Serendib, or Why I'm So Kickass At Rock Skipping

by chasereeves on May 19, 2009 · 4 comments

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One of the things I’m most grateful for in life is when I hear a story that makes me discover something about myself.  Seriously, I am deeply grateful for this because sometimes you’ve got no vantage point on what’s going on in life – or on what’s been going on for a long time.  It just happened.  I just read something that gave me a thought and I knew I had to get off the toilet and capture it.

Of Hearts, Sleeves and Sri’s

I’m reading a really delightful book called Serendib by Jim Toner.  It’s a memoir about a witty, heart-on-his-sleeve 20-something who joined the Peace Corps with his wife so he’d have something better to wear on his sleeve.  The Peace Corps has had him stationed in Sri Lanka for the past few years, and the book opens with him talking about how unbelievable it is that his father, his old, Irish, Cleveland judge of a father, was coming to Sri Lanka to visit him.

“Sounds like a real adventure to me.  Monkeys, parrots, all those monk fellows wandering around.  Malone, he’s been there.  He tells me there’s elephants strolling the boulevards like shoppers.  Say, Jimmy Should I bring a tie?”

What’s unbelievable to Jim about this is that his dad had never really been outside the US, and Sri Lanka was not in the least way your run of the mill easy travel destination.  Not only was it exactly on the other side of the globe, but Sri Lanka was in the middle of a bloody civil war that had torn the country asunder.  Also, the culture there is WILDLY original.  Oh, and his dad was seventy-four years old.

Now, I get to speak from a sliver of experience on Sri Lanka; I spent a little more than a month there while I was in school.  We travelled around on a bus learning about the history and culture of this little tear-shaped island off the coast of india.  By far the most potent people and culture I’ve ever encountered.  Unbelievably colorful, tangible, sensual, and oh, the smells…

Rock Skipping the Atlantic

I think a lot of us American males will resonate with the author’s story, his disjointed relationship with his dad.  “As a good Irish Catholic his role was to procreate often and work long hours, and then clear out of the way while my mother did the raising.”  But he does mention one time when he felt truly noticed by his dad: swimming with him in the Atlantic Ocean when he was four.  “I wanted no part of this ocean, frothing and heaving like one of my cartoon monsters, but the hand I held eased me into the ocean.  I remember that hand well… To me, the power of that hand could outmuscle the sea.  I tightened my little hand in his and together, through the sea spray, we ran into the ocean and under the waves… And finally, holding hands, we returned slowly to a cottage full of other children, all of them wanting their own hands held…”  Jim continues, “I’m not sure I was ever alone with him again.  In fact I’m sure of it, just as I’m sure that I never made him laugh or ever did anything that made him stop and notice me.”

In some ways, I find myself in this story.  Not as severely.  But I know what it’s like to deeply seek being noticed.  It was funny throwing rocks with my friends Paul and Alana the other day.  We were trying to skip rocks from one side of an inlet to the other.  Now, you should know that I’m AMAZING at skipping rocks.  I’m not afraid to say that.  You’ll come skipping rocks with me one day and see there’s no indulgence in saying that I could be one of the world’s best living rock skippers.  So, in the shadow of my 12, 13, 15 jumps per throw, Paul and Alana’s 2 and 3 JPT’s made them feel a little inadequate.  Some of you might get real arrogant in that situation, but not me.  Actually, I would have gotten arrogant a year or so back.  But in this instance there was only one response to Paul’s, “Gosh, you might be the world’s best living rock skipper!”  My response: when you have had to fight for approval your whole life you tend to get good at stuff.

I really do find myself in Jim Toner’s story.  I know what it’s like to have a dad who’s a formidable character, and to want his love with every fiber in my body.  But I also resonate with this story because it gets better.  And now I’m getting to the part that so rudely interrupted my number-two time.

How Impossible An Image

After spending a couple weeks in the sweltering, uncomfortable and utterly jarring world of Sri Lanka, Jim’s dad has had a few experiences that have struck him deeply.  His white entitlement and security have faded out as he’s started empathizing with these beautiful, alien people.  They (Jim, dad, and Jim’s wife) are on their way to their friends house when it starts pouring down rain.

For a while my dad kept his face up-turned, drinking and laughing, while Cindy and I stepped off the path in search of a banana tree for shelter.  But when the raindrops began to drive into my dad’s cheeks like pellets, he pulled out his Totes umbrella and struggled to open it.  Cindy and I snapped off broad banana leaves to cover our heads, and when I saw my Dad’s white umbrella open and then invert from the strong winds, I snapped off a leaf for him, too.

We ran.  The three of us sidestepped the puddles, our leaves held at an angle against the driving rain.

“It works!” my dad shouted.  “This leaf thing, it really works!”

From somewhere ahead of us in the rain we heard two little girls.  “Uncle Jim!”  they screamed.  “Auntie Cindy! Sudu Tatta!”  And then we saw them, ten-year-old Lakshmi and Seven-year-old Rufi, the daughters of our best Sri Lanken friends, Yaseratne and his wife, Sarala.  The girls were running to meet us, stopping to jump into every puddle with both feet.  Lakshmi skipped and Rufi did a hand-stand and each tried to steal the banana leaf of the other.  They sprinted the last few yards toward us and jumped into the arms of Cindy and me, squeezing us tight and saying in Sinhala, I love you, Uncle Jim.  I love you, Auntie Cindy.  While Lakshmi would not let go of Cindy, Rufi jumped down from me and opened her arms upward toward “Sudu Tatta,” her white father.  I love you, Sudu Tatta, she said, and my dad let fall his banana leaf and hoisted her thin body onto his shoulders.

“Up, up you go,” he said, “Up on the big white horse.”

Unable to hold her for long, he lowered Rufi to the ground and held both her and Lakshmi’s hands.  Together through the driving rain they ran, their tiny hands held firmly within his, running and playing with the water of the air, running as if running toward the waves of the sea.

How impossible a picture for me to imagine about my own father; how absurd an image in my head of my dad acting like a child in this way towards me.  And that’s exactly what struck me when I was reading this.  The blaring omission of this kind of activity in my own relationship with my father, the simple absurdity of it.  And what’s more, the habits already forming in my own behavior that will create in me a stubbornness against affection and approval towards my son.

How Powerful An Icon

But this image of an old, overweight judge from Cleveland running through Sri Lanken rain with two little girls calling him ‘our white father’ is a powerfully redemptive icon to me.  As I’ve grown up, my relationship with my dad has changed, just like Jim and his dad’s relationship is starting to change in the book.  There’s a leveling that’s begun: I’m seeing him in his own light a bit more, and he’s seeing me in a little less of his own light.  And though I may not have the power to change the whole thing out, I think I know who can.

When my father becomes a grandpa, I think there will be some seriously new light coming from him.  When he sees new life that belongs to him from his current vantage point – without all the necessity for and drive towards establishing a successful career – I think it’s going to strike him deep.  I can picture my dad running in Sri Lanken rain with his grandson.  Like a little pudd fudd (one of his more endearing terms).  Actually, I can picture that easily.

It’s my dad’s birthday today.  I don’t know exactly how old he is.  But I do know that I’m just beginning to see the incredible nature of generations; this cycle of loss and love and light that forms us, and then un-forms; this pattern of joy and regret that makes us capable of incredible rock skips, and hope.  And I see hope for my own soul, my dad’s soul, and the soul of my relationship with my dad in our yet to be born son, Aiden Chase Reeves… who is, undoubtedly, ready to party.


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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

BellaLuna May 22, 2009 at 3:58 am

I do hope you continue writing. Wonderful read! xo


admin May 22, 2009 at 7:52 am

Thanks @BellaLuna! I appreciate the kindness.


Dad June 12, 2009 at 12:53 pm

Looking forward to running in the rain with our little “Pudd Fudd”
Love Dad


Brittney April 14, 2010 at 8:28 pm

This man is actually my teacher in CA. He is an amazing teacher, and his book is great as well. Im glad I came upon your post.


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