Thursday, August 29, 2013

Gonna kick it root down

Trees aren't known for road trips. They seem to dig spreading roots. That's their tree-ness. But don't let trees' stationary nature fool you. They kick it root down. The Beastie Boys and Octavio Paz get it.

tree that is firmly rooted and that dances,
turning course of a river that goes curving,
advances and retreats, goes roundabout,
arriving forever: - Octavio Paz, "Sun Stone"

Firmly rooted AND dances. That's how I see trees. A friend recently wrote about her nomadic nature, how she mostly loves it, relocating from place to place, living on the go, but sometimes gets overwhelmed by it. A few weeks ago my wife, who is from a small town outside Pittsburgh, asked me if I felt like I'd accomplished/would accomplish less because we live in the place where I grew up.

No. Quite the opposite. I feel strengthened living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I think it's because I kick it root down. I don't know if I'm fully comparing myself to a tree, but there is something to the power of place, for me this place, that is comforting, energizing and inspiring. When I go for a run, either solo or with friends, I see things I've never seen, even running the same route, I pass or meet people I've never met, and there are places to see and things to do I haven't skimmed the surface of in 41 years. Some of our closest friends are people that have moved here, people who felt something about this place, people I'd have never known if I didn't live here.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of road trips. Maine is incomparable, the White Mountains in New Hampshire are breathtaking, the Florida Keys and the Outer Banks are rejuvenating. I can be up for a good road trip in a key jingle.

But there is something to tree wisdom. There is something to the idea that roots actually help me float in the clouds, by knowing the ground beneath me.

And it's not just the firmly rooted part. It's the "and that dances." I'm not much of a dancer, but let's be metaphorical, shall we? Let's look at dancing as celebrating, as joy, as movement and wonder. It's not in addition to being rooted, it's because of being rooted.

I met my wife here. We were married here. Our kids were born and are growing up here. I've worked and lived and played and explored here. I've dug into the history and geography of the place. My history and the history of this place are the same, intertwined. We like to kick it root down.

(By the way, Paz's notion of rivers, constantly flowing the same course, but ever-changing, constantly renewing, "arriving forever" works the same as the tree metaphor, but I can't think of a catchy song lyric to tie that together :)

Monday, August 26, 2013

And time and memory dance

I hope Einstein is right. And Billy Pilgrim. And Frederick Buechner. Right with regards to time, that it's relative and panoramic and bendable.

Billy Pilgrim (as recorded by Kurt Vonnegut in "Slaughterhouse-Five") clues us in on the Tralfamadorian view of time, where they "can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance... It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever."

Children have a more useful concept of time. Our girls have said "Yesterday" or "last year" to describe the same memory at different times when they were younger. Buechner nails it by explaining, "It is by its content rather than its duration that a child knows time, by its quality rather than its quantity."

This might hold still for adults: I have memories from when I was three years old--my parents bailing out a sailboat they had after a storm, or the inside of my nursery school classroom--that are more vivid and clear than things that happened last week. Our memory alters time.

Memory is more than a looking back to a time that is no longer; it is a looking out into another kind of time altogether where everything that ever was continues not just to be, but to grow and change with the life that is in it still. - Buechner, "The Sacred Journey"

Neither time, nor our memories are fixed. It's more like they're dancing. Yesterday, our eight-year-old daughter Ava and I set out on our bikes to a cemetery a couple miles up the road, where I recently learned my great grandparents were buried. All the Valliant relatives I've known were buried in the Oxford Cemetery. This great grandfather, Jeremiah, died in 1919, decades before my dad was born.

Ava and I had to explore the cemetery to find the grave, an ancestral scavenger hunt in play. We both lit up when we found it, not far from where we parked our bikes, though we'd walked the long way round and come back to it.

"It was cool to meet my great great grandfather today," Ava told me later in the evening.

"Meet." I didn't correct her. It was the perfect word. Time and death are grown-up ideas, not useful or relevant to an eight year old.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

God, groceries and language

I have God and groceries in my pocket. Onions, butter, red bell peppers on one side and on the other, Peter Rollins, saying, "God can no more be contained in experience than in language."

God and groceries equally contained in language, jotted in a pocket notebook, referred back to on a shopping trip or in the throes of back porch contemplation. Of course, neither are actually contained in language. Rollins is right, language is just a finger pointing at the two. And groceries are a lot easier to point to than God is.

Language being imperfect is no reason to abandon it. Maybe to reinvent it. Sonny Rollins (no relation to Peter) in the 1950s was thought of as one of the top saxophone players around. But he stopped playing in clubs and spent three years on the Williamsburg Bridge, reinventing his style. His language. Getting it right.

Martin Heidegger looked at the whole of western philosophy and decided that they'd all missed the damn boat in how they were thinking about "Being," so he went back and tried to start over, better.

I like S. Rollins' commitment to his art and Heidegger's stones to think he could see something that the sweeping history of philosophy was missing. After penning something as dense as "Being and Time," Heidegger throttled off the word count and runed out this:

The world's darkening never reaches
     to the light of Being.

We are too late for the gods and too
     early for Being. Being's poem,
     just begun, is man.

To head toward a star--this only.

To think is to confine yourself to a
     single thought that one day stands
     still like a star in the world's sky.

He peered into one of the early doorways to existentialism, which others would have to walk through later. He trusted groceries more than God, or at least in language's ability to get to the former.

Thought and language. Together they can guide you through the supermarket, contemplate Being, or leave you just shy of God. What is it that gets us beyond? If you asked either Rollins or Heidegger, I think they'd all disagree.

Only one of them can play the sax.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Sketching spiritual stripes

"A free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain." -Red Redding, "Shawshank Redemption."

There isn't much that's important that hasn't been said in "The Shawshank Redemption." In this case, Red could have been summarizing my thoughts on spirituality. We are free men and women setting out on a long journey with a yet to be determined outcome.

My own unfinished trek started out in the Episcopal Church, baptized and confirmed (and later married) at Holy Trinity Church in Oxford, Md., as well as a couple formative years and thoughts at St. James School outside Hagerstown, Md. But as an adult, I didn't come to appreciate Christianity until studying Buddhism, philosophy and Taoism/systems thinking in college. And reading Tom Robbins.

Our own spiritual journeys are winding paths and trailblazing up a mountain. How far we get and what we find is up to us. I tend to agree with Krishnamurti when he says in "Freedom From the Known:"

The question of whether or not there is a God or truth or reality, or whatever you like to call it, can never be answered by books, or priests, philosophers or saviours. Nobody and nothing can answer the question but you yourself...

That's always been one of my beefs with Catholicism, that your experience of God has to be filtered through another person. Unless your Catholic like Thomas Merton, in which case I'm in your camp. But we'll rap with Merton another time.

I've always considered myself a spiritual nomad, a wanderer, a philosopher in training (cue KRS-ONE and BDP, "I think very deeply"). At the same time, my wife and I wanted our girls to be raised in and exposed to the thoughts, teachings, traditions that we knew growing up.

About 13 years ago, we were invited by friends to the Easton Church of the Brethren. I didn't know anything about the Church of the Brethren (even though my sister's husband grew up in that church), but when we went to church, Pastor Gene Hagenberger was riffing on Kierkegaard and Jesus, and grabbed my attention. And the congregation over the next couple years, from making us feel at home and welcome, and throwing my wife a baby shower when she was pregnant with our first daughter, has always felt like family.

Even still, I struggle. I find God on Sunday morning trail runs, in sunsets on the water, in Sonny Rollins' saxophone, in the horseshoe crab I picked up in Ocean City and showed to the girls and other kids on the beach. If I'm looking for God daily in the world, what is it about church specifically on Sunday mornings?

And that's when family, when community, speaks up. The Brethren stress individual study of the Bible, your own relationship with God. I can dig that. There are our girls, putting their spiritual feelers out into the Universe. And there is the church community, who have been there for us through the births of both our children and through the deaths of family and loved ones.

There is Pastor Kevin Kinsey, in his mid-30s, his wife and two children coming to Easton and looking for the same kind of community that those of us who have grown up on the Eastern Shore have known.

We each have our own spiritual journeys to embark on. For my own, and for the sense of community, I'm going to be questioning, thinking about, exploring my own journey via social media and on Sundays with the Easton Church of the Brethren. Like them on Facebook and follow along. Or come see us on Sundays when you can.

I'm not an evangelist. I didn't stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. Just a vagabond working my way up the mountain.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Happy Hour

At different times, I have seen the Universe from our back porch: reflected in the Butterfly Bush; reflected in kids bouncing on the trampoline; reflected in Evolution Craft Brewing's Lot No. 6 Double IPA; reflected in Walt Whitman or Mario Santiago Papasquiaro's poetry, or Kerouac's "On the Road," or Thomas Merton; reflected in scooping up the dead baby bird that fell from the tree.

The breeze blows over fresh cut grass as I read...

The world gives you itself in fragments / in splinters:


in 1 flaming summer you catch bits of the universe licking its face
the moment 1 indescribable girl
      rips her Oaxacan blouse,
just at the crescent of sweat from her armpits

with the hoppy taste of IPA still dancing on my tongue and tickling my brain as crickets take over the soundtrack, backed by cars and diesel engines from the highway.

THIS is happy hour.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Jay-Z, Spike Jonze, Bob Burnquist and Mountain Song

Jay-Z didn't apply for a job. There is no job application for rapper, record label exec, basketball team owner, sports agent. Neither did Spike Jonze. Or Bob Burnquist. What each of these cats are doing with their lives didn't exist as a job you can apply for. Their lives and livelihoods exist because they created them the way they wanted them to be.

Creativity and dreams and livelihood all tie together somehow. Or they should. Our creative impulses, the tangents we follow, the paths we explore--there has to be a way to harness them, to use them, to incorporate them into how we make a living: the job search, the career decisions, the life direction. It should be one larger whole. How can I work them altogether? Find the perspective that sees them all at the same time.

Isn't it those people, the Jay-Z's, the Spike Jonzes, the Burnquists, who figure this out, that meet success head on, on their own terms?

Don't get me wrong, there are jobs I've applied for at the National Aquarium, the Smithsonian, Washington College and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation that I'd do backflips through hoops to get. I'm not in a position to just follow my bliss. But it seems like the people who change work, who change the world, who build their dreams into the world around them, and make a grand living in the process, are those who didn't just apply for a job to do so.

Yesterday I went for an afternoon run. It had been raining all day and water was flowing hard and fast under a foot bridge on the rail trail near our house. It would not be denied. There is something to being that water. Being water flowing downhill, not to be stopped. Jay-Z, Jonze and Burnquist get it. They know what it is to be coming down the mountain.