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.

 

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 28th leg of the Camino.


If I compare the 18th Sonnet to the 130th Sonnet, I wonder what happened to William. Who knows the order in which they were actually written, but it seems to me the man grew up: fell out of a first love, and became something of a realist. I hope this meant a lasting kind of happiness, if not flush with the high of infatuation, with an ease and delight in things like watching a person “tread”.

I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
     And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
     As any she belied with false compare.

E. writes me beautiful love letters. Not sonnets. If he were to write sonnets, I wouldn’t want him to write that I was more beautiful than a summer’s day. (I am most certainly not more temperate.) I am very grateful that someone once did write me such gushing lines: someone so totally flushed with that exquisite experience of infatuation. I’m grateful that I have also written such hyperbolic and purple words. More than once, to more than one person. I would not trade those experiences, but neither would I have them again.

Our guide today asks us to contemplate comparisons. I find it difficult to narrow the field of possible areas for comparison. And I find myself thinking that comparison is an activity that is fundamental to our survival. We categorize the novel things that we encounter by comparing them to what we know. But it has its limitations. Red fruits are poisonous, or delicious, or both. Red-headed men, too.

We look to see what we need to survive. And that seems natural enough: we watched our elders store food for the winter, plan ahead and keep seeds for the next season. But now we live in civilizations where survival means so much more. And we watch what the “healthy” do, want what they have. I wish I could say that this health crisis would point out how absurd our constructed requirements are, but the wealthy are getting tested, getting medical care. The “underprivileged” die. Keeping up with the Joneses can’t be written off as a matter of vanity. It’s one of our most practical survival instincts. At odds with our equally powerful instinct to care for one another.

Researchers have observed Capuchin monkeys who will refuse to work when they see other monkeys doing the same work for less of a reward. The headline reads that “fairness extends beyond humans“, but I wonder if the monkeys aren’t better at it. This is also a kind of comparison: making sure the Joneses keep up with us.

If comparison is a fundamental human – in fact, primate – activity, then how do I want to employ it? From what perspective do I view things, and when is it helpful?

If I have learned anything from E.’s overflowing toolboxes, there is an appropriate tool for every job, but not every tool is appropriate for the job.

What’s to compare?

I know happy people who are wealthy, who have famous friends, who have the envy of others. And I know people who are happy without any of those things.

A summer’s day up in the mountains can be gorgeous. But I have also heard the ice singing on the lake in the dark on a winter’s morning.

 

 

 

towards the west coast of England. We’re running castle to castle again come February.
But still a long way to go before that.

The dog is staring at me. We’ve both grown soft on this side of summer and I believe he feels a similar ambivalence facing the prospect of leaving this warm little library and hitting the trail. In the dark. In the cold. It takes a special kind of faith to push against the nature of things.

But I’ll lace up my ugly red shoes, pull on some cheap gloves, and grab his lead.

Dear Richard

That you should quote Dylan Thomas! Last night I watched Set Fire to the Stars. In it, Thomas says something about liking humanity more when it sleeps. I don’t know if he really said that, but I’ve been thinking about it since then: before bed last night, on this morning’s run.

It’s too late now to recall anything I might have thought while sleeping.

“The world is too round now, too constant.” (a line from my own unpublished poem). It seems now humanity never sleeps. And seeming is everything, isn’t it? We are aware of every individual atrocity over the globe. We wake to bring into our awareness a bombing that happened somewhere turned toward the sun, while we were turned toward the darkness. Isn’t it odd that the closer we get to omniscience, the more occupied we are with our own significance?

I don’t think we were meant to know it all. What is it they say? We can handle five close friends, 150 acquaintances? How many instances of man’s inhumanity toward man can we take in? What if we all took care of our small circle of physical presence? Did what we could to make it right. Not a new thought, I know.

I have been reading about immersive theatre. There is a theoretician who describes the form as one of “aestheticised experience” rather than an aesthetic experience. That is: we are not viewing a painting (or a play presented under the premium arch) and having an aesthetic experience, we are having an experience within the environment the theatre-maker creates and we objectify our experience: our experience itself becomes the aesthetic object.

My problem with this is that it is not possible to share this with other people. You and I cannot have the same aestheticised experience. While we may not respond similarly to a painting, we are at least viewing the same aesthetic object. We will respond at individuals to a shared experience. But this is far more isolating.

When I think about this, I get cold. I’ve been trying to put on a finger on it, but I think it actually frightens me. How is this “art”? It feels like anti-communication.

At the same time, I am completely seduced by the sensual immersion that this theatre turns attention toward. It is almost as though the theater form is bring us what we miss the most in our lives- no not bringing it, but just an elaborate illusion.

That last bit was a slight digression. Where I was going with this was the idea that we are presented with information continually. We receive and mentally complete narratives (often conflicting) about things that are occurring across oceans. It seems to me this is a form of object-making. This is where fiction and fact do blur. With no real-world basis for information, we create our individual story of the present from our imagination. We pick and choose from a table overflowing with options. Yeah, I know what they say about “echo chambers”, but there is a huge variety of materials out there to construct our personal experiences. We are so damned creative. When we do this, aren’t we objectifying life instead of experiencing it authentically? Our lives as immersive theatre? Immersed by completely alone in the experience?

There is this guy named Diderot from the 1800th century who said that, while the actor is faking the emotions, the audience is not. But those emotions that the audience is experiencing are aesthetic in nature. Watching a film where a character you love dies, is not the same living through the death of  loved one. “Real emotions, and real emotions, Fru Bloom,” as the Norwegians say.

Recently a friend on Facebook passed away. Someone whose story I had followed the past several years. I never met her. I never met her husband. I have no idea what there lives were really about. What is missing in his life now? I don’t know what their living room smelled like. What their laughter sounded like. Isn’t my sadness over her death an aestheticised experience?

I worry that I am becoming truly narcissistic. Or pyschotic. What is real? Is the popularity of Immersive theatre an indication of our desire to get back to a “real” world with sensual boundaries?

Of course the cliché is that life imitates art. And I know I sound like a pedant, but I earnestly believe that we become the stories we tell. We are fascinated with dystopia. I believe we have conjured Brexit, Trump – all this discord. I am honestly having difficult grasping what is real and what it entertainment. And this includes my own emotional and psychological responses. Am I just practicing for an apocalypse? My mother told me once that she used to “practice” for her own mother’s death.

I remember my Grandfather talking about how the internet was nothing but porn. How we wouldn’t buy a computer, because (apparently, to him) if you went on line to search for a fishing lure you would find nothing but porn images. But he was so wrong. It isn’t porn, it is meanness. Most of the accounts I follow on Twitter are literary presses and poets. And yet, it seems every third posting is sarcasm (literally: a verbal attack) or ridicule. Occasionally, an unimaginative “fuck you”. I am not off the grid, but discovered this week that more quiet time is healing.

On the other hand, maybe it is all porn: a graphic diversion in place what we really want? Connection.

Time is passing, I want to chose the environment in which I want to experience it. Running, oh, yes. As an experience, not a means to an end, though. Like sex at this age, perhaps? Nothing showy about it. Just being in the moment, not objectifying it –  nothing to Instagram.

I liked your recollection of the 60-year-old lover. Shouldn’t we all bring all of ourselves to bed, each and every time?

Yes, but that is my point. 60 years-worth of self is much more interesting than 20. Which kind of brings me (oddly enough) to your frustrations with the school system. I get it. I do. But speaking as a teacher in that system, I have come to believe that upper secondary school is little more than hoops and perspective. And I believe a huge part of my job is to help kids see that.

20170216_100308

 

 

 

 

My movement students as human cogs. (I have their permission to use the image.) Here is the video, if you want to see them in action go here.

 

I would actually love to prose a upper secondary school called “Hoops and Perspective”. I’d throw out everything except the subjects Bureaucracy and History. I wouldn’t seek to explain how the former works, but how to bite your tongue and push through it. Because that is all that is waiting for us once we have our little diploma. Proof we can do what is necessary to function in the culture: to keep a job when it demands absurdities of you. Few of us will leave in a world where we only have ourselves to answer to. Or only have to answer to the things that make sense. Is there any reason to make kids wait until their 20s to put that particular myth on the shelf alongside Santa?

(I read a great book a couple of years ago that talks about the purpose of religion. The author suggests Mormons are the perfect example of the social purpose. When a person will devote two years of their lives traveling around the world talking about a god who hands out planets to the good people once they kick off this Earth, you know they will make a good partner: stick by you out of loyalty – no matter how odd things get. I think of bureaucracy as a substitute for this kind of religious affiliation. A hoop that we jump through to prove we are trustworthy in terms of working with and for a community. Even when it is a stupid hoop.)

I think the take-away of the practice bureaucracy is for our youth to keep their creativity flowing, to value it, to value their subjective views/beliefs/experiences while acknowledging their experiences are subjective, and that no one needs to applaud them or provide external validation. It is my job as an adult to help them create a basis of self-esteem – not encourage their dependence on my (or anyone’s) approval. To teach them to see a grade in context, and not measure themselves by it.

I encourage creativity, but don’t believe it is my job to grade it. I grade why I can teach, what they learn, not who they are. Schools aren’t designed to be arenas for children to perform their talents and for us to applaud. And I think we have an obligation to teach children that they can learn things that they can continue to disagree with. It is also wrong for me to express and opinion or grade their quality of original thought. Lord, how they covet their “originality”.

There seems to be a fear that if one carefully and thoroughly reads a treatise one disagrees with, one might become contaminated or diminished. It is a fear that stops learning  in its tracks. Worse: it snuffs out curiosity. It’s akin to superstition.

I would teach History because it is everything, and we are insignificant as individuals. What lasts are stories that rarely have anything to do with the individuals and truths. Certainly not any one person’s truth. Humility. That is the antidote to the trump-ing culture. We fight fire with fire instead of cutting off the source of the fuel. Even satire is a form of praise in that, by definition, it legitimises/acknowledges power.

Isn’t that what school is for? To prepare you for the real world? To make you realise that you are not the centre of the world? That it all kind of sucks. Then we can help young people find a way to live a meaningful life anyway?

I guess my school wouldn’t fly, would it? It’d be like opening a restaurant called Dead Animals and Stuff We Dug Out of the Mud.

I keep thinking: what was Thomas’s point to “set fire to the stars”. Kind of pointless, isn’t it? You know, stars already being on fire and all?

I am curious what he was thinking.

I should stop pontificating and be more curious.

If this were paper, I would consider tearing this up and starting again. Such depressing navel-gazing. I apologise for this.

I will question more. Tell me what you are questioning now. What you think while you are running…

Much love.
XO Ren

Richard’s reply.


This is one of a series of weekly open letters to friends – friends who write back to me on their own blogs. Please click through.  Category: Correspondence.

If you’d like to catch up, read the letters in chronological order here.