Sunday, January 31, 2010

in brief May, the dogwood in New England

along the water gap
the Delaware cuts high cliffs,
carving an oasis

long drive home from Maine through Connecticut in spring the dogwood bloom
at dusk ghosts sheet up hillsides still only half-hidden with new greens
lichen-crawled half-crumbled stone fences built by the dead brake their fall
white flower-fans shimmer in cool updrafts skating the settled valley
places where old oaks have split outcropped granite veins to sway
her echoed rage, his ghost, their stilled singing along the rain-slotted cliff
thread boxed waterfalls stitch vertical joints to splash children in square tubs
sway branches full of white flowers sketching hello to the dusk the dead

in late sun amber white on green dark green bright white splash of greengold center
for a week a day an hour the dead darkened hills covered with memories of spring

in memoriam Robert F. Olsen, d. 15 October 2009

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Friday, January 29, 2010

West and East

I'm planning at the moment for my next roadtrip to the western lands. I am preparing the house to be empty for a few weeks, with friends visiting daily to take in the mail. I am going through my Things To Do list that needs to be finished before I can leave; and I am making good headway on it. I am trying to catch up on my file management, to get everything organized before I depart; which is turning out to be an uphill battle in several ways. I have a few more errands to do each day before I depart. And I am, as usual, experiencing a little sleep disruption brought on the anticipation of hitting the open road once again. I almost never sleep well the night before leaving; that seems to happen almost every time.

Here I am in the Midwest. What the coastal snobs call the flyover zone. Here I am almost all the way to the West already, able to get there in less than a day's drive—or at least, get to those places, in a day, that many define as the West.

But where does the West begin?

I've heard Americans debate where the West begins: Texans say the Brazos River; in St. Louis, it's the Mississippi, and they built a very expensive "Gateway Arch" to prove it; Philadelphians say the Alleghenies; and on Beacon Hill the backside of the Commons. But, of course, the true West begins with the western state lines of Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota. It's a line, as straight as you could hope to find, that runs from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada; fewer than a hundred miles from the geographical east-west division of the continental states, it lies close to the hundredth meridian, the twenty-inch rainfall line, and the two-thousand-foot contour line—all of which various geographies recognize as demarcations between East and West. When you stand east of those states you're in the East; cross over and you're in the West. . . .

The land west of this line used to be known as the Great American Desert, but only geographers use that term now as far as I can tell. By "desert" they mean a high land (two thousand feet and up), commonly arid (less than twenty inches rainfall), and even some sand. They don't mean trackless Saharan dunes and palmy oases.

The true West differs from the East in one great, pervasive, influential and awesome way: space. The vast openness changes the roads, towns, houses, farms, crops, machinery, politics, economics, and, naturally, ways of thinking. How could it do otherwise? Space west of the line is perceptible and often palpable, especially when it appears empty, and it's that apparent emptiness which makes matter look alone, exiled, and unconnected. Those spaces diminish man and reduce his blindness to the immensity of the universe; they push him toward a greater reliance on himself, and, at the same time, to a greater awareness of others and what they do. But, as the space diminishes man and his constructions in a material fashion, it also—paradoxically—makes them more noticeable. Things show up out here. No one, not even the sojourner, escapes the expanses. You can't get away from them by rolling up the safety-glass and speeding through, because the terrible distances eat up speed. Even dawn takes nearly an hour just to cross Texas. Still, drivers race along; but when you get down to it, they are people uneasy about space.

—WIlliam Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways (1982, 1999), pp. 131-132

By this definition of West, I live in the East, since my Wisconsin home is east of the line of two thousand feet and up, and twenty inches and up. Barely, though, because I'm within half a day's drive, by current interstate speeds, of the Iowa-Minnesota western borderlines, so within a day I can drive into the plus-two-thousand zone, the long rolling flatlands that are the heart of the Great Plains, which rise up slowly to the Front Range in Colorado and South Dakota, the outlier island uprisings of the Rocky Mountains. I live on the eastern edge of the Great Plains, less than an hour's drive from Lake Michigan; so we get lake effect weather here, even though the prevailing winds make us upwind most of the time. We live in a wet part of the country, more prone to flooding than drought. Winters here are cold and sometimes severe, with Arctic air coming down on us, and huge storms approaching from the prevailing southwest.

I don't think of myself as living in the East, though. For example, people in New England have no concept of the size of the states out here. I once heard an acquaintance in New Hampshire say in a shocked tone, after I told him about a recent roadtrip, "You mean you drove all day and only went one state away?" That's a typical Eastern response; most Easterners have no real sense of distance out here. And the further West you go, the bigger the states get. Although I have said for years that Texas is more of a state-of-mind than a geographical locale. I've lived for significant amounts of time in Wyoming, New Mexico, and California. Each of those states takes an entire to drive across, or longer, depending what route you take. I've traveled through, camped in, and spent time in most of the other Western states, too, neglecting only North Dakota and Washington.

i've driven Highway 50 across Utah and Nevada, to where it ends in Sacramento. They call the western part of Highway 50 "The Loneliest Highway in the World," because those reaches of road in the Basin & Range region of Utah and Nevada have only a few towns dotted hundreds of miles apart. Driving from Ridgefield, UT, to San Francisco takes about 9 hours, with few stops; and in that distance you go up the Ranges and back down into the Basins about once every hour. Every time you go up and down you change elevations up to four thousand feet; by day's end your ears ache with all the pressure changes.

The truth of the West is that it is indeed mostly open space. It affects how you think. I do a lot of my best thinking on those all-day drives across one state. The driving puts me in a contemplative mood, and I am sometimes able to think problems through to resolution.

The open space teaches you patience. You can see a mountain range approaching in the far distance many hours before you arrive near its foothills. There are some incredibly beautiful isolate mountain ranges, that rise from the plains or plateaus surrounding them, that you can see for a hundred miles in any direction, when all else is flat and distant to the eye. For example, the San Francisco Peaks just north of Flagstaff, AZ, are old volcanic cones that rise up from the middle of the Colorado Plateau, with nothing else around for many miles.

The West for me is space. Space to roam. Space to live in. Space that opens your mind. Every time I cross into Wyoming, I feel as if my mind expands, takes on a breadth of dimension beyond the usual. Space is what defines distance. Immensity is what reminds us how small is our actual place in the Universe. One thing I love to do when driving a two-lane road across the vast emptiness of the West, is pull over, turn off the engine, get out and just stand there for awhile, listening to the silence. Listening to the wind, watching other silent winds move in the far distance. One hot summer day in Nevada I stood by the vehicle and watched dust-devil tornadoes, as many as six of them at one time, etch corkscrew trails across the open basin flats.

So maybe I do live in the East, if only by a narrow margin. I'm a Great Lakes native by birth and inclination. I love our watery world here—just as much as I love the high arid desert. But I love to drive West from here, and leave the East behind, and all its cares and tribulations. That big silence is worth the trip, every time.

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Lessons from Having Been Bullied 4: Rules of Engagement

Here are the rules you ("you," meaning all of us, sooner or later) must expect to run into, if you want to interact with people who have been bullied, who have overcome being bullied, and who won't tolerate bullies who attack either themselves or others. These are rules of engagement, if you will. Ways of behaving that make all the difference, about earning trust, and keeping it.

Look, everyone fails sometimes. And sometimes good intentions go bad. Everyone makes mistakes. I'm as guilty of not walking my talk as the next person—well, maybe a little less guilty than some, because when I catch myself not walking my talk, I stop, and do my best to make amends. I don't mind it when a friend calls me on my bad behavior: sometimes we need that reminder to pay attention to our own actions. I don't mind it when someone has a bad day, blows it, and apologizes. I apologize when I need to, which is moderately often.

On the other hand, if someone is incapable of admitting they're wrong, and go out of their way to pretend nothing happened, that's not going to return them to our good graces. People who must be In The Right, who are incapable of ever admitting they were wrong, quickly become precisely those fascist autocrats that bullies are at heart: people who lash out at the world because they haven't really got a leg to stand on. Any argument that turns away from logic towards personal attack is evidence of this.

So, after this preface, here are some basic rules of engagement:

1. If you are in a position of authority, be consistent in how you apply the rules. If actions have consequences, then they need to be swift, sure, immediate, and applied evenly across the board. There can be trust built where the enforcement and application of the rules is seen to be arbitrary, opaque, and inconsistent. It's all too easy to locate hidden agendas in inconsistent enforcement of any given set of rules—whether or not there was a conscious intent, the perception of inconsistency itself is toxic, and will lead to the erosion of trust.

2. Actions always speak louder than words. Always. Without exception. People can say anything they want to, and have good intentions, and even mean what they say, and if their actions are incongruent with their words, their words will not be believed.

3. You need to look in a mirror periodically, and make sure that you are not yourself the person you most hate. Nothing is more obvious than when you project what you don't like about yourself out onto the world, project it onto others (and you might be right about them, even so), then refuse to see that you're doing to others exactly what you hate them to do to you.

4. Don't act like a parent admonishing a child. Give people the respect they deserve. You can use the parental-authority saying, "Do what I say, not what I do," but since we're all grown up now and can think for ourselves, that saying has no power: it is purely something a parent might say to a child, who through inexperience might lack judgment about a tricky situation. It is not applicable to any other situation.

5. Following up on that, kids who have been bullied naturally distrust authority figures. They distrust them because kids who have been bullied for years have often been bullied in secret—bullies can be sly, if not too smart—and parents and school authorities are often clueless, or helpless to do anything about the situation. They might not be able to act until it's too late, because their own rules may require evidence to be proven that just isn't there. Kids who are being bullied learn they can't trust adults to rescue them, save them, or make it stop. If you ever want to get those kids to trust you, never lie to them, never dismiss their fears or concerns, and never abuse the powers your authority grants you to coerce them. Maybe you can coerce them, for now—but in winning the battle, you will lose the war.

6. Entice, don't coerce. Offer solutions, suggestions, and alternatives. Coercion is forcing your will on another. It is energetic violence. Practice energetic non-violence: don't tell people what to do, ask them to do it. Encourage them, without a hidden agenda. Be honest at all times. People who have been bullied enough develop something like an intuitive lie-detector—unless you're a really good actor, or one of those sociopaths who can charm anyone into anything, people who have been bullied can almost always tell when they're being lied to. You'd be surprised at how good some of them are at detecting lies. No wonder they find it hard to trust. Even white lies are still lies.

7. Be honest. If you screw up, admit to it, and do a make-up, then everybody move on. There is no shame in making a mistake. There is only shame in covering it up, or pretending it never happened, or in refusing to apologize.

8. People who insist on Being In The Right, no matter what, will be called on their egotistical crap. No exceptions. Anyone who claims to be In The Right all the time is self-deluded at best, fascist at worst. Yes, I know "fascist" is a strong word—yet the psychology of fascism begins with the single assumption that you know better than everyone else how to run the world. The fact is, you do not: no one does. We all are making it up as we go along. If you think you're right and everyone else is wrong, and if you have the power to do something about it, you are a fascist, in fact, in activity if not in label. The root of the old saying, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," lies precisely in this psychology of Being In The Right. If you have the power to enforce your will on others, and you use that power without very good reason, you are a bully.

9. People who have been bullied will eventually develop a kind of self-confidence, and trust in their own instincts, that is unbeatable. (If they haven't been totally decimated and destroyed by their experiences.) One thing that really irks bullies is people who have self-confidence; they want to try to beat it down, suppress it, deny it. They want to make it go away. They don't want to be reminded of their own shadow weaknesses and insecurities, and the only way they know how to deal with them is to lash out at them, or those who make them think about their weaknesses. So you may always be a target, if you've developed some self-confidence. But practice in maintaining your self-confidence means remaining unperturbed by the attacks of new and old bullies alike. It can be done. It has been done. It will continue to be done.

10. Logic will defeat you, if it is consistent and rational. Bullies attack the emotions, and they also attack emotionally. Resorting to personal attack when one's argument has been shown to be hollow is the mark of a bully. Consider the ancient Socratic method of debate: asking questions designed to eventually focus in the truth, in which civil discourse rather than personal attack is paramount. No truth can be found in hatred, except the dark mirrors of self-hatred. Truth can be found together by asking the right questions, and pursuing them where they might lead. Some questions lead to Mystery—which means that you're asking the right questions, even if you don't always get an answer.

11. Everyone fails. We all fall down. As another saying goes, "Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up again." We will all fail, sometimes. We will all, for whatever reason, even for good reasons, act like someone we don't like and don't want to be, at least a few times in life. (If we manage to avoid that, I'm not sure we can call it actual living.) Living is about taking risks, living is about loving, and living is dancing. Sometimes we fall. And then we learn how to pick ourselves up again, and rejoin the dancing.

So forgiveness is part of these rules of engagement, too. No rule-sets are absolute; they cannot be absolute, and still remain humane, or compassionate. We can forgive each other our trespasses, and go on together, arm in arm.

I rather think that's what we're meant to do: to forgive each other, and ourselves, and go on, arm in arm. It's not easy: in fact, it may be harder than anything else there is.

Because one final, important lesson I've learned from being bullied is that, unless you forgive, and go on, you remain locked in the past. You remain locked in resentment, suffering, and hatred. Forgiveness is not at all about saying that what happened to you is okay: forgiveness is about letting go, about freeing yourself up from your own past, your own wounds, your own past mistakes. It's about being able to go on without carrying all that old baggage along with you, forever and ever.

Trusting others can be challenging, for those of us who've been bullied before. So the solution to that is to place your trust in what you already know to be trustworthy. And forgive the rest.

Previous entries in this occasional series:

Lessons from Having Been Bullied When Young

Lessons from Having Been Bullied 2: Non-Violent Action

Lessons from Having Been Bullied 3

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

These Few Things I Know to Be True

They say, whoever "they" are, that it's not wise in these contentious days to talk about either politics or religion, or too open about one's position on either. "They" say it only incites the fringe element to foam at mouth, even more than usual, and to target one for harassment, vilification, mockery, or worse. "They" urge us to be still, sit on our hands, don't make a noise, don't ruffle anyone's feathers, don't stand out, and don't state too strongly one's opinions lest they make one into a target.

Well, frak that.

This is what I want to write about today, so I'm going to write about it.

When I was 13, I very consciously and deliberately set out in search of what I framed, at the time, the "oldest religion" or "original religion." Being raised Lutheran, in a particularly rational and intellectual version of that faith, I had already been exposed at that age to beliefs and ideas that made no sense to me. I had already experienced several visionary and mystical encounters with Something beyond myself, beyond the everyday, and beyond anything my church ever talked about. Miracles and mysteries were something that had happened to Those People, from the Biblical stories, way Back Then, and couldn't happen now; or weren't supposed to.

It's always strange when a religion based on miracles in the past rejects them in the present moment, which contemporary rational Lutheranism tends to do. I suppose if I had been raised Catholic there might have been more of a framework for understanding my visions, more of an acceptance of them, and an ability to more strongly believe in miracles and mysteries; but if I had been raised Catholic, I probably would have been expected to enter the priesthood, which would have raised severe problems of a different nature. I would have run headlong into problems submitting my will to Church authority, and i would have had a severe problem with my sexual orientation. I am not celibate, and never want to be. I know at least three gay men who attended Catholic seminary, for at least a few years, before realizing it juts wasn't going to work out; every one of those men is well-adjusted and happy, and each of them is a profoundly spiritual individual with an active prayer life. I respect them very much.

When I was 13, I was introduced in Civics classes at my junior high school to comparative religion. We did units on the world's living religions, and we also studied the "dead" religions of ancient Greece and Rome. These are the foundation of much of Western culture and its values, so it was natural to cover them in Civics. I wonder if that's the way they're taught anymore. I remember I presented a talk before the class on the Roman Saturnalia, and its connection to later-formulated Christian festivals; it was my first understanding of religious syncretism, in which a major religion adopts the local customs in order to take them under its mantle, and co-opt them for its own purposes. (Haitian Voudoun, for example, is a syncretism of missionary Catholic Christianity and the West African tribal religions brought over by the slaves taken from their homes and sold into slavery in the New World. Several other of the Caribbean and South American "creole" religions have similar historical origins.)

When I was 13, I read Huston Smith's classic and irreplaceable overview of world belief systems, The Religions of Man. I also read a wonderful anthology titled The Choice Is Always Ours, which remains an important if little-known anthology of the universal human search for meaning and spirit. The anthology features thematically-organized excerpts from several hundred wisdom thinkers, ranging from psychology, to poetry, to scriptures from every mystical tradition, to quotes from religious teachers. The overall theme of the anthology was that there are many tributaries to the one river that is the human quest for wholeness, for oneness, for sacredness; yet all these tributaries truly lead to one ocean, the same ocean, the waters of our birth and life. The anthology was the first time I ever encountered Meister Eckhart's sayings, and Rainer Maria Rilke's poetry, and Carl Jung's psychological writings. Each of these encounters led to eventual thorough readings and re-readings of their collected works. The anthology opened many doors in my thinking; I can truly say that it changed my life, and continues to influence my perception of and thoughts about spirituality in general.

When I was 13, having read and absorbed The Choice Is Always Ours and The Religions of Man, two books that started me down a path of reading comparative religion and mysticism that I've never ceased pursuing, I began to sense, somehow, that all of the world's religious traditions, in their apparently irreconcilable diversity, also spoke to one single human quest for truth and Oneness with the Divine. By whatever name we call the gods, or god, by whatever "masks of god" we known them, there is something unitary and singular at the heart of it all.

So many wars have been fought over religious disagreements, which people are willing to die for, yet at the heart of every religion is the simply human encounter with mysticism, with revelation, with Mystery, with the Divine One. At the heart of each of the great religions there is a mystical core, an experience of Oneness, that is something that's available to every human being who has ever been born. It is our birthright as a species. All the rest is local detail.

So, when I was 13, I consciously and deliberately set out to discover the "oldest religion," the one that pre-dated all the existing ones, that was the oldest known human encounter with Mystery, and its unfolding. I set myself on a quest for the oldest truths that underlay all the more recent truths that everyone took for granted as eternal. Well, I didn't take them for granted, I wanted to look underneath and behind. In the church my family went to every Sunday, I was already looking for the man behind the curtain. There were doctrines, I had already figured out, that were not directly from revelation of the encounter with Mystery, but were human interpretations—and humans were prone to error, to hubris, to using religion for political ends, and worse. I had already seen all of this and understood it; although I would not have been able to formulate it the way I can now, years later.

I had already sensed that most religious rituals were habitual rather than inspired. That they were hollow if they were not heartfelt. That many took comfort from the ritual itself, and that the content of the ritual didn't really matter. I already knew that figures in authority were not to be trusted or depended upon—because I had learned from having been bullied that those in authority were often clueless or tacitly complicit.

What I later came to realize was that I was seeking the spiritual technology that is our human birthright, that is as old as our species, through which we have always been able to communicate with the non-physical planes of existence. I came to realize that I was seeking out those practices that underlie all religious practices: those means of connecting with the Divine, in whatever form It takes, or we conceptualize It as. The essentials of worship and dialogue. The root forms and the original experiences. Those things that probably had made us human, to begin with, and which were older than civilization. Those spiritual practices that are so old, so central, that perhaps they define us as human.

So I began to read in all the world's religions. I began to read everyone's scriptures and interpretations—and I do mean everyone. I've always been a fast reader, and I dug in deep. I read anthropology, folklore, ethnomusicology—which I majored in, later, in graduate school. I read psychology, theology, philosophy. I was a teenager in the 1970s, which was the beginning of the so-called New Age, and the personal development movements; it was the flowering of spiritual experimentation in the West, following the release of formerly unknown mystical texts from both East and West into the mainstream. So I read all of that, too. (In my library there are a lot of spirituality and psychology paperbacks from the 60s and 70s; many of these books seem to be relatively unknown these days, which is a loss in my opinion. Many of these books, I freely admit, molded and shaped my personal spirituality, and gave me the tools to understand and explain my own visionary experiences, and personal and idiosyncratic spiritual exercises.)

I found clues everywhere. I found a sense of how personal creativity is linked to divine Creation, from books like Rollo May's The Courage to Create and Matthew Fox's Original Blessing. I found some clues towards uncovering a core spiritual technology from Zen Buddhism, from the contemporary neo-pagan religions such as Wicca, from the Native American peoples of North America. (I know Turtle Island to be my true home, where I am rooted, if anywhere, even though I was also raised in Hindu and Buddhist India.)

Eventually those clues started to weave together into threads, and the threads began to weave themselves together into a tapestry—a bit frayed at the edges, at times, but nonetheless containing patterns that were consistent and revelatory.

I continued to have visionary and mystical experiences, from which I received guidance and inspiration. I have continued to do so. The earliest ones I can remember, I was probably 5 years old, when my family was still living in southern India. I can't remember any period of my life when some sort of visionary experience or altered state of consciousness has not been available to me, when I needed it. And there have been periods when the visions were taking over my life, and throwing me off-balance to the point where coping with "ordinary" reality was extremely challenging.

It's really funny if you think about it, and I doubt that the phone company cares that you forgot to pay your monthly bill because you were off somewhere having a vision! The biggest problem that I have sometimes had to cope with—and I am not at all alone in this—is being a mystic without a monastery: that is, having to cope with everyday life while not being divorced from it, not being off in a cloister somewhere where your needs are taken care of, where you have all the time you need to have visions and to engage in contemplative prayer. It's really funny, too, that all my life I've been given these visions, when there are probably monks off in a Carthusian monastery somewhere who have been praying all their long lives for something that comes so easily to me. Believe me, I don't take that for granted. I find it really funny, and I also am grateful for it, and humbled by it. There's a saying: "God is an iron." An iron is someone who commits irony. The Divine is nothing if not ironic and paradoxical, most of the time. Half of the challenge of growing up, spiritually, is figuring out that the gods want to laugh with us, not at us.

My experience and my research began to guide me to what I'd been looking for all along: shamanism.

Shaman's Dance

Within a few years of beginning my quest for the original religion, I came across shamanism, which comparative religion and mythology scholar Mircea Eliade, in his seminal book Shamanism, labeled as "archaic techniques of ecstasy." By now no doubt almost everyone has heard of shamanism; and, possibly, some who have bothered to read this far into this essay have taken an experiential workshop in shamanic practices. But in the 1970s and 1980s, hardly anyone knew of shamanism but scholars and anthropologists; shamanism had not yet gone mainstream. It was not a subject generally well-known or understood; I sometimes feel that it remains that way.

Shamanism is a form of spiritual technology as old as humanity—at least 40,000 years old, based on the evidence of the shamanic art left to us in cave paintings, pictographs, burial sites, and other surviving archaeological materials. Shamanism is practices of healing, of knowledge-seeking, of community-binding, that interact with the spirits all around us, and the Divine, to bring that knowledge and healing into everyday life.

All about the same time, around my twentieth year, I ran across lots of material on shamanism. I discovered books by Joan Halifax, Michael Harner, and several others: books that were moving at that moment from the purely academic shelves and onto the popular shelves. A lot work and wisdom has come into print on shamanism since then, and the shelf has grown from three or four key books, which remain key books, to several shelves of books ranging in quality and usefulness from beginner introductions all the way up to advanced healing work. None of us discovered this work alone; it was in the air, and a lot of people came to it at the same time. I make no claims for being a prodigy of quest, when it was more a matter of my personal needs being met by the world, when many in the world were searching for the same things.

Since there is now so much available to read on shamanism—most of it following on the heels of the contributions of those like Eliade, Harner, and Halifax, and often simply recycling their findings—I won't give a list of books here. Such lists are easy to find, nowadays.

Instead, what I'll say is that the shamanic worldview, which is remarkable and universally similar no matter where or when it comes from, is one that I now live by on a daily basis. It's my monastery, if you will. The shamanic worldview is the framework which gave me understanding of myself, my visionary experiences, and both my needs and my purpose in life. I interact with those other realities every day; usually very quietly and simply, with no drama or fanfare or announcement. Nothing is more ordinary.

My attitude about spiritual technology is that of an engineer of energetic anatomy and energetic interaction. My mindset is not mechanistic, however, but very organic, intuitive, and adaptive.

The point is: Shamanism is personal, and experiential. It is even experimental, in the scientific or engineering sense of the word: you try something, and if it works, you develop on it. You learn from experience, and any wisdom you accumulate is based more on experience than on any other mode of learning.

One universal truth that all the mystics tell us is that: Everything is always changing all the time. Nothing remains static, not even the dead. And everything that is, is alive. Everything. The Universe is a living being, and all its parts are alive. When you can feel that, know that, sense that, every day, in your bones as well as in your mind, you'll have some idea of what I'm talking about.

And since everything is alive, it all deserves our respect, our love, and our compassion. We are given amazing gifts of grace, once we tune into this. And there is no greater gift than to give it all back, thereby increasing the Universe's own constantly creative growth and change.

Shaman, from Spiral Dance

Thus my own search for the original religion—although "religion" is no longer the applicable term—was satisfied. This is a search I still pursue, still experience and practice, and see no end to the roads it has led me to discover. I continue to research, learn, and have experiences. I can say this for experience: given enough practice, the extraordinary becomes ordinary. I don't mean that it becomes bland or mundane. Rather, it become something you just deal with, daily, without making it into some big deal with a lot of drama or bells and whistles around it. You just live your life, as before, while being simultaneously aware of those other planes of existence going on around you at the same time. You pay attention to messages that come from those other planes, no matter what form they take—the ability to recognize those messages is something only experience can teach you—and you work with what you're given, and given to do, with what lands on your plate every day, and a little bit more. It's a life that's full of paradox and contradiction, yet those contradictions and paradoxes are held in dynamic balance by Mystery, on some higher plane of order and meaning. You don't always get to know what's going on, and you don't always get to know the end of every story you're a part of, however temporarily. You learn to embrace that. After all, Unknowing can be as great a power in your life as knowing.

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Singing Dead

In most musical instruments the resonator is made of wood while the actual sound generator is of animal origin. In cultures where music is still used as a magical force, the making of an instrument always involves the sacrifice of a living being. That being's soul then becomes part of the instrument and in the tones that come forth, the "singing dead," who are ever present with us, make themselves heard.
—Jocelyn Godwin, Harmonies of Heaven and Earth

If we extend to the Earth the feeling that it's a living being, then even the metals we take, refine, and use in making musical instruments still give us that sense of the animal's soul being in the instrument. So Indonesian metallophones and gongs in the gamelan are still the voices of the singing dead. There is a reverence for gamelan instruments in Indonesia: one treats them like living beings; one does not step over them; one does not show them the soles of one's feet, which is considered rude as the bottoms of one's feet are usually dirty; one offers incense and food to the large gong, to feed the instrument that is considered the keeper of the soul of the entire ensemble. The large gong is played once at the end of every long cycle of a piece of music; gamelan music is structured cyclically rather than linearly; and the most important instrument in the ensemble, the largest gong, is played least often. It's not the front-row soloist instrument: it's the heart and root and center that we return at the end of every cycle, and the end of all music itself.

we are the stars which sing
we sing with our light

we are the birds of fire
we fly over the sky

our light is a voice

we make a road for the spirit to pass over

—Algonquian Indian chant

So many cultures have called the arm of our Milky Way galaxy, which can be seen in our night skies, the Bridge of Heaven, or the River of Souls. The pathway of the dead to the afterlife, or the next life. So many cultures have looked up at night and seen the stars look back at them, very much alive and watching. So many people have felt that the stars, apparently unchanging and eternal, have been the one thing that never changes, never lets them down. Sometimes they don't appear, when the Earth is in upheaval, or enraged; but they return when things quiet down again, still there, still lighting the night sky and the dim roads we walk in our dreams.

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Friday, January 22, 2010

a meditation on tools


a lesson in how to change shape

flick of movement
in the corner of the eye out the window
a monarch butterfly in winter

resolves to become a dried leaf
blown before the oncoming storm

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Earth Spirals

Spirals made in my garden, during the last warm days in November, before the first snow. A last resurgence of the earth spirits before the quiet dormant months. We won't see these patterns again till spring. Then they'll emerge from the melting snow like crocus emerging from the soil.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Wood and Water

Images from Presque Isle River, Porcupine Mtns., MI, October 2009

wild white eyes
of water blur and run—
the long stream falls

encircling winds
carve mouths in white driftwood—
cedar speaking ghosts

ticking of stones
along the wooden spine,
a line of ravens

stone waves scatter
round ingots between roots:
slip of dice

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Woodcarving 2

As a first set of projects with which to learn my woodcarving tools, I made a series of enso relief carvings into small slabs of wood. I used my Dremel rotary tools to make the reliefs, shaping them after brush-stroked circles brushed onto the wood. The wood is scrap pine, stained with a redwood lacquer, then carved out.

I made six or seven of these pieces, and gave most of them away as Winter Solstice gifts, keeping only this one, which I thought was the best of the set, and my favorite. This one is currently hanging on the wall in a corner of my kitchen. The first one I made I gave to the friend who encouraged me to start working with wood, and working in three dimensions rather than continuing to work in two.

Consider them practice pieces, sketches for later woodwork sculpture, small little practice pieces that develop skills and might lead towards something more like actual art. I don't view these as finished, accomplished carvings; rather, something to work out technique and learn from doing, on the way to making something more substantial.

I made these enso carvings starting in November, working out in the garage while the weather was still warm, and worked into December, to finish them before mailing them off as gifts. I have a few more wood pieces prepared on my basement workbench now, it being too cold to work in the garage. I really need to get a table saw, which will make sizing the wood blocks much easier. At the moment I have borrowed a friend's scroll saw, which is fine for cutting smaller pieces, but limited to that; although it might be interesting at some point to play with the scroll saw's ability to cut curved shapes. I still have to figure out how to deal with the sawdust; although I saw a woodworking article in a magazine that suggested using an ordinary box fan with a furnace filter strapped to it, to suck up the sawdust. So that might work. I cannot wait until spring to continue working, I need to work right now. One of my Dremel tools is rechargeable and cordless, so I plan to take it along on my next roadtrip, and do some carvings along the way. Driftwood or found scraps as materials.

This evening I made a drawing of a bonsai tree. I did it from memory, from the bonsai room at the Conservatory in St. Paul, MN.

I'm thinking about what forms and patterns I might trace or stencil onto woodblocks to carve out.

I was thinking earlier this week about what images I might like to make, such as bamboo stems and leaves on a longer piece of wood. I've been choosing my scrapwood for interesting knots and patterns, things already in the wood that suggest what to do with it. Each piece of wood gives you a sense of what to do with it, if you spend time holding and looking at the wood.

Then suddenly I had the realization that I am developing skills separately that are eventually going to converge. I've been learning how to draw. I've been learning how to work in wood, both relief and more three-dimensional sculpting.

It occurred to me, therefore, that what I'm teaching myself to do, eventually, is to take up woodblock printing. Perhaps even woodcut illustration. I now have the tools in hand, and am learning the skills, to do relief carving that could lead to woodblock printing. I'll need to look into hand-press inks and wood type. I might try carving type into a woodblock at some point, too. I've done handset type before, but I haven't carved type into a block of wood. That might be an interesting challenge.

Meanwhile, still learning these new skills, still developing craft and technique, still only beginning to get better at each.

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and come to rest not in struggle's evasion
not in some sense of duty or disregard
not ever as escape to lands seen only inward
not to stay, to saturate in drowning sorrow's plagues

but come to rest here even as everything else still happens
to rest in pain, hate, suffering, judgment, angst, torpor
and joy, and clean water to bathe in, in wings wrapped out
in red berries by a rainsoaked trail, mist on the lake,
    the sun absent and present, moon full moon bright sun
    moon sun gray light

to sun like noon even cloud arid desert dry ice
in wings alight obscure veiled brilliant gleam
fold of ear canal into labyrinth void red loon's eye
emerge chipmunk den summer cave cedar stripling moss pine shout

to cave of caves the land being the land
duress spent tented at treeline's edges, peering
to silence interrupted unvoiced articulate speech of doves
run through still to where stillness can be silent, unanswered

and those pure narratives of self reflecting self detach
and drift away into no need to know if they self-exist
those sunlit fields of words deep into necessary twilight
and self comes to rest in silence as deep as mountain root
    and world spine and snow-scraped waste
    and long days of nothing much

intrusive between these poles of rabbit and god and sacrifice
into in out of out between every point of sapphire outcrop
in presence of time becoming timeless each night
inner absence make sky into stone into seal door

door of worlds opens out silver blue gold black
frame of entry make heart to stone to prayer
circles enscribed in air over stone spiral sun dagger
star of reclamation invitation moon risen to sun scribe

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Robinson Jeffers' Last Poems

I recently discovered a first edition copy of the last published book of Robinson Jeffers' poems, The Beginning & the End, and other poems. This was a posthumous collection, although some of the poems had been organized and collected by Jeffers over the decade preceding his death.

It's a philosophical poetry collection, the last thoughts written of a thoughtful poet who had lived a dramatic life and written dramatically about life. These are final statements, some very powerful, some more general summations of life. I want to focus on some of the latter summations, as they appear in short poems that are more statements than images.

The conventional wisdom is that poetry should show, not tell: that is, describe and evoke, rather than tell us what to think or feel. Generally, I feel strongly that a poem needs to evoke an experience, or draw you into itself and recreate an experience in you: to make you feel something, rather than just tell you what you're supposed to be feeling. Generally, the "show, don't tell" rule is a good one to follow.

Yet there is also room, at times, for more philosophical poetry, which examines ideas, which examines life from a thoughtful and interpretative mode, rather than a purely descriptive, narrative, or evocative mode. Jeffers is in many ways best known for these other modes; many consider his greatest poems to be his long narratives, such as Cawdor, or The Double Axe. Some of his other, nature-inspired shorter poems, lyric in tone if original in structure, evoke the descriptive or imagistic mode. These are the types of poetry Jeffers is best known for, so I think his shorter philosophical poems often get overlooked.

I want to respond to some of these late, shorter, philosophical poems. My best response to Jeffers' poetry is artistic: his poems often evoke an image for me, or inspire a poem of my own, or words and image combined. I reproduce here one or two short excerpts, to respond to; and also as photos, to also show the beautiful design and typography of this last collection of poems.

It is only a little planet / But how beautiful it is. That sums up so much of Jeffers' poetic viewpoint, and his mark upon my own. The double vision of immensity combined with love for what little we can know of that immensity. We are so small, in that vastness of the Universe; and important perhaps only to ourselves, in our own minds; yet our little, fragile planet is so incredibly beautiful. Even in its most harsh and terrible aspects, it is astoundingly lovely. There is so much wonder that we can never exhaust it, with our short lives. It would take forever to run out of beauty. And even though we ourselves will run out, and fail, the beauty will still go on, still be there for those who come after us.

A late, final ars poetica, those poems poets write about their art, about themselves. There are lines that serve as ars poetica, throughout Jeffers' long writing career; phrases from the longer narratives, and entire shorter poems, that tell us what he thought of his own art, and how to accomplish it. But this to me seems to be the kernel of it: A poet is one who listens / To nature and his own heart; and to nature and our hearts we must always listen, is the implication. Which I respond to with wholehearted agreement. Many of the poets who have most strongly influenced me, as someone who occasionally makes poems, are poets such as Jeffers who listen to nature: Whitman, Dickinson, Gary Snyder, Basho, among others. Not all poetry, and not even the best poetry, is always human-centered. Sometimes great poems have no humanity in them. Of course, being made by humans, there is always a relationships involved, between poet and subject: a connection woven from word and image between what is human and what is nameless; so that all poems in one way human-centered, in that they are made by humans.

But human-centered is not necessarily human-centric. Jeffers was often at pains to state that poetry does not always have to be about humans and their desires and concerns; that poetry does not have to be focused upon human need, human action, and human idea. This was one of the ways in which he strongly influenced many poets who came after him (including Snyder). In some ways, when Jeffers says to leave the poet alone, I think he means that human action can be distracting rather than supportive, to the poet, to the artistic process.

My own experience has often been that I feel clearest of artistic purpose when away from people, when far out in the wilderness, when on a roadtrip or camping at an isolated state park where few are gathered. My mind is clearer for not being entangled with worries and drama brought on by other people. I need this, I realize: I need it, at least to some deep extent, I need it enough that I must make time for it, and thus make time for trips away from the routines, from the daily circuit of self-involvement that is people worrying about their own lives. I return recharged, even refreshed. And when out away from the whirl, I often am given good poems, and good photographs.

This is another short ars poetica, but more than that it's a summation of what Jeffers built there on the Carmel shore: his home, the tower next to the house, and the several hundred trees he planted. This late poem is prophetic: many of those trees are gone, and the desirable real estate of the peninsula has crowded around his once-isolated house with new house after house built close together and congested. It is still a beautiful place, for all the houses crowded in. One can still walk along the shoreline and look out at the limitless ocean. One can still stand at the foot of the tower and see nothing but sky, rock, and waves. And now Tor House and Hawk Tower are landmarks to be preserved, because of the granitic strength of the poet's words. So even though development of the peninsula and neighbors' houses have eaten up many of his trees, I believe the stones of his house will endure. I love the idea that "flower-soft verse" is sometimes harder than stone: that Jeffers' home is being preserved proves him to be again prophetic.

The other mode of poetry, not yet mentioned here, is the prophetic mode, or vatic mode: the sometimes didactic but necessary mode in which the poet speaks to the people as a prophet, speaks to future generations, promises to speak only truth no matter how painful truth is to hear, and risks rejection on the basis of that truthful speech. Many unpopular poets are truthful speakers; many poets famed and lauded during their own lifetimes are liars, in that they give us not truth, but what we want to hear. These are the famous and popular and best-selling poets, often enough, who play to the crowd, who pander and diminish their own visions as a means of becoming popular. A kind of prostitution, if you will. Jeffers was frequently harsh about this type of poet: harsh and uncompromising. He could afford to be. It is a prophet's necessity.

I find myself sometimes sharing that harsh, uncompromising viewpoint about the poems I write. But then, I'm not trying to make a living from poetry; nor am I trying to make a worldly reputation. I don't need to prostitute my poems because I have no ambition for them except for them to truthful speaking. I respond so strongly to the vatic mode in Jeffers' poems because it serves as a model for the necessity I feel to be truthful in my own. If only accidentally prophetic, if not deliberately vatic. I do write shamanic poetry, just as I make shamanic art, and music. But that's another mode of truthful speaking, not necessarily intended to be either prophetic or didactic. I don't like to lecture: to tell, rather than show.

Nonetheless, I think this vatic mode in Jeffers' poetry is both essential and necessary. So much of what he wrote was essentially prophetic, and much of that was deeply rooted in the ancient Greek classics. The epic mode can be found in his longer narrative poems, and his verse dramas such as Medea. But the epic mode, in Jeffers, often shares mental space with the prophetic mode. His narratives show us the violence of what will happen, as consequence, to the larger-than-life human failings and jealousies that set great dramas into motion. Each of the narrative poems contain passages of rhapsodic description, of beautiful fragments of nature-writing, buried in and around the human dramas. It is a mistake to believe that these are digressions. Rather, they're reflections and commentary on the human action of the narrative: such passages provide setting, but they are also mirror-reflections in nature's eye of where the people go wrong.

This brings us back around to Jeffers' sense of our proper place in nature: not at its center, but as small animals on a small planet in a very ordinary spiral galaxy. What a small planet it is, yet it is so very beautiful. If we remember nothing else from these last poems, we do well to remember this. So very small in the grand scheme of things, we are nonetheless enacted by and enact with that terrible beauty that is life in nature on our planet. And we are part of nature, not separate from it, and not lords over it. We are one with our small planet, and its beauty is our beauty.

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Shiva on the Plains

and Shiva dancing in the flames,
and Shiva dancing in the flames,
and Shiva telling us through flames,
the world, the world is fire.

hot blood on the running plains,
the young flamekeeper master
killed by old, old hatreds,
the young boy cut and bleeding,
his blood running on blood-red stones,
and Shiva dances in the blaze,
creating, destroying,
the red light of heaven in his eyes,
he smiles forever, engulfed in flames,
the room burning, the house,
timbers blazing up between close walls,
the neighborhood ablaze, the city leering
on the hill, orange light rising through the pall,
smoke spilling across the hills, the valley
pounded by sun, the world itself in flames.

the god looks on and dances,
the red light of heaven in his burning eyes,
smiling at the stones;
beneath his feet, the corpses in the sun,
rooted dismembered trees,
trampled and burning, the perfume of death, reborn,
wild grasses and circling carrion birds,
the soil of the sun,
the young boy cut and scattered,
the cables of his life spread
split across the anvil of the sun,
fire burning over all, hot red sun,
the sky itself aflame,
and Shiva dances in the flames,
and Shiva dancing in the flames,
creating, destroying,
crushing the demons of noise,
dancing in the circling blaze,
a fiery diamond in his grasp,
his hands a flicker of blood,
his hands drumming the beating heart,
drumming the rhythm of the mountains singing,
the soil of the sun,
the lights of heaven in the god’s still eyes.

the world is burning, the world is fire,
the watchfires built high, immense upon
the anvil of the sun, air striking blows like fever,
stark and shaking and gigantic,
vultures gathering around the torch of self-immolation,
feeding on the well-cooked dead,
and Shiva dances in the flames,
staring across the shimmering devastation,
the world a wall of fire, hot blood hiding in the stone,
red tongues licking at the sun,
burning every wall on which the shadows flicker,
destroying what the shaper sees
enscribed within the circle
of the known, knowing what the red eyes read,
destroying all that has been made, what will be made,
weak hands sifting through the bloodied ashes
of the sun, the young boy cut and shattered on the stone,
water pouring through him and becoming steam,
and Shiva smiling in the flames.

it is enough, Lord, it is too much,
and Shiva dances in the flames,
and Shiva dances in the flames,
and Shiva dancing in the flames,
and Shiva telling us through flames,
the world,
the world is fire.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Gratitudes and Lessons 2009

I come to this late, weeks late, something I annually try to complete by the turn of the calendar year. It seems I've been late all fall; or at least since I had a relapse of chronic illness. One of its worst aspects is debilitating fatigue: I get tired quickly, and although I can go for several hours at a time, and occasionally a day or two, when I hit that fatigue wall, I am halted in my tracks, sometimes suddenly trembling with fatigue, and I have to stop, right now. So I often feel as if the Things To Do list gets longer while I can only manage one or two important things a day. it does clarify your priorities, though. Extra errands get dropped. When you're done, you're done, sometimes for the rest of the evening, sometimes for more than a day. Sometimes I can go a few days feeling good, then I must take a rest day and literally Do Nothing all day. I "lose" full days sometimes. So I'm always feeling like I'm late, like I've fallen behind, like I'm catching up from being held back, from being delayed. Feeling late has itself become a chronic condition.It just takes longer to get things done. You have to accommodate that.

One of the lessons of this past autumn of 2009, when this relapse hit me, after the stress in late September through mid-October of dealing with my uncle's death and my aunt's dementia (I want to say madness, but I hold back from that word, just, because she is not to blame), was that I must take those days off when I need to. If I don't get anything done for a whole day, so be it. It's important to my physical health to not push myself over the edge into collapse. So I've learned to pay very close attention to my energy level, throughout the day, and rest when I must. I've learned to take more naps than I used to. And a short nap, on some days, is fully restorative. I also do hours of Reiki on myself, now, almost every day and night. You learn to slow down and pause, because you have to. Often it feels like there's no choice: it's stop for awhile now, or really truly hit that wall hard, and be stopped hard for a lot longer.

I learned in 2009 that, like most people, I can be my own worst enemy. By that I mean that I can tie myself up in mental knots, get stuck in spiraling maelstroms of mind-drama, and make things worse. I'm told by more than one source that one of the risks smart people are prone is thinking they can solve their problems by thought alone. I've certainly got myself stuck in that trap; and I know many others who have done likewise. But you cannot think your way out of an emotional dilemma; you can't intellectualize your feelings or spiritual crises to solve them. You have to go with your gut. Smart people tend to forget to turn the mind off, every so often, and go on instinct and intuition. By now in life I have a pretty well-developed and well-trained intuition, and still I can get myself stuck in mind-drama. One of the worst patterns is that when you've tied yourself up in knots, you forget that you already have lots of tools to unknot yourself: you forget that you can meditate, do exercise, do spiritual practices, and many other things. And when you do remember, later, you can feel dumb for having forgotten about your tools.

You have to learn to forgive yourself for that, however, and not beat yourself up about it. You must learn patience with your own process. When I get tired of my own process, of feeling like crap yet another day, I have to remind myself to be patient. You can't "get over it" by an act of will alone. It will take as long as it takes. There is no overall plan, and there is no failure for not living up to some arbitrary schedule. I get tired of feeling stuck; and I've learned that I can't afford to get upset about feeling stuck. It's a waste of energy. Getting upset about feeling upset is one of those spiral maelstroms—it's laughable, really, the irony of being upset about being upset. Sometimes you have to laugh at the absurdity of this whole process!

I come late to finding things to feel gratitude for. I am still struggling with feeling grateful; the past year has seemed so hard, so much like crap being piled on top of crap. All too often I've felt like situations just keep getting worse and worse, and getting better is just a myth. It's all too easy to see the glass as eternally half-empty.

I come late to this annual practice. Things have changed. So I must do it differently. I must break the pattern, a little, because life itself has changed. I generally back away from being so self-revealing, mostly because I don't have the hubris to imagine my personal problems are interesting to anyone but me. I set a time limit on this writing, this more personal than usual writing, so that I don't ramble on eternally. That would bore anyone.

The core practice of doing gratitudes, I've learned over time, is to arrive at the point where you are grateful for the challenges, difficulties, obstacles, and roadblocks. When you write do gratitudes, you start with something small, and you eventually arrive near the paradox of being grateful for what has caused you harm or suffering. This is the paradox where you come face to face with the question of why bad things happen to good people—the question behind theodicy. The point is not to resolve the paradox, or answer the unanswerable question: but to face them, to live them, to know them. Because the Divine lives at the point of such paradoxes.

I find myself, this year, able to be very grateful indeed for the lessons received and learned from the several crises of this past year. I am finding it nearly impossible, thus far, to be grateful for the crises themselves. I find myself wanting to keep the lessons learned, and forget the rest. And I allow myself to do that, this year, as an altered practice: as a means of not dwelling on the crises, of not recycling and reliving them in mind, while nonetheless keeping what each one taught. And there have been several crises this past year.

I am immensely grateful to the people—friends and family—who I phoned during the lava-hot peak points of each crisis, who helped me talk them through, and helped me work out the lessons that came forward. From these friends and family—my friend Bill, my friend Pamela, my sister Pam and brother-in-law David, and others—came the moment when we were able to crystallize what I was going through into words; specifically, into slogans and reminders and aphorisms that I could keep, take forward, and remind myself of when necessary. Some of them have ended up as post-it notes on my kitchen cabinets, where I see and read them a few times a day, to help groove them into my consciousness. (A technique I recommend entirely because it works.)

I am grateful to those living teachers whose words, written and spoken, have provided me guidance through all these crises. Not just this past year, of course, but for many years already, and likely for many to come. I find myself increasingly turning towards the Buddhist portion of my idiosyncratic spiritual practice (a tradition of one), and earlier in the year, I found myself repeating the taking-of-vows as a kind of mantra: I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. It doesn't take a commitment to become a monk to say this; there is plenty of room in Buddhism, which at root is more of a spiritual technology than a religion, for other belief systems to be included. So I have no difficulty saying that Buddhism is part of my idiosyncratic spiritual practice, and no difficulty reconciling going deeper into it with a vow while at the same time not denying the rest of it. Those living teachers are Dr. Caroline Myss and Pema Chödrön. I get a great deal from their teachings, that helps me deal with whatever is going on at the moment. On long roadtrips, I often listen to one or another of their audiobooks.

I find myself grateful for those things that I have doubted are good for me. I feel grateful for the advice of my doctor, even when I was reluctant to act on it. He turns out to be wiser than expected—and did your doctor ever give you a hug as part of the consultation, when you needed it? Mine does. I'm grateful for having a doctor that really gets what I've been going through.

I'm grateful to the Universe for providing me with what I needed, when I needed it—more accurately, when I was finally open to receiving it, to hearing it, to letting it in. You can knock for hours at a door but if they don't want to hear you, you won't be let in. Sometimes what the Universe provides is unexpected. I have learned to follow my intuition, even if I don't understand why or wherefrom, and go where I'm lead to go. So I find unexpected treasures and gifts; I'm grateful each time that I am led to those moments and gifts, and I repeat that gratitude now, in general.

Here's a short list of gifts received via intuition, that took the form of teachings given via reading books that appeared in front of this past year. I guess I was finally open to some of these teachings. And I did take some solace from them. At semi-random, the pages fall open to:

There comes a time in the grief process when the person remaining must give herself permission to go on with life, just as she gave permission for the loved one to die and pass over. While going on alone is not easy, it gets easier over time. And though difficult especially at first, setting yourself free from grief is as much a blessing as setting the loved one free from her finished life. When you are alive there is nothing to be done but to go on living. Make it as easy and as gentle as possible for yourself to continue and go on.
—Diane Stein, from On Grief and Dying: Understanding the soul's journey. This is a book on grief and life from an eclectic neo-pagan perspective, a perspective in which other lives and levels of reality are acknowledged. Grief counseling from this perspective is rare and thus very much appreciated. Stein is also the author of one of the definitive guides for the Reiki practitioner, titled Essential Reiki.

Don't be caught off guard by "griefbursts." Sometimes heightened periods of sadness overwhelm us when we're in grief. These times can seem to come out of nowhere and can be frightening and painful. Even long after the death, something as simple as a sound, a smell or a phrase can bring on a "griefburst." Allow yourself to experience griefbursts without shame or self-judgment, no matter where and when they occur. If you would feel more comfortable, retreat to somewhere private when these strong feelings surface.
—Alan D. Wolfelt, from Healing Your Grieving Heart: 100 practical ideas. A nice little book you can just let fall open to any page and find some timely thought about the process. Not the sort of book you sit down and read all the way through in one sitting, and not intended to be.

One lesson I've learned is that my feelings, especially feelings related to grief and memory, are like the weather: they just happen. I'm no more in control of my feelings than I am of the weather. My friend Jane, understanding griefbursts as being like cloudbursts, gave me a Christmas ornament as a talisman: a small snowflake inscribed with the words Let it snow. If I feel a wave of emotion come over me, for no reason, I don't try to block it, I just let it snow. The weather is the weather, your feelings are your feelings.

Years ago, probably 1982 or so, I wrote a poem, perhaps presciently, that I have recalled to myself during several times of grief. I repeat it here, as a way of summarizing how unexpectedly memory, grief, and recovery can come over you, without warning. I had already experienced some deaths of important loved ones in my life, before this poem was written; nonetheless it seems more deeply embedded outside time than I can explain.

after elegies

we move normally, as though
nothing were changed.
but the lie is made by the hands
that, filling a glass,
slow and become still,
as though remembering.
and we move quietly, just as if
you were sleeping in the
next room. give us time;

"now, it will take some time,"
they said. but I still
pause in moving, as though
you had just spoken a word,
stepping out of the bedroom,
into the light,
into me.

Where did that poem come from, twenty or so years before my parents died? I can't account for it. Sometimes poems seem to come from outside normal time, years before the events manifest that give them meaning. I can't explain that; I just that it's happened to me more than once.

I have never heard an ill person praised for how well she expressed fear or grief or was openly sad. On the contrary, ill persons feel a need to apologize if they show any emotions other than laughter. Occasional tears may be passed off as the ill person's need to "let go"; the tears are categorized as temporary outbursts instead of understood as part of an ongoing emotion. Sustained "negative" emotions are out of place. It a patient shows too much sadness, he must be depressed, and "depression" is a treatable medical disease.

Too few people, whether medical staff, family, or friends, seem willing to accept the possibility that depression may be the ill person's most appropriate response to the situation. I am not recommending depression, but I do want to suggest that at some moments even fairly deep depression must be accepted as part of the experience of illness.

—Arthur W. Frank, from At the Will of the Body: Reflections on illness. This is a particularly wise and relevant book for anyone experiencing a chronic or life-threatening illness. It comes out the author's personal experience as well as his research into medical sociology.

The model of the Perfect Patient is stoic acceptance, or cheerful existential contrariness, i.e. laughing in the face of doom. If you can't live up to the expected stereotypes, you're given subtle messages that there's something further wrong with you. There are friends who disappear on you, who abandon you to your fate, if you're too upset too much of the time. There are others who will stick with you, but even they have a hard time in the long run. The Model Patient is a stoic, cheerful patient. Nobody's allowed to feel bad anymore. As a culture we stigmatize and fear those who feel bad; one imagines how much further this attitude can be pushed in our already over-medicated society. And so the chronically ill can come to feel even more isolated, alienated and abandoned because even the staunchest supporters can't follow through with infinite saintly support. You end up feeling even more cut off than before; and if you find yourself feeling resentful for being abandoned, you feel guilty because you understand burnout and don't want to blame anybody. Quite a welter of confusion that becomes.

I've learned this past year to let that welter just be what it is, and not try too hard to sort it out. Honest feeling is better than denial, even if some part of you judges yourself for feeling that way. That self-judgment is one of the most toxic aspects of illness, grief, or recovery: because it isn't socially approved or understood. But you have to let it rain, no matter what. You must get it out of your system, or be dragged back down into it. You don't have to tell everyone what you're feeling about their lack of support, on any given day; and don't judge your own feelings even so. Feel what you feel.

So one of the big lessons learned this past year has been simple acceptance of whatever it is I'm feeling. Maybe I'll feel more infinitely grateful later; I don't right now, and I accept that as it is. Today it's sunny outside, and warm enough to sit on the porch; tomorrow, who knows.

No matter how relatively small your illness is, compared to other illnesses that others experience, you have the right to your feelings about it. Your illness may not be as life-threatening as some others: but don't believe that you have no right, therefore, to feel scared, worried, depressed, or just plain freaked out. Without creating more drama than necessary, you need to acknowledge those feelings–especially fear, which lies at the root of so much else.

I spent the first half of 2009 trying to make sense of why I felt like such a victim of circumstance. I was stuck in Victim mode, no doubt of it; but the Victim was playing offense for the Saboteur, too. There are few more effective ways in which to sabotage my own healing than by feeling like a victim. Yet the flip side of the Victim archetype is the Victor: when you strip away a lot of the chaff, take away all the distractions, and get down to the root level of survive-or-die, you uncover this tenacious part of yourself that may be killed but can never be defeated. For me, this is the Warrior part of myself, and it's come forward in my life every time a crisis or conflict has stripped everything else away. A lesson of this past year has been to call up the Victor, and the Warrior, more regularly, at early need—and need has been greater than ever—not just as a last resort. Don't let it get that far: slay those inner predators who would try to take you down as often as you have to. They will rise up again, and so you just keep on slaying them as often as necessary. Think of one of those lightsaber battles in any of the Star Wars movies: light as a symbol of the Warrior's righteousness, light as a tool for defeating the predator within us all.

And there have been parallel lessons about surrender. Surrender, which in this context is a synonym for faith, for trust. Trust was a big issue for me, earlier this year. I felt betrayed and abandoned many times, culminating in asking that basic question behind theodicy again: Why does this crap keep happening to me? What did I do to deserve it? But asking why? is one of the most suffering questions in the world. You almost never get an answer; or an answer you can accept. Asking why? doesn't usually get you anywhere.

At one of those mid-year crisis points, I had to strip this asking down to a single aphorism, which has carried me a great way towards peace, for which I am infinitely grateful: Trust that which you already know to be trustworthy . . . and let go of the rest. I trust in the earth. I trust in the stars, and their light given to me at night, which is one light that has never betrayed me or been absent from my notice. The stars are eternally there. I trust in the land, to my connection to the land.

In my travels as a wandering photographer, the images that I make are equally about the land and the sky; no matter what their ostensible subject is, I feel the land in them, and the sky in them, as presences I am connected to, that lift me up, and that I celebrate. No matter how slowly the camera moves, those presences, those spirits, give their all into my lens, and through the lens, into my being. When a viewer tells me that some photograph of mine has given them some experience of that connection to presence, I am deeply humbled, deeply rewarded. I trust my cameras, and my photographer's eye, and I trust my ability to just stop and look long enough to see what's really there before making an image. Releasing the shutter is almost the last thing you do.

the Grand Tetons, Wyoming, September 2008

I trust my creative process, I trust its rotation between different media, different crops, different means and ends. I trust that the river dark water that symbolizes that universal creative force behind everything I do will always be there. I trust that I will make some kind of art on the very day I die; or be preparing to make new art.

There's yet more to say, more to be grateful for, more lessons to relate. And I am at my self-imposed time limit. I must stop here for now, shift gears, and go do something else for awhile. I must go off and do what errands restlessly call when I feel refreshed in my spirit, after this writing.

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Friday, January 08, 2010

In the Garden of Memory

My mother died two years ago today. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't affected: in truth, it's been an emotional day, more emotional than usual. I've also been more tired today than all week, physically and mentally. I'm sure these are all related events. I'm feeling emotional, as I said, so I probably am not coherent to write anything that isn't a ramble or random walk, and I probably shouldn't, and I'm going to anyway.

My mother's death began the process, in earnest, of getting to where I am now. First there was six months of going through the house, through 30 years of accumulated belongings, very disorganized because my mother had had Alzheimer's for at least a dozen years at that point. There was the funeral, almost exactly seven months after my father's. There was the vast amount of bank paperwork and inheritance details. There was my need to buy my own home, and move into it, while still clearing out the old belongings from the old house. There was the need to sort through what I was going to keep, during the move. There was moving day itself, and the disruption of that; there are still a few prized possessions and books that I cannot find anywhere, and have given up for lost. During all that there was the diagnosis of and initial recovery period from my chronic illness, ulcerative colitis; which looking back through my life, I can see that I had had at least one or two undiagnosed episodes in the 1990s. There was a lot more to deal with.

And that was only 2008.

The following year, 2009, turned out to be even worse. It was the worst year I've survived recently, even worse than the preceding three or four years, during which I had given up my own life and career to take care of my parents, to move in with them and be the live-in caregiver, and make all the medical decisions. I'm able to be clinical, and I'm able to understand the technical aspects of medicine, having been around it my whole life, so I was usually the family member that the doctors and nurses liked to talk to, because they didn't have to dumb it down. That was a mixed blessing, for me.

It seems that almost everyone I know and care about had a bad year in 2009. Sure, some of that was the global socioeconomic climate of recession, unemployment, and financial and political crises. But there was more to it than that. There was something on the global level that was like the whole human race was struggling, was fighting for its survival, mostly against itself. Perhaps this is species-level adolescent turbulent. Perhaps it's the lingering Millenarian vibes from the Big Calendar Change at the year 2000, with all the attendant apocalyptic visions and fears and desires. Now the apocalypse rhetoric is all focused on 2012, when the Mayan Calendar changes over from the Fifth World to the Sixth World. (I have to say, it's one of the more stupidly misunderstood apocalypses of late, because most of the people fearing it don't even realize that it was never prophesied as be the end of this world, but as the beginning of the next. But then, most people seem to want to see that glass as half-empty rather than half-full; or are addicted to the drama of being in fight-or-flight mode all the time.)

Although I know there's no apocalypse, it's still an uphill battle to to fight against it. Too many people want it. You can see it in the national discourse whenever there's a new terrorist threat, or even an evaded event: the dumbing down happens, the rhetoric turns hateful and emotionally-driven, it becomes very Tribal with the usual "you're either with us or you're against us" rhetoric. Nuance and balanced thoughtfulness get trodden upon. Words become insults on a whole new level, words like "socialist" or "PC"—both of which have become swear-words like "Commie" or "faggot" were forty or fifty years ago. It's all about having a scapegoat to hate—anything but looking in the mirror and seeing what we don't want to see about ourselves. And we seem to be so impatient that we don't even allow time for wise solutions to be developed; everyone demands fixes Now, and never gets them, and then we turn on each other in blame and revenge. It's all so very kindergarten.

I know there's no apocalypse. i have faith in apocatastasis, which I know to be more true, always.

So why was 2009 so horrible? It's hard to say, exactly. I did feel like I was fighting an uphill battle all year long. 2009 was also the year my uncle died, after a long protected illness, and my aunt was pretty much taken over by her dementia. Probably Alzheimer's, but it's undiagnosed because she hates and fears doctors and won't deal with them or listen to any advice. I drove out to Connecticut to help them out, for awhile, and the stress and anxiety of that trip were bad enough to trigger a relapse of my chronic illness. That was October, and I've been in full relapse, feeling sick and tired ever since; and I'm not well yet. I might be recovering, finally, but I'm still having symptoms, and still tired all the time. That's the truth of a chronic illness: you don't just "get over it."

When your parents die, you don't just "get over it." I've had to break off contact with some people I used to care about a lot, because they were acting as if, by now, I should have just "gotten over it," and resumed my life at full speed. Well, you know, I was just about ready to do that—when October happened, Connecticut happened, and I got sick again. I felt like I was just beginning to get back on track—and then I got derailed again. That led to some serious depression—let's call it situational depression rather than chronic—and for now, I'm doing what I need to do to recover from that, as well.

You don't just "get over it," when so many blows happen in such a short time. It can take years to recover. There have been times when the suffering was so bad, I didn't care if I lived or died anymore. I spent a lot of time burning out what little energy I had, in 2009, struggling to find a reason to go on living. And I was also drained by some of my friends, who have also been in crisis, dragging me into their soap-operas, or needing a shoulder to cry on. Well, I'm happy to offer a shoulder to cry on, but my own diminished resources have forced me to withdraw from those friends who never offered a shoulder in return; in other words, reciprocity, which is what real friendship is all about.

In 2009, therefore, I've learned to marshall my energy, and be more "selfish" about where I spend it. I've learned to keep to myself when I find other people draining; even people I like can be draining. That's why it's a chronic illness, that's why it's depression, that's even why it's grieving: you don't just "get over it." You have to own up to it, and admit that sometimes you just plain feel like shit, and be honest about how you feel every single day, and then decide what to do next. And when you energy budget has been reduced, you start to prioritize. You do get a little impatient with the apparently clueless, but you also discover in yourself a lot more patience for your own process of recovery than you ever imagined was available to you. And so it's been: I've learned patience with my own process, and that some days I really just genuinely have to sit there and Do Nothing. That wasn't always an easy lesson to learn; but the physical limits imposed on you by a chronic illness force you to Pay Attention, and slow down.

In 2009, I learned to understand and share my father's lifelong love of gardening as a form of personal therapy. I spent a lot of time in the garden this summer; it's a small garden, and I've focused mostly on flowers and perennials, that need little care, when I'm traveling. I planted several new rosebushes, many lilies. This fall I planted a lot more bulbs for spring, and made a few new landscape art sculptures in parts of the garden. It was a big part of my return to life—and will continue to be, in future.

I’ve spent a lot of time this holiday season Doing Nothing: napping, watching some movies, a little reading and writing, okay a lot of reading, and taking it quiet and mostly easy. I haven’t gone out of my way to overdo things, and I’ve been taking extra naps, sleeping in late, storing up energy and trying to recover my strength. The past week or so my stomach has been upset and touchy, but overall I’m feeling okay, neutral or slightly better. I haven’t been trying too hard. I’ve been waiting. Waiting for the calendar year to change, for the holidays to be over, for my health to rebuild itself (assisted by lots of Reiki, etc.), waiting for life to come back to me. It feels possible, now, this deep cold winter night. It was full moon on New Year’s Eve, a blue moon. The sky was clear and bright, and the moon was beautiful. Now, a few days later, after more fresh snowfall, the snow is still blue and cold and bright under the waning moon, the air still and cold and clear, and filled with stars.

I don't do New Year's resolutions, for two reasons: I think it's stupid ritual that most people use masochistically; and I celebrate the new year on Samhain, by the old calendar. A few years ago I started doing annual Gratitudes instead of resolutions.

I’m having a great deal of trouble writing my annual Gratitudes this year. I haven't been able to do it. The glass has felt half-empty for so many months, it's hard to remember things to be grateful about. 2009 was a terrible year; in some ways, it was even worse than the bad years just in front of it. It’s been hard to find things to feel grateful about. I’ve had no problems making a list of troubles that happened in 2009, which I’m grateful to put behind me, but for which themselves I can’t generate much gratitude. I want to keep to this annual self-invented discipline of writing Gratitudes alive, and active; it’s a good discipline, and a good annual clearing and releasing. I may have to work into it even more gradually than before, however. I am really struggling against all those black crab thoughts trying to pull you back down into the bucket. It’s been a deep bucket this fall, really a black hole, and climbing out of it has taken more than I had to give. Assistance has been required. And even then, the outcome is not certain.

There are some lessons learned in the past year, things I’m grateful to have learned, though each came out of a process painful and difficult and ongoing. Some of these lessons have rooted themselves in new changes in my life, probably permanent changes of direction and attitude; although changing an attitude is a matter of changing a bad old habit into a new good one, and takes practice and repetition. Some of these don’t translate easily into words; and even those that do would require too much background to make much sense of, to anyone but me. And not everything need be told. Some things need to be kept silent, and private, for releasing them into the town square dilutes and diminishes their power.

Two years ago my mother died. It was a bad death. It was not a planned-for and peaceful slipping-away like my father's dying, in which he was in charge, had time to say goodbye and tell people what he wanted, and be watched over by Hospice for his last few days. Two weeks before she died, my mother had been taken by ambulance to the hospital from the Alzheimer's residential facility where he had had to move two years before, when my father could no longer take care of her by himself at home. She had a urinary infection, which is why she went to the hospital, but it was discovered when she was there that he had developed old-age diabetes. That was sudden; it had probably come to fruition only weeks before; my mother had been physically healthy her entire life, almost never needing any serious form of treatment. But here was the dilemma: she was now too confused to understand that the doctors were trying to help her, and she thought they were trying to kill her. She screamed in the Emergency Room when they were trying to examine her; her screaming filled the entire ward, and turned heads; it took about six nurses and doctors to hold her down, eventually; i was there to hold her hand, but I had to step out of the cubicle when they were examining her, and that's when the screaming began; those screams coming from my distraught mother's heart tore scars open in my heart that will never heal; I will never forget them; but I can bear all that because I'm grateful than none of my family or friends heard her like that. I wouldn't wish that on anyone.

They kept her in the hospital overnight, but they couldn't treat her, because she thought the insulin they tried to give her was poison. She wouldn't eat, or accept anything, and she wouldn't settle down. I stayed as late as I could stand, then I went home and spent a sleepless night staring into the fireplace and crying. They gave her new pills to take, and the nurses at the Alzheimer's home tried everything they knew to get her to take them; but she wouldn't. Since my father had died, it had been hard; he was the one person she still would do anything he asked her to do, and trusted. She didn't fight, she wasn't mean or vicious, she just wouldn't do it.

The Alzheimers had brought out, most days, an inner childlike cheerfulness and happiness in her. Most days, when I went to visit, she was in a good mood, and liked everybody. She didn't like anybody on the days they cleaned her room, or made her take a shower. Mom was always very independent, and never liked being told what to do. She was always headstrong. She could be hard to get along with, as a person; but as she began to revert to childhood in old age, she became often quite a bit sunnier than she'd ever been when she was of sound mind.

There was one day, the autumn before she died, before her last illness, that I will always be grateful for. It was a sunny autumn day, and for once she was lucid and talkative and present. She remembered my name, she remembered that I was a musician, like her, and we talked about music and life for a few hours. I felt for the first time in years that I had my Mom back, the person I'd always gone to talk thing over with, the person who shared my love of music and art and writing, who was my friend as well as my parent. For that one lucid day, I had my Mom back. She was never that lucid or clear-minded again, but I remain grateful for that one day. It was so good for me to have had that, so healing of my own grief. You see, you start grieving for a parent with Alzheimer's even before they've died: because they themselves, what made them who they are, is gone long before their body dies. Alzheimer's is torture on the families and other survivors; "torture" is not too strong a word for it.

At the end, a few days after going back to the Alzheimer's home, she was back in the hospital. it was clear that she was failing, that they couldn't treat her, mostly because she wouldn't let them, and she was therefore on her last legs. I went to see her in her hospital room that afternoon. She was in a coma already, and I talked to her for awhile, and held her hand, but she didn't respond. That afternoon we took her back to the home in the care of Hospice. That night, she died, in the early morning, alone in her room. We all went over there, long before dawn, to say goodbye. I wept over her body, unable to stop crying. I took her loss harder than I had my Dad's; perhaps because it was the second loss of a parent so soon in time; perhaps because I'd always been closer to her, the way sons are to the their mothers; perhaps because I was already exhausted and sick myself at this point, and just felt completely lost.

I was grateful that she had died when she did, though, because I had been afraid that her funeral would have to be held on my birthday. Instead, it was exactly a week before my birthday. Try "getting over" that one: your Mom dies between the Christmas holiday and your birthday, and misses her funeral being actually on your birthday by a mere week. How would you have felt? I'm just grateful, as I said, for the near miss.

I loved her; there are no words to say how much. Tonight, the second anniversary of the night she died, I miss her. Again, there are no words.

Her death began the year of moving, sorting, buying a house, and so forth. I was just starting to think I might be able to get past all that, in 2009. Life had other plans.

I need to pause. I want to get to my Gratitudes, eventually, and say more about what lessons I've learned from 2009. I want to say more about my mother and father, while they're in my memory, on this sort of anniversary. And it will have to wait awhile. I need to stop for awhile—because I'm tired, not because I'm upset; and because I feel finished for the moment. I'll get back to this writing when I can.

Images are from my garden, June 2009.

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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Happy Twelfth Night

Bright Angel bless
all those I know and care about and love
to being them peace.

Dark Angel stand
guard on their edges and indwellings
to keep them safe.

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Rural Winter Scenes

ice-glazed roads twist
somewhere far from the highways—
does anyone survive here?

rope of oak arm
hung above still-flowing creek—
snow-curved gestures

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Sunday, January 03, 2010

Turning Away from Words 3: Nothing Engaged

Having recently written about turning away from words, and about refusing to write just to fulfill expectations, I notice now that when lured into critiquing a poem or other work of art, I find myself with little to say. Only one or two poems have lured me towards giving any response, lately. One of those was by a poet whose work I have dialogued with for several years, whose work almost always pulls me into itself.

The operative factor is a sense of engagement.

If something interests me enough to want to engage with it, I respond. Frankly, a lot of recent poetry just doesn't excite me enough to want to do anything but move on to the next semi-random constellation of words and phrases. At what point do we all recognize the characteristic alkali taste of artistic self-indulgence and narcissism? At what point do we realize that most every poem is about nothing? Especially those poetries most popular in the PoetryWorld zeitgeist nowadays, which has all the elements of that most postmodern of TV programs, Seinfeld: a show about nothing. That most poetry is about nothing is indeed the triumph of the post-modern. Well done, postmodernists: you've succeeded in making poetry meaningless!

I find myself interested in talking about poetry, about poems, about poets, about what makes a poem work for me, and what doesn't. But individual poems aren't holding my attention the way they used to. I've stepped back a level, perhaps, to overview a broader landscape. This is a flip-flop in my attention, which used to be focused on the poem, and nothing else. My unchanged opinion about poetry criticism is that it's supposed to be about the poem, nothing else. But I find my attention is not held, not engaged, by so many poems. Everything feels like surface anyway; so it becomes easier to skim.

Part of this is that I won't force my attention anymore. I won't force myself to be interested in a poem, if it's not getting to me. I've given a lot of bad poetry the benefit of the doubt over the years, seeking a kernel of good writing amidst the flab. I still tend to be more open-minded than not. And I give myself permission to choose not to give my time and energy to works of art that don't merit time and attention.

I can hear some wag declaiming I must be bored. But I'm not bored. I'm never bored: there is no such thing as boredom, it doesn't exist. What I am is disengaged. Some of this disengagement comes from an attempt, after many months away from all things PoetryWorld related, especially the poetry workshop boards, to see if anything has changed in my absence, only to discover that if anything, the situation is more dire than ever. It can be defined as: ever more heated arguments about ever less significant matters.

I like reading about poetry. I like reading what poets, and translators, have to say about poets and their poems. I like reading the ideas that poets have about their art. It might be strange to say, but at the moment I'm more interested in what most poets think about their art, than I am in their art per se. Heresy, I know. As if artists could be trusted to tell the truth about their own art!

I'm interested in the big picture, perhaps: the larger context within which an individual artwork happens. I'm sensing things happening on the larger scale, on a perhaps global scale, and I'm finding it challenging to have to focus down to the particular and local. When I read larger-scale criticism, or poets writing about poetry, from the best of these I get a sense of overview and proportion that is lacking in a great many individual poems, which all still seem to be about smaller and smaller things, to the point of being about nothing. None of which is engaging, or compelling, to my attention.

Words separate, divide and categorize but there is a reality beyond words. This is an experience of underlying unity, even beyond the idea of separation, which requires there be separate things to be connected!
—Jane English, Fingers Pointing to the Moon

There's a sea-change going on, somewhere in the depths. I have no label for it, and I doubt many recognize it happening as yet, beyond a subtle frisson of doubt about their purpose, a shiver of quiet skepticism about everything we thought mattered. I note the general tone of dissatisfaction behind much critical rhetoric, coupled with a certain sense of unconscious flailing in the basement shadows: there's nothing as yet to replace what everyone is tired of.

This is the void time: the period between the ending of an old paradigm, and its replacement by another. It's the in-between time, the no-place-between time. That's both empty, and infinitely fertile with possibility. The smile on the void is that the void is the place of birthing, not the place of death.

Coming into physical form, incarnating, is an experience of falling away from union with a perfection that is beyond light, but which is often spoken of as light. In retrospect, I see that I was unconsciously reaching back for that light in much of my photography work. I was mistaking the outer world light for the inner light. Often there has been a feeling of sadness or longing in my photographing. I believed that the light was out there separate from me rather than within.
—Jane English, Fingers Pointing to the Moon

It seems to me that there is a great tribal pull towards falling back into what we know well—the old paradigm—an almost tidal gravitational pull towards the known and the same. We repeat, and we refine in ever finer detail that which we already know, and we repeat those cycles of knowing until in our expertise we know everything there is to know about nothing. That this is a tribal pull is made known by so many who do it without question: unquestioned assumptions about the nature of reality are invariably tribal in origin; or, if idiosyncratic, anti-tribal rebellions.

For myself, I have been conscious for some years now that most of my photos are about light, or the sky, or the way the natural light falls on objects, places, and people. It's been a celebration of light, rather than a longing for a missing light: I've always seen the visible light as a metaphor for, and a reflection of, the inner light. That's a mystic's way of photography. (Minor White talks about this in his various writings on photography.) I certainly reach back towards that light of unity; and I have been able to capture my feeling and vision of that light in a few photographs.

The tribal pull down the gravitational well towards the already-known and familiar is why I don't feel engaged with a given artwork: it doesn't open up and out, and it doesn't open up anything in me. It doesn't activate my energy, if you will. I cannot care about a poem that doesn't activate my energy; and I won't force myself to care.

I have been listening to a CD of Toru Takemitsu's solo piano music today. The piece I've been listening to especially is Far Away (1973), which has been described as influenced by Javanese gamelan music. Takemitsu had recently visited Indonesia in the company of fellow composer Iannis Xenakis before beginning work on this piece. The piece begins very lightly, with lots of open space; gradually, it gains in intensity until it occupies the entire keyboard like a vast musical tapestry. I hear the influence of both Messiaen and Debussy in this piece, although it remains uniquely Takemitsu.

This music engages me deeply. I find myself growing ever more silent, listening. Music like this pulls you into its own sphere of silence: vast distances, far away, pointillistically speckled with small notes. I find something in this music that speaks to me as a composer; not only for the solo piano music I feel like writing next, but in terms of the larger scale of all music.

I also recognize that my current direction is generally away from words and towards music. I freely admit that turning away from words is necessary and sufficient for me at this time—and is another reason I can't seem to care about or concentrate on poetry critique. There is no loss for anyone in this turning away; and nothing essential will be missed, now or later. What I am seeking is something I still don't know how to describe—certainly not with words, although possibly with music—and putting it into words does not seem necessary.

Like a ship changing direction, slowly, to turn towards a new course across the ocean's open waters, we follow where the wind leads. And that is enough.

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