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.