Tuesday, December 30, 2014

To Dig: Rocks, Puzzles, Geology and Poetry

Firefighter and archaeologist were the first two jobs I wanted to have. Firefighter goes back to my obsession with the show "Emergency!" Roy and John were cool for me long before I knew who Ponch and John or Bo and Luke were. Archaeologist came from seeing "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in the then Avalon movie theater.

Yes Harrison Ford/Indiana Jones oozed cool. But it wasn't the whip, or being shot at, or the fights or chases that pulled me in; it was the idea that the planet, its history, was a mystery, a puzzle to be solved, put back together. It was the notion of digging in the earth and uncovering and being able to physically touch and come in contact with history.

It's funny the things in life we let ourselves drift away from when our minds take on more practical matters.

Clearly, science hasn't been the direction I've taken my life. But the gap between a field like science and a pursuit such as poetry aren't too far afield:

On the contrary science opens up realms of poetry where to the unscientific all is a blank. Those engaged in scientific researches constantly show us that they realize not less vividly, but more vividly than others, the poetry of their subjects... Think you that the rounded rock marked with parallel scratches calls up as much poetry in an ignorant mind as in the mind of a geologist, who knows that over this rock a glacier slid a million years ago? The truth is, that those who have never entered upon scientific pursuits know not a tithe of the poetry by which they are surrounded. - Herbert Spenser 

Geology, archaeology, philosophy, poetry, they all begin in curiosity, in wonder. They all look to gain or attain some form of mastery, an in-depth attempt at understanding their subject and their world. They all dig in some way, shape, or form.

My mind of late has been on rocks. I am terrible with names, whether people's or things'. I can be bowled over by the magnificence of something I encounter on a hike or trail run, but not try to learn more about it or understand it better. That's one of the things I'm taking into the new year: I want to dig deeper.

Geology, as much as archaeology, can be the study and solving of puzzles. I've had recent conversations with my nine-year-old daughter about continental drift and with friends about Pangaea. Without geological study, there is no mystery, no jaw-dropping wonder about the world on which we find ourselves standing. One of my favorite non-fiction writers in John McPhee. In his "Annals of the Former World," he condenses geology, mystery and poetry into a single sentence:

When the climbers in 1953 planted their flags on the highest mountain, they set them in snow over the skeletons of creatures that had lived in the warm ocean that India, moving north, blanked out. Possibly as much as 20,000 feet below the seafloor, the skeletal remains had turned into rock. This one fact is a treatise in itself on the movements of the surface of the earth. If by some fiat, I had to restrict all this writing to one sentence, this is the one I would choose: The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone.

Summitting Mt. Everest is a supreme physical accomplishment. But knowing what you are standing on, and being able to reel in that absurdity should be a part of that sense of both achievement and mystery.

That is a depth I am looking to add to my own adventures. To dig deeper. To recognize and celebrate the wonder of the geologist, as well as the poet and the philosopher. To go back to the mystery and the puzzles of history that grabbed my attention via Harrison Ford and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I wonder if I need a new hat?

Monday, December 22, 2014

2014: From Residing to Embracing

I take stock on a reading rock, in the town where I grew up. It's a rock bulkheaded riverbank, looking onto a glassy December river. It's too cold to have to worry about snakes.

I came down to Oxford to take a particular photograph, which I have. Now I am in the gravy. Sitting along a river I have swum across on a bet; looking at a dock we jumped and swam off of as kids.

I am 42. At this time last year I was married and working as a government contracted technical writer in Washington, D.C. This year I am separated and between jobs. And I am happier than I have been in a long time. There are reasons for that, one of which is knowing myself and learning my heart. Another is returning to activities that make me feel alive. Last year I was sleepwalking through life; this year, I am awake.

Today I am a tourist in the town my father's family has lived for centuries. A backpack with books, a notebook, ski cap, snacks and water; taking pictures of things that catch my eye; walking streets and sidewalks and sitting cold to scrawl a note or contemplate a color. No two people would describe "brackish" in the same way.

This has been a difficult year in places. In March, I went on Zoloft to help me through the worst of it. I was worried it would change me, sap my creativity, hollow me out. It didn't. But I stopped taking it in October when I found myself too numb to life around me; not feeling enough. I don't regret either decision.

I have connected with new people and reconnected with others. Adversity can lead you to a clearer understanding of friendship, of family, and of who those folks are. I am finding, I think, that my way forward in life has rarely ever been a straight line; maybe a series of cutbacks and switchbacks and circling spirals, ultimately leading up the mountain.

I have too many blessings to count. Health, my own and my family's, and two honor roll student athlete daughters to whom I want to give the best life possible.

Tourist. Maybe that's my problem. I have been a tourist in my own life. I have not recognized enough the things, people, places that I love and committed to them. But that's changing.

Work. Passion. Love. Family. Art. Self reliance. Home. Pablo Neruda's epic autobiographical book/poem, written over the course of 20 years, is called "Residence on Earth." There is something to that notion: residing, inhabiting. But it sounds too passive. For me, I need the idea of engaging with others, activity. Maybe beyond engaging, it's actually embracing. Yeah, I think that's it.

Last year I was residing. This year I have started living. Now it is time to embrace.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Northern Exposure; It's the fling itself

On paper, my last semester at N.C. State was a failure. Ultimately it left me on the street, back in Maryland, getting in shape with designs of going into the Army and jumping out of planes. It got me back to running. Made me change my life's direction. That is the good.

Not a lot of time was spent in classrooms. But I think I learned a lot that fall. The curriculum was organic, unstructured, self-guided. It included Jerry Garcia and David Grisman. It included chess and whiskey. It included Whitman and Emerson. It included Paul Newman and Robert Redford; Charlie Chaplan and Robert Downey Jr.; daily episodes of Northern Exposure reruns; and deep discussions with a good friend, Lindsay Loflin, who was the only other English Literature (and in his case film) student that I knew well at a textiles and engineering school.

Northern Exposure is my favorite TV series of all time. It was made and aired within the parameters of prime time network television, before HBO changed the TV series rules forever (for the better) with shows such as The Wire, Sopranos, Game of Thrones, etc. Point being Northern Exposure had to play by the network rules. Let's be honest, Maggie O'Connell (Janine Turner) could have been a fun character to have playing by HBO/Showtime standards :)

For me, the series is full of life lessons, philosophy, humor, etc. It is a study on how life sometimes goes in directions you had no idea were coming, not directions you necessarily would want, but directions you need to get where you are going. Dr. Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow) is a Jewish physician from NYC whose medical school at Columbia was financed by the state of Alaska. He is a city cat, but winds up in Cicely, Alaska, as part of a contract to repay/pay back the state for his education. It's in the middle of nowhere, he hates it, is a salmon out of water, but starts to change. The place and people teach him, even when he doesn't want them to or expect it. We get what we need, and what needs us.

Alaskan/Indian Ed Chigliak (Darren E. Burrows), film critic and aspiring director is a brilliantly conceived, quirky character. Adam Arkin's "Adam," the paranoid recluse who is a gourmet chef and wired into the inner-workings of global counter-intelligence is phenomenal. And Chris Stevens (John Corbett), radio DJ host of "Chris in the Morning" is perhaps my favorite character of all time, possibly in any media. Chris is an air waves philosopher, reading Walt Whitman to his listeners; sharing personal stories, groping life. The piano fling scene and speech is one of the all-time great moments in television. To me that sums up art, philosophy, fun, being eccentric, being different, being alive. YouTube won't let me embed it, but I highly recommend you check it out with the link.

Because it's how I roll, I'll also give you the text of Chris's speech:

I've been here now for some days, groping my way along, trying to realize my vision here. I started concentrating so hard on my vision that I lost sight. I've come to find out that it's not the vision, it's not the vision at all. It's the groping. It's the groping, it's the yearning, it's the moving forward. I was so fixated on that flying cow that when Ed told me Monty Python already painted that picture, I thought I was through. I had to let go of that cow so I could see all the other possibilities. Anyway, I want to thank Maurice for helping me to let go of that cow. Thank you Maurice for playing Apollo to my Dionysus in art's Cartesian dialectic. And thanks to you, Ed, cause the truth shall set us free! And Maggie, thank you for sharing in the destruction of your house so that today we could have something to fling. I think Kierkegaard said it oh so well, "The self is only that which it's in the process of becoming." Art? Same thing. James Joyce had something to say about it too. "Welcome, Oh Life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge the smythe of my soul the uncreated conscious of my race." We're here today to fling something that bubbled up from the collective unconsciousness of our community. Ed, you about ready? The thing I learned folks, this is absolutely key: It's not the thing you fling. It's the fling itself. Let's fling something, Cicely!

I am at such a loss for words here. Philosophy, art, existentialism, Monty Python, breaking shit, the collective unconscious, James Joyce, Kierkegaard, catharsis, groping: these are a few of my favorite things.

A couple years ago, I scarfed up seasons one and two of Northern Exposure on DVD. I put it on this morning at 4-ish a.m., with a cup of coffee and began the series again from the pilot episode. There is so much there. It inspires me, makes me laugh, makes me think. And though it is a TV show about a place that doesn't really exist, it rekindles my urge to go stand in Alaska, to hike there, to trail run there, to stay in a cabin, to drink beer in a tavern, to imbibe the spirit of the place.

It's the groping. It's the fling itself. Let's fling something!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Mix Tape

The thing about a mix tape is that it was generally made with you in mind. Unless you had a playa on your hands, mix tapes were made by one person for one other. The songs selected were intended for, or evocative of, or telling a story of some sort for one person, or maybe a small group. It was a personal form of communication made using constructs of popular culture. Either that or it was an attempt to get laid.

I'm a big fan of the Marvel movies. It would be an understatement to say I was stoked by their recent Phase 3 movie slate announcement. I haven't read any of the "Guardians of the Galaxy," comics or graphic novels, though I have been meaning to, but had heard solid reviews of the movie, so took a chance and snarfed it up. Younger daughter Ava and I have watched it twice, the second time so her older sister could watch it as well.

The mix tape looms large. The soundtrack for Guardians, which I have downloaded and listened to a number of times, is a mix tape made for our hero Peter Quill (played by Chris Pratt) by his mother in the 1980s. "Awesome Mix Vol. 1," was her collecting her favorite songs to share with her son. In addition to being completely iconic, badass 1970s and 80s songs, they are woven perfectly into the movie.

"Come and Get Your Love" by Redbone, anyone? Ava has been singing that song all morning and now counts it as one of her three favorite songs.

When I run with tunes these days, I work out a playlist and then hit shuffle, to let the Universe throw me a sort of running mix tape based on songs I'm vibing on. The Guardians soundtrack is currently tumbling with Digable Planets, Beck and D'Angelo, among others.

But the mix tape philosophy got me thinking about other art forms, books and movies that I dig. A mix tape is not a novel. It is most likely not about plot. It's about every song, every section, chapter, part, being something onto itself, and also not allowing any filler, any lulls. "Pulp Fiction," "True Romance," and "Snatch" are films that feel episodic, where there is scene after scene of simply and utterly cool. Bands like De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and The Beastie Boys put out albums that felt like mix tapes.

There is a level of care and attention given to a mix tape that only certain authors can come close to replicating for a whole book, or work of any sort. I got the mix tape high the first time I read William Blake's "Marriage of Heaven and Hell." I'm cruising through some deep and heady stuff, one "song" ends and here come the "Proverbs of Hell (plucking a few favorites at random):"

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.

He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.

Eternity is in love with the productions of time.

The hours of folly are measur'd by the clock; but of wisdom, no clock can measure.

The most sublime act is to set another before you.

And Blake just mows you down with rapid fire, fortune cookie bullets. Poets, essayists and short story writers are more likely to conjure mix tape magic it seems, with their ability to work the pause, the silence between the songs; and their prerogative to change direction, change tone, pace without notice--heavy metal to bluegrass to reggae to jazz. One of the literary lions who clearly understood mix tapes was Jorge Luis Borges. You can see it in "Labyrinths," or "Dreamtigers," or almost anything he put out into the world. Maybe for Borges, a mix tape was a labyrinth:

Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.

Then I reflect that all things happen, happen to one, precisely now. Century follows century, and things happen only in the present. There are countless men in the air, on land and at sea, and all that really happens happens to me.

Before unearthing this letter, I had questioned myself about the ways in which a book can be infinite. I could think of nothing other than a cyclic volume, a circular one. A book whose last pages was identical with the first, a book which had the possibility of continuing indefinitely.

Maybe that is another aspect of the mix tape--it is almost cyclic or circular; it doesn't matter where you hit play, you are pulled in, wrapped up; you can start and stop at any point or just let it ride.

If that's the case, Borges definitely got it. You can see him taking copies of a new book to his close friends, his lady friends, his peeps. Or maybe he'd be kicked back in a chair, next to a cat, waiting for folks to come to him. I mean, he's Borges. Maybe he would just send a text that said: "New mix tape: Come and Get Your Love. Borges, out."

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Christmas Passed; Good King Wenceslas

I'm not much for Christmas. That hurts to say, but it's been a few years coming. It feels tired, forced, fake. Blame Walmart and Target, for putting Christmas shit out in September next to the back to school shopping. Blame consumer America for Black Friday and Cyber Monday and all the other fanfare and crap that killed Kenny and Christmas all at once.

How about we blame Charles Dickens? I mean I'm a Dickens fan, but you tell me if you could pick between what Christmas is now, and this:

... in medieval times, peasants and lords alike celebrated Christmas with a twelve-day rager, glomming the Nativity onto the pagan feasts of Saturnalia and the Winter Solstice to create a super-holiday full of carol singing, gift-giving, raucous game-playing, the burning of Yule logs, and a whole hell of a lot of drinking.

Sign me up. That sounds like Festivus before the Costanza's came up with the feats of strength. In the fantastic article quoted above, Richard Michael Kelly connects the publication of "A Christmas Carol" to the lame popular public celebration of Christmas we have today.

Nostalgia at Christmas time isn't a new thing. Dylan Thomas felt it too. His "A Child's Christmas in Wales" is the one story I read every year. To myself, mind you. Thomas connects history and his memories in recalling:

Years and years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and snowed... Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely white-ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunderstorm of white, torn Christmas cards.

Get a poet reminiscing about snow, and let him/her roll.

I'm not Charlie Brown here, wondering about the true meaning of Christmas. I've born witness to folks and communities that get it. Doug Hanks Jr. and the town of Oxford with the dock trees in Town Creek come to mind. Going down there last year with Joel Shilliday to get photos of the lit up creek, or talking with Henry Hale about how and why the trees continue to get out there and how so much of the town is into it. That's a bit of what Christmas is, or should be.

My favorite part of Christmas every year growing up was the fact that my grandparents from Towson would drive down and stay Christmas Eve, wake up with us on Christmas morning, and sometimes stay the next night. Sure, presents rocked, but seeing their car turn onto E. Division Street in Oxford, and helping them unload the car, that is Christmas to me as much as anything will be.

I'm not sure what traditions my girls are inheriting. Each year, the three of us have gone to Hutchison's Christmas Forest and cut down a tree, but this is their last year. We don't go overboard on Christmas gifts, but I guess there is the stress of gifts, followed directly by January and February birthdays. But Christmas feels like a fake facade town, set up with just the building fronts leaning against two-by-fours, that a strong wind will take down.

Christmas, even in sight of what it is all about, feels like a going through the motions and has for the past few years. The girls are super excited Christmas morning and day, they spend time with family, eat, play with their booty (toys people, their loot, come on ;), but I need to get myself back in the spirit.

For me, the solid memories of Christmas past, seems heading firmly in the direction of Christmas passed.

I don't have an answer. Maybe it's a search. Maybe a quest. But if you will indulge me with letting Dylan Thomas ramble again, he has something of it here:

Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire as the gaslight bubbled like a diver. Ghosts wooed like owls in the long nights when I dared not look over my shoulder; animals lurked in the cubbyhole under the stairs where the gas meter ticked. And I remember that we went singing carols once, when there wasn't the shaving of a moon to light the flying streets. At the end of a long road was a drive that led to a large house, and we stumbled up the darkness of the drive that night, each one of us afraid, each one holding a stone in his hand in case, and all of us too brave to say a word. The wind through the trees made noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe webfooted men wheezing in caves. We reached the black bulk of the house.

"What shall we give them? Hark the Herald?"

"No," Jack said. "Good King Wenceslas. I'll count three."

One, two, three, and we began to sing, our voices high and seemingly distant in the snow-felted darkness round that house that was occupied by nobody that we knew. We stood close together, near the dark door.

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen...

And then a small, dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long time, joined our singing: a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small dry voice through the keyhole. And when we stopped running we were outside our house; the front room was lovely; balloons floated under the hot-water-bottle-gulping gas; everything was good again and shone over the town.

A group of boys go caroling on a completely dark night, to a house they don't know. They are afraid. They bust out an old song they know. They connect with a total stranger, which may well have encompassed his whole Christmas. They run like hell back home and all is right with the world.

Unscripted. Spur of the moment. Out of the comfort zone. Spontaneity, fear, human connection to a stranger. Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Fireside, Cave Paintings and Dreams

My mind is dancing, fickle like fire. It won't stand still--it jumps, flicks tongues, wall rides, scattering darkness, but dives back down before illuminating. Can't see what's there.

I'm sitting in a cave. It's me, the fire, someone across the fire from me that I can't make out, just an outline. Not a stranger, just can't see across the fire.

Can't make out the cave walls. There are shadows. I need to stoke the fire. With what? Drugs bring smoke but no additional light. They are not the stoke.

tucked up in clefts in the cliffs
growing strict fields of corn and beans
sinking deeper and deeper in the earth
up to your hips in Gods
                 your head all turned to eagle-down
                 & lightning for knees and elbows
your eyes full of pollen

                the smell of bats
                the flavor of sandstone
                grit on the tongue.

at the food of ladders in the dark.

Gary Snyder chants. The flames dance higher. Figures on the wall...

Art. Poetry. Drawings. The child, surrounded by nature, is the one connected to the Universe. I know these drawings. I've seen them. I've written about them, read about them.

Caves. Fire. Shelter. Food. Primal elements. Fire meant food, community. It still does. Fire pulls the tribe together. It is conversation, happy hour, camping, return from a trail run to crack a beer, sip soup and share stories. Fire lets us see in the dark.

The cave has more. Skateboarding. Future Primitive. A love that began at 13 and has continued through today at 42 and tomorrow at whatever age. The figures on the wall look like this...

Lance Mountain. The figures are also running. Tribal. More of the cave, the walls are showing now. Scenes, images, symbols from my life. The girls. Passions. Shared experiences. Spelled out on the walls of the cave. Plato would be pleased.

I get up and walk to further parts of the cave. The walls are bare. They are uncovered. Unwritten. Still to be written. The writing is from life. From love. From experience. What is the rest of the story? What symbols? What art?

What becomes paintings on the cave walls begins as dreams. Neil Gaiman knows dreams. He has written Dream's story in epic and graphic fashion. He begins "The Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables & Reflections" with an artist, a playwright and director who is afraid of heights. In his dreams, he fears falling. He believes there are two possible outcomes to falling in a dream: either you wake up, or you die. No good outcome.

And the artist, the dreamer, finds himself in a dream, climbing. At the top of the mountain, he meets Dream. Dream points out that there is a third alternative. "Sometimes when you fall, you fly."

The most unlikely scenario. It flies in the face of common sense. But we aren't talking sense. We are talking dreams. Why would anything sensical wind up as a cave painting?

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Things that make you go hhmmm...

Monk: What happens when the leaves are falling, and the trees bare?

Ummon: The golden wind, revealed!

- Hegikan Roku (The Blue Cliff Records, via Peter Matthiessen, "The Snow Leopard")

Life has a funny way of showing you things. Things that maybe at first you'd rather not see, hear, think about or experience. But that end up with you being exactly where you need to be, when you need to be there.

As Peter Matthiessen and his crew turn their trek through the Himalayas from westward to northward, he cites the quote above. It's kind of a sky is falling moment. Shit, what do we do? What happens when the last of the leaves have fallen? Chill. That's when we find out what's really there, underneath.

Oh. Okay. Cool.

If I ever write a proper book, it will be non-fiction, extended memoir, something, not a novel. And I hope I can bring even a fraction of what Matthiessen does to the table, in his ability to tell a razor wire tight/taut story, and then go for pages talking about cosmology, and how modern science and ancient Eastern philosophy are saying the same things about the nature of the Universe, and keep your attention rapt in doing so, not make you mad that the travel narrative has taken a tangent:

Today most scientists would agree with the ancient Hindus that nothing exists or is destroyed, things merely change shape or form; that matter is insubstantial in origin, a temporary aggregate of the pervasive energy that animates the electron.

When I was at N.C. State, a friend of ours married a girl who went to a nearby all girls college in Raleigh. She was Samoan; her cousin played nose tackle for State and went on to play for a time for the Detroit Lions. He was a beast. She was a self-proclaimed witch (let's call her a good witch). A number of us went to their engagement party and I don't know that I have ever unexpectedly laughed so hard, at these giant Samoan dudes, who could rip your limbs off, engaged in side-splittingly hilarious "your mama" joke one-ups-manship. Random and fantastic. My roommate and I quoted them for weeks.

We hung with our friend and the Samoan witch for a while, until they dropped out of school and seemed to drop off the face of the earth. One night on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, she was reading palms. Why not?

She told me some of the basic stuff you'd hope to hear: long life; two and a half children (have two girls and a miscarriage, so maybe that's what that was?); and an active love line. She said that the love of my life would be someone who I knew first as a friend, then wouldn't talk to for some time, fall out of touch, and then would reconnect with later.

I can't say I have given that a lot of thought, other than to play it back in my head a few times here and there any wonder about it and file it back under the C & C Music Factory mental category of "Things that make you go hhmmmm..." At the least, great cocktail party fodder to be able to say that you've had your palm read by a Samoan witch (self-proclaimed).

This fall hasn't been my most active time for running. But it's been better than it has been in a few years. I guess 2008 to 2010-ish were the heyday for the Rise Up Runners in terms of how often we ran and raced and got together. But as I've said on here before, so much of that group is about the camaraderie, the goofy challenges, the eccentric friendships and connections.

 In September, a friend turned 40. It happens to the best of us. Instead of a party, he challenged us: swim 0.4 miles, bike 40 km, run 4 miles, and to officially finish, you must have finished a 40oz of beer or malt liquor. The 40Tri (copyrighted ;). That event was a blast.

We then threw out a schedule that asked those who were game to complete a race on the Eastern Shore, each month, from Sept. to Dec.: 4 MONTHS, 4 RACES, 4 SHORE. The 40TRI. The Horn Point Spat Dash in Cambridge. The Chester River Challenge Half-Marathon and 5K in Chestertown or the Across the Bay 10K, and this month, the Pain in the Neck 50K in Cambridge.

The goal was not to finish the races per se, but to get the band back together. To run, to hang, to train, to push each other with ridiculous challenges.

Today is the Pain in the Neck, the last leg. A friend from N.C. State who lives in Delaware is coming over for it. It's a 5K loop, that runners can run up to 10 times. It is going to be in the 40s to 50 degrees and rainy. A bunch of fools running circles in the woods in December.

Yep, file that under the same C&C Music Factory mental category: Things that make you go hhmmm...

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

(Not) Only the Lonely

I ran probably 10 of the 13.1 miles of the Chester River Challenge with a girl I'd never met and will likely never see again. About three miles into the race, a group of us settled into a comfortable pace and pushed along as a pack. Running face first into a 30-40 mph headwind on the second half of the course, this girl in blue and I pushed ahead of the pack.

I've run with a number of folks, but I don't think any of them have had the same foot strike pace that I do. Blue girl did. You only heard one set of feet pounding pavement. We didn't talk much. But at one point, we turned out of the wind down a stretch of hilly, country road, were off mostly on our own, and the thought of running that road, in that weather, as a training run was in my mind, since the rest of my body hurt.

"Sometimes this whole running thing is a bleak, solitary pursuit," I said.

"Yeah, it is," she laughed.

But for those miles, for the couple shared comments, for those common footfalls it wasn't.

Human loneliness seem to be the basic condition for two of my life loves: running and writing. Both have solitude as a building block. Both require you to turn inside, to see what is there and to do something with it. And maybe in the end, both are an answer to this condition of loneliness.

The medium of poetry isn't language, really: it's human loneliness, a loneliness that poets, having received it themselves from earlier poets, transfer to their readers. Like bees in a honeycomb, writers and readers experience isolation and solitude communally and collaboratively. - Dan Chiasson, The New Yorker, reviewing Olena Kalytiak Davis's new book.

Maybe writing, especially writing as personal as poetry, is the writer saying, "Hey, this fu**ing sucks. Anyone else?" And the act of writing, the reaching out, if we stumble across some universal feeling or nerve, or at least one other nerve in one other person, the loneliness might abate.

Music can probably be included as a means of combating the lonely. I am not a musician, but I hear it in Delta blues. And I hear it in Sturgill Simpson. Simpson seems to be connecting with a number of folks, Rolling Stone Magazine called his "Metamodern Sounds in Country Music" one of the 50 best albums in 2014.

I dig the way Rolling Stone blurbs it along with some Simpson lyrics:

"Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin, DMT, they all changed the way I see / But love's the only thing that ever saved my life," sings Simpson. The Kentucky-born singer-songwriter's breakthrough album features plenty more folk wisdom, delivered in a singular barrel-aged baritone.

Since a friend shoved me in Simpson's direction, I have been listening a lot, and he seems to fit any mood, from cleaning the house, to happy hour, to morning coffee, or sipping whiskey under the stars.

Running, writing, and music all seem to be born out of an elemental loneliness. They all feel like ways for the runner, writer, musician to bridge a perceived gap, to connect with something, or someone else. And, lucky us, the act of doing, or reading, or listening, can sometimes let us know that someone else out there gets it. Gets us.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Source Materials, Odyssey, Experience

There can only be so many plots, right? If you listen to Christopher Booker, there are seven to work with. So in rocking a plot, choose wisely. The farther back you reach, the more likely you'll get to the good stuff. Homer's Odyssey seemed to fascinate James Joyce, as well as Matt Fraction.

Homer hit the ball out of the park (sorry) in such epic fashion the title of his Odyssey now has its own meaning in modern English:

1. a long wandering or voyage usually marked by many changes of fortune.

2. an intellectual or spiritual wandering or quest.

If I stick with the second definition, I feel like that's a description of my daily life. Booker fits Homer's Odyssey into the "Voyage and Return" category, "the protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses to him/her, returns with nothing but experience." He cites "Alice in Wonderland" as another example.

I can relate to that aspect as well--I return from most of my voyages with empty pockets and a full soul.

Fraction has the balls to take on Homer and re-make the Odyssey into something totally new. Turn Odysseus into a girl. Change the setting to sci-fi and rock out a smart, psychedelic comic that visually and viscerally spins your brain. Those that follow along at home may remember that I blame Matt Fraction for pulling me back into comics and graphic novels.

There is something both epic and daunting and maybe terrifying about building on one of the most revered works in the canon of western literature. Joyce more than pulled it off, and took his Odyssey into the mind, and inside a single day in Dublin. The possibilities are endless.

My own odyssey is only partially literary at the moment. It's a personal wandering, a personal quest to figure out myself, life, the Universe, vocation, etc. It's what you do when you are 42.

Lately I have sequestered myself into my Baileys Neck crib. Gone ghost, fled to interior life, and close surroundings. I could feel a pull to change scenery. Pull together a quick and easy overnight, a voyage and return. Shenandoah National Park is a sub-three hour trek. Mary's Rock at Thornton Gap provided about a four-mile hike (up and back) full of snow, ice, slush and views you won't find on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

A proper odyssey can't be contained in a day or four miles. But for a flatlander surrounded by water, not mountains, it can be just enough to screw my soul on a bit differently. A spiritual wandering, returning with nothing but experience. And a smiling sanctuary in the mind.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Zen Pilgrims

Thanksgiving is a good time to talk about pilgrims, right? But if I am being honest, as much as Thanksgiving is far and away my favorite holiday--for recognizing gratitude, for spending time with family, for eating great food and falling asleep watching football--I don't give a rat's ass about the Mayflower pilgrims.

The pilgrims who are my spiritual kin are a more solitary folk. The live their pilgrimages and are astounded daily by life around them. They are people like Annie Dillard and Peter Matthiessen.

1973 was an epic year for pilgrimages. I was born in 1972, so I am going to say that was a cooler year, but let's stay on topic here. 1973 was the year Matthiessen and George Schaller went to Nepal, which is the story of "The Snow Leopard." We've been over that here. 1973 was also the year that Annie Dillard began to write "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," which takes place outside Roanoke, Va., in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I have read Tinker Creek, loved it, and for some reason it called to me yesterday, to grab it from the bookshelf. Maybe it was the play on pilgrim and Thanksgiving.

This is what Dillard set out to do with writing her book:

I propose to keep here what Thoreau called "a meteorological journal of the mind," telling some tales and describing some of the sights of this rather tamed valley, and exploring, in fear and trembling, some of the unmapped dim reaches and unholy fastnesses to which those tales and sights so dizzyingly lead.

One of the things I particularly dig about reading Tinker Creek and The Snow Leopard alongside one another, is looking at the nature of the journeys. You can't get a lot more epic than Matthiessen--looking for the exotic, rare snow leopard, traveling across the world, sherpas and porters, a lifetime adventure. Dillard on the other hand, stays put. She goes for depth, not breadth. She dials in detail. She gets the rhythms of the place and internalizes them. She becomes part of the landscape.

It's the most beautiful day of the year. At four o'clock the eastern sky is a dead stratus black flecked with low white clouds. The sun in the west illuminates the ground, the mountains, and especially the bare branches of trees, so that everywhere silver trees cut into the black sky like a photographer's negative of a landscape. The air and the ground are dry; the mountains are going on and off like neon signs. Clouds slide east as if pulled from the horizon, like a tablecloth whipped off a table. The hemlocks by the barbed-wire fence are flinging themselves east as though their backs would break. Purple shadows are racing east

The thing about pilgrimages, in my mind, is it is the pilgrim that is transformed. The journey, whether around the world or walking around the creek, is a means for the exploration of self and the world.

While Matthiessen and his crew are camped in the mountains at 9,000 feet, he is thinking about his son Alex, who he had to leave home to make the journey. He talks about how Alex as a toddler would stand in his sandbox in an orchard, rapt, almost in a trance.

The child was not observing, he was at rest in the very center of the universe, a part of things, unaware of endings and beginnings, still in unison with the primordial nature of creation, letting all light and phenomena pour through. Ecstasy is identity with all existence,..

There is something striking that in all our wandering, in all our activity, in all our busyness, that what we are all after is stillness. It's unity. Peace. "Ecstasy is identity with all existence..."

Matthiessen and Dillard are founding members of my Pilgrim Hall of Fame. They recognize the infinite in the everyday. The see that it is the mind that needs to be set in motion, as much as the body. And that there are different ways to go about each.

They explore themselves, their minds, their souls and the world around them. Not Thanksgiving pilrgims, but zen pilgrims.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Of Codes, Outlaws, and Family

Part of life is establishing your code. Who or what determines your actions? What guides you in life to make your decisions?

If you're honest, you sooner or later have to confront your values. Then you're forced to separate what is right from what is merely legal. This puts you metaphysically on the run. America is full of metaphysical outlaws. - Tom Robbins, "Still Life With a Woodpecker"

"Metaphysical Outlaw" would make a simple, kickass tattoo. It's an underlying principle, not a "thou shalt."

I think my code evolves. Loyalties may change. Priorities change. People prove themselves worthy or unworthy. If you write your code in stone at age 18, you are likely either going to spend half your time trying to re-carve the stone, or you are going to live your life in ways that your soul knows are antiquated and ill fitting. At 42, I still can't foresee what life may hold that I haven't considered.

I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. - Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance."

Codes are not something that can be handed to us. That can't be decrees, or laws, or commandments dictated by someone else. Though they can be based on them. But our codes require self-reflection.

In society we agree to certain understood rules. But the people I admire and respect the most are those who have their own sense of life that isn't as muddied, or bureaucratic or political as the bullshit we navigate in our daily lives.

That's one of the reasons I've been pulled into the show "Sons of Anarchy." I don't think we benefit from everyone being above the law like Steven Seagal. But I think there is something to not accepting spoon-fed values; to turning a critical eye both outside and inside to determine a code that comes from and speaks to your soul. Jacks Teller is a thinking man's outlaw, not blindly accepting society's rules, but also questioning the motives and actions of the Sam Crow motorcycle club.

The first comic book that grabbed my attention in middle school was "Daredevil." Matt Murdoch is a blind lawyer, working for justice in the courts (blind is a billy club over the head metaphor), who then distributes his own form of justice as "the man without fear." I scooped up every issue I could get my hands on and it was the first magazine/periodical I ever subscribed to. I got them in the mail before I subscribed to Thrasher Magazine or Sports Illustrated.

Graphic novels, movies, literature are full of protagonists who operate within their own codes and do the right thing because of their own motivation, not because that is how they are supposed to act. I've been reading Warren Ellis's "Moon Knight" and Ales Kot's "Zero" lately, which are both character studies for this kind of "hero."

How I view singular actions will likely change over time. But there are some things that seem foundational. Our younger daughter Ava had the flu Sunday and is on the mend, but still struggling this morning. I quarantined her in my bedroom yesterday and she slept all day. I checked in on her repeatedly, sometimes just to hear her breathing, since she is never that quiet. Her sister Anna is 12. Anna and I went a couple verbal rounds yesterday as father and adolescent daughter. We came through to the other side, laughed together, said our standard "I love you" before bed.

That is background to say that if someone threatened serious harm to my children, the force that I would direct back at said someone would be 100 fold. I like to think that I would not hesitate, and good go to sleep at night feeling no remorse to protect my family by any means necessary.

Family is a foundational part of my code.

This is part of what a family is about, not just love. It is knowing that your family will be there watching out for you. Nothing else will give you that. Not money. Not fame. Not work. - Mitch Albom

Trailblazing has always felt a part of my code.

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. - Emerson, Self-Reliance

It could be that this blog is just me rehashing my own shit and re-telling the same stories. So I hope you'll bear with me when that happens. I started reading Emerson, "Self-Reliance," "Nature," and other essays in my room at N.C. State when I was supposed to be in class. It was Emerson, Whitman, Mark Twain, playing chess, and watching "Northern Exposure" and "Chaplin" starring Robert Downey Jr., that comprised the bulk of my last semester in Raleigh. It didn't help with grades there, but laid the foundation for the learning that would come at Chesapeake College and Washington College. There are easily a dozen Emerson quotes I could turn into tattoos (note the theme? ;)

Self-Reliance should be required reading for humanity. But I also like some of the zen nature of Ralph Waldo, the idea of not being hung up on your past. Maybe that's a good way to begin our week of being thankful.

Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense. - RWE

Self-examination. Family. Trailblazing. Self-reliance. Reinvention. Maybe having a code encumbers you too much in and of itself. But if it's your own code, it's still better than someone else's. Let's hope.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Wanderlust or kick it root down?

I've never had a passport. I've driven to Colorado; driven to New Orleans for Mardi Gras; driven to Chicago; driven to Key West and to Maine. Put my feet in the Pacific Ocean at Santa Cruz. I've hiked in the White Mountains of New Hampshire; I've finished a 50-mile foot race. I say all that as background so that it may make some sense when I say that if I die without having left the country, my life won't be less for it.

The Universe itself is the scripture of Zen, for which religion is no more and no less than the apprehension of the infinite in every moment. - Peter Matthiessen, "The Snow Leopard."

A zen guru, I am not. But Matthiessen is on to something, that I try to bring to my life. I've spent a lot of time running, trails, roads, mountains, around lakes. I've spent a fair amount of time on a skateboard, looking at my surroundings differently than someone who hasn't marveled at a painted parking curb, a loading dock, or an embankment. I try to experience places deeply. I can go running at Tuckahoe State Park, where I can't begin to count how many miles I have logged there, and still see things I've never seen before. There is always something new. Part of that comes with the idea of beginner's mind; of not assuming I've seen all their is to see.

All that said, I don't sit still well. I have always been one ready to throw a backpack, running shoes or hiking boots, a book or two and a notebook in a car and hit the road. I have convinced others and been convinced for road trips with zero planning or budget and poor designs. Sleeping in cars has never been a deterrent. Wanderlust and I have always been good friends. Wandering and roving about. The thing about roving is that it doesn't need a clear direction.

The fact that I can't stand flying could sway my form of pilgrimage. But I will fly when it's warranted. If I do pop my passport cherry, it could well be to go check out Finca Bellavista, a treehouse community a friend and former classmate founded in Costa Rica. Or maybe to hike England's Lake District, a la Wordsworth, and hang in taverns or catch a Liverpool match at Anfield.

There is a difference between me and a nomad: my restless soul has deep roots. My family has been connected to Maryland's Eastern Shore since the 1600s. I can feel a source of strength in being on the Tred Avon or Choptank Rivers. I feel most at home here. I've described it before, but coming across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, eastbound, is a daily euphoria, of feeling like I am coming home to a magical place, all over again; its newness doesn't disappear because of my familiarity. There are parts of the Shore that I will likely never tire of experiencing.

Running and skateboarding have both allowed me the opportunity to keep my body, mind and soul in motion. So has being on the water in whatever form. Oddly, they've also helped me explore my roots. Roots are an interesting phenomenon. When we look at a tree, we look up. Maybe we climb it. But there is a huge part of the tree not visible to us. Not without some digging.

If we always explore, looking up, looking ahead, moving to the next thing, we are missing a shitload of what is in front of us and underneath us. Sometimes maybe exploring the wilderness means delving into the things around you that you have left unexplored.

"Know thyself." For some people to know themselves, to understand themselves, they have to cover new ground, explore new terrain. And that is awesome. But it's also possible that the push to move on to explore new things, abandons life around you with only a skimming of the surface.

Trees and people, we all have roots. Occasionally we can learn a thing or two from trees. Just ask Herman Hesse:

When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk; in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured...

A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one's suffering, though it may seem so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward...

Hesse's wandering isn't an escape. It's a longing for home. And that's not the kind of longing that gets answered without going deep. You can't understand the tree, without knowing the roots. This kind of understanding came to folks like Aldo Leopold. Gary Snyder. Thoreau. It comes from depth and familiarity. And yet, it's hard to argue with Tom Robbins, when he reminds us:

People aren't trees, so it's false when they speak of roots.

Robbins of all people should understand metaphors. I dig being able to show Anna and Ava something of roots. Something of being connected to a place. Something of what home means. Sometimes it is a place. Sometimes it is a feeling, a state of mind. But it has to come from somewhere.

I will always have a backpack ready to go. My soul will always have restless legs and I've not traveled or explored my last mountains, trails, cities, towns. But if someone asks me how we're gonna kick it, I'll direct them to Mike D. (who just turned 49): we're gonna kick it root down.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Dream for a time in the wilderness

In sandlot football (we actually played on a church lot; it had grass), you diagrammed your play on the palm of your hand. Or maybe you used a stick, drawing it up on the ground. You run a post pattern, you run a go route, you go across the middle and get open. When the plan worked, it was money.

Maybe it's the same thing in life. Rough sketch it in a notebook, follow the scheme, touchdown. Start with dreams for the line of scrimmage. That's where you start. Send vision, passion, sweat and fun long and have them catch the ball in reality.

The trick, there are actually many, is that dreams and vision in particular are not ready made. They are some assembly required and don't come with batteries included. Shit, now I've mixed metaphors; bear with me.

Recognizing our dreams. Jim Carrey gets it. Watching him draw up his life's play at a commencement speech might be the best investment of a couple minutes of your day you can make. I empathize with his story about his dad (except I am the dad), choosing the safe job instead of trying to make it doing what he loved, then getting laid off anyway. And I wrote Carrey's take away message in my notebook. I might post it on the refrigerator: "You can fail at what you DON'T want, so you might as well take the chance on doing what you love."

My time over the last couple weeks has been about being in touch with dreams. It's been applying for jobs, some I want, many I don't. It's been running, doing yoga, strength training, meditating. Hanging with the girls. Walking the wilderness of my mind.

It is a commonplace of all religious thought, even the most primitive, that the man seeking visions and insight must go apart from his fellows and love for a time in the wilderness. - Loren Eiseley

Go apart and love for a time in the wilderness. Literally and figuratively. The Beastie Boys said "a castle in Brooklyn is where I dwell." I've gone quite the other route. I downsized. Two bedrooms, one bathroom, living room, kitchen, dining area, deck. Next to the woods and a huge field that can only be filled by the girls' imagination. Kickball, bocce, field hockey, soccer, fort building in the woods.

I choose not to be a slave to a house that is bigger than I need, that is more work, that keeps me, and/or the girls from truly carpe'ing the diem. I would rather dream and try to make that dream a reality than spend my time, my life, on upkeep and keeping up. Fu** the Jones's (no offense, Jones's).

I am not to the point of living in or building a tiny house, but man do I get it. If you are a Netflix fan, I recommend checking out the documentary, "Tiny: A Story About Living Small." Honestly, I think I was more inspired by the architecture and the folks they interviewed, particularly Jay Schafer, founder of Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., than by the couple who builds their crib, but there is a lot there to take in on many fronts.

What does it mean to try to realize your dreams? What does it mean to go after them? To cast off what society wants you to do, to be, and try to become what you want to be? How about I leave you with thoughts from three folks you might have heard of, rapping on dreams:

People think dreams aren't real just because they aren't made of matter, of particles. Dreams are real. But they are made of viewpoints, of images, of memories and puns and lost hopes. - Neil Gaiman

Those who dream by day are cognizant of a great many things which escape those who dream only by night. - Edgar Allan Poe

Throw your dreams into space like a kite, and you do not know what it will bring back, a new life, a new friend, a new love, a new country. - Anais Nin

Alright, everyone to the line of scrimmage. We're going to audible.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Lost and Revealed

"Lost" was one of my favorite shows. A metaphysical mystery/thriller that revealed a little more each episode, but even as it revealed, it kept you off balance.

Lost is not however, one of my favorite places to be in life. I look for a familiar landmark, true north, a compass, a map, a guide, but then I realize I am a bit like Alice, unsure where it is I am trying to go.

Our heart wanders lost in the dark woods.
Our dream wrestles in the castle of doubt.
But there's music in us. Hope is pushed down
but the angel flies up again taking us with her.
- Jack Gilbert

Jack Gilbert and Dante share an address in the dark woods. I am starting to know them by sight and smell. I'm listening for the music, the kind that comes only from being in the woods.

In my teens I loathed peace symbols. Pacifism felt boring, stale. I don't know if I've ever drawn a peace symbol. But I spent years drawing anarchy symbols. They described the shape of my restless soul. Lately I have been binge watching "Sons of Anarchy," and rekindling my unrealistic, romantic love affair with anarchy. To hear Emma Goldman quoted,

Anarchism stands for the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion and liberation of the human body from the coercion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government. It stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals...

I am not deluded enough to think that anarchy is a way most people, myself included, would choose to live, any more than thinking chaos would be a fun way to be stuck in a shopping mall. But there is something to letting a natural order take shape, rather than feeling lost in a society that rarely seems to find worth in the things I've come to value. It's a dilemma.

Lost. That's the shape of trying to figure out love, vocation, passion, time, family, art, nature. It's the shape of being between. In flux. Maybe it's just a more honest description of how we always are, when not deluded into thinking we have things figured out. It's easy to think of these lost feeling times as a sort of existential intermission. But that discounts these days, this time. And it assumes that the next act is written already, somewhere to be found. There is just as good a chance it is yet to be written, still to be determined. Unless it is already written on the soul.

I've been reading around of late in Pablo Neruda's "Residence on Earth," and Jim Harrison's "The Shape of the Journey." Both books were written over decades or more. Harrison's is a new and collected poems. In "The Theory and Practice of Rivers" he discerns:

It is not so much that I got
there from here, which is everyone's
story: but the shape
of the voyage, how it pushed
outward in every direction
until it stopped:
roots of plants and trees,
certain coral heads,
photos of splintered lightning,
blood vessels,
the shapes of creeks and rivers.

Maybe that is why life is hard to pin down. Maybe that is why it is hard to know the soul. Because the shapes we understand are circles, squares, trapezoids if we want to get funky. But life might be more accurately shaped like creeks or rivers, which have always been some of my favorite shapes. I am reminded of their unique shapes when I am on a paddleboard or cruising or floating in a boat. Or sipping a beer or reading or writing or watching sunset from the shoreline.

Maybe the shape of our life isn't one we can predict, or map, maybe it is a shape that gets revealed, made clear, little by little. Season one of "Sons of Anarchy" ends with Jacks Teller walking through a graveyard over to his father's grave. The song that is playing is a spiritual old blues song, which is a favorite of mine, written by Blind Willie Johnson. It's called "John the Revelator." Maybe it's fitting, or telling, that it's written, sung, revealed by a man who was blind.

Thursday, November 6, 2014


I am surrounded by pieces of, artifacts from my life. A discarded cleat from Edna Lockwood, a log-built bugeye given to me by the Boat Shop of the museum where I worked; a clothbound tome, "English Romantic Poetry and Prose," a textbook from Washington College where I first encountered Blake and Wordsworth; a coffee table book of the centennial retrospective of the White Mountain Guide; my grandfather's shaving mirror, wooden box and arms with candle holders on top; a book "From Pot Pie to Hell and Damnation," that took myself and a graphic designer a couple years to put in order and the author a lifetime to research and compile.

I am surrounded by books and magazines both read and unread. It's enough to keep my head swimming for a lifetime to come.

But instead, this week I've been trying again to clear my head rather than fill it. I am getting back into the practice of sitting meditation; making time everyday to sit in silence, to focus on my breath, to let my thoughts go and just be present; to clear my mind so I can fill it anew; clear my mind so that I can listen to new possibilities, new directions.

During the past week I've gone back to roots. Trick or treating with the girls and friends. Running a half-marathon in 30 to 40 mph winds faster than I thought I was in shape for. Tending to sick children while I was also sick. Finding some balance. Voting in an election. Searching for orange and red fall leaves with older daughter Anna on our drive to school. Driving my 12-year-old truck on back country roads.

Sometimes these moments are peaceful, sometimes they are poignant. It has been a year of things lost and trying to find meaning and of trying to find me. If you go with the Buddhist outlook then that search is a lost cause since there is no individual self anyway ;)

Miles Davis plays. John Lee Hooker. Van Morrison. Their music is expansive. Soaring. Heart breaking. Alive. Searching.

On the album "Astral Weeks," Van Morrison sings like a meditation teacher:

You breathe in, you breathe out,
You breathe in, you breathe out,
You breathe in, you breathe out,

Thanks for the reminder. I try to stay with that. But when he sings:

You never ever wonder why

We part ways. It's in my nature to wonder why.

I love the word "dwell," in both its meanings of living or inhabiting, and also to think or hang inside a thought. Martin Heidegger, in his essay, "Building Dwelling Thinking" spells out that dwelling is fundamental to being human, dwelling in the sense of being at peace, being preserved from harm, safeguarded.

To dwell.

Smartwool socks and holy-kneed jeans stretched and crossed on the coffee table. The taste of Jameson's lingering on my tongue. Beard slowly returning to form. Contemplating Peter Matthiessen's journey in "The Snow Leopard" and his ability to recall or recount or describe scenery and people. Black pen scrawling in a Moleskine notebook, can't recall how many of these, of various sizes, I have filled. Looking up, taking reading glasses off. Breathing in, Breathing out. Wondering why.

To dwell.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Of Books, Leopards and Birds

The Snow Leopard is Peter Matthiessen's story of a 1973 epic trip to Nepal with field biologist George Schaller. They were going to study Himalayan blue sheep and, if possible, catch a glimpse of a snow leopard. Matthiessen was studying Zen Buddhism. Trekking across mountains in winter snows for five weeks, he also hoped to find the Lama of Shey at a Buddhist Shrine on Crystal Mountain. So it was a spiritual quest for him as well. His wife died the previous winter of cancer. He had some shit going on.

The Snow Leopard is also a book I didn't finish. I got 80 pages in, dug the hell out of it, and chased some tangential SQUIRREL! thought and haven't gotten back around to it. And yet Matthiessen is a rock for me. I've read essays, I've read about him, he and Gary Snyder are the models of the kind of writing life I aspire to live. Not that I can write like they can, but that they experience the great and full lives they write about. Matthiessen died earlier this year. If you don't know him, Men's Journal did a phenomenal story about him that is well worth your time to get a sense for one of the truly great writers of our time. More on Matthiessen and his snow leopard in a bit.

Herons are a spirit animal for me. A totem. That's about the best way I can put it. We've been over it on here a few times. Seeing a heron in flight or on the river both calms and inspires me. Seeing one while out on a run gives me instant energy. It's weird, but it's there. I have a heron tattoo on my right forearm both to acknowledge my connection to and fascination with herons, but also, selfishly, so I can look at one whenever I need to.

I was recently talking herons with a friend, who pointed me to Ted Andrews book "Animal Speak." Among other things, Andrews goes into characteristics of different birds and the people who are drawn to or connected to them. When I read what he had to say on herons, I was a bit dumbstruck.

In places, he describes my personality, my life, and how I operate, when I listen to my heart. It's pretty intense stuff to read someone closely describe you based on an animal you feel connected to. Herons are the big, integral bird for me, but this spring and summer, I noticed I was being seemingly stalked by cardinals when I would go for a run. Andrews says that cardinals pop into our lives to point us to "renewed vitality through recognizing self-importance." He goes into more, but during that time, and what I was going through, that was a pretty big message.

Over the last couple months, both at home and on runs, it's been blue jays. Yesterday there were blue jays starting in through the fu**ing front door at me, directly outside the door, and then one who swooped with me on my lunch run. It was like a Hitchcock movie. Alright Andrews, out with it:

The blue jay is a reminder to follow through on all things--to not start something and then leave it dangling.... The blue jay reflects that a time of great resourcefulness and adaptability is about to unfold, You are going to have ample opportunities to develop your abilities. The jay does not usually migrate, staying around all winter, so look for there to be ample time to develop and use your energies to access new levels.

I constantly leave loose ends dangling. I got you, blue jay. Point taken. Resourcefulness and adaptability. Today is my last day working for the Coast Guard. It's the second job I've had there, working there the last almost five years. This last job was not the writing, public affairs, communications fit for me that the previous one was. It sapped me, as has the four plus hours of daily commuting. It's time for a change. What that change is or brings, remains to be seen.

Don't start something and leave it dangling. Finish what you start. Look for my life's direction. Like a journey. Like a spiritual quest. Like finding a snow leopard. This is a good time for me to re-start, to continue, to finish, to find the snow leopard on my own. I don't mind taking Matthiessen as a guide:

Amazingly, we take for granted that instinct for survival, fear of death, must separate us from the happiness of pure and uninterpreted experience, in which body, mind, and nature are the same. And this debasement of our vision, the retreat from wonder, the backing away like lobsters from free-swimming life into safe crannies, the desperate instinct that our life passes unlived, is reflected in proliferation without joy, corrosive money rot, the gross befouling of the earth and air and water from which we came.

Bring on the books. Bring on the birds. Let's go find a snow leopard.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Cast Off

Hass is in the backpack. He has seen me through some rough times. He's become a solace of sorts. I don't want to say a security blanket, this isn't a Linus Van Pelt situation, but Hass has been a comfort. This spring, I carried and consulted his "Sun Under Wood." This go round I've gone back to the source, his first book, "Field Guide."

Hass is meditative. Calming at times. His descriptions of landscapes, animals, family, what makes us human.

Of all the laws
that bind us to the past
the names of things are

Hhhmm, We didn't name this world we encounter. It was named for us, before us. Dammit, we are bound to the past. But that's alright, it gives us a record, a continuity, a history.

The funny thing, this time, Hass isn't enough. There is something to calm about his words. It can't touch on the manic. The excitable. There's no restless leg or restless soul syndrome. That's where Roberto Bolano comes in. Bolano is less sure seeming. He is grappling, struggling, he is not removed or in the background.

Brief like beauty,
Absolute beauty,
That which contains all the world's majesty and misery
And which is only available to those who love.

Beauty, majesty, they are a package deal with misery. You only get them if you put your heart out there. Bolano's "The Romantic Dogs" is a soul experiencing life first-hand, without a field guide.

On the dogs' path, my soul came upon
my heart. Shattered, but alive,
dirty, poorly dressed, and filled with love.
On the dogs' path, there where no one wants to go.

Being replaceable. That's one of the things I've been stuck on recently. Most of us can be replaced at our jobs. Within a year, people will forget who you were. Work at a big enough company, most people don't even know if you are there or not.

Fifty or so percent of spouses are replaceable, it would seem. If someone isn't happy, they can move on, replace spouse one with a newer model. That's where we are, and that's the reality that relationships, marriages face.

We have an idea at the vastness of the Universe. And our minuscule size therein. Why wouldn't we all be replaceable? What kind of hubris would lead us to think otherwise?

And yet, we long to be unique. Individual. And maybe that is possible. Maybe it takes the right job. the job that brings to bear the things you can do that no one else can do the same. Maybe it takes the right partner: the one for whom the things that make us unique are the things they love, and the things that make them unique are what we can't get enough of.

Routine. Time. Habit. Sunrise, coffee, shower, drive, punch the clock, sit in a chair, punch the clock, drive, child's practice, dinner, homework, sleep. Repeat. x 5. x 30. x 365. And you look around and wonder about the time. Where has it gone? Time, you say? That's a thing we made...

Actually, the concept
Of time arose from the weaving
Together of the great organic
Cycles of the universe,
Sunrise and sunset, the moon
Waxing and waning, the changing
Stars and seasons, the climbing
And declining sun in heaven,
The round of sowing and harvest,
And the life and death of man.

That's our man Rexroth joining the fray. He's the third book in the backpack these days. He's roped onto the big questions, soul permeating the landscape and history, sex weaving its way through his adventures and words. Activity.

Maybe that's what I am getting from Bolano and Rexroth right now: activity. Movement. Getting out of the rut. Get out on the water. Blow bubbles at the sunset. Find and do and be the things that make you, YOU. Find unique and cast off replaceable. Cast off.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Everyday Adventures

Sometimes it's tough to see every day as an adventure. Sometimes there isn't enough coffee in the world to get even the most positive person out the door for a day half full.

Sometimes the mundane spreads its sleep-heavy arms wide around and squeezes tight. Bills. The same commute. The same four walls. The same cubicle. Painting the same house. The work that keeps you from doing the work or play where you feel your adventure awaits.

It is those times when it helps to have friends that remind you of the everyday adventures right in your back yard. Who look for and create adventures where other people drive past, don't take the turn, and never get out of the car.

Places of adventure. Like Claiborne, MD. Where on a Sunday too windy for most to consider going out on the water, a group of kiteboarders turn that wind into this. And just 24 hours later, you have a soul stunning sunset that can make the rest of the day and the world stop, if you take the time to look.

What if we could all see a sunset the way Kenneth Rexroth does when he is just chilling in an apple orchard, reading Sappho with a lady friend:

See. The sun has fallen away.
Now there are amber
Long lights on the shattered
Boles of the ancient apple trees.
Our bodies move to each other
As bodies move in sleep;
at once filled and exhausted,
As the summer moves to autumn,
As we, with Sappho, move towards death.
My eyelids sink toward sleep in the hot
Autumn of your uncoiled hair.
Your body moves in my arms
On the verge of sleep;
And it is as though I held
In my arms the bird filled
Evening sky of summer.

Watch a sunset with someone. Read and be transported back in history and feel the Universe moving through each other in that moment.

There are adventures that fill the mind. There are adventures that stretch and push the body. And there are adventures that enlarge and expand the soul. They are in small towns with no traffic lights. They are in books. They are in sunsets. They are with your people.

Everyday adventures. If we have the eyes to see them. And the mind to take the time to give them a chance to happen.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Real Work: Gary Snyder and Inheriting Experience

Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's all-time home run record on my birthday. April 8, 1974. I was two years old, possibly smashing cake all over my face. That is one of those singular moments in sports that will be remembered forever by all who were alive and following baseball, or American sports at all. Culturally memorable.

Go back about 20 years before that, to April 8, 1956. Much less culturally relevant to most, and with no fanfare, Beat Generation pioneer, future Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder began a book that would take him 40 years to finish. The book is only 152 pages long. It's not like he was going "War and Peace" on us. But that's how long it took "Mountains and Rivers Without End," as the back cover describes it, "an epic (poem) of geology, prehistory, and mythology."

Snyder is a big deal to me. So much so that the idea for my next tattoo, a sleeve on my left arm, began with the cover art for his book "Turtle Island." He is a game changer, both as a writer, for what he has written, but also as a human, for how he has lived his life. Let's see if I can explain.

If you live a life interesting enough that Jack Kerouac bases one of the characters in his novel "Dharma Bums" after you, chances are you're living a pretty fu**ing cool life. Snyder is one of those writers that has not lived his life behind a desk dreaming things up. He has experienced life. He has lived it. And that's what he writes from: experience, of the world, of the soul, of the planet, of the cosmos, of the human condition.

You can get at what I mean just by looking at a list of the jobs Snyder has held: logger, fire lookout on Desolation Peak, steam freighter crew, translator, carpenter, poet. He has degrees in literature and anthropology and has studied linguistics and Asian languages. When he wanted to dig into Zen Buddhism, he moved to Japan and spent 12 years in intense study. His experience is not limited to books, nor does it shun them. He wrote the first poems that he would published while working as a trail crew laborer for the U.S. Park Service. He was also studying classical Chinese at the time. Of course he was.

The first time I remember really thinking I would like to write for a living, I was 14. I loved and lived skateboarding, body, mind, and soul. It was something I wanted to always be a part of (14 year old me would like to know that 42 year old me still digs skating, I reckon), but I knew I wasn't good enough to be the next Tony Hawk or even a pro skater. So I thought, I'd like to write for "Thrasher" Magazine. Tell skating stories, dig into the culture and become a voice of skating.

For all the various times I've pictured myself as some sort of writer, and for all the words I've written, I've never wanted to live life at a desk. Writing is the outlet, not life itself. It is how I make sense of my life and the world around me. It is how I try to relate to things. But it is not living. I want to experience, to live an interesting life, to imbibe perspective, and then write. If you read Snyder, he gets that.

I have a friend working on a book right now. She's researching, interviewing, transcribing, compiling, writing. Of all of it, she says the writing is the hardest part. What she looks forward to the least. It is draining. It saps her, and then she needs to go recharge, by doing anything but writing. Running, photography, traveling with her husband, playing with dogs.

I function largely the same way, and I think a lot of writers would say the same. Writing is a release, it is a pouring out. It empties you. And then it is your job to go refill your soul. If you don't, what will you have to write about?

In his book, "The Real Work," Snyder posits that he:

...hold(s) the most archaic values on earth... the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth, the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe.

I need to post that on the refrigerator with artwork and photos of our daughters, so that they can read it every day as well. In Mountains and Rivers, the book started on my birthday 20-ish years before I was born, Snyder scrolls:

'The Fashioner of Things
         has no original intentions
Mountains and rivers
         are spirit, condensed.'

The work Snyder is doing, "the real work," that is the inheritance I want to earn.