The Art of the Infinite

The sun was opening up swathes of brightness through the clouds, pools of sunlight spreading through the fir trees and onto the grass.  The car found its way into a parking spot on the drive near the front of the museum guided by some visceral memory of the circular drive around the dark hill at the entrance of the park. She got out and walked down the sidewalk to see the full east-facing entrance to the Museum. It was just as she remembered, yellow-white smooth stone and panels of etched glass gazing blankly out past the grand opening through the trees on the other side of the road, out towards the white pyramid of the volcano, poised in the middle of this symmetry.

As she approached the glass doors, there was a fragrance, if only in the mind, of some mildly oriental incense, of some kind of calm green and blue excitement, of a woman’s perfume mixed with fir scents and the cold, clear notes of marble and granite. Or maybe it was chilled music that touched the senses as subtly as fragrance.  Hard to tell. It reminded her of the moment, years ago, in the Modern Art Museum at the Smithsonian, when, as she walked down the swoop of the white marble staircase with a sense of the elegant expanse of air, of an openness all around yet defined, she caught sight of a friend she hadn’t seen for months, there with her mother, standing as if they had just entered the museum. Then she had been swept by a sense of the poetry inherent in moments of such confluence of beauty, memory and emotion. As she was now.

It was a day set apart. A moment seized, unanticipated. Going through the doors, there was a brief moment of disorientation, of change. Memory slipped out of place. A young woman stood guard at the opening to an atrium. Just beyond her, statues of Hindu gods were balanced on the walls and chairs and tables were set around as if for an outdoor café. Different somehow. The woman at the opening smiled and, with a gesture of her arm, directed her to the ticket desk hidden at the side.  The man at the desk, sober and dark, worked with his computer and then handed her the ticket. No limits of time. No demands.

She wandered into the atrium, taking surreptitious photos of a mother, young and graceful in the midst of her shed belongings, seated on a café chair, discreetly nursing her baby. She, of course, could feel the momentary direction of energy towards her back and turned slightly to catch the photographer snapping shots of the Shiva statue perched on the wall.  The graceful young woman settled back to her baby and the photographer moved on to the gallery through the door.

When she was young, she had met some interesting people, one in a town in Vermont. He was someone who frequented the food co-op, wearing the clothes of a farmer, but not one. His long blond hair fell in ringlets and combined with his beard, curling under his chin. That, along with the slight rosiness of his cheeks and the blue of his eyes, gave the ironic impression of a Fragonard angel. One day as he was shambling down the street in the small town, she decided to say hello. They had a friend in common that gave her a bridge into conversation. They saw each other several times over the next weeks, and then, when the winter holidays were approaching and they were both going back to family, she asked him for a ride in his camper truck to New York City. She could easily catch a train from there to her hometown in New Jersey. The memory of this journey connected with the objects of the museum in one of those internal sworls of mind.

They headed down the road in the evening a few days before Christmas with his German Shephard, Blue, in the back of the camper truck. The cab of the truck was cozy and they talked for hours as you do at the beginning of friendship. When he discovered they were nearly out of gas, it was already late into the night, somewhere in upstate New York. He said he had an uncle who lived in the town coming up and he knew where he kept a can of gas in his garage. We pulled up to a dark house where he found a key to the garage under a pot. In the dark, he found a gas can which he emptied into the truck and they were on their way again. It was only the next day he discovered he’d used his uncle’s kerosene instead of the gas. It was part, somehow, of the whole of it all.  Somewhere along the ride, they’d asked each other about their families. He’d told her that his was not particularly close. His father was a doctor who was busy a lot and his mother a psychiatrist who was fairly distant. He gave the impression they were a rather ordinary family living in an apartment somewhere on the east side, not far from the river. He said they would be fine with putting her up for the night.

She slept for a while. Sometime after midnight, she woke up as they pulled up in the large drive in front of an enormous building where a doorman in livery was awake all night, watching the door. As her friend opened the truck door and stepped out, the doorman came out of the building through the glass doors of the entrance, smiling, greeted her friend by name and hugged him. As she began groggily collecting her things, her friend took Blue of the back of the truck. As the dog started to look around for a place to pee, lifting his leg after the long ride, her friend rummaged in the back for the leash. Realizing it wasn’t there, he pulled the belt from his loose, dirty jeans and improvised a tether around his collar. Ragtag as they were, the doorman joyously ushered them all in through the enormous sliding glass doors, into the waiting elevator. When she asked her friend “Which floor,” he said, “It’s at the top. This is where Johnny Carson lives, too, and Truman Capote, parts of the year.”  As he pushed the button, she felt the sweat of a long day, and the damp crumple of her cotton shirt tucked into jeans that hadn’t been washed for several uses and felt some stirring of self-consciousness that combined itself, as they began their ascent, with the sinking of her stomach and the sleepiness in her head.

After a long climb, the elevator doors opened and her friend knocked on the door that faced them. After a few minutes, it was opened by an elegant woman with blue eyes and stylishly timed blond hair. She wrapped an arm around her son’s shoulders and ushered them in, as if greeting guests at two in the morning were a common event. Here is where the stories begin to converge.

They walked together through the entrance hall towards a partially opened door where the lights of a kitchen could be seen. She turned down another short hall and opened the door to her son’s room, which was immaculate and clearly expensively designed. As he put down his things on the bed, his mother said, “Your friend will sleep in the Ming room. It’s all set up. Show her where it is. I’m going to bed. Welcome! See you both in the morning.”

Her friend kissed his mother good night as she smiled and turned to go down the hallway. He gestured for her to follow behind his mother who quickly vanished through a hidden passage.  She continued ahead of him and found herself in a huge room surrounded by windows that seemed at least fifteen feet high, revealing the black night sky and a full landscape of skyscrapers’ lights. As she turned to take it in, there through the windows on one end of the room was the familiar outline of the United Nations Building, standing guard next to a dark river, a dominating presence through the glass. Large forms in cases loomed here and there in the dim expanse of the room. She turned and whispered, “What are those big things?” “Ancient Chinese bronzes,” he replied, “Bells and urns.”  Quite awake now, she said, “What is this? Where are we?”  “In my parents’ apartment,” he said. “My father is a collector. Come this way. I’ll show you to your room.”

She turned to face the stairway as he pointed behind them. In front of the staircase sat an astonishing figure, which she first took to be alive, one arm extended gracefully over a lifted bent knee, one leg curled under him as he looked out at them serenely. It was a man with long hair, lithe, clothed only in what were now just bare outlines of a loincloth, life-sized, carved of some light colored wood, riddled with wormholes, ancient yet intact. His presence was penetrating and palpable. She recognized him immediately somehow and was understood. Now calmly alert, attentive, she climbed the stairs behind her friend. They found the door to the bedroom, opened it and switched on a soft light to reveal a four-postered bed of dark wood with a flat canopy, simple and elegant. “That’s it,” he said, “The Ming bed. It’s actually more comfortable than it looks. I think you’ll like it.” He said goodnight and closed the door.

The next morning there was a tour of the bronzes, and an introduction to his balding, spectacled, Jewish father who strangely seemed delighted to meet her, this guest slipped in during the night. The father invited them into his study where there was coffee in porcelain cups and beautiful Persian miniatures, populated with elegant figures and lovers, and he showed her marvellous lithographs and etchings of artwork done for famous books. Marvel after marvel. Large Picasso painting of people feasting, eating lobster, in the dining room.

Months later, his son sat with her in his family’s estate on Long Island while he unpacked suitcases full of ancient Chinese artefacts that had just been delivered for his father, unwrapping each to handle and inspect it. This was when she saw the small jade bowl.  This was when she held in her hands a bowl made of light green jade, perhaps of the Tang Dynasty, precious beyond wealth, exquisite. It was so delicate it seemed to weigh as much as a bird’s feather, yet was big enough to be held in both hands. It was perfectly smooth over its entire surface, with no indication of any carving or etching. Yet the design of a lotus (or perhaps a chrysanthemum) was clearly apparent in the bowl’s bottom. When held ever so carefully up to the light from the window, the flower design floated somehow within the jade, etched in some uncanny way within, etheric, impossible.  Its beauty was a being, the soul of the stone itself, the cool slight pressure in the cup of her hands like a life. Of all the miraculous objects, this and the ancient wooden sage were the ones that stayed with her for the forty-five years that stretched between those objects and the ones of the Asian Art Museum.

These images walked with her as she entered an airy gallery lined with windows. Each tall window framed scenes of trees and sky in the park beyond. Three large glass cases each contained an enormous jade disc, ceremonial plates of different designs, each of slightly different tones of green, deep as oceans or light as heavens. Each floated between worlds. She stood in front of one and then another for long, long moments, mind as empty and infinite as the round surface of the plate, lost in the colors captured within endless layers of glaze—lost in the perfection of the curves and the roundness.  It is true there is no linear time. Here, as we’re perched on the swing of one year into the next, the transition point of one season at its depth into another, there is no way but to go beyond.

This Morning I Was Looking At Clouds

This morning, lying in bed, I found myself looking for a long moment into the pattern of clouds out beyond the silhouette of the now mostly bare maple in the front yard. The last few golden yellow leaves were hanging with delicate attachment to the darkened lower branches. They  drew me in—layers stroked with smoky gray, luminous white, lighter gray and pearl, in somehow just the right pattern, swirled with such grace, an opening revealing a patch of brilliant blue in perfect cadence.  Something shifted internally. I was gone.  Just as looking into the blue eyes of your lover, the “I” of you becomes spreads out to an infinity where edges no longer apply. The inside and the outside suddenly have no separation.

As we walk around in our lives, the forms of our bodies allow our consciousness to seem impermeable. Ever since I can remember being alive, I have worried this experience, chewing on it to get at its juice. How is it that the inside I explore every moment, awake and asleep, is not accessible to those around me? That I see a face lit up in a passing car as if in a circle of light and breathe in the particular savor of that soul, yet it is unknowable whether any other person, inside the coat she wears buttoned up all around her, will, walking this same road at some other time feel the same sensations as a car passes by. How is it that I can watch someone’s movements, hear their words, experience some emanation, some music, some color–maybe some jolt–and yet not experience the inside of them the way I experience what is whorling in my own mind?

Looking directly into the sky this morning was like looking into the eyes of my friend Shamcher in those brief moments so long ago when we stopped in passing in the hallway. We had been known each other for only a few short weeks or even days, I can’t remember, playing together in our respective roles in the world like children, he eighty years, me, twenty-four. We had taken the subway from the apartment in Maryland to the office buildings of the Senate where, together, we opened doors into closed meetings and talked to Senators about Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion and skipped to a cafe, arm in arm.  Then we had traveled to this spot in Ontario together, stopping in Niagra Falls where he had grumpily refused to leave the car while my husband and I viewed the overwhelming waters, standing in the mist.

In that moment in the hallway, we had both just come from a meditation in the large room of the building where we were attending a Sufi gathering with old and new friends. We both both seemed to feel just a little out of place here-I because I was young and a stranger to many, and he because he was old and wise. He took my hands and looked, just looked, across into my eyes. For a briefest instant, there was a flash of embarrassment between us, a swift, small bird flying across our vision. Then all awareness of emotion was gone, completely, as if it had never been. All that was left was the opening through the blue of his eyes which soon vanished, into a vastness I had never before known, somehow composed only of a light that was not light, with resonance and depth, in which all that could be created was present, without end.

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Then the scene shifts in my memory to another day at the camp, perhaps the next. A few of the adults who volunteered to be with the children were taking a group to swim in a nearby lake. One of the little girls, a five-year-old who typically clung to her mother, had taken to me. Since she was playing with me happily, I had offered to go with her to the water to give her mother a much-needed break. The mother was delighted and I was lifted up by my ability to help a friend I respected. Transported by my excitement and the animal desire to feel my muscles move in the cool water on that bright summer day, I asked how long it would be before they left. Impulsively, asking one of the other adults to watch her, I left the little girl with the group and ran to my tent to get my bathing suit. When I was out of sight, the girl began to cry. The spell was broken. Her mother heard, and going to console her, was drawn into taking her instead.

As I returned, breathing hard from my run, one of the volunteers offhandedly told me I no longer needed to come. Telling the mother I could now take over did no good. She was determined to go. My friend and teacher stood nearby, talking to a couple who were laughing and joking with him intimately. Overhearing, evidently having somehow paid attention to the whole situation, he interrupted his conversation and called to me in a clear voice,

“You made a choice. Now you have to live with it.”

As I stood as if rooted, tears of shame smarted my eyes, the infinite brought up short by my own moments of selfishness. It was true. Small decisions made without real awareness have a way of banging you right upside the head. Balance would take many, many more years. It’s still in progress, every moment of living in this body that carries me around. It’s a darn good thing I get to be an old woman at least for awhile. It’s just the beginning of waking up to who I really am. That one is the vastness itself. It has no limitation except that which we hold in front of it.

The Ocean at La Push

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Standing in the cold ocean water up to my calves, the sound of the waves and the wind having soaked in through my ears and my pours, I looked out towards the horizon, feeling the ebbing wave pulling the sand from under my feet, making holes under my heels, shifting my weight slightly backwards. The moving sand tickled playfully. I remembered this feeling from my childhood, standing in the waves at Cape Cod.

I waited to feel the next wave washing in to see if it replaced the sand under my heels. I listened to the immense whoosh of the wave still moving away from me, infinite in its scope but curved into some finite form by the geography of the shore.  The incoming and outgoing ocean itself had created that geography over some seemingly infinite time. As I waited for the last faint diminution of that rushing sound, the gradual crescendo of the next flowing wave began at just the point of its dying, like the motion of a swing coming back after the child’s feet had curled underneath her as far as they could.

After several moments absorbed in the sensations of the waves washing in and out, my concentration disrupted, I moved my feet, walking along with the edges of the jagged waves, some coming in further, some staying closer to the depths where the land drops away. As I turned towards the dunes and the piles of logs pushed by storms to the top of the beach, Walter called to me, over the roaring of the ocean, “What were you thinking about just then, when you were looking out toward the horizon?”

I stopped and gathered my thoughts, which were already straying, then said “I was thinking how the ebbing wave sucks the sand out from under my heals. It makes two holes. I was waiting to see whether the incoming wave filled them back up. It doesn’t. The next ebb wave just takes away more. I have to move around a bit so I don’t fall over.”

My curiosity reawakened, I turned and looked out again at the waves coming in, the sound of the roiling froth, the sensation of movement in the meeting of going in and going out. I began to breathe with the sounds of the waves, breathing in with the whole length of the incoming rush and breathing out with the until the sound had receded completely, breathing in again with the whoosh of sound coming towards me. By just the smallest margin, it was a longer breath than I could take.  The ocean was breathing for the planet. It was my lungs that had lost their full capacity. If I sat with the waves and adjusted my breathing, I was sure, over time, they would regain their rightful strength and I would breathe completely again. It would take a lot of practice.

From the beginning, it is the ocean that breathes. Everything breathes with it. The tide comes in gradually, waves shifting randomly, and everything rises with it.  At the moment of the shift in the pull of sun and moon, the tide pivots, at the end of that in-breath, and shifts. Imperceptibly, each incoming wave becomes part of the breath going out, leaving behind it more and more of the shore where life bubbles up from its time underwater into its time with the air, the huge breathing of the tides containing within it the rhythm of the waves.  Strange to know this after so many years with the ocean. It somehow shifts everything.

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The Opposite of Happiness

There is a central craving built in to the array of our emotions. Its opposite is loneliness.  My thesaurus lists the antonym of “loneliness” as “happiness”.  It makes the case for me.  In a true lexicon, dry and linguistic, the opposite of loneliness would be a word such as “affection”, “love”, “closeness.”  But there is really no one word to capture this absence of loneliness, this magnetic pull at the core of our humaness. Our sense of feeling close to others, understood by others, respected by others, worthy of sharing with others is so central to our sense of well-being that its lack is defined purely as the absence of happiness.

Yet, here we are, constructing loneliness, literally.  We see its result reflected in all the choices we are making. It is almost as if we have accepted that the natural result of affluence, gained now at such cost in a world where resources are dwindling, is isolation, which we must then protect at all costs.  I see the presence of this conviction as I take my walks through what was, until fifteen years ago or so, part of rural America. The result of affluence here has been that those who have it, and work long, long hours for it, want big houses, filled with comfort and luxury, surrounded by space which keeps them separate. In that space food used to grow. People worked together to produce it, even though the advent of cheap petroleum as the central slave allowed for less human cooperation.   Now it is a safety zone, an isolation bumper.

The children in these houses are extremely lucky if they have siblings to play with.  Each set of parents initially erects, at large expense, a playhouse with swings, slide, and other doo-dads. Sometimes it seems a kind of lure in hope that other children will come over for “play dates” and their children will not be lonely. This rarely happens. As the children grow older, a trampoline goes up, more recently, by parents conscious of dangers all around, surrounded by a wall of mesh to keep them safe from the combined effects of gravity and exuberance.  If there are siblings, it gets used a few times as they try to outdo each other. If it’s an only child, desultory efforts are made at mastery and then it becomes new again only on the rare occasions when a friend comes to visit.

Then an “above-ground” pool appears in summer, glorious in its newness, a representation of the deep desire to be outside in water, in nature, and for children to find joy together.  A party may be held to celebrate, with several children joining together on some sunny day for a couple of hours at a time.  Screams and squeals of play can be heard. The splashing and roiling of the water is imagined from afar. Happiness. Children together.  Afterwards, on really hot days during the quiet times, it’s possible the parents get in and float for a while on a rubber raft (with cup holder) after work or on weekends after riding the mower. Hard to tell.  That activity would be quiet. It wouldn’t have much of a chance to penetrate the boundaries of isolation.

At houses with a bunch of young siblings, occasional laughter and fighting can be heard in the summer afternoons. Much less frequently, friends come together in a band at someone’s house. Sometimes they play a game the parents have bought for the occasion–Slip and Slide or some game “guaranteed” to get the kids outside and active.  Once or twice in twelve years I’ve seen a few kids use a trampoline together.  The only hold-out from this pattern observed over the years on long walks, runs and bike rides is a small farm with six home-schooled kids. When the kids were little, I saw real tricycles and wagons with kids pulling each other. Once I witnessed a picnic in the grass with everyone together, talking and laughing. Now they seem to be busy studying most of the time.

We tried initially to get to know our neighbors. Each eventually made it known in some way that they cared much more for the preservation of their own rights to enjoy themselves than they did for connection. Dogs that barked all night. Dirt bikes ridden without mufflers all hours of the day despite objections.  Target practice where bullets “strayed”.  We raised beautiful organic food, plenty of it. We had a farm stand. All the neighbors passed it by on their way to the local supermarket four miles away. Once or twice they stopped by in June to ask if we had corn (August or September) or in the heat of the summer to see if we had snap peas (early June).  Some people came from further away but most of the beautiful vegetables in the coolers went into the compost or to the local food bank at the end of the day.

A couple of years ago, a couple moved in to the lavender farm up the road. Soon his sister and a friend joined them from Massachusetts where her husband had recently died.  We struck up a friendship based on shared interests. We remembered that habits of connectedness in other parts of the vast territory that makes up America are different from what we have gotten used to here. People drop by. They actually come to dinner when they say they will. They believe in reciprocity.  We have made those connections richer over time. There are other friends who understand the natural laws of connection, but they are the few, the exceptional.

When we were hunter-gatherers, we lived in bands. We worked together most of the day, some of the time with our own gender but much of the time with the whole group. We fought occasionally with other groups for resources or because we became angry, one family, one band, with another for some breach of conduct, some insult.   With the advent of agriculture, many things changed, the most salient being the centralization of power, but we still worked together. Wars got bigger and bloodier. Slavery increased dramatically.  With the industrial era, people congregated increasingly in cities where it became easier to exploit them in mass. The long dreariness of work days where people could not talk together created more and more isolation of individual from individual, individual from family, family from community.

As we have learned how to consolidate wealth, we admire those who have it and acknowledge their need to isolate from the rest of the community as only necessary protection. We understand that people will want to grab some of those resources if they can. Those resources give you power and justification in the world.  Through this understanding we have absorbed the sense that the more money we are able to pull into our sphere, the more we need to distance ourselves from others to protect what is ours. Thus, the more we have, the more isolated we become, exempting only those who have enough resource themselves to allow for admiration but not a dangerous level of envy.  Those made too desperate by the weight of the system become outsiders, wafted by the winds of exclusion.

Even now, when so many people are so stressed by the insecurity of life in society, drained by the work they must put in day after day just to keep from moving backwards, we hold on to the habits of protection, just as we hold on to the hope that just around the corner the economy will shift, we will have money in our fists and a job for life. In our exhaustion and distress, we have forgotten how to rely on each other. We are sold instead the “serenity” of home ownership where nothing permeates from the outside world.  We are afraid to trust to connection, especially when we know most of those around us are secretly as desperate as we are. In our isolation, we have become malleable to the forces of fear.

In the cities of the US, the children of relative affluence come together to play in playgrounds, safely guarded by parents. In contrast, it is in the neighborhoods where there are no playgrounds and parents have little time and energy to watch over their children that they play together in the streets. Their lives are full of conflict and stress, danger and fear. They are increasingly isolated in these imposed communities by the fear and protectionism of those of us holding on more and more tightly to what we have. They have much to struggle through to survive, just as most humans have over the millennia.  Some are lonely, others are not. But, of necessity, they know each other’s struggles, each other’s families, each other’s weaknesses, each other’s strengths.   Are we safer with this connection or without it?

 

The Row of Trees

 

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There is a place along the route of my morning walks where the trees, planted in a row, cast a striped pattern on the road.

I had walked along that stretch of road at many times of day, in seasons of grey and of brilliance, of wet and of dryness, before, one particularly early morning in spring, I truly experienced them.

Drawn to the beauty of the shade, I walked along the side of the road where the shadows spread their darkness onto the pavement. As I walked, a deep sensation of awe, of beauty seeped into my gut. I inhaled it deeply, drawing in a great sense of joy, astonished by its power. I walked along its whole length, listening, breathing, feeling the expanse and spaciousness of the sensation. I turned around, walked back down the road and walked it again, remembering something, someplace where I had felt this before.

Then it came, clearly taking its form in my memory. The cathedral, the Duomo, in Sienna. The striped columns of dark and light marble like the rows of poplar trees in the surrounding countryside.  There, walking between the two rows of columns, each repeating that pattern, stretching high above my head into the sky of the dome above, I had felt the same sensation of incredible internal depth, spaciousness, beauty, indescribable yet palpable.

It was a cathedral built in the 13th century. It echoes the striped marble arches of the of  the Dome of the Rock, built on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem five centuries earlier and those of the Great Mosque of Cordoba built slightly later in that century.  There are other more northern cathedrals such as the one built a century or two before the Duomo in Durham, England, which incorporate some variation of this pattern. What brought the architects of these great halls to this alternation of light and dark? What gives it such an effect?

When there is sun in the morning, I try to get out early enough to catch the right slant of the sun , the brief angle in its climb that creates the longest shadows along the row of trees on the east side of the road.  This morning I caught it just right. The shadows were long and distinct, the light bright between them. I savored the experience fully as I walked in the fragrant spring air.

Wondering again, I examined, in the Proustian mode, every nuance,  holding up its facets in the light of consciousness. What else was there? What memory? With a kind of internal start, I recognized the other place I have experienced such a great stirring. It is in the forest, particularly in the forest of early spring when the contrasts between light and shadow are most pronounced.

Is there some primordial sense triggered by this experience of patterns of alternating light and shadow? Did our ancestors who created the paintings in the caves of France and Spain some thirty-two thousand years ago transmit the same sense of inexplicable awe they experienced in the forest to their paintings on the deep interior walls, drawn in the alternating patterns of light and dark made by their flickering torches? Was this art continued through the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome, repeating in their own mediums the experience of boreal awe?

It is embedded somewhere deep within our cells, in the primitive mitochondria perhaps, and echoes throughout the halls of our consciousness, like music. It calls to us less frequently now, since most have lost the faculty to hear it.

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Taking Tea

Then there was this dream I had the other night.

During their reigns, Khrushchev and Brezhnev had teas made of special herbs related in rather occult ways to their respective names.  On visiting their rulers, people were made to drink this tea, which was, in both cases, foul.  Sometimes still, Putin brings them out and serves tea to those who cannot refuse to drink it. He watches them gleefully as he leaves his untouched.

“Delicious, no?” he enquires with a handsome smile.

Getting Back

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It’s tough, but we learn, bit by bit. It doesn’t go forward in a linear way. We keep going back over the same lines as if carefully etching a drawing onto the paper of our mind.

At least it’s that way for me. If this holds,the length of the life stretching behind us has real effect. Pain is a particularly good etching tool. Joy too, its etching more colored and nuanced,  working not so much as a guide in our movements through life as the provider of its texture, its warmth, its tone, hue and fragrance and the ground of all wisdom.

There are times when the richness and beauty of life flow along for some period of time, never, of course, without difficulties, but without real obstruction. Pains are more easily tolerated. Joys permeate further.

As humans, we know these days are not without their number. They’ll flow into other times when nothing feels right and obstructions appear in every direction.  They’ll flow into times when pain permeates everything, the oblivion of sleep eludes you and all you know seems washed away.  One wave dies and another rises, all the same salty, vast water pulled by different moons, stirred by different winds.

As we wait to move to France, there are moments stretching lazily together when the elements of time, wind and gravity seem to be pulling us smoothly forward. We get up each day with the confidence we’re on course and the current is with us.  We sleep soundly and sweetly and wake refreshed. Then there are times when a strong gale we hadn’t noticed brewing to stern suddenly is on us, grey and deeply unsettling, buffeting down to the keel and threatening to throw us off course entirely if we don’t use all we know to keep the whole venture from being smashed to pieces. Small troubles gather together and swarm around so thickly that we can barely think straight for all the noise.

We seem to be coming through one of those swirling times. The weather isn’t really settling so much as somehow we’ve gotten a firmer hold on the tiller.  I could be wrong, but I think we’ll make it through.  The farm will sell eventually. We’ll figure out all the details of what to take and what to leave. We’ll figure out the health insurance, the visas, the banking, the tickets, the place to stay while we house hunt in France–all that. We might have to swim to shore the last mile, but we’ll make it.  Meanwhile, back to writing.

 

The Work

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A move of five thousand miles is both big and small. When it is not being done, it seems small. It is a place in your mind. You can see one thing, imagine another and then the expansion stops. The imagination circumscribes itself with the limits of your own sight–the limits of your senses both physical and essential. It is, in fact, enormous in its scope.

I had been taking it one small chunk at a time. I allowed myself only one variable at a time, trying to push aside all the other possibilities of the failure of ventures, large swings of fate. The way seemed clear. Getting rid of all the clothes that were not absolutely essential. Trying to sell and then giving away hundreds of books, winnowing, winnowing down through the levels of friendship until there were five or six boxes–still too many.  Unpacking all the boxes, full of mildew, where I’d stored the leavings of my children’s childhood, reading, discarding, treasuring, crying with joy or grief at its passing, saving what I could not part with for the moment, sending some to my children,  going back to some after weeks and finally throwing them quickly in the trash. Giving away so many little treasures, things I’ve held on to through moves and phases of life.

Getting estimates for shipping things to France, it becomes clear that unless the emotional connections to things, to their history, have true value, something beyond the mere presence of stuff, unless they add to some crucial continuity of social life, then they will need to be left behind, gone or perhaps delayed in storage. Even photos. Even childhood treasures. What is really needed to maintain the connection with the past of family and the history of love?  All those who have left behind everything to save themselves and their families—amidst all the grief of loss, alongside the anguish, can there somewhere be a deep sense of relief, a deep settling-in to what is?

I will continue to lose sleep until I understand this calculation deeply.  It never ceases to amaze me where the true work of life lies, day after day, moment after moment.  This evening, a pair of young eagles have alighted in the cottonwood tree at the top of the hill overlooking our back field, perching for hours in their strong, solid way and looking out over the surrounding sky and landscape. Maybe they are examining a new territory, experiencing with their expansive perception where to make their new home. They have brought nothing with them except the dust that gathers on their feathers after flight.

 

The Swans are Gone

February 10th

The Trumpeter Swans are gone from the fields. In the sunset sky, the sky is empty of the flashes of light they make as they fly across the greying clouds towards their nighttime roost at the lake. They must be on their way back to Alaska, earlier this year than we’ve ever seen.

In response, there is a sense of absence, of loss in the atmosphere.  Now we’ll have to wait for the return of the song birds to hear such penetrating song, and for the blooming of the daffodils to replace the flashes of light.

The variety of songs in the March air diminishes each year. The daffodils bloom earlier, even in the dark, rainy days of a spring that never really seems to come until we recognize the season has turned to summer and the days are hot and the sun rises at 4:30 am. But there is a young Red-tailed Hawk and a pair of Peregrines who now have claimed the territory around the farm.  Working in the garden, the idiosyncrasies of their acrobatic flight will become intimately familiar, transmitting some sense of the joy of riding the movements of the air.

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A Dream and a Walk

After the holidays this year I was sick for several weeks with some sort of respiratory gunk. Since I rarely get sick (or maybe in spite of that), I felt useless. My ability to sustain a thought was so dull that I found it almost impossible to write or to connect emotion to cognition. Somewhere deep there was an inchoate grief lurking.

One morning I dreamt I was an amateur clown with an act at some sort of summer fair. It was the first time I had performed an entire solo routine.  I was excited and nervous. Dressed in a sketchy mime-like outfit, I sang a song without sound, did a dance to the wind and tried to communicate all this to the small, scattered audience. They went along with me and were vaguely amused, but it was only a beginning. Encouraged that I’d at least been able to organize the effort and put myself forward, I was packing up the site when a man who was evidently a professional clown walked up.  He said he was next on the billing and began to set up with the help of an assistant. The beginning of grey around his temples marked him as a man at least beginning middle age, but there was the energy and look of vigorous youth about him. I liked him immediately, but was somehow wary. He was foreign with slightly olive skin and dark hair, perhaps from Montenegro, dapper and polished. As I continued to pack, he asked

“Are you from some kind of religious group?”

“No” I replied.

“Just an aspiring learner then?”

“Yes” was my response.

Finishing my packing in his presence, my self-consciousness began to return.The gap between what he knew and my own experience was so wide.  How could I even hope to achieve the artistry he possessed, especially so late in my life. He was a “mountebank” I knew, but I still might learn something interesting by staying to watch. I woke up as a decision was still settling in my mind. Continue down this path, or choose another? Does it matter which, as long as you are willing to risk everything?

With the dream still clear in my mind, I got out of bed and found that space was finally beginning to clear inside my mind. Still swimming, as some large fish navigating through murky waters with occasional brilliant flashes of sun, I struggled through the day until I felt an overwhelming need to move, to see something new but familiar.  A walk somewhere near and untraveled would help. There’s a trail nearby that leads to a small beach on the Georgia Strait—a place to listen to the woods and the ocean and see what they have to say about the whole matter.

At this edge of the continent, the water was a blue that was colder than the warm turquoise of the Mediterranean, but so wide and deep that it encompassed everything. The ducks floated here and there, one suddenly disappearing, another suddenly appearing on the surface. Each disappearance was a revelation of the world under the water, waving ell grass and weaving herring—a world extending infinitely downward and outward, joining the sky that extended infinitely upward and out and out. Each duck had its own idiosyncratic way of digging in under the surface. One had a little jump upward and then head a bit flat to the water as it dove. Another a graceful turn down of its bill and a gentle glide down, propelled imperceptibly by an underwater stroke of its wings.  Their combined movements, patterns ever-changing, were a counter rhythm to the music of the ocean. I breathed in the light and the heat of the sun through my nostrils and into the center of my chest where it radiated outward into the ocean and sky. Then I imagined breathing in and out through my ears, drawing in the sound of the moving water, the small waves and the larger crests, breathing out the quiet sound of the water sucking the round rocks. The imagining became actual, my breath making channels through the stuffiness in my head, clearing space.

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I stayed, rapt, for much longer than I had anticipated, remembering from time to time that there was nothing more pressing to be done. I stayed until the sun sank almost to the horizon, watching the light change the water to shades of indigo and purple and the wave-tossed logs on the beach a deep golden. On my way back to the trail, I passed a grandmother, her daughter and her grand-baby enjoying the dying light, taking photos of each other against the sinking sun, the baby’s face pale and perfectly open in the aura of his warm bear suit, eyes open wide to everything existing within their scope.