Saturday, January 23, 2016

Tuning Up

Think of this as one of those tune up runs, when you haven't been running. Thoughts unspoken, unwritten, seem to pile up, turn in on themselves, get cramped up. Thoughts need to stretch out on a page, screen, become words, and let new ones step up.

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold...," I have had those lines from Yeats in my head. He goes on:

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

But revelations aren't so easy to come by. At our best we don't know what we're doing; at our worst we do it madly anyway. How many of us are lucky enough to find and recognize those things, people, that we can hold on to; centres that hold?

The writer who has been most on my mind of late is C.D. Wright. She is on the short list of my favorite writers, but in a span that lost Lemmy of Motorhead fame, David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Grizzly Adams, Wright's death is relegated to New Yorker postscripts and Arkansas retrospectives. Her words are back roads rural, gritty and high-minded, deep and soaring, sexual and erotic, fragmented and confusing. She is one of the writers who taught me that you can put words and thoughts together that you didn't think made sense together, in the gumbo of language and life, and they can touch someone deeply. Her words:

My first words--I've been told--were obscene. My highchair was handed-down and painted over white. I remember the hard heels of my white shoes chipping at the paint of the rung... Throughout my childhood I was knife-sharp and aquatic in sunlight. I read.

I didn't read. That came much later for me. But I play back childhood memories frequently, collaging them with new experiences into this morphing, changing, yet constant self.

Whew, glad to get that shit out. If I don't run or write, it's easy to go bat-shit crazy in the between time. And I've been wrestling with some guilt over how to carve out my creative time. Reading and writing time has shifted, for now, to learning lines and trying to get my head around a character. 2016 brings with it my first shot at being on stage, as Dr. Corey Phillips in The Tred Avon Players' production of "House on the Cliff."

Words are easier for me to write than to speak. It is not easy or natural, but I am glad to stretch myself in new and different ways. Yoga for the soul. I like the notion that William Esper evolved from Sandy Meisner, "Acting is doing things truthfully under imaginary circumstances." And talking about creating a character as, "where an actor alters his or her native behavior so as to become unrecognizable from his or her normal persona, yet still be one hundred percent truthful," Getting into my head in order to get out of it. Or something like that.

Today has been a quiet gift. No alarms set. Coffee. Shoveling walks and clearing bird feeders. On the year's first snow day, Cedar Waxwings found the pyracantha bush out my window. The other yard and feeder birds today have been cardinals, robins, various sparrows (with fox sparrows, who I have come to dig seeing over the past week), red-winged blackbirds, brown-headed cowbirds, juncos, chickadees, mourning doves, and blue jays.

I've hardly spoken an actual word, though they've danced in my head, and come through my fingers.

Thinking of Shakespeare's thoughts of the world as a stage, one we perform on daily, ourselves as the role we want others to know us as. But I've spent more time with Camus than Shakespeare, so we'll close with Albert and not Bill:

...if the actor gave his performance without knowing that he was in a play, then his tears would be real tears and his life a real life. And whenever I think of this pain and joy that rise up in me, I am carried away by the knowledge that the game I am playing is the most serious and exciting there is.

Okay, well, not that serious ;)

Monday, December 14, 2015

Embracing 2015

When sitting quietly outside is a prayer I didn't realize I was praying. I took the photo above about almost exactly a year ago. On a feeling, I had come down to Oxford, rode my bike and walked around town on a cold day, feeling like a tourist in the town I grew up in. I was between jobs, separated, at peace, happy, hopeful. If you want the exact experience, you can reminisce here.

I was poised, ready, open, for something, but didn't know what. I fu**ing hate cliches, but in my mind this weekend, thinking about all this, "what a difference a year makes," is the phrase that kept dancing through my head.

Saturday morning, I went for a run around Oxford, covering much of the same ground I did on my bike-walk combo a year ago (it's a small town, there aren't that many places to go :) A bit later, I rode my bike back to the same stretch on the Strand to read, watch the water, and reflect. I stopped by work on my way home to help set up for a memorial service. I had quick greetings with four or five people by name in a town I again call home, the town where I also work.

2015 has been a year of living. Really living, in a way I lost touch with. It's been a year of re-connecting to a place and to a community. It's been a year of finding a job that resonates with my soul. It's been a year where a health scare for my 10-year-old daughter affirmed what is important in life. It's been a year of knowing, experiencing love in ways I didn't know existed. It's been a year of not only looking at life and the world more deeply, but of living it that way.

2015 is no Pollyanna year. Life hurts, knocks me down, asks more questions than it could possibly answer. I seem to know less as a parent each year (just ask the 13 year old). There are plenty of times I have no clue if I've gotten something right. But it's not for lack of living, or lack of trying, or lack of learning. It's been a year of feeling like I am where I am supposed to be. And paying attention.

Last year, I was making the move from residing to living. To embracing. That has happened. For this year's annual check-in, I want to throw out some words from Mary Oliver, a writer who seems to surface at interesting, if unexpected times:

When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full or argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.


Thursday, December 10, 2015

Sunrise Theater

The sun hasn't made the horizon yet. Fog crawls along the ground, afraid of heights this morning. Geese call each other, or the sun, their conversation is unclear to me.

I got restless with the warmth and quiet inside on the couch this morning. As much as I dig the lights on the Christmas tree, and the sound of the ice skaters on the dining room table snow village pond, I needed to be outside. I pulled on boots, threw on a jacket, grabbed coffee, binoculars, Mary Oliver, and a notebook.

There is nothing out of the ordinary about it all. The fog is a novelty. The Mallards are drawn north, swimming in a manner of mass exodus. It's not a morning for revelation, except that this is every morning. It's routine Eastern Shore.

God is not in the details, God is the details. And maybe that's the revelation, if there is one. Each blade of grass; every feather on every duck and goose; every color on the pink-orange spectrum; the stillness of the water on the cove--it's all so much more than I can possibly take in. And yet, it's all here, every morning. Waiting for me, or anyone else, to notice. Or not. Maybe sunrise theater likes an audience. But it performs, regardless.

And with that, I put the cap on the pen and returned my notebook to the backpack. It was a good lesson or thought for the day. I picked up my coffee and watched as the sun rose above the trees. And then this happened...

Looking at the screen on my phone, trying to get a good sunrise picture, diagonal beams shot in both directions off the sun and were immediately mirrored off the cove. I literally laughed. It was like a conversation, a shared joke or laugh with Creation, "Oh, you think that's the message for this morning? You think you've got things figured out? Take a look at this. You're welcome. Now rethink things."

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Step Away from the Fridge

I've never shot my refrigerator with a .357 magnum. Or any other caliber revolver for that matter. But I think we've all reached the level of frustration in life that Henry Lightcap/Edward Abbey outlines to begin "The Fool's Progress," (I love that the NY Times review is titled, "Beer, Guns, and Neitzsche") his autobiographical novel. The hope is that we don't get to the refrigerator-shooting point in our lives, or, that having been there, we know how to avoid finding ourselves there again.

We've got a habit we try to keep of around the dinner table, before we eat, saying some of the things we are thankful for in our lives. Not just at Thanksgiving, but any night we sit around the dining table (which isn't every night). For me it can be that I'm thankful for a great day; I'm thankful for a roof over my head and food on the table; I'm thankful for the girls' being healthy and making honor roll; I'm thankful to have a job where I look forward to going to work every day; I'm thankful to be outside in cool, fall weather that reminds me I am alive.

I'm thankful for books, movies, art, that transports my mind and opens my soul to the Universe. I'm thankful to be reading at present a couple heroes of mine in John Muir and Edward Abbey. Heroes not just in what they thought or wrote, but of living their lives outdoors, on their own terms, even if/when those terms weren't shared by others.

I recently watched "Into the Wild," the film version of the John Krakauer's telling of the life and story of Chris McCandless. It's freeing to see Alexander Supertramp slough off the conventions of modern life and live his life his way. But I got to the end and felt, no, where McCandless went wrong, someone like Muir had a handle on it. I'm an introvert, but not a hermit or a recluse. Life, love, adventures are meant to be shared. And Muir found something, being out in Nature, that he felt so passionate about that he had to communicate it to others. Muir wandered the country on his own terms more than McCandless, but still found ways to connect and make sense of it all without having to die alone in his 20s. This is not a knock on McCandless, per se, it's just seeing other paths to live life on my own terms, with deep meaning and connections to Nature, people, place, community.

"Into the Wild," sent me back to my bookshelves for Muir and Abbey; for Gary Snyder, and also for David Abram. And this is where the me that was going to be a philosophy professor loops back onto the scene. Abram's book, "The Spell of the Sensuous" has been calling me for a challenge for some time. Over the course of trail and ultra running, I came across Abram and the concept of ecophenomenology. Phenomenology (what I was going to get my PhD studying) sets itself the task of looking at how we find and make meaning in the world. If you add "eco" to that, you get the idea. It's a way of combining the natural world and our experience of it, and the value of being out in it, with philosophy. From Abram

As technological civilization diminishes the biotic diversity of the earth, language itself is diminished. As there are fewer songbirds in the air, due to the destruction of their forests and wetlands, human speech loses more and more of its evocative power. For when we no longer hear the voices of warbler and wren, our own speaking can no longer be nourished by their cadences. As the splashing of the rivers is silenced by more and more dams, as we drive more and more of the land's wild voices into the oblivion of extinction, our own languages become increasingly impoverished and weightless, progressively emptied of their earthly resonance.

There is a reason that Muir, Abbey, McCandless got the fu** out of Dodge and went their own way. Abram wrestles philosophically with that need and our need to be in contact with, connected to, the natural world around us.

Studying our surroundings. For me, that yokes together trail running, bird watching, paddleboarding, the various ways I dig exploring outside. It's a framework for examining life and the world around me.

It makes "outside" part of my reading list. It creates a space where reading sends me outside, and my experience outside informs my reading and writing. In the words of George Peppard's Hannibal on the A-Team, "I love it when a plan comes together." Creating existential reasons to avoid shooting the refrigerator.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Bluebirds, Buntings & Paying Attention

2015 has been the year of the bluebird. It's been the year of paying attention. It's been a year of listening to life and of finding happiness in work, relationships, and home. That makes it a fairly banner year thus far.

Eastern Bluebirds have clearly been on Maryland's Eastern Shore for probably all of my 43 years. But I can't say I saw and noticed one prior to this year. And we've been over my thing for the color blue here before. Seeing bluebirds while on a run and coming home to look them up was my first "birding" experience (says the guy with the Great Blue Heron tattoo on his forearm).

Following that, I set up some feeders and sat and watched. I wasn't actively going out birding, just looking at what came around. It helped to be living at a veritable bird haven, but out my windows and while out running on Baileys Neck,  I saw the aforementioned Bluebirds, Cardinals, Red-Bellied Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, American Goldfinches, Cooper's Hawk, Red-Tailed Hawk, Bald Eagle, Ospreys, Brown Thrashers, Blue Jays, Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, and Pileated Woodpeckers. Enough to pull me in to wanting to see more.

But it's more than just seeing birds. Author Lynn Thompson, in her memoir, "Birding with Yeats," gets it:

Sometimes I think that the point of birdwatching is not the actual seeing of the birds, but the cultivation of patience. Of course, each time we set out, there's a certain amount of expectation we'll see something, maybe even a species we've never seen before, and that it will fill us with light. But even if we don't see anything remarkable--and sometimes that happens--we come home filled with light anyway.

I'm not that good at patience. But when it comes to finding reasons to be outside and look deeply at the beauty around you, that's a lesson I've taken to heart.

Walking and (nominally) looking for birds at Assateague Island and Pickering Creek over the last couple weeks, the subject of the Indigo Bunting came up. A bird more blue than a bluebird, but not seen as much. Tractor beam on. Pulling up pictures and reading about them, they are around in the spring and summer, and winter in Central America. Hhhmmm... maybe it's time to go visit a friend in Costa Rica :)

But I've got it in my mind, the first bird I want to go seek out and find is an Indigo Bunting. But now I have to wait until spring to do it? Do you have any other buntings? Why, yes. Yes, we do. How about a Snow Bunting?

Mission confirmed. Buntings it is. I don't have a life list of birds; I'm not interested in just going out and checking off one after another. Whether trail running, hiking, biking, longboarding, paddleboarding, or bird watching, I'm of the John Muir mindset:

This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never dried all at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.

Being outside, the looking goes both ways: outward and inward.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Finding Purple

Colors change me. Mentally, emotionally, maybe spiritually. Especially blues, purples, greens, but really any color found and experienced fully. It's hard to explain, but it's unmistakable when felt.

After running the Seaside 10-Miler in Ocean City, Halloween Saturday morning turned into walking trails, dunes, and beach on Assateague. I had Alice Walker's words in my head seeing flashes of purple like soul breadcrumbs:

I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it.

It was everywhere, scattered like puzzle pieces, wanting to form one larger purple spectrum, like there was some larger purple shell that had been shattered and wanted to be put back together again.

So I gathered a few, to have some puzzle pieces to remember, study, ponder. And I left some for the next folks who come along to find.

What I kept (and keep) thinking about is the purple that connects them all, not the separate shells. And that got me mulling Oscar Wilde:

Mere color, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.

When I first read that thought from Wilde, my mind went to the sky or the sea, where there are expanses and variations of unspoiled color, without form. All-encompassing. But the shells were carrying it also--through broken, partial forms, it was something about the color itself, what connected them.

I'm going to make a little leap here, if you'll permit me. Let's secretly replace color with Love (capital L Love), and swap out the shells for people. There are times when maybe we all feel like we have some part of that purple within us. Whether for kids, parents, partners, pets, I hope there are moments when everyone has felt something like that. Our own part of the purple.

But what about the larger purple that runs through everyone. If we all have that purple within us, and from time to time, we recognize that purple, that love, the commonality, in someone else. Or in everyone else.

There are times when I have felt that purple in a gathered group, that I can't explain any other way. When Bobby Banks sang a hymn at my great uncle's funeral, I swear I felt connected to everyone else there around me. It was a profound, sublime, visceral experience. When I crossed the finish line of the JFK 50-Miler after 11-plus hours of forward motion, I was so overwhelmed and felt so humbly and greatly connected to everyone around me. And it can come in silly, unexpected ways, seeing a video of people doing something for others, an unexpected act of kindness; a glimmer in someone's eyes; a smile about to become a laugh.

I can't explain it, but it was there. I think in the best and deepest moments I've contemplated life, religion, the Universe, sometimes, when I'm lucky, a feeling that goes further than where my thoughts can reach is there. Transcendent and underlying.

I won't swear to it, but that connecting thread, that piece that ties us altogether, it's not impossible that it's Love. Or purple :)

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Writing Oxford: Life in a Small Town

A pilot becomes a painter, documenting a half century of a small town and becomes a part of the story he is telling--community exhibits, his paintings hanging on residents' walls, the side of the market bearing a mural of his work.

A real estate agent, who sails, carves decoys and models, and writes books and poetry about his hometown, starts a tradition of decorating docks along the creek with Christmas trees, that are still lit every December. An award bearing his name is given out each year to the people who are doing the most to honor the town's past and move it forward.

A World War II photographer turns his lens to the small community he calls home and helps pen the definitive history book of the town's first three centuries. And along the way, he helps save the old school building, turning it into a community center.

Howard Lapp, Doug Hanks Jr., and Norman Harrington. Just three examples, but ones that float to the front of my mind, about how individuals can and do make a difference in Oxford, Md., and how Oxford's collective history is told through the stories of its people.

This is obviously the case with any small town or community, but Oxford is the one that I know and whose names and people I know and have seen in action. The chapters of the town's history are people and a person has the chance to be an integral part of the story.

I think I have felt that more in Oxford than anywhere else, which is maybe what keeps me close, or brings me back. Oxford's is a story that is unfolding, and anyone could play a big part in what that story is or what it becomes.

In 1704, Oxford was one of Maryland's most important cities. By 1800, it was desolate. In 1900, the town had ten general stores, five seafood packing houses, two restaurants, two physicians, two blacksmiths, two hotels, a flour mill, shipbuilder, cooper, dentist, brick manufacturer, undertaker, druggist, barber, shoemaker, sailmaker, newspaper, bank, and four churches (citing "From Pot Pie to Hell and Damnation: An Illustrated Gazetteer of Talbot County").

I'm not saying Oxford could return as a hub of commerce, nor that that would be a good thing. In my lifetime it's been a town known for boat yards, restaurants, brick sidewalks, boats, and water. A number of the people who live here found it by sailing and decided to call it home. That's pretty damn cool.

I don't claim any special knowledge or insight into Oxford's future. No predictions or prophesies here. What I like is seeing how people, individuals, have made a difference; have shaped the town and helped create what it has been and what it is. And knowing that for wherever the town goes, those people are here now, living and/or working and helping it get there. People whose vision, whose efforts, whose eccentricities, whose time, whose senses of humor, all make a difference and make up the town.