deeper and deeper, five feet, eight feet, ten feet beneath the hull of my Laser, now drifting aimlessly above me. I keep swimming down and down, chasing the elusive timepiece. By now I am perhaps fifteen feet beneath the surface, still going down. Time has stopped. Life is frozen and meaningless. Boats pass overhead, their skippers perhaps wondering where I am, continuing on their own courses.
I stop swimming. It is hopeless, I think, as I watch my precious gift slowly sink out of sight into the dark abyss. I am almost out of air so I turn to go back up and … anchors are holding me down. My boots are full and the sweat gear beneath my foul weather gear is taking a bath in twenty pounds of icy water. With time and cold water quickly slipping through my cramping fingers, I start removing my clothes. My extremities are depleted of strength and my lungs are desperate for air. I tug on my boots and finally they come off, but my foul weather gear is fatally stubborn. I frantically pull off the jacket as it floats around my shoulders like a cape; it comes off easily. Then I rip vehemently at the devilish suspender snaps but they refuse to release their grip. With the jacket and boots off I am able to start back up to the surface, but I am out of time and oxygen. My lungs are exploding, desperately exerting pressure to expel the depleted air that is fighting as hard to get out, as I am to get up. Finally the pressure is so great it feels as if my chest will explode. A plume of air escapes from my mouth and nose. I watch the bubbles rising up as I unwillingly suck in a gulp of cold salt water and instantly begin to choke. My frozen and now cramping legs eventually begin to slow and whatever air remains after the first ballast blow is expending as my body struggles to survive.
By now I am five feet beneath the surface and blacking out. The pain and life is fading and there are stars and lights. I am going into a twisted tunnel replete with scintillating white and blue streaks of light. It is wonderful.
With my last coherent thought I say a prayer, “Dear God, please save me, I’m drowning.”
I almost died for something as trivial and insignificant as a watch. I share this first as one of the most important Great Misconceptions I learned in my journey called The Way because it is so important, especially with all the material loss that people are experiencing, and have yet to experience in the coming years. It is the renegade ramblings of the mind that propel one to chase materialistic objects they do not need and cannot afford or to become attached to designer shirts, fancy cars or jewelry that has no permanent value. The whole we seek to fill does not come from any purchase, but rather aligning the thoughts of our mind with the desires of our soul. So here is the Great Misconception and it should come as no surprise.
A Great Misconception
The Holy Grail of life is not something I can buy, sell or hold contrary to whatever Wall Street or Madison Avenue might want me to believe. Money and materialistic objects do not bring me happiness or satisfaction. Quite to the contrary, a strong attachment to physical objects creates a fixation that leads to an attachment. The stronger the attachment the greater the pain and suffering will be when I lose it. And I will lose it.
The strange part about these lessons is that they are so easy to forget. I remembered this lesson for almost twenty years, but during the hey-days of the 1990’s I did not. I was lost at sea, this time caught in a different storm on board the USS Globalization, a vessel that was carrying a cargo contaminated with a visceral virus that festered wants over needs. I was stuck on this damn ship just like Captain Barbossa on the Black Pearl in Pirates of the Caribbean and my equivalent of his cursed Aztec Gold that replaced my watch was stock options, promotions, fancy cars, servants and more money to fill my 401k treasure chest. Like millions of others during this time, my rudder was broken and the wind could not blow hard enough to drown out the whistling from financial advisors, investment bankers and corporate leaders. As they blew initial public offerings, stock options and wave after wave of mergers and complex financial instruments the many became confused. In a world where time was zero, distance and location irrelevant, the vicious virus spread throughout humanity.
Today, many of these brigantines have crashed onto rocky shores. Their holding tanks are slowly being disemboweled by the barnacles that grew on their extremities after selling their soul for elusive gold coins that have now fallen into the deep abyss of Davy Jones’ locker. I can understand how it happens; it happened to me as I allowed society and the most prevalent beliefs to temporarily place my philosophy and beliefs in a holding tank.
As the essence of an individual is the summation of his principles and actions, so is a nation the aggregate of the collective behaviors and thoughts of its’ people. Just as The Secret helped me understand that we are the manifestation of our thoughts, so too is a nation. As I traveled the world from the frigid arctic shores of Alaska, to the top of the mountain in Cape Town, from the Great Wall outside Beijing to the pinnacles of power in Singapore, I was at times honored to learn the richness of cultures, languages and traditions, and at times dismayed to see nations sell their history, artifacts and principles to the highest bidder.
If the Holy Grail of life is not something we can buy, sell or hold, what is? The Holy Grail is what binds humanity and it is far greater than what separates us. Although we share 99.9 percent the same genes, and 97 percent the same air, water and minerals, there is a force that is greater still. This great binding force is not something we can see, touch, smell, taste or hear, so you can turn off your television and radio, and stop reading the paper or digging in the attic searching for it. It is neither a place nor a thing, yet it is everywhere and everything. It was born, but it does not die. It creates and it destroys. It is eternally present and has been known, studied and referenced in all cultures and throughout all ages, often by different names. It provides life to a blistering volcano as equally as a gentle breeze. It is as expansive as the ocean and yet as diminutive as a spider. We cannot see it or touch it, but we feel it every waking moment. It is the energy that pulses through our veins, the fertilizer in our yard, and the air in our lungs. It is the silvery web that is woven through every atom that makes up the fabric of life. When we violate the universal laws of this cosmic force, this wonderful counselor, make no mistake, one day we all pay. All it wants is peace and love, balance and harmony. This force is the Holy Grail, and it is the only thing that is permanent and eternal and it is a part of you, and you are a part of it, and that makes me a part of you.