Saturday, December 31, 2011

In the Living Room of the World

Every once in awhile a book comes along that really changes my life. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it really changes things. The last book that did this was The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, by Don Miguel Ruiz. It's based on Toltec knowledge passed down from generation to generation. It was published in 1997, but I don't believe I came across it until a few years later. I still stumble from time to time in my practice of these tenets, but I continue to hold them up as lights on my path. When I practice them consistently, life becomes a much more loving place to be. Perhaps you're familiar with them, but I post them here as much a reminder to myself as anything else.

1. BE IMPECCABLE WITH YOUR WORD. Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the Word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of the Word in the direction of Truth and Love.

2. DON'T TAKE ANYTHING PERSONALLY. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won't be the victim of needless suffering.

3. DON'T MAKE ASSUMPTIONS. Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. With just this one agreement you can completely transform your life.

4. ALWAYS DO YOUR BEST. Your best is going to change from moment to moment. It will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.

Life, to me, is a continual unfoldment and years are simply human constructs meant to give us a sense of order and to delineate the human condition. Still, I will be quietly celebrating the turning of the page. I plan to pop the cork on a bottle of homemade wine made by my son, Coleman, from the grapes that we gathered from my vine back on that sunny day in mid-September. No dirty dancing in a bar at midnight with someone I barely know, as I did way back when, when way too many Cosmopolitans and a sad heart made me think that was a good idea, or a reasonable facsimile of one.

No, tonight will be just Buddy and me in the comfort of low light in our living room. I'll say a little prayer that I might practice those Four Agreements more consistently and then one for the world, that we might all learn to, and not just practice them, but live them.

Andrew Wyeth, "Long Limb"
Winslow Homer, "Bridle Path, White Mountains"

Monday, December 26, 2011

at red lights we press our lips together

Buddy's asleep on the porch, a shaft of sunlight is falling on the skeletal remains of my garden, and a most intriguing line has been left under Search Keywords in my stats: "at red lights we press our lips together."  And now, I'm looking out the window, trying to remember how long it's been since I kissed someone at a red light. The answer?   Far too long.

While I look at possibilities for remedying that, here's a poem I've been wanting to share with you. It seems like the right time.

"Looking at Things a Long Time"

Out there in the woods and along the road
are all sorts of books: anthologies
of trees, biographies of brooks, poems
by bees, novels in glaciers. Just look
around carefully, thinking about whatever your
gaze rests on. Notice that turn in the road
to which quite a few pages could be given.

Consider your own story, how you arrived
where you are. Think: what might be called
a dire imposition on your life actually
brought you down this path to where we
meet in a sparkling friendship. Explain that.

You've traveled roads you would never have chosen
and they've taken you nearer to what you deeply are
even though there were many strange
stopping places along the way. Don't look back.

There are turns we take away from the familiar
that would surprise a lot of people, until we
find ourselves finally again on the old street
gladly lending a hand or telling a story. We see
our own names written in other lives and find out
each day how to care more. We discover that people
listen better when we are often silent
and pondering, looking at things a long time.

~ John Cuno

Photograph by Vivian Maier

Thursday, December 22, 2011

To Find a Night Like This

Several months ago, I mentioned dreaming of William Stafford, who was sitting in an easy chair, reading a poem to me by lamplight. I found it very comforting and knew that the poem he read, one of my favorites, should be shared. It was titled, "A Ritual to Read to Each Other."  Well, for the past few days, I haven't been able to shake another poem by him that also feels like it should be shared. And so, here it is, for reasons that are not clear to me. Maybe you will know ...

"Once in the 40s"

We were alone one night on a long
road in Montana. This was in winter, a big
night, far to the stars. We had hitched,
my wife and I, and left our ride at
a crossing to go on. Tired and cold -- but
brave -- we trudged along. This, we said,
was our life, watched over, allowed to go
where we wanted. We said we'd come back some time
when we got rich. We'd leave the others and find
a night like this, whatever we had to give,
and no matter how far, to be so happy again.

~ William Stafford

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Will You Be Home for Christmas?

During the early 1990's, JB and I would head out every spring for canyon country. We were on a tight budget and strapped for time, so we would take turns driving, stopping only for gas, or at rest stops for bathroom breaks and a chance to stretch our legs before getting back on the road. The destination was what mattered.

One night, we pulled into a rest stop somewhere in Nebraska. As I walked into the bathrooms, I noticed a handwritten note taped to the door at eye level. I was pretty skeptical of things in those days and not exactly rollin' in the dough myself, but what I read on the note kept nagging at me. It stated that they were a family heading to Cheyenne, Wyoming. A job was waiting, but they had run out of money. Any help, in any way, would be appreciated. They were in the station wagon out front. I stood by the door and asked myself, how can I leave the bathroom without acknowledging their presence, their predicament?

I headed back to the car, told JB what I'd read and what I was going to do. I got a grocery bag, filled it with whatever food we had in the car - bologna and bread, apples and chocolate - and walked over to their car. I knocked on the passenger window where they waited. When she rolled it down the stench was almost unbearable. Piled high with clothes and whatever they could fit of their lives into the back of that station wagon, I knew in that moment that was the smell of poverty. Their two children sleeping in the back seat stirred as I spoke with them. I told them it wasn't much, but it was what I could do, then handed them the food and a twenty dollar bill. The father leaned forward toward me and said, "God bless you. God bless you."  It turned into a chorus as I walked back to my car.

An epilogue, of sorts: Twenty years later and the number of families that are homeless, living in their cars and in charity sponsored motel rooms, has increased in vast numbers. On a segment of the BBC news last night, they showed families in Denver, CO. living in just such a motel. In talking with the parents of one of these families, they mentioned the lives they once had (not all that different from the lives you and I lead), and the lives they lead now. Christmas was not going to look anything like Christmas of the past. The mother wept openly, the father's eyes welled with tears as he talked. Despair filled that room. This should not be happening, not anywhere, especially not in what is still touted as the richest country in the world, the United States of America. 

I wonder what the 1% are doing for Christmas?

Timeless images by John Vachon 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Traveling Through the Night

When I was a child, I loved traveling by train (I might have mentioned this a time or two). Actually, any mode of transportation would have been fine. I just wanted to see everything I could see and trains seemed like a good way to do that. People don't travel by train as often as they once did and from what I hear from friends who do occasionally, it's an entirely different experience now. But, I still love the idea of traveling through the night, staying awake, as Roethke says, "To see the land I love."

"Night Journey"

Now as the train bears west,
Its rhythm rocks the earth,
And from my Pullman berth
I stare into the night
While others take their rest.
Bridges of iron lace,
A suddenness of trees,
A lap of mountain mist
All cross my line of sight,
Then a bleak wasted place,
And a lake below the knees.
Full on my neck I feel
The straining at a curve;
My muscles move with steel,
I wake in every nerve.
I watch a beacon swing
From dark to blazing bright;
We thunder through ravines
And gullies washed with light.
Beyond the mountain pass
Mist deepens on the pane;
We rush into a rain
That rattles double glass.
Wheels shake the roadbed stone,
The pistons jerk and shove,
I stay up half the night
To see the land I love.

~ Theodore Roethke

I used to collect vintage postcard folders, seeking them out in every antique store I visited. These photos are of just a few of them.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Spaces Between the Leaves

Every day I spend some time with Buddy in a small section of woods and meadow on the southern edge of my land. There's a group of plantation pines there, with a little clearing. I can often see where deer have bedded down and Buddy, of course, can smell their lingering scent. While I'm out there, I spend most of my time among a stand of very old and very tall Norway pines that I refer to as The Seven Graces. When the sun is shining and I can feel its warmth on my face, it's hard to imagine a more perfect way to spend time, a better place to spend a part of each day.

My self-imposed assignment is to keep my mind still. Buddy's seems to involve smelling every inch of that acreage. I'm getting better at mine; Buddy mastered his early on. I look forward to this time when he is leash-free and, in a very real sense, so am I. The tethers I place on myself through emotions or false thinking seem to fall away; it's just the sun, the trees, the grass, the earth, Buddy and me. And it's pretty good company.

Yesterday morning, one of my sons shared a quote that had spoken to him, thinking it would speak to me, as well. He was right. I love the phrase "the spaces between the leaves," and all it implies.

As you embrace the Infinite Self, it will show you things that you have never seen before. Sometimes they are simple things like the spaces between the leaves of a tree or the silence between words in a conversation. Sometimes it shows you major stuff like the doorway between two worlds; suddenly you see the twilight non-world hovering between the in-breathing and the out-breathing of this Cosmic experience we call Life. 
~ Stuart Wilde

Of course, Buddy isn't thinking about any of that. He's just breathing in and breathing out, experiencing life without any encumbrance of thought and with the pure joy of simply Being.

What a great little teacher he is. What fine sons I have.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Place Called Sweet Surrender

When I mentioned yesterday that maps are a current theme I thought I would share with you what brought this to the forefront of my thought.

Recently, I ran across images from a book by a woman named Marian Bantjes. She has compiled what looks to be an interesting investigation into her own personal map-making along with other images that she created, both pleasing and intriguing. She titled it I Wonder. 

I am not familiar with the entire contents of said book, but I do have images of the maps that caught my attention. I found her name places amusing and more than once I did that inner nodding in recognition.

I think I've been to a few of these places, walked more than one of these streets, been temporarily lost on a road or two. You might want to click on this one to see the names. Perhaps you'll recognize a road or two yourself.

I got to thinking about making my own map, though I have been visiting the Valley of Indecision a little less frequently as of late. Ditto for the Sea of Misgivings. And (I say in no small measure), I've been trying to stay off the Road to Mischief. If you stay on that road too long it leads directly to a place called Mayhem. Oh, yeah. And no more running down the avenue. You know, the one of Astonishingly Stupid Decisions?  I'm trying to stay on the roads less traveled now.

My current map would have a rather bucolic look to it compared to what it would have in the past. Perhaps a vintage map showing me where I've been, reminding me where I no longer want to go. It could come in handy. But, I've set sail on this river of Letting Go and if I spend too much time looking back I might miss all the signs pointing me to the cool places up ahead.

 Check it out:

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Learning to Navigate

My love affair with all things cartographic seems to be a current theme, with maps playing a huge role in my life. I love almost nothing more than poring over one to see where I am, where I might be going, and the possible routes that will take me there. I try to turn the seemingly endless options over to the Universe, listening as I go, so I don't get caught up in driving down a dead end road, or on a side trip that leads to a dead end. In more ways than one. Been there. Done that. Really don't want to repeat it.

I do like what William Least Heat Moon describes as blue highways, and I do love those signs that say, "Pavement Ends."  I have spent many an hour and even whole days driving the low maintenance roads that lead through our state forests. When I get through to the other side, yet another road waits for more discovery. It's the best kind of daytripping.

My explorations have often involved topographic maps. I like going into BLM offices and seeing what they offer. Canyon country requires a thorough perusal of one to get a feel for how long you can remain in a canyon before you run out of daylight. You want to be in and out before dusk descends. And it happens early in the canyons, surrounded by rock walls. I've never camped down in them, only at the top, waiting for daylight to show me the trail. I do think that would be a cool experience, though, cool being the operative word. One would need to be thoroughly prepared. Either way, learning to read these accurately is essential. I still have several topos that were constant companions during those explorations.

Maps played a big part in my travels out east, as well. Each trip out, I tried to take a slightly different route so that I might see as much of the country as possible. While still living in Santa Fe, I took a more southerly route, through states I'd only flown over or into previously. I covered a lot of great territory.

One trip out, I momentarily got caught up in the road, missed my turn and ended up going down a small road, through very interesting country, chock full of photo opps that I would have missed out on had I stayed with the original plan. No back tracking here. I just went straight on through to the next possibility. In doing so, I got some great photos of an old farm somewhere along the Delaware Water Gap. I blogged about it, of course.

Occasionally, I will stop to check the atlas. No GPS for me. I don't want the chatter and I don't want to miss out on opportunities that the Universe knows I need more than I do. I also like to just drive in the general direction, knowing I'll come out when and where I need to. Leaving things open to "chance," and the adventure inherent in an altered course of action, has led me to some pretty wonderful experiences. I don't intend to change that. Ever.

As I was writing this, I found myself thinking about Beryl Markham and her flying adventures, especially over Africa. I went looking for some words of wisdom from her and found this:

It was disconcerting to examine your charts before a proposed flight only to find that in many cases the bulk of the terrain over which you had to fly was bluntly marked: 'Unsurveyed.'  It was as if the mapmakers had said, 'We are aware that between this spot and that one, there are several hundred thousand acres, but until you make a forced landing there, we won't know whether there is mud, desert, or jungle -- and the chances are we won't then!'
~ Beryl Markham, West with the Night

Whether talking about mapless roads, less-than-perfect flight plans, or uncharted terrain of the heart, her words encourage me to never be afraid of the "unsurveyed."

All images are borrowed from Google, except for the second one of my topographic maps.
Top image: Edward Frederick Brewtnall  (1846 - 1902),  "Where Next"

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Crossing to Safety with Stegner

Sometime during the early 1990's I discovered Wallace Stegner and went on a mission to read everything he'd ever written. I couldn't get enough of this man's writing. Some writers are like that. They have a style that just flies off the page and into the imagination with the greatest of ease. 

I think it started with a book I found out west in Back of Beyond, a bookstore in Moab, Utah. It was titled, Crossing to Safety. I usually open a book at random to get the flavor of the writing and if it sparks something in me then I  take a chance, often falling into it with great contentment at having found something I could sink my teeth into, if not my heart. Set in academia, this story of imperfect friendships that endure, despite all the reasons that time can create as to why they shouldn't, still rests on my shelf of favorite books.

For several months, I read one after another of his books until I was sated. Then, on a subsequent trip out west, I found a collection of his short stories in a bookstore in Santa Fe and my obsession began all over again. Each story was a perfect little slice of life. I read and reread them, and with each reading they settled into my bones a little bit more. I love the medium of the short story and how our imagination can create an entire world around one.

I haven't read any Stegner for some time now. He passed on in Santa Fe, NM, in 1993, as the result of a car accident. But I brought Crossing to Safety down from its shelf a few days ago and placed it on the stump next to my chair where I will consider reading it again. I'm a little concerned about what I might find. Some books are not meant to be reread; they are better left to the past.

I did, though, open it at random this morning, just to see what would turn up, and was pleasantly surprised. I opened it to where the main character is reading a letter from his wife. She's spending time at a summer house in Vermont with mutual friends, while he's spending his days immersed in English literature at the college where he teaches. In this passage she's writing to him about new friends that joined their circle the previous evening:

Comfort is terribly pretty and Lyle is one of the most fascinating men you ever met. You and he should hit it off. He comes from Arizona, and is a biologist, and works all over the world. He and Comfort were married right after he got his PhD. from Yale and they went straight to Alaska, clear up to Point Hope, and lived among the Eskimos...

Now he's given up arctic flora and is working on plants that have adapted themselves not to cold, but to drought. He's just back from several months in Libya, and he had all sorts of stories about caves with people and animals painted all over the walls, and a flint desert where the wind had teed up stones like golf balls, and when you looked, you could see that every stone was a tool left from a neolithic civilization that died thousands of years ago. I swear his clothes smelled of camel-dung fires....

Perhaps it was the reading of Stegner that prodded me into going out and having my own adventures, which include spending several years in the SW, exploring canyons, photographing ruins, and meeting some pretty interesting people along the way.

I found these photos tucked inside the book:

Doorways I fell in love with at Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, NM. (another copy of this photo found its way into my post, "Never Met a Door I Didn't Like"). 

Me, next to my first ruin, taken in SE Utah in the early 1990's.

And this one, taken at Zippel Bay State Park, in northern Minnesota, around the same time period.  I love old fence lines with wildflowers.  

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Unbearable Sweetness of Being

This morning, Buddy woke up first and sat next to me so I would know he was there. I reached out to pat his head, then slowly emerged from my nighttime cocoon. Perhaps he knew before I, that something was happening outside and we needed to be present to it. No, not the sunrise. It was too early for that. It was the moon being eclipsed and it had already started. As I stepped out onto the porch in the cold, dark morning air, I could see it sitting low on the horizon. I knew I had at least a half hour to watch the darkness spread across its face.

Just as I wished I could call Coleman to remind him (my son who also loves these celestial events), the phone rang. I ran inside, and it was him, calling to tell me! We hung up quickly so we could stay present to what was happening. I walked back outside to the apple trees beneath my kitchen window, the place where so much seems to happen, and got still, very still for a few minutes. As I stood there quietly watching the changing face of the moon, I recalled a Camus quote I had written in a notebook a few nights ago:

She was breathing deeply, she forgot the cold, the weight of beings, the insane static life, the lone languish of living or dying. After so many years running from fear, fleeing crazily, uselessly, she was finally coming to a halt. At the same time she seemed to be recovering her roots, and the sap rose anew in her body, which was no longer trembling. Pressing her whole body against the parapet, leaning toward the wheeling sky, she was only waiting for her pounding heart to settle down, and for the silence to form in her. The last constellations of stars fell in bunches a little lower on the horizon of the desert, and stood motionless. Then, with an unbearable sweetness, the waters of the night began to fill her, submerging the cold, rising, gradually to the center of her being, and overflowing wave upon wave to her moaning mouth. A moment later, the whole sky stretched out above her as she lay with her back against the cold earth. 
~ Albert Camus

As the eclipse slowly covered more of the moon, I lay down under the bare branches of the birch tree, against the shadowy, dark roots spreading beneath it, closed my eyes and felt the cold earth against my back. I could almost sense the movement, the slow tilting away, as the moon fell below the horizon and out of sight, leaving the total eclipse to those further to the west.

Note: The title is taken from a wonderful Milan Kundera novel titled, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, about two men, two women, and a dog, in the Prague Spring of 1968.

Image: "Fantasy II"  by Joseph Cornell

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Jack's Rule #3: Try never get drunk outside yr own house

A few days ago, I dug out Jack's Rules of Spontaneous Prose. I hadn't read them in a while. It was fun to get the flavor of his vision and writing again. I have a few favorites among them, but they seem meant to be read as a whole. I'm going to keep them around, pin them to my bulletin board, let them remind me now and then to let go and just write.

Jack's Rules of Spontaneous Prose

1.  Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages for yr own joy
2.  Submissive to everything, open, listening.
3.  Try never get drunk outside yr own house.
4.  Be in love with yr life
5.  Something that you feel will find its own form
6.  Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
7.  Blow as deep as you want to blow
8.  Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
9.  The unspeakable visions of the individual
10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
19. Accept loss forever
20. Believe in the holy contour of life
21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
22. Don't think of words when you stop but to see picture better
23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language and knowledge
25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
29. You're a Genius all the time
30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored and Angeled in Heaven

~ Jack Kerouac

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

I Can't Move This Thing Alone

Been thinkin' about friendships, those that are new, and those that have stood the test of time, inexplicably transcending some very challenging circumstances, those that seem to transcend time itself, as though they've always been, and those that have fallen prey to poor communication and the shortcomings that seem to be part of being human. There simply is no understanding, and certainly no explaining, the human heart. But that didn't stop me from lying in bed early this morning, attempting to make some sense of it all.

Anyway, I didn't arrive at any conclusions, but I did hear this new Leonard Cohen song a few days ago, and I just had to share it with you.  I particularly love these lines:

Show me the place.
Help me roll away the stone.
Show me the place.
I can't move this thing alone. 

Friendship of the best kind:  together, we roll away the stone.

Here's Leonard Cohen:  Show Me the Place