(“ALT BLiR BRA!” = Everything’s going to be fine!)

The 31st leg of the virtual Camino.


Today our guide gives us insight into the pilgrim experience in the 12th century. The threats from the elements, from other humans – from viruses and other plagues. There is a lot we take for granted. And a lot we mistake as necessities.

Like a morning cup of coffee, talisman against a grumpy mood.

While drinking my coffee, I was listening to a podcast about “ganning“. The Saami version of a hex, or the evil eye, or whatever name the practice falls under anywhere in the world: the scapegoating for misfortune. We’ve a secular version of the practice, too. Someone we’ve bumped into has cursed our day, is responsible for our mood – which caused our stubbed toe or our burned palate. It is always someone else’s fault – someone is out to get us.

I read an associated article on the website. It was written by a sociologist who said something things about the ancient Saami culture need to be abandoned. I’m not one for promoting witch hunts, but I’m thinking there might be something important to be learned from a formal system for the attribution of blame. Such a thing can be mediated. Arbitrated. Maybe even judged. At least with a formal attribution the absurdity of the accusation can be faced squarely, and dealt with.

Instead I go on grumbling about my students, or my step-kids, or the neighbor’s rooster as the cause of all my woes. Maybe the first step to taking responsibility is actually externalizing the problem: why am I using this person (or rooster) to punish myself?

Today I’m appreciating the synchronicity. “My students are driving me crazy,” I think. Like they have the time to bother with that. The energy to spare.

On Fridays, after the workday I usually listen to a recorded meditation by Jen Louden. Today she talks about making a truce with your God, or gods or the universe.

Synchronicity.

I don’t know what I believe in exactly, but I believe in metaphors as tools for dealing with the truly ineffable.

I believe in the power of formal systems to identify what moves us – in productive and destructive directions – in prayer, in hope, in forgiveness and in absolution. I may have fancy collapsible hiking poles, Gore tex shoes and Merino wool underwear, but at least I have those other things in common with the pilgrims of the 12th Century.

The 30th leg of the Camino.


For three years I wore only black. Black pants, black t-shirts, black dresses, black socks, black shoes. It made my busy mornings easy. Most days at work I am literally rolling on the floor, so it was also practical.

The funny thing is – I don’t think anyone noticed.

Yeah, I don’t know if that is funny.  At any rate, I woke up one day two summers ago and wanted a pair of harem pants. I craved colors and patterns. I craved playfulness. Now my closet is overflowing again.

I have moved so many times in my life that I have stripped down to the essentials over and over. And I have lost essentials, too. Noting the loss matters, though. I continually mourn for these things – not forgotten in the back of a drawer – but physically gone.

Don’t lost things take on a significance they could not otherwise obtain?

I read that Kondo book until I got to the sentence where she said if you do come to need something that you are thinking to throw out now, you can always buy a new one later.

No.

That is not that philosophy I am looking for.

I’m coming to understand that simplicity for me doesn’t mean fashionable minimalism. It doesn’t mean living in a tiny home, cute as they are, with those custom furniture pieces. There seems something extravagant to me about selling my home and finding an affordable plot of land on which to put a tiny house – a location that would allow me access to legal sewage, public transportation and within walking distance to a grocery. That kind of simple is a lot of work. And a kind of privilege. And maybe for single people who don’t have 80 pound hounds.

Maybe for me simplicity is about embracing the routine; about finding the familiar strange and interesting; about finding perspectives – and nudging the edges instead of stripping to the essentials. About wanting what I have.

There is a simple joy in ornamentation. A simple pleasure in in a room full of books.

I’ll be sorting through my closet this week. I’m not going to ask myself what sparks joy, but what causes me distress. I’ll pack those things into cardboard boxes. The local charities are overrun with secondhand fast-fashion right now.  So I will stick the boxes in the attic. And if after a year or so,  I have not missed them, I’ll try to find a simple solution for my excess – one that doesn’t make someone else my sin-eater.

Nothing is simple. But I will keep working on it:

I have a yard. I’m planting a garden.

Something tells me that whole endeavor will be a kind of complex simplicity, too.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

The 27th leg of Camino.


I’m falling behind now, tending a fever and a headache.

Someone pointed out that it’s not unusual to fall ill at the end of a long project. I ended a long project on Friday and have been looking forward to starting on something new. The efforts of our lives overlap and there is no real time for a clean break or fresh start. There is always something the dirty laundry. Maybe that the body forces a break is “not unusual”.

I suppose, though, it is unusual to be so paranoid about a mild illness. I’ve been trying not to immerse myself in the waves of information coming over the internet. I am trying to let go of the feeling of urgency and to stay in the moments, instead of simultaneously speculating about what the moments mean. Might mean. There is a false security in predicting and embracing prophecies – even the dark ones.

Before I came down with a fever, I was running again. Doing yoga in the early morning: in camel pose, watching a wisp of cloud move over the sky.  I’m trying to see this illness as a kind of deferment. Nothing more. I’ve been temped to take down Sontag’s book from the shelf to read again, but the headache – and now the catching up I have to do. Want to do. I want my body back. I want the ease of movement.

In February, we ran along the Northumberland beaches and then stayed a couple days in Edinburgh because I wanted to see Mary King’s Cross. One of those cheesy, historical tourist traps I love. The guide talked about the plague when it came to Mary King’s Cross. The doctor’s plague masks, the dead. The whole while this virus was in the back of my mind: when we were standing crowded together under the tent at the start of the race, when I lay on the masseuse’s table the following day, in the airport on the way home. All the bad dreams we have in our heads. What do we pay attention to? It turned out we were about a week ahead of the virus. But things could have been different.

We have been lucky here these months. It’s been a mind-game trying to hold the reality in a global perspective, a local perspective, and a potential perspective. It’s not over – though I was supposed to be on the train yesterday and at work again.

What am I doing with my life? I do take my stock of my choices often. Probably too often. Three times in my life, I thought I had only moments to live. Someone asked me recently if surviving the blood clot made me more grateful for life. I wish it had. I wish I’d had some kind of literature-worthy epiphany about how best to live my life. Instead, I had a relapse of CPTSD symptoms and a very slow emotional convalescence. I won’t be writing a self-help book anytime soon.

This whole virtual journey has been about finding out what I want. Recognizing myself as I interact with the world. Making choices based on desires. Desires of doing, not being. I am not sure I have ever wished for things. But I have wished for talents. And to be honest, I am not sure how much those talents were only means to an end: respect, validation, approval.

As our guide asks us today to consider our dreams for the future, I think about these wishes I’ve had over the years. Some forgotten. Some unexpectedly fleeting: but had. I still wish for talents – as a means, and as an end. But something has shifted. I dream of cultivating joy.

And just as creating a good novel is as much a matter of prudent editing as is it good writing, perhaps cultivating joy is as much about removing judgement and criticism as it nurturing beauty.

 

The 26th leg av the Camino.


Today our lovely guide asks us to put our intention on “healing” today. And I meet with another point of internal resistance.

One which takes me completely by surprise.

I was listening to a podcast the other day about trauma. The interviewee’s position was that people who have insecurities have them because they were traumatized as children. And after all these years of therapy, I am beginning to wonder if there is really any benefit in using the metaphors of wounds and healing and scars when it comes to processing the emotional experiences of our lives.

The whole paradigm of trauma implies a state of perfection that is damaged. And I find myself asking: where is that state of perfection? If someone has a concept of that, my guess is that it precedes the time where they became conscious of their own point of view being discrete from the rest of the world. The toddler whose mother closes the bathroom door for the first time while she pees alone, may very well experience that moment as a small trauma: an abandonment. The spectrum of abandonment is long and varied and ultimately subjective.

Isn’t our concept of this “first trauma” a form of nostalgia? A fiction?

I am in no way belittling or denying the reality of the pain that we endure. And believe me, it both surprises me – and makes me uncomfortable – that I find myself asking these questions.

What if we framed the small and large events of our lives as something other than trauma? These are events. Phenomena. I am certainly aware that this is not a novel thought. I’ve read the philosophers, but there is always a different kind of understanding when you plod the long way around and bump into to the idea on your own: experiential-ly, not intellectually.

Healing is generally defined as a form of “restoration”. Or reparation. I find it ironic, the definitions of the word reparation – one being healing, and one being payment for being wronged. Am I the only person who has muddled the two? Expected healing in the form of payment: a lollipop from the dentist, an eye for an eye, a medal, a title – moral superiority.

It might just be me. I’m not proud of this. I often question my motives for having “shown off” my scars. Doing so always leaves me with with a feeling of shame. When will I decide I am “healed”? Believe I’ve received enough reparations to move on?

I’m considering other metaphors. These events as shapes, not ugly or pretty in themselves, but shapes I can sort into mosaics. These stories (since I cannot let go of the stories) that are not about healing and happy endings, but about the weaving of compassionate observations into a greater whole. How can experiences make me a better person, but – no: and not give me a sense of being more deserving?

I’m grateful for many of the concepts I have internationalized from my childhood faith. Martyrdom is not one of them.

What if the “work of healing” is nothing more than willful creativity? This is the material you are given: a bit of mud, a bit of coal, a fleck of fool’s gold. Make something of it that is yours.

It’s our nature to be altered by phenomenon.

Just like the trees that grow around the fence posts, that layer their bark each season – callouses that look like faces, faces that read like stories. Nothing healed. And nothing gained. Just part of the great forest.

 

 

 

The 25th leg of the Camino.


Every day I get to sit in this little library, between the walls I’ve painted a deep green. I’ve hung dark mustard paisley curtains in front of the French doors. There are shelves of books, a great oak desk, a purple velvet wing-back chair, a standing Tiffany lamp, and a sleeping dog  – who takes up this tiny room otherwise.

This room is my pride. My bower nest.

Sometimes my love sits in the chair and reads, or works puzzles while I write.

I have always been comfortable in snug spaces. Always taken a pleasure and sense of calm in the arranging and rearranging of objects in space. Even when that was a mattress, milk crates and two-by-fours. And books.

But this space is different. The room is still small, but sitting here – my back to the window – the blackbirds’ singing sounds through the glass. Unfailingly, they sing.

In all the moving I’ve done in my life, this is the first time I’ve not felt that my personal physical space was a kind of panic room; a secret sound-proof sanctuary, the tighter the better.

I think it’s the singing that makes this home different.

Sometimes I wonder if the blackbirds that sing in our driveway are the same blackbirds that hop along the trail in the dark winter mornings – darting into the underbrush when we run by. Maybe they follow us home.

This winter I neglected them – and into this spring. I’ve neglected to notice them. Of course it matters nothing to them, it is all my loss. I fell out of habit and haven’t run regularly in this new year. This wearying year that has been off-groove for so many ways for so many people. And when things are off-groove, I retreat.

I want to write: “It’s only natural.” But it’s unnatural.

Today I forced myself to push the hamstring for a run along the lake. And something like not having seen a small child in too long, I realize that I’ve somehow missed the world going by. The lily pads speckle the southern edges of the lake already with their big, flat leaves. In the pale reeds, the cottontails are thick and dark brown. The ducks are paired off, and I am overdressed in a fleece and a jacket.

I’ve missed the smells of the woods, and the active focus of scanning for tree roots at a steady pace. I’ve missed stopping and listening to the trees in the wind, the rare woodpecker drilling – I’ve even missed the little electric jolt at the site of an iridescent beetle crawling over my fingers while I try to balance in an awkward crow pose in the middle of the grove.

I’ve missed opening myself to nature, which is necessarily opening one’s self to death. Even the mushrooms in the shade of Njåskogen look like ivory-silken funeral lilies.

All this while, away from the woods, I’ve been planning a garden. Planning. While sitting in this little room. It makes sense really. What is a garden but an attempt to tame nature? To stave off death – or at least create an illusion of control over it.

From this room I make plans for a garden in the yard that will be a kind of bridge to the lake and the woods down the road.

It’s time now.