The skies are clear and the air is cold, and at some point I will get up from this desk, get dressed and go to the beach. It is one of those days that – in recollection tomorrow – will be smudged across my mind: leaving just a fraction of an hour of something meaningful -something like
squinting against sharp reflections of the late-afternoon light while watching a tern searching the foam for something to eat.
And this will be better than most days.
Later tonight E. will take a Covid test before heading offshore for another fortnight. I expect autumn will take hold in his absence. And the space between the points of the timeline of my days will stretch wide: Work. Home. Work. Home. I’ll walk the dog. Keep up the routine. And darkness will creep over the edges of the days until there is precious little light left.
Sometimes precious little is more than all the rest.
I like the smell of there having been candles – I like it sometimes best.
Because the earth is round and its path is round, we will pass by this way again, one way or another.
The darkness retreats, too . And we always miss it as well.
Someone recently told me that what people don’t understand is that her generation is the future.
I’ve been thinking about the concept of generations. The arbitrary grouping that attempts to “fix” time in snapshots. Being born in between generations, I can’t find myself in any of the pictures. My children, as well, fall between the recorded chapters of history. Bystanders to The history: it is a strange – but perhaps privileged – point of view.
That said, there was a time when I also thought of the future as a fixed state to be achieved. I saw a hard line that divided – and would divide – the old from the new.
I don’t see the world like that any more: in segments that will tick by, more or less tolerably, until we reach what we’ve aimed for.
I believe the Buddha was right in that there is something fundamental in our nature that is determined to reject impermanence. But I suspect the rejection of this mark of existence (as the Buddhists call it) isn’t only experienced as suffering, but sometimes as hope.
I understand when young people see the world this way: hoping to achieve… utopia?
But I find it puzzling that people who have lived their lives through the culture’s arbitrary increments of “generations”, who have seen the pendulum swinging, still pin their hopes (and the responsibility) on youth to someday achieve the fixed and perfect future.
To be honest, sometimes I wonder if it is an extension of our culture’s worship of youth? And if sometimes I envy their hope? You lose that when you think you have learned all you can learn, know all you will know–
No. Wait. I don’t believe that. That is the cultural trope of closed-minded old people.
You lose hope when you live long enough to see that what you knew for certain – when you knew everything – turned out not to be true. And you decide that there is no reason to keep learning. This can happen at any age: Mid-life Crisis, Quarter-life Crisis, Teenage Nihilism.
But every moment is a future – every moment encompasses the contributions of all “generations” (and each generation’s internal contradictions) and all circumstances.
And every future slips by with every breath, unacknowledged.
No age has the corner on solipsism.
Life can survive in the constant shadow of illness, and even rise to moments of rampant joy, but the shadow remains, and one has to make space for it. – DIANE ACKERMAN
People keep describing these past months as “unprecedented”.
We measure reality in such small packages – our small collections of private experiences. Twenty years slip by, maybe another twenty… and from this tiny window we proclaim a a sum understanding of the human experience to determine the proper trajectory for (the organisation of) human behavior.
We don’t even glance sideways.
And if we do, we dismiss it: We are the future, after all.
You were the future once, too. And it slipped right past you, making your head spin.
I wonder if all that you clung to for comfort just made your suffering worse in the end?
The year we moved into this huge house, I decided to take full advantage of the room we christened “the atelier”. I had every intention of picking up expressive practices that I’d abandoned over the years – for oh-so-many-reasons.
But I stopped attending the local croquis group after only a few months. All of the models were thin, 20-something women in “pretty” poses. Straight lines, and little movement.
It was both boring and demoralising.
I packed away my sketchbooks.
As an undergrad I studied studio art for a couple of years before switching majors. I remember one model from life drawing class who was tall, slim and in her twenties. She posed with a great deal of confidence. And though she was nude, her poses were always discreet.
During breaks, she would slip on her robe and make a round talking specifically to the young men in the class. She inspected the work on their easels to see how how they interpreted her body in charcoal. Sometimes she would put her hand on their shoulders and lean in, breathing in their ears. Her little ritual made many of them visibly uncomfortable.
It made me feel uncomfortable for – what I must presume were – entirely different reasons.
The power-play of subject/object is much more complex than we tend to consider. I suppose in part because our culture is quick to conflate beauty with sex appeal, and sex appeal with power.
Thinking now: Maybe it was fortunate that I was accustomed early to being invisible among the tall, slim beauties in the room. I never considered myself the subject, nor the object (or ornament) – but an observer. It makes aging that much easier.
However, as an observer I have not always been kind in my interpretations.
And I’ve often shamed myself into the corners of the world – for oh-so-many-reasons.
I remember another model who also posed for us in that life drawing class. She would would always wear a floppy sun hat, and she’d wink at us. Sometimes, she’d stand on her head during the 2-minute sketches. She was – I’m thinking now – probably in her 50s. Thinking then? She was “an old lady”.
And truth be told, her unabashed comfort with her own body made the majority of us visibly uncomfortable. Her poses were in no way discreet. Sometimes I would move my easel to another spot just to avoid having to confront her sex full-on.
Now? How I wish I’d asked her out for coffee.
It is a beautiful thought: lessons can be learned long after the teacher has left our lives.
The artistry in any medium lies in the work’s ability to evoke synesthesia. Each work is dependent upon each viewer’s subjective experiences – and the meanings we assign to them – for its claim as a work of art. We are each ultimately responsible for giving it life from our own lives.
And if – at any point in time – we think we see an objective reflection of the world as it is: a true work of art? Well, … there is no such thing as the world-as-it-is. There is no such thing as a point-in-time, because time exists in memory, so neither travels in a straight line. The world curves back on itself, folding over and over – always indiscreet in exposing the accumulation of what has come before – coming closer and closer to the wholeness of life, to Beauty.
Ornamentation is not substance.
And the world will always shake off ornamentation.
It will distort the straight lines we work so hard to impose on it.
There is power in rejecting the consensual idea of beauty.
Rejecting it unabashedly.
Because that is acknowledging the substance of one’s own experience.
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.
Do 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…
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.
I’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.
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.
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.