I’ve fallen behind again reading Rilke.

Last night I lay on the shakti mat and fell asleep listening to a podcast again. I never thought I was someone who would sleep on a bed of nails. And to be honest, I feel an odd sense of shame when I consider how pleasurable I find it. How reliant I’ve become on the settling into the pain to relax. It’s like the burn from a shot of whiskey – and the slow warmth that spreads through the body. And I suppose that’s where the guilt comes from.

We transgress pain for pleasure – then we pay for pleasure with shame? Again I should speak for myself, but on the other hand, the culture does a very fine job of shaming us for our pleasures.

As far as the shakti mat goes, I think it’s related to pressure points. When I worked as a massage therapist, I would push on a knot in someone’s trapezius and visualize the fibers letting go. Every cell a tiny fist of frustration, opening – vulnerable as a palm. Sometimes it was unbearably intimate.

A palm can hold the tiniest pool of water. Life. I was taught God holds us in the palm of His hand. Just like I’d held tadpoles in my palm once. They were at my mercy.

I suppose it’s my Christian upbringing. The (historically incorrect, but nonetheless powerful) images of the stigmata: bleeding palms. A paradoxical image of comfort and torture from my childhood.

Sometimes I think it’s odd we have a word like paradox. And that we use it to label discrete events when I believe that if there is background music in the world, it is dissonance – paradox.

the snow is silent
but announces its presence
in each step I take –
in the rhythm of the dog’s paws
scurrying after the hare

a mallard takes flight
and the still morning air cracks –
the fog of my breath
hangs for a moment then darts
towards the pale, setting moon

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve had Covid dreams. Logically, I should be more concerned, considering the increase in local cases of the new mutation. I don’t know. Maybe my subconscious has played out the scenario so many times it has soothed itself. Or simply resigned.

It’s been below freezing for a couple of weeks. The house is a little cold, which means the bedroom is especially chilly – and that’s good for sleep.

I doubt the dreams are gone for good. But I’ll enjoy these deep-sleep nights for now.

I’ve only rarely gone outside this week. But enough to see the full moon begin to sag just a little. I’ve stood on the deck to watch – and hear – the sparks flying from the contact cables when the freight train passes. It frightens Leonard, who otherwise loves the cold weather. I wonder if the smell of the hares in the area sits in relief above the smell of the clean snow.

Leonard darts off and returns with fresh snow stuck on his snout. Darts off again.

Tongue out, tail high. I’m not sure how we know when dogs are smiling. He is definitely smiling.

I like to think it’s just the vibe, though no doubt there are physical aspects we pick up on subconsciously – the pinch of the muscle between the whiskers over his eyes. But everything sets off a tiny chain reaction in the world. The slightest breeze. A reflection of light. Particles. We have our own gravitational fields. We have more senses than we are taught in elementary school. Maybe taken as the whole of it: a vibe.

It’s been a long time since the vibe at work has been good. There’s not been a lot of smiling this winter. No dancing around the tree in the gymnasium. No New Year’s hugs. No Friday afternoon jostling in the hallways.

There’s so much fear between the laughter. Sometimes we reach out to put a hand on a shoulder. We forget. Then we remember. Our stomachs knot with guilt.

We dream.

I want to open all the doors and windows everywhere – and let the snow blow through it all. Cover it all – just long enough for things to start again.

in a dark cupboard
bread rises with its own heat
the baker beats it
down – and again it rises

An extra hour of sleep. A sunrise over snow. And a good cup of coffee.

These months seem to have forced a particular perspective. They’ve effectively dismantled the scaffolding of my life and what is… and isn’t complete is on full view.

I’m trying to consider it an opportunity, not an accusation.

I have a student at the moment who has no future plans. And he’s fine. He says he wants a good life. And when I ask him what that is for him, he says: That’s what I’m figuring out.

He wants to get a job of some sort to pay his bills. He wants to do some kind of humanitarian work for a while. He has an idea about the specific pain in the world he wants to help make a difference to ease. But he’s in no hurry to get his ducks in a row. This day, this task.

I have to admit, I find it charming. I have no idea of course how his life will pan out, but right now when he sits in front of me smiling, I think he’s taking his whole life with a vacation mindset. Early retirement from the rat race without having “earned it”.

And who’s judging?

Well. Most of us are, aren’t we? Isn’t retirement something you “earn”? It’s the reward for having worked hard for years. The pay-off for having been moral in terms of a work ethic? Having suffered?

This is is the first time I’ve taught Theater History prior to Modernism. It’s meant returning to philosophy I haven’t read in over 20 years. Of course, I’m barely skimming the surface, but enjoying it. I’ve been thinking about the rise of the “work ethic” in the Enlightenment. And maybe how ripping away from the church’s moral constraints never meant ripping away from the idea of martyrdom. The idea of suffering now for a future reward.

We just push our dissatisfaction under us as though the resulting pile of garbage is lifting us higher toward some concept of a secular heaven.

I suppose it is presumptuous for me to use the first person plural.

I’ve been thinking about this in one way or another since the lock-down last year. I’ve another fifteen years before I can retire and read philosophy and history “for fun”. I’ve got another fifteen years to squeeze in time to write, bind books, make things – and figure out what results will be “good enough” to have earned for myself the right to be proud. To be/call myself/feel “successful”.

I look at my student, who smiles a lot. And I wonder if I skipped a step somewhere along the way. Or if I’m just on the wrong path entirely, shoving my dissatisfaction under my bum in an ever-growing, utterly absurd construction.

Sliding the smooth bone-
folder over paper adds
an edge to a world
constructed – united
decomposing as a poem

The roads are covered in ice again this morning. Soap-slick the local news calls it. It’s minus four even though the moon is hidden behind clouds. Leonard does what he needs to in the yard and runs back into the house to flop on the floor of the library. It seems we’re up to doing what needs to be done and then giving in to the stillness of these days.

And for once, I’m not feeling guilty about it. There are moments where my body starts itching, and my mind begins racing a little and it’s more pleasant than annoying. It’s like the presence of a nudging puppy that I reach out to pet and put off for just a few more minutes. Just a minute. I’m coming.

For all that I haven’t done this month, for all the activities I’ve dropped, this month has rushed by like a freight train. The one I hear right now, actually, causing the tracks to moan. A snap. I can imagine the spark from the wires above. It is an almost painful understanding – we can slow down, but the world does keep rushing around and under us. 460 meters per second.

I suppose there is a finish line. Billions of years from now. I’ve nothing to do with that. I’m just along for the ride.

“Catching up”: I’m working on letting go of this particular metaphor. Of course there are things to be done, and very real deadlines that come on schedule with the sun’s rising and sinking, and rising and sinking. But I can’t possible run faster than 460 meters per second when I fall out of step – when I feel myself out of sync.

This morning I am remember the warmth of a summer day. The cold, cold of the North Sea along my back while I float just a moment – knowing the ocean is alive under me, the currents flowing, fish hunting, the anemones patiently catching what they need when it swirls by.

A fragile bubble of breath.
This is my time out
before I dive in again.
A temporary divide
A molecular arrangement

A rearrangement of self
and of other
the sea on the horizon
steams against the setting sun
wolves take shape, moving towards night

[edit: Writing a daily public diary has its drawbacks. Typos, of course. But also other editorial problems. When I titled this post I thought I would mention listening to Krista Tippet’s interview with Katherine May for the On Being Podcast. As it turned out, my train of thought took another direction. “Winter’s Crucible” is Katherine May’s phrase.]

The first run in nearly three weeks. I haven’t taken this much time off the trail since I was forced to by a blood clot a few years ago. I know that exercise is supposed to help us deal with stress, but there comes a point – close to burn-out – where the body can’t handle the extra spike in cortisol. It doesn’t know the difference when that spike is caused by anxiety or by physical effort. Either way, it can be enough to push a body over the edge.

So I’ve been intentionally going soft. Walking carefully through these weeks of winter, wearing cleats and mittens. Thinking the mask is pretty comfortable when the temperature is below freezing. And I think I’ve made the right choice. Last week was too much and I needed the softness. One big cushion of slow, heavy surrender.

Today the trail was full of song. Birds, yes. Even people with their Sunday talk. But also the deep, resounding notes that the ice plays with the lake. I haven’t heard it these past few years of mild winters. It brings to mind mythical water creatures. Moaning monsters, and nøkken. Last time I heard it was on a dark morning years ago. This afternoon the sun is shining. And it seems odd that it dares to be heard in this light. And then again, it doesn’t.

Take bedtime stories
into your dreams and wrestle
the demons and win
or lose – but know everything
is exactly everything