Living alone

Those were days of rest. Denise and I had been given a week’s rest in a simple fishing village in the south of the country. As I usually wake up very early and had no intention of disturbing her sleep, I went for a walk on the beach. The hostel was still asleep. I’d be back by breakfast time. Walking barefoot on the soft sand of the beach, with the pinkish-blue sky typical of dawn, and the soft music of the sea waves as my soundtrack, was a rare opportunity for me, having always lived in busy urban centres. The few early seagulls were my only companion. The few trawlers, all very modest, anchored offshore, waiting for the moment to return to service. I walked as if I were saying a prayer, inspired by the marvellous connection with nature that that moment allowed. Then I spotted an old man sitting on the edge of a canoe parked on the sandy beach. He was entertaining himself by mending a fishing net. He had the enchanted features common to those who are at peace with themselves. When he saw me, he smiled and nodded, a typical greeting from a gentle soul. I approached him. I’ve always thought that the greatest benefits of travelling, regardless of the place, more than discovering museums, historical sites and monuments, were the conversations with the locals. If, by definition, culture is the way of being and living of a people over a certain period of time, there was nothing better than interacting with these people to discover views that were still unknown to me. With another gentle gesture and the same serene smile, the fisherman invited me to sit on the opposite side of the canoe. I settled myself in.

When he offered me a mug with the coffee he had in a thermos, I joked that this was going to be a great meeting. The old man smiled again and served me. Without delay, we embarked on an interesting conversation. He told me that he had lived in that village all his life: “By land, I’ve never left here. By sea, I’ve been where few men have ventured,” he said. I reminded him of the value of getting to know other places and people as a way of learning to observe through different prisms. The fisherman agreed, but made a comment: “Knowing many places gives me a lot of news to tell. But what’s the point of having lots of trips to tell about without realising the greatest adventure of all, the one that allows me to get to know myself?”. I nodded. He continued: “Here in the village, apart from the locals, different people arrive every day, tourists from every corner of the planet. So when I’m on the beach, I get to know the world. Then I go back to the sea to digest the conversations I’ve had. I keep with me the words that I find useful and that can help me become a better man. The ideas I don’t like, I give to the deep waters of the sea.” 

Pedro was his name. He told me he would be seventy next winter. I asked him if his family was preparing a party to celebrate such a symbolic date. The fisherman revealed: “I live alone.” Realising I was embarrassed, he didn’t let me carry the weight. He was a sensitive man: “I live alone, but I’m not sad. I have all the people in the world to live with. Apart from that, I still have the sea to talk to. I carry with me the joy of looking back and realising that life has been worth living. I feel like a better man every day. What more valuable thing could anyone wish for?”.

I agreed again. Without a trace of sorrow, he told me that one morning, when he moored on the beach, his wife had left: “That was many years ago, we were still very young. She wanted to see the world. She had that right. She said she was born to be great. We all are. Everyone becomes great in their own way and understanding. She did it the way she knew how. She was a beautiful woman, she left with a foreigner to live in a distant country. The children were small, they stayed. She told a neighbour that she would return to pick them up as soon as she could. She never came back. I raised the boys as best I could. After they grew up, they also left to try life in big cities. They never came back.” I asked if he had any news about them, Pedro clarified: “Of the boys, one became a musician and tours the country with a band. The oldest got lost in the illusion of crime and is no longer with us. As for the wife, sometimes someone says they heard she became a rich woman in a place with a strange language. I suspect they say it out of spite. They tease me all the time, but I don’t take any notice. They think I suffer from living alone, but nobody is alone when they have themselves as good company. I carry with me the certainty that I’ve done my best. This calms my heart. No matter where you live, it’s worth making the effort to become a better person. That way I’m in good company.”

I told him honestly that Pedro was a wise man. He gave a bashful smile, shook his head and told a story: “Once a gringo arrived here in the village. He just wanted a few days’ rest. They say he was a very famous teacher in Europe. Then some reporters and photographers came. They didn’t want an interview, it was just an invasion of privacy for gossip magazines”. I interrupted to find out who the professor was. Pedro tried to clarify: “I could never speak his complicated name, I always called him gringo. I know he was a very nice man. He wanted to get away from the harassment. We met on the beach. We soon became friends. He proposed a business deal. I would teach him how to fish, and in return he would reveal the secret of life to me. I thought it was strange, but I accepted. I think he just wanted to go to the high seas as a way of staying out of the reach of journalists. It coincided with a period when I was feeling very sad. My children had followed the same fate as my wife. I believed that history was repeating itself because of me. My thoughts ranged from giving up on myself to wandering the world in the footsteps of others. Beset by these dilemmas, I spent several days at sea alongside the gringo. We went to the Skeleton Islands, an archipelago two days’ journey away, a place of emotional winds and unpredictable currents. The place got its name because of the many hulls of wrecked boats and ships exposed to the weather as a warning of a tragedy foretold. It’s a place that sends shivers down the spine of even the most seasoned sailors. I’m the only fisherman in the village to venture into those passionate waters. For some reason that I can’t explain, I seem to know every imponderable movement of its sea currents and the sudden change of its maddening winds. I feel calm in those waters. I sail without fear.” He paused to add: “There is no place richer in lobsters and prawns in this blessed world.” I suspected that this might be the reason why the villagers, all of whom worked in the fishing industry, were bothering Pedro so much. I said nothing.

The old man continued: “Those were days of great wealth. I came back with the trawler’s hold full of prawns and lobsters. My head was filled with thoughtless ideas after so many conversations with the teacher. Those were joyful and transformative days. That’s when I realised that the days were joyful because they were transformative. The transformation of oneself is the richest source of joy”. I asked if the teacher had revealed the secret of life as he had promised. Pedro let me in on the mystery: “We are the result of our own equations”.

He laughed heartily, as only free men can when faced with their difficulties, and said: “Of course he had to explain the meaning of the word equation to me. I’m not very well educated, there was no school in the village when I was little. He was a good tutor, able to show simple solutions to complicated problems.”  I agreed with Pedro: “Simplicity is a common characteristic of the truly wise.”

Pedro clarified the secret revealed by the teacher: “I will be the life I have. My life will have its value measured by the transformations that have taken place within me. Who I was and who I became. It doesn’t matter where you live, but how you live. The result of my equations is revealed by the way I react to each difficulty. Problems serve to make us better people, those are the real achievements. I’m not talking about possessing the things and glories of the world, but about adding content to the soul. Then I discover the wonders of life. On that trip I realised that the worst thing is not to live alone, but to live empty.”

The fisherman confessed: “I never wanted to give up on myself or follow in anyone else’s footsteps. Everyone is unique and has their own path to follow. That’s why freedom is essential. Freedom is the manifestation of my truth every moment of every day. I don’t care about criticism or judgement. That’s how it is with everyone. I realised that by living the truth as I understand it, I become my own master, I find my strength and I have the power of life in my hands. Nothing is missing. The beauty of the day lies in the equations that I challenge myself to solve”.

I asked what happened when they got back from that fishing trip. The fisherman told me: “It was the busiest fishing trip I’ve ever had. The trawler’s holds were full. I had to repay the professor for the treasure he had given me. I decided to give him all the shrimp and lobster on the boat. He was a dignified man, just the right balance between being generous and being fair. He offered me another deal. We would sell all the cargo and the money raised would go towards founding a school. I said that it would be difficult to maintain the school because it would generate monthly costs. He said that if I were a prosperous man, I would be able to maintain the school with the fruits of my labour.” Pedro arched his lips in a slight smile and went on: “I remember that although I was the only one to sail the rich waters of the Skeleton Islands, the sea conditions didn’t always allow for plentiful fishing. I lived in very modest conditions. The teacher told me not to be afraid. Nothing hinders us as much as fear. Then he explained that the prosperous are those who live well with what they have. Those who truly live well also do good. Prosperity is the result of many virtuous equations. It’s a conquest of the soul; nothing is lacking for those who have achieved such virtue”. He paused and clarified: “I realised that a simple fisherman like me could be as prosperous as the wealthiest millionaire on the planet.” Pedro was right. Life is wise for those who understand the hidden meaning of every situation. Life is loving for those who are able to read the Sacred hidden between the lines of the apparent difficulties of everyday life.

“It was the first school we had in the village.” He then concluded with a rhetorical question: “Do you understand the joy of true power?”. I nodded. Pedro concluded: “From that day on, I realised that no one lives alone when they have themselves as good company.”

I wanted to know more about how to become good company for yourself. Pedro explained: “It’s simple. Look at who you were, pay attention to who you are. If you’ve evolved, rejoice in the result. Go on making endless progress. If you haven’t, make a sincere commitment to transformation; then be happy that you’re proposing this equation. That way you’ll always be happy to have yourself as company.” I was listening to the explanation of a wise man.

I asked about the school. Pedro invited me to visit it. On the way, I wanted to know about the maintenance. The fisherman clarified: “I don’t need much to live, the essentials are enough for me. For all these years, the sea has given me what I need. This allows me to have enough left over to cover the costs of the school without being overburdened”. It was a modest house with just two classrooms. It wasn’t the ideal setting, but it was perfect because it was the best possible. One detail caught my eye. The name of the school painted in red on the façade: Gringo’s School. With a good-humoured smile, Pedro shrugged and commented: “I could never speak his weird name. But the honour is well-deserved.” I told him I was very curious to know more about this teacher. Pedro told me that there was a single photo of the fisherman standing next to Gringo. It was framed in the school office. We went in. When I saw the photograph, my eyes watered with emotion. The fisherman realised. He asked if I knew the teacher. “I’ve heard of him,” I replied. I thanked Pedro for that marvellous meeting and the wisdom he had imparted. We exchanged a tight hug and I said goodbye. The town was waking up.

When I arrived at the hotel, with her unforgettable smile, Denise was waiting for me for breakfast in a pleasant dining room overlooking the sea. Noticing me introspective, she asked me about my thoughts. I told her I was thinking about the Elder, as we affectionately called the oldest monk in the monastery: “I always wondered why he never remarried after being widowed. I found it strange that he liked to live alone, even though everyone loved socialising with him.” Denise knew him very well, as she was also a nun in the Order. She considered that there are many ways of having company outside the traditional family model. I agreed with her and talked about a new understanding: “Living alone is different from being alone. The Elder lived alone, but he wasn’t lonely. He who sows flowers wherever he goes never lives alone”.

Denise agreed with me, but found the conversation strange. I explained: “As soon as we’ve finished our coffee, I’m going to take you to see the village school. You’ll understand.”

Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.

1 comment

Maletia Ward February 5, 2024 at 12:21 pm

I look forward to reading your amazing stories each Saturday! Thank you for sharing them


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