I think this is the third year that I am trying to read a small bit of Rilke each night before bed. I am good at morning routines, but my days always unravel and evening routines have never been something I have managed to follow through on.

But though I am never patient, I am stubborn, and I am trying yet again. A cursory tidying of the house. A cup of tea. A half-hour on the Shakti mat.

Rilke.

These days I’m puzzling over the idea of comfort – over the fact that it is possible to find comfort in surrendering to what is unequivocally unpleasant. I don’t mean looking for silver linings. But acknowledging what is. Comfort need not be defined as providing hope, as I have always unconsciously understood it. I’ve gone down a rabbit hole of synonyms this morning trying to figure out where I got this idea.

Rilke writes: “A solitary sojourn in the country is, especially at this moment, on half real, because the sense of harmlessness in being with nature is lost to us. The influence on us of nature’s quiet, insistent presence is, from the start, overwhelmed by our knowledge of the unspeakable human fate that, night and day, irrevocably unfolds.”

I’m aware that I’m reading this out of context, as it is presented in this particular book. And I can’t help but wonder what I’m missing. The sense of harmlessness in being with nature is lost to us.

With all due respect, and with admitted ignorance, this morning this orphaned paragraph strikes me as a kind of koan. My thoughts are not half-real when I walk gingerly on the ice-slick paths these mornings. They are surreal. My experience of nature has never left room for a sense of harmlessness. On the contrary. Perhaps for having had grown-up so disconnected from nature it has always been something I’ve feared. Deadly insects, “Jaws”, avalanches, earthquakes. When I was a child, I picked a strawberry from the runner and popped it in my mouth. It’s how I know what a worm tastes like. I didn’t get sick, but it was years before I ate something that didn’t come wrapped in plastic again.

I’ve slowly come to see the value of consciously being with nature. To see the false comfort of brick walls and plywood frames, or a porcelain bathtub against the force of tectonic plates. To understand how the belief that we are walking on top of nature, beside it, is as much of a illusion of perspective as that of the proverbial fish who looks in vain to find the ocean. And that my being in nature certainly not marked by harmlessness.

Rilke wrote about this “unspeakable human fate that, night and day, irrevocably unfolds” in the autumn of 1914. Two months after the assassinations that triggered the First World War. His perspective of human fate overwhelming nature, as though human lives are above or beside “[N]ature’s quiet, insistent presence […]”

I was thinking about a video I saw the other day. It compared the sound waves created by various birds-of-prey. The owl being nearly silent. I thought of the pellets of fur and bone owls cough up and leave behind.

I was also thinking about the ruckus the crows make each morning when E. and I run past their morning congress by the lake. Insistent. Not quiet.

I have absolutely no idea how intimate Rilke was with nature, and therefore I have absolutely no idea what this paragraph means. To him. To Lou Andreas-Salomé, to whom it was addressed in the first place. But I wonder if Rilke was seeking comfort in nature on his solitary walk? If what he saw as half-real, wasn’t real at all? If he was envisioning soldiers killing each other in the woods? On the open fields between them?

I think there is a strange comfort in accepting the reality of nature. When you’re out in the cold, it is easier to bear when you relax. Bracing yourself against it is a waste of energy. Stay loose, keep moving. I don’t have it figured out, but I believe there is a difference between acceptance and acquiescence. I believe one needs to accept the dangers of thin ice before one can begin to plan to take care crossing.

To build bridges, maybe.

Worms naturally bore into the strawberries. You learn to keep an eye out for them. Deal with it. Wrapping everything in plastic isn’t doing the trick.

My religion is nature. That’s what arouses those feelings
of wonder and mysticism and gratitude in me.
OLIVER SACKS

Not now when the world is dark on my way to work, and dark again as I head home – but on most mornings on the train, I can turn and see the trail I’d run along two hours earlier – from this other perspective, and at 100 kph.

The sky is wider somehow, seeing it from behind a pane of dirty glass. Though that doesn’t seem logical.

But there’s no sound of my footsteps. There’s no scrutinizing the shadows on the path, no still frogs, dead blackbirds, or snapped limbs scattered to trip me up. So I look up and over the water to the horizon where the hills layer themselves in ever-lighter blues to white where they smudge into the sky itself. Quiet, steady hum.

The lake is simultaneously bigger and smaller from this perspective.

Despite the creeping suburbs, I know there are elk among the trees on the far shore. Deer and mink. And there are thin vipers hidden just underground or between the stones in the centuries-old hedges. There’s a part of me that whispers: still, not wild enough. Not wild enough until the summer’s ticks dig bullseyes into flesh and release sickness into the bloodstreams of weekend hikers.

Nature does put me in a state of awe. “Wonder and mysticism and gratitude” – I guess. But also fear. If I were to call nature my religion, it would be the religion of the Middle Ages with its attending ugliness, its violence.

For every lily that unfolds in the sunlight, an injured lemming staggers days towards its death. Mallards force themselves on hens, and insects snip one another in half.

Nature isn’t pretty.

And it’s beautiful.

Biology was one of my favorite subjects in high school. Drawing the mitochondria and the Gogli apparatus was like doing God’s doodling. Now florescence and electron microscopes show diseased cells as bright and as ornamental as peacock feathers. Death and beauty go hand-in-hand. The poets have always known this, even if they’ve romanticized as a way to tame their fears. We’re snake charmers, all of us.

I keep asking myself if nature has compassion. But I find myself circling back to the idea that a whole is made up of parts: does a mallard have compassion? Does an army ant? Does lichen feel for the stone it erodes?

Does the earth
itself grieve its half-deaths
its own evisceration
shrouding itself
in plastics?

Are we losing our religion?

Sunday. And still in my pajamas.

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.

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 29th leg av the Camino.


I have always been fascinated by the sacred.

I must have been about 8 when my friend and I climbed the brick fence behind our babysitter’s apartment complex and visited the Catholic church. It was unlocked on a weekday morning.

It was also empty. And since all either of us knew about Catholic church was what we had seen on television, we thought it would be fine to “play” church. When the priest showed up I really couldn’t understand his fury. We were in no way intending to be sacrilegious – or even naughty.

Up until that point – up until the shaming – I’d wanted to be Catholic. I’d wanted the ritual that seemed to be a kind of manifestation of belonging. In the Baptist church the pastor sometimes called us a “flock”, but people certainly didn’t treat one another as though they belonged.

There was nothing very special about us. No incense, no wine. We had grape juice and crackers once a month. And Grandpa fell asleep just like he did in his chair at home in front of the television. No one responded with hallelujah, no one shook like the Shakers, and no one talked in tongues.

That’s not true. Once a woman did, and my grandfather and the other deacons escorted her out, and the pastor apologized on her behalf. He said she’d been under stress. Then he went back to his sermon.

Church was white – in so many ways – White. Straight pews and straight hemlines. And it smelled of Lysol and White Shoulders perfume. The pastor wore a suit and looked the the insurance salesmen who’d shown up at Grandma’s mobile home. Crumpled. Sweaty.

In college I was in a production of The Lark. We carried candles and incense and chanted, and I fainted. The following year, another production with Gregorian chanting and candles. I fainted again. No wonder I connected the theater with the sacred long before I had read about Artaud or Grotowski and other people looking for the sacred in the storytelling space.

When I was very young – too young to remember – my mother belonged to a Quaker congregation. Or at least that was a story I knew. I tried to find a home in a Quaker community just a few years ago, but staring in silence for 45 minutes is not a great choice for someone with bipolar tendencies: a small doll set on a little Shaker chair across the room began moving for me, and it took me months to get my feet back on the ground. My doctor suggested neither Quaker silence nor a Buddhist retreat would be a good idea anytime in the near future.

I suppose, in a way, this is a sacred story:

I run on the trails. I stop and listen. This is my church now. My cathedrals and chapels. I notice – without learning the names of things by rote. I squat to pee in the scrub pines and take note of the unfurling fern of some sort – nothing delicate about it. It’s thick and dark and wet. Simultaneously I see the Alien creature folded in on itself, and a fetus unfolding. Life is a mystery, and always frightening. It’s smells can make you dizzy. Can make you wretch. Can make you acutely aware of want.

This might be the fear that the sweaty pastor G. was always talking about. The awe that made the people in the Bible tremble.

Maybe this is my only hope for a Sangha. Congregation. Prayer. Meditation. Writing.

My bared butt in the breeze, knowing there are snakes in the rocks nearby. Maybe this is my only true sacred story?

 

 

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.