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.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Enchantment as strange as the Blue

Gary Snyder woke up blue. Blue hadn't really been sleeping, it's always awake, if not always named, always in the background of my mind, in the foreground of my soul, and my blue eyes are always scanning for their likeness. Enchantment with blue, as strange as blue, and goddesses' hair. Snyder's poem is called "The Blue Sky." I should have known it was a blue alarm clock.

If Snyder woke up blue, Maggie Nelson deep tongue kissed it. Her book "Bluets," helped me give voice to a feeling for a color as kindred spirit maybe. Bluets is the kind of book that finds me without me having to look for it. When I describe the books I like best, they don't fit neatly into a genre--poetry, aphorism, lyric essay, fragments on a theme strung together with blue thread. For Nelson, it was the ocean that pulled her in:

6. The half-circle of blinding turquoise ocean is this love's primal scene. That this blue exists makes my life a remarkable one, just to have seen it. To have see such beautiful things. To find oneself placed in their midst. Choiceless. I returned there yesterday and stood again upon the mountain.

There aren't many people who I'd wager would know in their bones my obsession with blue, but Nelson would be one. Thankfully she didn't grow up here, where the rivers, bay, and ocean shine more brackish than turquoise. I want to keep Nelson's blue kiss going. What does it feel like?

144. Then again, perhaps it does feel like a fire--the blue core of it, not the theatrical orange crackling, I have spent a lot of time staring at this core in my own "dark chamber," and I can testify that it provides an excellent example of how blue gives way to darkness--and then how, without warning, the darkness grows up into a cone of light.

The blue core of fire. That's a hell of a kiss. So now we have related blue to fire, the alchemical or elemental symbol I was born in. Hhhhmmm. Perhaps the soul, or some souls, are blue.

But Nelson doesn't take this thing too far. She puts its beauty in its place:

164. ... For blue has no mind. It is not wise, nor does it promise any wisdom. It is beautiful, and despite what the poets and philosophers and theologians have said, I think beauty neither obscures truth, nor reveals it. Likewise, it leads neither toward justice nor away from it. It is pharmakon. It radiates.

Come on people, it's just a color ;) Don't read too much into it. It is not some larger truth. It is beauty. It radiates.

Maybe I am putting too many words toward blue. They are words, they are not blue in and of itself. They can't get there, they can only hope to point a finger, or maybe a crazy straw full of blue raspberry snow cone, at blue. And that brings me to where my mind dwelled for a a good part of last week.

The frustration of words. Words express, but they don't do anything. They don't act, even if they can incite action. Words can't kiss. They can only bring on the desire for a kiss. I churn out thousands of words a day and none of them get me closer to anything. Nothing real. Just language. Just representation.

Nelson's blue began in the ocean. And it is the ocean that I was thinking of this past week. I've said it here before. It's likely that my thoughts all circle back to the same point, caught in a blue maze or a blue spiral. But my thoughts on words and what they can't do,

The ocean knows. So does Perry Farrell. Let's turn to him, his bottle and tattooed wrist holding a microphone. They are tinted blue.

I've seen the ocean
Break on the shore,
Come together with no harm done.

I want to be more like the ocean,
No talking, man
All action.

The ocean doesn't need words. It doesn't need to be described by words. It acts. And its actions are blue.

Words are strange, limited things. So are we. So is enchantment. As strange as the Blue up above.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Saturn and other Digable Planets

Sometimes reality is what you thought it was when you were a kid. Your perception then was maybe sharper than it is as you get older, as we learn to filter how we see things through books, through science, through "facts."

As a kid, who doesn't draw the planet Saturn as a circle with a ring disappearing behind it? But that's just a kid drawing, that can't be reality, right? Fast forward to about 15 years ago. We had a group of writers on a writers' retreat weekend at an Audubon sanctuary. An astronomer among us set her telescope up under the night sky and dialed it in on Saturn for all of us to check out. The telescope wasn't quite as powerful as the photo from the one above; it looked even more like what you draw as a kid. I remember looking through the lens and thinking, "Holy shit! It really does look like that!"

Nine-year-old daughter Ava has been drawing like crazy of late. I bought her artist pads of blank paper, colored pencils, crayons. She checks out books on how to draw from her school library and sets to work. She isn't finished until she has between 10 and 20 pictures drawn and colored, and then she makes a cover, and staple binds them all together into a book. Her most recent is titled, "Ava's Drawings of Halloween Costumes." It is on my coffee table.

She has also been requesting Digable Planets whenever she gets into the car. She wants to hear "Cool Like Dat" and "Nickel Bags (of Funk)." Funny aside, I was playing that same album in the car when her older sister Anna was two years old. Ava wasn't born yet. Nickel Bags was playing as we got out of the car in a parking lot in Ocean City. Two-year-old Anna got out, singing/saying, "Nic-kel bag, Nic-kel bag," like she heard in the song. Ava likes that story, which is why she digs the song. It's catchy.

I catch something new every time I listen to the Planets.

Refuting time and space in rhymes.
What would you do, if time belonged to you?
A heavy thought is,
that it DOES.
Now hip somebody else.

When you are a kid, time is more relative than it is when you grow up. Anna and Ava would both say "yesterday," and mean anything from yesterday to last year when they were younger. It all streams together. And then we start looking at watches, and we have schedules to keep, and our sense of time becomes regimented, predictable. But like drawing Saturn, what if how we think about time when we are young is a better representation than how our clocks and watches tell us to think about it now?

When I want to know about the shape and size and mystery of the Universe, I sometimes turn to Tracy Smith.

After dark, stars glisten like ice, and the distance they span
Hides something elemental. Not God, exactly. More like
Some thin-hipped glittering Bowie-being--a Starman
Or cosmic ace hovering, swaying, aching to make us see.
And what would we do, you and I, if we could know for sure

That someone was there squinting through the dust,
Saying nothing is lost, that everything lives on waiting only
To be wanted back badly enough? Would you go then,
Even for a few nights, into that other life where you
And that first she loved, blind to the future once, and happy?

Blind to the future once, and happy. Maybe it goes back to floating under the stars. Refuting time and space the way we did when we were kids. After all, (in the span of time) "we're just babies, man."

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Eliot in Your Bones

T.S. Eliot abides. He was the last of the big three mind blowers for me in college (the first two were William Blake and Friedrich Nietzsche). Eliot was maybe the biggest of the three, because he combined some of the aesthetic/poetic vibe of Blake with the philosophical depth and inquiry of Nietzsche. My last college essay was on Eliot and the philosophy of F.H. Bradley, who Eliot wrote his PhD dissertation on at Harvard.

In the library at Washington College, I found Eliot's book of essays, "Sacred Wood," where his notion of "Tradition and the Individual Talent," reworked my thinking of the literary tradition we inherit, and how that inheritance requires work and study, it isn't just given to us. And the idea that you don't just read the dead poets to know the past, but also feel it in the here and now:

...not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence: the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that that whole of the literature of Europe from Homer...

Writing with a literature in your bones.

After college I put Eliot down for a while. He had redefined poetry, tradition, allusion, scholarship. And that wasn't the world I was inhabiting at the time. A few years later, at some bookstore or another, I found "Four Quartets." Meeting Eliot the first time was mind blowing and hard work, and deep study. Four Quartets was meeting Eliot again for the first time. This Eliot was lyrical, deep, philosophical. I could read him on my own without needing a library for back up.

This past week I was looking for a book in the garage to give to a friend. During that expedition, I unearthed Four Quartets. It was sleeping in a garage box. The next morning, I started from the beginning:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is redeemable.

Four Quartets are connected meditations on our place in the Universe, about Time, and about the Divine. Each of the poems also represents one of the elements: Burnt Norton is air, East Coker is earth, The Dry Salvages is water, Little Gidding is fire. You want depth? You want philosophy? You want poetry you can delve into a spin your head around? Four Quartets has it,

I've been dwelling in solitude a lot lately, my thoughts inhabiting the space around me. Finding Eliot again has brought back a calm, a peace that I thought I had lost; an introspection that is also a self inquisition:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the

I fu**ing hate waiting. I am not good at patience. But there is a zen to Eliot's waiting, where the stillness becomes dancing. That's the kind of stillness I need to find. Dance while you wait, please.

Eliot's notion of cyclical time, time that loops back on itself, where the end and the beginning are the same. It's what I find in coming back to Eliot. Again, for the first time. Eliot is in my bones.

     We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.