When you can’t go far, you go deep. – BR. DAVID STEINDL-RAST

Oh, Di, you wrote: “…you don’t presume to know me. A gift beyond rubies!”

Isn’t that true?

Writing today, when across the ocean from me there are events taking place that I don’t know how to think about – much less talk about. I don’t have a perspective from which to add anything meaningful to what needs to be said – I don’t even know what needs to be said – or done – or witnessed. From the one view, I was and still am entangled in the privilege that has blinded me to other people’s realities. I was a complicit participant in the culture – but haven’t been for 27 years now.

To be clear: I haven’t been a participant of the culture – it does not, however, mean that I am no longer complicit in the problems of that culture. I know that.

So, as I write this, I hope you will keep in mind that I am fully conscious of the narrowness – the “whiteness”  – of what I am going to write about. I’m in no way trying to be reductive about the pain in the United States. Or anywhere else. I’m not claiming to have any perspective on a bigger picture.  I think that our stories are woven into something so large we can’t conceive of the whole.

I’m often at a loss of how to handle the truth of individual insignificance, and still be reverent of the individual.

And that was a weird little disclaimer to give myself permission to brood today, wasn’t it?

I was struck by your words: “you don’t presume to know me. A gift beyond rubies.” I have been thinking about the fact that maybe this is the greatest gift we can give anyone. Strangers, yes: to learn to live comfortably with  (or simply live with the discomfort) of the mystery of “the other”. To let it be. That is quite literally poetry, isn’t it? At least according to Keats. The negative capability necessary in human relationships is the opposite of prejudice.

And I suppose requires us to catch ourselves as we form our thoughts, as we interpret what we hear and see. It makes me laugh to think that my goal should not be to become a “good judge of character”. But rather, to allow myself – not to be child-like at all – but to suspend judgement: to stop, hold, wait. No wonder so many religious paths have a practice of abstaining from one thing or another. I guess, for me, the question is where the strength/faith to withhold judgement will come from.

I think about how it is actually easier to practice this kind of negative capability with strangers than it is with the people we love. We want to pin them down. Even when that means pinning them down as “good”. We feel safer “knowing” them. Secure in knowing who they are – and we are silly enough to think of their unexpected behavior as betrayals.

Isn’t it ridiculous actually that we have this tendency to be surprised by other people? We either say they have changed, or fault ourselves for misjudging them. The former is inevitable, and the latter an absurd mental calculation, in and of itself. Maybe we are at our most judgemental with our children. Boxing them in probably gives us a sense of control over the way their story will play out. Even when the story we write for them is dark, we can at least feel prepared.

I don’t know – am I the only person who goes through life trying to set up narrative safeguards?

I have always thought your returning to New Zealand was courageous. I get this image of room behind a closed door. The door has a long slit of a window. Probably an image of a scene in a move – an asylum cell. The window is so narrow that the people viewing it from the hallway never see the whole person in the room. They see just a strip of hair, shoulder, hip, shoe. And they make their notes for the day.

Did I tell you that once I got ahold of my psychiatrist’s notes and he from an hour session he had written: “Hasn’t brushed her hair today. Had a fight with her boyfriend.”

It would make for a good story if I said that he upped my meds that day, wouldn’t it?

Are the people who thought they knew you “back when”, allowing themselves to meet the person you are? You having come home the same stranger to them, but now trailing long, beautiful stories that smell of simit and tea, basel and salt water – and of things for which I have no names or associations.

I wish I could draw. I would sketch you. Just sketch, though.

My aesthetic preference has always been biased toward the quality of the lines, not the photorealism. Not even the symbolism.

Gestures.

I cannot go home. But before my grandmother died I remember the moments she would occasionally say something over the phone – something simple – she would tell me that she did not really know me. Which made me feel more seen than I had ever felt.

Are you experiencing that? Maybe that is too intimate a question.

Your talks with Jimmy do sound like holy moments unto themselves. I wonder – this awe we have when we are confronted with the familiar/mysterious expanse of sky or the songs that come from the total darkness and the thrill of knowing/not knowing their source. Am I right in thinking you are one of the people who finds this same awe when you sit with other people and open yourself for their stories?

I suppose there is a value in knowing the “right” perspective when taking a portrait. But there is so much more beauty in the candid shots that reveal as much of the photographer’s openness as they do the subject’s.

I am so happy not to know you, Di!

Dear R.

I’ve been doing fine with these physically-distanced months. In part because I’ve been ridiculously busy and focused on everyone else’s needs. That’s good for me: focusing on everyone else’s needs.  Now the year is winding down. I have less to do, and to notice the pile of books on my desk that I meant to read, the list of letters I meant to write – that play still unfinished.

I scroll through the apps on my phone, and take in all the anger and the fear there.

Then I worry about everyone else again with a new kind of suspicion – I worry about what they think of me, or want from me in a way that is not good for me. I want to fix things that are not mine to fix. And then feel ashamed for having the arrogance to think I could, or should. When I scroll through social media I feel helplessly disconnected: Socially distanced.

I’m not missing being in the office, but I am missing seeing my friends face to face – more than I usually miss them. You are all so far away. And some of you (not naming names) are fully engaged in very real political battles on your home turf.

I have to remind myself I’ve never really lived in a world where I can call up someone on the weekend, settle into a deep, leather chair with a glass of wine, and have a good laugh. Do those little pockets exist for more than a moment or two, every few years? Where the company of friends really makes you forget the world’s bickering and reaffirms what you thought about people being clever/kind and genuinely wanting one another to thrive?

I watch too much television. Have picked up and moved on too often. Or maybe I’m too stiff from scarring. We all are.  No: some of us are. Some of us need a patient easing into social interaction. A deep, leather chair. Wine.

I should buy a deep, leather chair.

It is starting to dawn on me that I cannot travel this year. It wasn’t even a year ago I visited B. in Colorado. It seems like so many years ago. I was planning on to see you and M. this summer when I headed to London to be with the kid for a while. It makes me sad to think about it.

This summer we’ll go hiking. Not terribly far, but with a sincere intention of fremmedgjøring – out of the range of mobile phone coverage.

I have a strange desire to lug something heavy on my back so that I can put it down at the end of the day. I want to see something besides the yard and the same 4 kilometre stretch of trail along the lake.

Until then – until the grades have been logged and the students sent off –  I’m starting a garden. When I say “I”, I mean E. is sawing down the overgrown thuja to make room for the tiny greenhouses.  I’ll try to grow chilies and tomatoes.

Basil, mint, parsley, cilantro.

There is a space he is clearing along the southern side of the house where I’m going to plant raspberry bushes and apple trees.

It upsets me a little to consider that the trees might not take root.

I have a desire to do something that matters. Like growing things. I have a fear that even on this tiny scale, I won’t be able to do it right.

So I am procrastinating and blaming the weather. I’m blaming the weather for the melancholy, too.

For some reason I keep thinking about the Italians – months ago now – who spontaneously sang together from their balconies. Not for each other, but with each other.

Is there a really good word for this feeling it brings up in me? I know other people felt it. Because they tried so hard to repeat it.

This is a kind of grasping, isn’t it?

You know, way back in 2001 people were celebrating Earth Day. Everyone in the world was supposed to turn off the electricity and light a candle. A few days later someone got the idea that we all had to do it again so we could take a picture from space. I remember this because I wrote about it in a poem about 9/11. The aspect of the (meta-) performativity of our “Humanity”.

I’m not alone in struggling to just let it be. And let it come.

img_20200526_182658_7655223821023366188865.jpgDo you know what I mean when I say now that I think of Groucho Marx quote about not wanting to be part of any club that would have me?

These days I’m struggling to be human. I would much rather be Leonard Edgar. He doesn’t care what anyone expects of him.

He doesn’t have a facebook account.

I’ve been missing you. Hoping you are ready for a good summer. Wondering how you are really…

-ren

 

 

 

 

 

Finally having returned to morning practice, I’ve moved back into my body – with the nudging aches and unexpected pains. With the roundness and the wrinkles. I’m making the required effort of moving with ease now.

I’ve settled into my fears and found them – tolerable. I mean: what’s the alternative? The world keeps turning, as they say.

The cows have moved into the nearest pasture now. I wonder if I will ever pay enough attention to recognize them. The calves are easy to spot, but I have no idea how many of last year’s cows have returned. How many are missing.

img_20200526_075912_1208553628812076858352.jpgI’ve noticed that the squirrels no longer seem to care much when we run by. They often run just to the base of the nearest tree, and wait there for us to pass.

Maybe they’ve just gotten lazy, but I would like to think that after 5 years of daily runs they know us.

I know that’s just a Snow White fantasy:

When people are difficult, I still imagine the animals sensing my fundamental goodness and accepting me. I imagine the deer will come out of the groves to nuzzle my hands. The hedgehogs would putt putt and butt my feet playfully. I’ll befriend the crows, and they’ll bring me gifts.

When I lived at the edge of a farm in Kentucky our dogs brought us a whole leg of a cow and left it on the porch. I have no idea how that was sorted out – or by whom.

Once they brought us a mole, with a button nose, looking decidedly unreal. Have you ever seen a mole? It was dead, but perfect.

In the spring the dogs would walk around the yard with screaming mice babies in their mouths. They’d eat them…eventually. I was fine with the fact that they weren’t interested in sharing. No doubt that Snow White is a vegetarian, so there was no reason for me to take that personally.

Sometimes on spring nights the cat would jump up and scramble down from my bed over and over, and I’d lie there until she stopped. Then I’d get up to fetch an empty tin can from the trash and look for the dead mouse whose heart had finally given way. She wasn’t sharing either. She was just bored: she was a cat.

Cat’s don’t recognize the fundamental goodness in anything.

On this morning’s run, dodging the slugs on trail, I saw a shiny black ball lying in the middle of the path. It looked like a sea anemone that had blown all the way inland from the beach. As I passed, I glimpsed back to see the splash of orange and red, and I realized  a cat – or a mink – had left the blackbird’s head there like a warning.

Or a gift?

Who knows. Nature is weird.

The world is round, but far from smooth. Gaia is craggy and temperamental. She is the quiet morning punctured with the screeching of crows.

And maybe fundamental goodness isn’t real at all. Or maybe the cats are right and know that we don’t have the perspective required to discern goodness…or beauty.

It is a frightening thought. And worth settling into.

 

Slipping and grabbing. I’ve slipped again. I guess it is the same no matter which new skills I’m learning: focus on getting the feet right, and I forget my arms; focus on tightening the core and I forget to breathe.

Good morning, Di. And thank you for giving me a framework that nudges me back to daily writing. I find I talk to myself best in conversation with others. Is that horrible? I think part of it is the way doing so reminds me that I’m not in possession of the one perspective.

I know it’s already late evening where you are, but I’ve just finished my morning yoga. I am breathing again: that damned noisy Ujjayi is bizarrely soothing. I am trying to find a way back to patterns and rituals: practice.

I was talking to a former student this week about how I believe that while we try so hard to grow into “better” people, we lose things along the way – without noticing.

In my case, I’ve lost so much of my joy – be it drawing or singing or dancing – because I wasn’t “good enough”. Somewhere along the way I drank the Koolaid that clouds everything but the economic value of human endeavors. I am trying to remember when I didn’t think that what I did with my time had to be justified as steps towards an objective, socioeconomic goal. I find that whenever I pick up and old “hobby” I begin with a beginner’s mind, but slowly creep toward judgment and ambition. You know: how yoga as a cultural movement is mostly teacher-training. or angled for promoting clothes or candles or jewelry? Not that I think there is anything inherently wrong with teacher-training, or fun accessories. But I think about how disappointed I felt at the Vatican the first time I went there, seeing all the tourist shops. Souvenirs. Branding. I guess we are wired this way.

We need to feed ourselves. But were we always defined by how we fed ourselves? I would have thought more of us would now recognize that we have so much more time in our days that aren’t a matter of needing to hunt or forage or box fish in a factory?

More of us, not all of us. I know that.

In the cemeteries here the “important” gravestones from the 1800s are marked with names and professions. Baker. Merchant. Shipowner.

Wife.

When we first met and I took vacation time to travel to Genoa for your photography course, my colleagues asked me why I would do that. I felt a need to justify my time and expense by relating it to my “work”.

(If you are a writer, how will this help? If you are a teacher, what’s the point of this?)

How would doing a photography course in Italy increase my value as a … what?

“Pretty extravagant, isn’t it? Don’t you think you should save for a car?”
“Must be nice.”
“You must have money to burn.”

I don’t think the people asking actually thought that – but I did. I have always felt a pressure to justify my existence within some sort of system. I doubt everyone feels this way, but I also doubt I am alone.

We worry about AI taking over. But maybe the instincts, systems and tactics we’ve developed as a species, to ensure our survival have already overtaken our fundamental purpose in a similar way? I say that as though I have an idea of what our fundamental purpose on this planet, or in this universe, is. I don’t. But surely economic growth is not it?

I was thinking, if I had an ambition to spread this view I would have to write a book and create a brand and a movement to make it legitimate. This beast has eaten so many purists, hasn’t it? The purists with their Youtube channels and fame that affords them sponsored roofs over their heads that they can still say they don’t own, while staying sheltered.

Someone is the sin-eater even in every pure movement. Feed me your paradox, and I will absolve you of your contradictions with a blue pill.

I’ve been ashamed for twenty-two years now to be a teacher. This was supposed to be stepping stone to being able to call myself something else. But it is what I have chosen to do to be able to afford the doing.

The price and the prize. Somewhere between them is the doing. I guess I found the price I couldn’t pay to call myself a writer was not the studying, but the salesmanship – networking, presentations. And what I thought as a kid would be the prize: fame, respect – wasn’t really what I was after. I thought those things would raise me above the trolls in the world. Ha!

I’m fine fighting my trolls in the dark, anonymous corners…

and sometimes I get a quiet notice that someone read my work – not just my bio with an eye toward networking.

I’m not exactly off grid – but looking for a middle way. And I’m beginning to wonder if teaching isn’t really the oldest – and most indispensable – profession anyway?

Here is how you slip a stick into a termite hole, little one: you need protein.
This is how you fold a palm leaf to make a safe bed: sleep well.
Watch me dance, hear me sing. Let’s run: this feels good.
Don’t worry about TikTok, little one: Just do it for a living*.

(*You don’t have to be so good at it that people will pay to watch you do it.)

Since taking your course, I have noticed the world more. I have an eye out for the way shapes fit together, and the way I can frame my attention. I’ve been taking daily photos (mostly taken along the same 2-kilometre stretch along the lake) for the past how-many-years-now?

My photography is pretty mundane. But my photography practice is not.

Perspective. That’s what I learned from you.

I thought I’d let you know.


I’m at the computer, drinking hot water, and listening to the rain and the undaunted blackbirds. I’d planned a weekend of gardening, but am making slow progress between the storms. I’ve stained the garden boxes and am trying to find a balance between my need for movement and E.’s need for control. If I had my way, I’d scatter the whole front yard with wildflower seeds and leave them to the bees. Dandelions in the lawn put his teeth on edge.

Compromise in everything. Always: that damned difficult middle way.

I’m planting a box of wildflowers and a box of marigolds. And apple trees.

This is the doing, too. It is part of what I do for a living. And I best get to it.

Much love to you.

And suddenly you know: It’s time to start something new and trust the magic of beginnings. – MEISTER ECKHART

I’ve not been in the library for two days. And I miss it. But I’m planning the garden, and I got my hands dirty yesterday moving pansies into a window box. It’s a very small beginning. And it’s also overwhelming.

I’ve lived here for over 4 years now, and standing in front of the fig trees at the nursery, reading the requirements, I realize I don’t know how much sun that side of the house gets. Whether the yoga room with it’s glass window ever provides direct sunlight in the summertime.

Do I water the flowers once I’ve put them in the new pots?

Age brings with it what Norwegians call taus kunnskap – silent knowledge. Well, not age exactly, but the experience of living in the world and paying attention to what moves – and how. But here: I know nothing. Have noticed nothing. How does the sun move over the sky during the day?

I’ve long wanted to be the kind of person who gardens. And now (along with everyone else it seems) I want to garden. The pandemic zeitgeist: we turn to the earth. And a lot of people try to convince themselves disease is man-made, and I suppose that attributing control – even malevolent control – to humanity is a kind of comfort in the face of all this nature. But I’ve become a realist. If there is such a thing.

From dust to dust. As Hamlet says, we fat ourselves for maggots.

The woman who lived next door was in her mid 90s, pulling carrots from the ground as I left for work in the mornings. The garden had been her husband’s. And when he died, she tended the kitchen garden, and the roses.

Now the kitchen garden, a year and a half since her death, is still visible, still distinguishable from the lawn, though no one has planted with an eye towards harvesting. I wonder how long the earth will remember, if left to itself. I expect the lawn covering her coffin has been smoothed over already. We like to put distance between ourselves and what we can no longer control. We like whole stories, and tidy endings.

At the end of the virtual Camino, moving closer toward the “end of the world”, the pilgrims are considering grace: a word that means so many things it’s more like an ambiance than a word. The mouth opens and closes like an embrace. There is a kind of taking in, in the pronunciation itself. Exhale. Receive – while you give. You can’t help it.

I should have been gardening all along. Intermingling with the world. Getting my hands dirty. This is truly the road we are traveling, and grace is everywhere if we notice it.

Grace is the world’s effortless flow. Even if accepting it requires effort: requires having the grace to let it be.

 

Moving closer to the Finisterre-


Afterthoughts on a month of focused meditations. Our guide asks us to consider what lies under our actions.

Underthoughts – it should be a word. Norwegians have the world baktanker – literally back-thoughts. I like the image of thoughts that push us through the world. But google translates the word as ulterior motives, which is the what it really means, of course. Still, I like having this literal understanding of the language as a kind of tool for thinking.

One of the delightful things about having learned a second language as an adult is how an ignorance of connotation invites me to took more closely into how language is inseparable from context. And how context so often is a matter of attributing intention on other people’s actions. So not knowing connotation gives me an almost scientific tool for my ruminations. But translating the ideas into a functioning language can be difficult.

Speaking of rumination, the cows are still in the barns. It seems odd to run along the lake in the early morning –  the sun already up – and find the fields so empty. The cattle have to eat all the harvested feed from last autumn before they’re let out to graze. These days away from routine – sporadic runs at odd times – have pulled me out of the flow of the seasons. The route is a shocking green.

Today we didn’t get to the lake until the crows had left. I’ve never considered their cawing ominous, but I have to admit the songbirds provide a might lighter soundtrack for the morning.

I decided to join this virtual Camino for two reasons. I’ve wanted to walk the Camino de Santiago for years now. In part to say I’ve done it: like running a marathon, or climbing a mountain. And in part for the contemplation it affords – demands. I don’t have photos or calluses or bragging rights here at the end. No stamped passport. But I put in the spiritual work.

When I began I had considered myself as being in a liminal state. But what I’ve come to realize is that there is no other state of being. There is no good reason to think of life as a series of stasis points with periods of growth – or with periods of decay – between them.

“The only constant in life is change”-Heraclitus.

I see it as a kind of responsibility. And I guess I have the existentialists to thank for that. Coasting between periods of effort is a nice little illusion. But maybe it’s been a linguistic problem for me – this word: growth.

I’ve heard far too often people saying things like “I am too old to … “, “Set in my ways…”, as though once the body stops growing we just “are”. Are – or am – is a decision, an attempt at stasis.

The word growing implies a destination – we grow into something. Intentionally or haphazardly. When we talk of spiritual growth we seem to be conversing within a context of hierarchy. We are rising, attaining, and improving. This way of thinking has an inherent judgement. Better than.

I like to think that I am better than I was at 18. At 30. Even better than I was two months ago. But I’ve probably lost good aspects of myself, too. Is there really a point in summing up and measuring my life against some kind of rubric?

What if I just stay in it. And trust that I am growing into death, into mushrooms, into trees.

Bragging requires someone else to listen; I doubt the trees give a damn.

So – circling back to the beginning – what is underneath what moves me through life? It seems awfully dark to say the inevitability of death and the paradoxical desperation for meaning, and for acceptance.

But that’s all I’ve got for now.

Looking forward to the cows to be let out of the barns – for whatever reason.

The 33rd – and final – day of the virtual Camino. 


I’m still searching for the actual Latin, but our guide tells us the gist of words scribbled along the actual trail is that we can never arrive, because we are already there.

And I keep trying to remember which poet said the purpose of the journey is to understand that there was never any need for the journey.

But maybe that was just Frank Baum?


When I planned to join this virtual Camino, I very much wanted to walk the distance of each leg each day. But that wasn’t possible, so I made a complex calculation based on my half-marathon running times, and found a number of hours I could devote to the “distance” each day. But I’ve been fortunate enough to have a job during Norway’s “Safer-in-Place” effort – a increasingly demanding job. I’ve put in longer days at the computer, and had fewer hours for the physical journey. I’ve been sick. I’ve been blue.

But the fact is, my dual focus on individual video mentoring of students (service), and on the Camino’s aspect of contemplation (personal), has given my hamstring time to heal. After yesterday’s run the back of my thigh ached – the entire length of it – a good ache: no sign of a sharp pain at the point of attachment. So I’m returning now to routine. The timing of the end of this journey is another point of synchronicity: I head back to the classroom on Monday.

I’m not going to try to sum up lessons learned. I’ve learned that much. But I can see changes in my perspectives, and movement in places still struggling with contradictions. Movement is good. Struggle is fine.

I am letting go of some fears and frustrations, preconceptions and absolutes.

I am letting go of some ambitions.

I am struggling with the impulse to now set goals and shape products. I am rejecting the creeping idea that the purpose of this journey was to clear the slate and find new meaning: reach some kind of epiphany at the saint’s tomb.

Is this a kind of summing up after all?

I’ve hiked for days once before. And I stopped caring whether my socks matched. I stopped looking at every hill as something to be gauged and conquered. I put one foot in front of the other and kept an eye out for grouse in heather.

What we leave behind us after a long journey is one thing, what we take with us is also important.

This time, I will try to take the lesson home. Learning requires repetition. We’ll see what sticks.