Saturday, April 18, 2015

Warbling


The sun is preceded by streaks, sharp smears of light across the sky. It likes to be announced before coming on the scene.

If you're quiet, frogs and birds are deafening in this last gasp of dark. It's like walking late into a cafeteria, impossible to follow any given conversation through the noise.

My new-found fascination with birds does not lend itself to fast running times. I stop to take a picture, or watch a red-tailed hawk in the tree, or see where a cardinal or eastern bluebird lands. It does lend itself to some unexpected interval training.

I'm more obsessed with warblers these days than personal running records. More taking in and being part of my surroundings than running through them. Which is not to say I don't feel transcendent when quick-stepping down winding singletrack trails, or dropping the throttle for the last mile or half-mile of a run.

There is something to walking out of breath through the back door, pouring a water, and grabbing Peterson's Field Guide to cool down on the back deck and try to figure out what bird I saw in the brush along the road; or trying over morning coffee to ID the yellow-headed newcomer to the feeder.

Forrest Gander's "Science and Steepleflower" has been on my bookshelf for a couple years. I've started and stopped in it a few times. Books open themselves at the right time. Gander goes vertical, deep into things. He knows the names of things, but doesn't lose their wonder for the science.

... Can you smell
where analyses end, the orchard
oriole begins? 

I dig the notion that getting at the thing itself, the sublime nature of something, comes on the other side of science.

I have no idea what it is about warblers or if I have ever seen one. Certainly not consciously and been able to name it. But that seems to be where I am with this whole bird thing--learning, fascinated, possessed by a beginner's mind, curiosity, and opportunity. And it doesn't hurt that I can walk the yard and the treeline with a Dale's, a notebook and pen, look and listen, and breathe in sun and sound.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

It's not that I am getting older


It's not that I'm getting older. Or slowing down. But I walk more. I still run, still push myself. Hey man, I'm still hardcore, haven't gained weight in the past year. I still know how to earn sweat. I walk to notice the things I only ran by. I walk to keep up with the girls.

You can't build forts if you're too busy running. You can't stare into nesting ospreys or cardinals playing hide and seek. Only lying on your back can you properly discuss cloud formations, what color blue the sky is, or imbibe the cosmos via stars in the night sky.

I heed the same elders:  Hass, Snyder, Merwin, Merton. I've maybe added a few to the list: bluebird, woodpecker, hawk, At this time last year, I wrote this on turning 42. The view has changed, but I try to live each of those things everyday, the best I can.

It's not that I'm getting older, but life feels deeper this year. Like I've had a year submerged and am getting back in touch with the air.

I have no new advice this year. I'm not generally one to give it, and not always to take it anyway. But I still think Gary Snyder got it right when he advised:

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light

I don't dare to add to Gary's simple mantra. But if I were, I might say:

find your people
watch the birds
go for walks

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Life Isn't Shaped Like a Baseball Bat. I hope.


I hope life isn't shaped like a baseball bat. A bat has a "sweet spot," the part of the bat a batter wants to hit the ball with to send it on a ride. The sweet spot is a small part of the bat, and if you are standing in the batter's box, you are using all the rest of the bat to try to connect the sweet spot with the ball.

If life is like that, then a whole lot of your life is spent trying to get to the sweet spot; the best part. This came up at dinner with friends the other night; not the baseball bat analogy itself, but the sweet spot. And why, when you find something great, a period of time at work, or life, does the sweet spot have to be finite? Why can't it be extended? Why are the best of days numbered? Looking back at 20-ish years working at the same place, one friend could pick out the best five or six years, which were towards the end of his time there, but didn't last beyond that time frame. Things change.

Life is not all about a job, I think many people will tell you--those with a family, hobbies, passions, a relationship. So maybe it is that careers are shaped like baseball bats? I don't know, I think we can all look back on our lives and find different times when things were cranking along as you'd want them. But invariably, life's sweet spots get superseded, or end, or maybe just change when we weren't looking.

Einstein was a pretty smart cat. Let's invoke him here:

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.

The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.

The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.

Maybe that's the rub. That we expect things to stay the same. We expect to keep doing the same things, which seem to be working at the time, but that is only for a time, and we don't see the change coming. What was the sweet spot becomes a rut, a habit, when we aren't paying attention.

What's a good change metaphor? Let's go with water. Mankind dealing with change is like being in water. If you want to get beneath the surface, you can emulate the diver. Per Pablo Neruda:

Time after time
he takes hold of the water, the sand,
and is
born again.
Submerging
each day
to the hold
of the pitiless
current,
Pacific and
Chilean
cold,
the diver
must practice
his
birth again,
make  himself
monstrous
and tentative,
displace himself
fearfully,
grow wise
in his slothful
mobility, like
an underseas
moon.
Even
his thinking
must merge
with the water

Neruda was not kind to paper. But he was frequently on to things. His odes, love poems, and epic "Residence on Earth" are a man reckoning with life, existence, the Universe.

"Even his thinking must merge with water."  When the physicist and the poet say the same thing, it might be time to pay attention. Embrace change. Don't hold onto things for too long expecting them to stay the same. Merge our thinking with water.

Life doesn't have to be shaped like a baseball bat. If life is change, like water, maybe we can be the diver.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Interstellar Cosmic Universal Randomness


As random as Bruce Willis in a pink Easter Bunny suit. That's pretty random. Where random is the root word in the phrase, "interstellar, cosmic, universal randomness." And when you frame it that way, it got me to wondering, how random is anything once you go cosmic?

Years ago I walked into the Newscenter in Easton, a book store not known for its poetry selection or for books beyond bestsellers and classics. And on the end cap was a book called "The Shadow of Sirius" by W.S. Merwin. I had heard of Merwin before, but never read him, and had no inclination to pick that book up--it was thin with a pale gray cover, no reason to notice it. But I picked it up, bought it, read it cover to cover. Merwin became a heavy for me. A short stretch later, a former boss/mentor and I went to see Merwin speak/read at the Folger Theater in D.C. In the audience was my former adviser from Washington College, who waited in line with me to go meet Merwin and get books signed. I have not met most of the writers I most look up to. Merwin is one of the few. Looking back, I don't think picking that book up was random.

Both of us understood
what a privilege it was
to be out for a walk
with each other.

I turned in Merwin's thin, gray book to those words yesterday. They wouldn't have meant anything different to me until recently, but they landed right where they were supposed to, cosmically speaking.

Sirius, the Dog Star, is the brightest star visible from any part of the Earth. An interstellar all star. It's easy to spot on winter and spring evenings. And I dig that it is described as "white to blue" in color.

Stars and birds have grabbed my attention a lot lately. Those sky dwellers that leave us at once feeling grounded, but knowing ours is not the only lot, and that we are somehow connected. A view from the back deck, accompanied by books, accompanied by pilsner, conversation, love, watching the birds move about above, or intuiting us moving about beneath the stars. Victor Hugo feels the intermingling of the soul and the stars:

He was there alone with himself, collected, tranquil, adoring, comparing the serenity of his heart with the serenity of the skies, moved in the darkness by the visible splendors of the constellations, and the invisible splendor of God, opening his soul to the thoughts which fall from the Unknown. In such moments, offering up his heart at the hour when the flowers of night inhale their perfume, lighted like a lamp in the center of the starry night, expanding his soul in ecstasy in the midst of the universal radiance of creation, he could not himself perhaps have told what was passing in his own mind; he felt something depart from him, and something descend upon him, mysterious interchanges of the depths of his soul with the depths of the universe.

The intermingling of the soul and the stars. The terrestrial and the heavenly. This universal scale, the cosmic perspective; it is from that balcony that random dissipates, gives way to the underlying pattern.

Merwin's big book of selected poems is titled, "Migration." He is a poet of the birds and the stars. And late in his Sirius book, he turns to the thrush,

O nameless joy of the morning

tumbling upward note by note out of the night
and the hush of the dark valley
and out of whatever has not been there

song unquestioning and unbounded
yes this is the place and the one time
in the whole of before and after
with all memory waking into it

The song of the thrush brings the cosmos from the sky, from the night, into the now, waking with all memory. Timeless to temporal.

Random. Like Bruce Willis in a pink Easter Bunny suit. Chuck Palahniuk says of the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, that they, "seem like greater steps toward faith and imagination. Like cognitive training exercises."

Maybe that's how it goes. The Willis Bunny is a step toward faith and imagination. Or maybe, a dude in an Easter Bunny suit isn't random in the connected minds of those who conjured it.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

In the Field



My mind works better when my legs are moving. Thoughts are terrain, felt and experienced. There are things to be learned in the field that can't be learned seated in the classroom, or behind a desk.

My reading of late has been sucked up by Kenn Kaufman's "Kingbird Highway." It's a bit like "On the Road," if Kerouac was a birder. Kaufman dropped out of high school at age 16 and spent a year hitchhiking and getting himself around the country to see as many birds as he could. It's a look into the obsessed birding culture, as it was taking shape in the 1970s. He is now known as one of North America's top birders. I'm not a birder, but I've been a bit taken by certain members of the feathered fliers in recent months. Kaufman's book chronicles his search for himself and how he found his place on the road; in the field.

I dig the notion of field guides. Where those who have taken their search out into the world, share what they have found. Some field books describe geography, or species, some describe the writer's inner landscape as influenced by its surroundings. For some reason in the spring, I seem to reach for Seamus Heaney's "Field Work" and Robert Hass's "Field Guide." Their words, their experiences don't give answers, they make me want to get off the couch and go find things out for myself.

Words come up necessarily short. Hass gets it. Sitting in the woods, checking out birds and flowers, he wants to get them down, capture them:

                                    But I had the odd
feeling, walking to the house
to write this down, that I had left
the birds and the flowers in the field,
rooted or feeding. They are not in my
head, are not now on this page.

Warm sun on still snow-filled, frozen yard, we were building snowmen, throwing snowballs, exploring, laughing. In the trees all around us, in a moment of recognition were Eastern Bluebirds. They were close, they were playing, they were darting between pine trees. In my life, I have never seen anything like it; it was a totally new and novel experience. But I can't recreate it here. I can't conjure it or make it real for anyone who hasn't experienced the same thing, in the field. And I couldn't have known it from a book, no matter how well written. Though I guess I can recall it, if prompted by someone else's experience.

Science and spirituality have the same shortcomings, when left to be found and learned in books. I can know that the Earth goes around the sun and the sun rises in the east, but that takes on a much more profound reality when running my first ultramarathon on a 15 degree February morning, when the warmth of the sun hits a group of us runners, headlamps are switched off, and the heart and body are warmed and lighter. And whether sitting in a church or walking through the woods, faith or a glimpse or intuition of something bigger than yourself, something not quite explainable enters the soul of its own accord, not through words alone.

Clearly I have some spring restlessness going on. The need to get out and explore. But one of the things I am digging the most these days, are how many new experiences, in the field, are right under my nose; in my yard; nearby. Birds I've never paid attention to. Remembering the shakiness of being on ice skates. Running with good friends. Neither Thoreau nor Annie Dillard had to go far afield to find themselves, nature, the Universe. They just had to look for themselves.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Hibernate. Thaw. Wake.


This winter I have hibernated. More than any other time in my life. I have rested, recharged. I have run a bit in the cold, ventured out, but largely stayed inside. Read. Binge-watched. Thought. Felt. Connected. Being between jobs lent itself to hibernating. So did having time on my own every other weekend. I am not sure I dig hibernating, but somehow it felt necessary.

Hibernating is temporary. After the slumber, comes the waking up. This winter has been cold. Frozen. Snow has stuck around for a time to finish off February. Now comes the thaw. Snow abates, the ground finds the sun again. Rebirth. Spring brings to life.

I wake to abundance. Baskin-Robbins has nothing on the flavors in my life. A new job. Two beautiful girls each with winter birthdays starting lacrosse season. Inspiration to fill a notebook everyday for two months and counting, since the beginning of the year. Blue eyes, open to see themselves looking back. Bluebirds of happiness.

This is the first winter I haven't lived in or on the edge of town. I've dialed in on birds. I've been overrun with Blue Jays and Cardinals; I've noticed Eastern Bluebirds for maybe the first time; I've had several remarkable Bald Eagle encounters. The girls and I watched a Red-Bellied Woodpecker show a handful of Blue Jays what time it was at our tree-hanging feeder, then saw one hanging on the side of the road going to school a day or two later.


A few nights ago, we stopped the car in the road to watch a Red-Tailed Hawk go from lane to tree for a perch. This morning, I watched from the kitchen sink as the same type of hawk changed trees along the lane. I geek out by grabbing my Audubon Mid-Atlantic Field Guide and feel giddy looking up birds. Even Cobain knew there was something to "an illustrated book about birds."

And from time to time I grab "Animal Speak," to see what Ted Andrews has to say about a new bird popping around repeatedly. How about the woodpecker, Ted?

The red found in the head area of any woodpecker reflects stimulation of the mental activities... It reflects a stimulation and wakening of new mental faculties... it will become increasingly important for you to follow your own unique rhythms and flight... When woodpecker comes into your life, it indicates that the foundation is there. It is now safe to follow your own rhythms.

 And the Red-Tailed Hawk?

This powerful bird can awaken visionary power and lead you to your life purpose. It is the messenger bird, and wherever it shows up, pay attention. There is a message coming... This bird is the catalyst, stimulating hope and new ideas. It reflects a need to be open to the new or shows you ways that you may help teach others to be open to the new.

I'm not calling Andrews and his animal speak gospel. But I find it interesting, illuminating, and in many cases spot on with a message inserted seemingly right where and when one seems to be speaking itself in other ways into life. Maybe the birds are onto something.

In the meantime, winter is wrapping up. Hibernation is coming to an end. The yard thaws. And it is time to wake up.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Learning Ava Lessons


I'm not sure younger daughter Ava hears the drums that other spirited kids march to. They might distract her from coloring or building Legos. As she turns 10 (Feb. 12), I'm still not sure I have her figured out. Which is one of the things I love most about her.

We do birthdays quickly, like pulling off a Band-Aid. Ava's older sister Anna turned 13 on Jan. 31. Less than two weeks later and both girls are in double digits. The winter months are ripe with the passage of time.

Ava projectile vomited for the first year of her life. Damn acid reflux. She was queen of the wardrobe change and I was pretty well shirtless during my shifts at night when she was a newborn. She would only sleep soundly on your chest and shoulder, no crib or bassinet. I watched marathon's of MTV's "Viva La Bam," "Office Space," "Swingers," "First Blood," "Road House," or anything else on late night.


Ava's sister Anna is me through and through. She thinks like I do, asks questions I asked, cops the same attitude. I understand her, maybe too well. I've never had that with Ava, which means I have to pay closer attention; try to figure her out. I'm grateful for how different that has made our relationship; for how different she and her sister can be.

A couple years ago Ava wanted to sign up for gymnastics so she could learn to do the perfect cartwheel. She did. She has a mind that is all focus when she wants it to be, something I have never had. She is dingy, air-headed, but easily makes honor roll. What she lacks in common sense, she easily makes up for with determination, action, and compassion. She is quick to know if I am feeling down and how to lift my spirits.


Ava is the self-starter that neither her sister or I am. She can move on a whim. She is not, however, a morning person, like Anna and I are. Ava's differences teach me when I listen. And I try to listen.

For years now, Ava has done something which seems rare with kids now: she entertains herself. She comes up with things to do. She will read before bed or when the mood strikes her. Dolls, Legos, bocce, hikes, almost anything is an option.


Especially in the past year, Ava and I have connected because we are different. I don't know that I would have seen that coming or that I can put it into words. There's something about Ava that maybe I realized I don't need to understand to enjoy. What can be frustration at first, can quickly turn into laughter when blue eyes meet and smiles crack.

One of my favorite Ava lessons is that there doesn't need to be any wasted moments, any lost time. I always carry a pocket notebook and pen to write with. Ava goes further. In her school backpack, she carries an extra coloring book and 96-pack of Crayola crayons. Not 16. Not 64. The Ole 96'er. She colors at home; she colors in the car; this past Saturday, she had me pack a large coloring tablet and markers when we went to watch her cousins play indoor soccer. She colored in the bleachers.

At home on the couch, making a book about Halloween that she would bind with a cover
The Ole 96'er, because sometimes six shades of yellow aren't enough.
You can only watch so much soccer in a morning.
Last March I tried to remind myself not to waste another single day. Carpe the fu**ing diem. Make every day count. Wake up. Live. Love. Play. Work. Ava is my living, blood, daily reminder of that. Pack 96 crayons if that's what you need. Draw, or color, or write, or run, or watch the snow fall out the back door or walk back roads and see a tree full of cardinals, a phenomenon you've never seen in 42 years.

I frequently carry a backpack or messenger bag with me. Notebooks and books or graphic novels, Ava's coloring book and travel markers. Be prepared. Don't miss out. I'm learning my Ava lessons.

Happy 10th birthday to the one who shows me the world differently and reminds me to pay attention.