From Heaven to Bali: Taro’s Journey

Wednesday, April 5th, 2023

By Robert C. Koehler

“At school he was told he would never write . . .”

Here was a kid – here was a man – who refused to listen to the authorities, and refused to be anything but fully human. And yeah, he could write. His spelling may have been iffy, but he could write. His name was Taro Joy. He drowned three years ago, in Bali, where he was living, at age 48 – but thanks to his mother, Penny (quoted above) and the rest of his family, his words and thoughts and deep reaches into the collective soul live on. They have just put out a book of his lifetime of writings, a book of his prose and poems: The Tao of Taro.

This is a unique book, now available. You can’t read it without getting to know, and feel close, to him: “There was a deep spiritual yearning under all the stuff he did,” Penny told me. “He was just a wild character. He always got in trouble.”

She added: “Pulling the book together was almost like birthing him again.”

So I wander into the world of Taro Joy: a world of risk and pain and wonder. You might say he danced with death on a regular basis. He pushed his humanity to the edge, and then wrote about it. For instance, he tells the story of the time he and three friends took a swim in a river – the Thompson River, in British Columbia, where he grew up. All four of them survived, much to their surprise. They swam the rapids.

“I got caught in a whirlpool,” he wrote, “ . . . sucked into the hole in the water, churned around and spat back to the surface for the third time. It was to be my last. I felt strength sap from my limbs as water again filled my lungs: there was no fighting out of this beast, only violence followed by infinity. . . .

“. . . Every ounce of strength left in me focused as adrenalin centres fired, secretions I thought all but gone, ripped out of glands and fed pure fire into burnt-out muscles. I reached the boat and pulled myself into it, puking again and again till my lungs gave up their aquatic dividends and once again took air.”

You know, a nice, simple swim. He was rescued by a tourist boat. The other three guys made it through the rapids in their own way; they eventually found each other. But for a while none of them were sure the others had made it. Taro’s words dig into his own uncertainty and beyond, pulling the reader with him as he scrapes at his own awe.

“Again, we were reunited, now, finally, we all allowed ourselves to cry. I still cry today when I remember how much love I saw in Justin’s face as he worked his hands bloody, building memorials to us on the edge of the river. If you are ever lucky enough to have one friend like that, then God is great and you are blessed. I stood with three of them. That day will count, for all my years, as the moment when he smiled, and life was as good as it gets.”

Risk evolves, becomes love. And he always found ways to get in trouble. Penny herself, in an introductory essay, told about Taro as a little boy. On his first day of pre-school, for instance, “he climbed out of a bathroom window and set off down the road with his brand new lunch kit. I got a concerned call from staff. He was located in a nearby park sharing his peanut butter snacks with a squirrel. I hurried over.

“‘What’s the matter, hon? Didn’t you like school? Wasn’t t fun?’

“‘They . . .’ he sniffed, trying to hide his tears, ‘they made us sit on chairs.’”

This is Taro, pushing his mom and pushing the reader into unimagined places. He shares his journey. One stop along the way was – what else? – prison, where he had to serve some time for the shocking crime of possessing marijuana. Actually, it was even worse than that. He had tried to cross from Canada into the United States with pot that he had grown, and wound up in a U.S. prison. His story of this experience is called “Hard Choice Fast.” The title refers to the immediate choice he had to make if he wanted to survive.

The danger was not simply that the prisoners were racially divided, but that “his” color, the white guys . . . well: “You are expected to flock to your colour in prison because your colour will protect you – but what if your colour wears Swastikas and admires Hitler?”

At mealtime, he chose not to sit with the white guys and wandered, with his tray of food, over to a table of older black men. Uh oh. The man next to him gave him a fierce stare and told him he was at the wrong table: “Peckerwoods over there.”

Taro writes: “I can’t believe the gamble I took.” This was the hard choice, which he had to make instantaneously. He stood up and, spontaneously yanking a quote from a rap song he remembered from ten years earlier, declared that he was not going to sit with would not be sitting those “white bread, chicken shit motherfuckers.”

Deafening silence followed. But slowly – after an eternity of seconds, amid a stirring among the prisoners – a large man of color stood up and invited Taro to his table, daring anyone to challenge him.

Taro survived his prison term.

And mixed into these life stories are the poems, aching with audacity and wisdom, aching with love:

If we could leave this Earth
in the arms of those who wished
to leave with us, this would be
a planet of the truly wealthy,
where heaven is not
where we rise to
but where we rise from.