I arise today Through the strength of heaven: Light of sun, Radiance of moon, Splendor of fire, Speed of lightning, Swiftness of wind, Depth of sea, Stability of earth, Firmness of rock. From St. Patrick’s Breastplate Prayer
After living indoors for weeks because of winter storms bringing record snowfall and ongoing rain or or working inside for months, when finally able to walk outside in the green world, we feel its life-giving qualities. Today, a pause between atmospheric rivers, was just such a day, making it possible to wander down a path in our area we’ve not walked before. It’s a delight to take a path, not knowing exactly where it goes, simply to follow it and see what presents itself. Wild flowers, leaf-perfumed air, and birds gliding through got me thinking about how the weather affects the weather of my inner garden. After a walk at Helen Putnam Regional Park, the weather in my inner garden is one of calm skies with soft light with the chance sprinkle of blossoms.
There is much to be said for the wonder of desert lands, the exquisite form that desert worlds reveal. Desert scapes bring us in direct contact with the Earth’s elemental shape, the magnificence of mineral texture, as in this overview in Saudi outside of Jeddah. As beautiful as the desert is, after months of gray skies and the hope of spring in the air, right now I’m longing for green.
Nature’s green offers tranquility, calm, and restores a sense of wellbeing. New research at Cornell indicates that spend as little as ten minutes a day in nature can help college students feel happier and reduce mental and physical stress. Robert Jimison’s CNN article “Why we all need some green in our lives” states that a “2016 study found that living in or near green areas was linked with longer life expectancy and improved mental health in female participants. Another eight year study of 100,000 women showed that those “who lived in the greenest areas had a 12% lower death rate than women living in the least green areas.”
Lucille H. Brockway’s, “science and colonial expansion: the role of the British Royal Botanic garden,” clarifies how Britain, (and the West in general) has historically viewed the plant world as an object to be manipulated for bringing economic advantage. Michael Moore’s film, Planet of the Humans, directed by Jeff Gibbs, further demonstrates this idea, emphasizing the dire situation we have brought ourselves into as a result of not living in union with nature in a regenerative way. When the natural world is viewed as merely a backdrop, our spirits become impoverished. It takes time spent in the natural world to be able to hear its language. In his poem, “The Language of Trees,” Eran Williams writes,
When we hear the language of trees,
will we hear the season’s pulse,
and find the heart’s beat is but an echo?
Nurturing our relationship with nature, as with any relationship, helps us understand its language and way of being. Observe something closely across a period of time, and you will hear the nuances of its voice, discover its moods in greater depth and detail. We grow in recognition of how our life is connected to the natural world.
There’s a variety of ways we might nurture a relationship with the natural world. Santa Cruz’s Brighton and Jim Denevan’s sand art could be a starting place to encourage you to create our own environmental art. To begin more basically, you could choose to draw a few lines on paper that represents the textures of the sounds around you, or you could photograph patterns or textures in nature, or write a dialog with a neighborhood tree or back balcony flower. You might create a piece of music based on the tones or rhythms in a the landscape or skyscape, or simply create questions about something seen or heard. Alternatively, you might begin learning the names of plants in your neighborhood, find out if they are native or nonnative plants and why that might matter. You might join together with others to go on walks or to appreciate something in nature such as ferns, rocks, or clouds as do those who have joined the Cloud Appreciation Society.
As we search for a closer connection and understanding of the natural world, we gradually grow into relationship with it. Nurturing a connection to the natural world nurtures our inner landscapes and garden. When we take care of the earth, it takes care of us. In her poem, Today’s Book of Delights, after Ross Gay, Teresa Williams writes
He is right; if we choose to look, we just might believe it’s there in the first chirp of the day and the body awakening to hear it, in the black wings weaving through champagne leaves,
This image is a beautiful one, the kind of image we hope to meet when we go out into nature, but recognizing our connection to the natural world also includes embracing the whole of what it means to be part of the natural world. As the poem concludes, Williams writes about delight even in the midst of diminishing life,
or each small note from the universe and its cheerful persistence, even today,
with a new tumor on the back of my dog’s leg, to encourage delight in her oblivious exuberance, and let that be
what sustains me.
How difficult it is sometimes to keep on tending our inner gardens when pain or rain, storms and sorrows keep coming. As Willams writes, however, observing and listening to the small notes from the universe can help sustain us.
Poets listen closely to the world around them, interpreting what they mean for how they might take us into the heart of ourselves and the world we inhabit. In the 1994 film, Il Postino, the characters of the postman and Pablo Neruda record the local sounds of their island, with the purpose of helping the postman use metaphor to write a love letter. The earth speaks to us. Listening closely to the earth helps us to write a love letter to being alive.
What are the sounds of your home that have written themselves on your heart? Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton says the art of listening is dying but we can open our windows or doors or simply sit calmly in our house and listen. What love letter of the earth do you want to hear over and over. When you listen to your heart’s garden what does it tell you? As Louis Armstrong’s song reminds us, it’s a wonderful world with so much to explore.
It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go we have come to our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.
There’s something satisfying about the basic act of putting one foot in front of the other. When walking, the body is absorbed into a different sense of time as it finds a pace that feels natural and pleasing. To put on your shoes, open the door and set out for a walk is to escape from walls that confine and to enter a wider world. To walk, whether as a form of exercise or as an act of pilgrimage, is to go slowly. Slowness allows us to see things we do not see when in a moving vehicle. We experience the world with our senses—the scent in the air, the temperature, the feel of earth under our feet. Frédéric Gros, in his book A Philosophy of Walking, suggests that “The true direction of walking is not towards otherness (other worlds, other faces, other cultures, other civilizations); it is towards the edge of civilized worlds, whatever they may be. Walking is setting oneself apart: at the edge of those who work, at the edges of high-speed roads, at the edge of the producers of profit and poverty, exploiters, labourers, and at the edge of those serious people who always have something better to do than receive the pale gentleness of a winter sun or the freshness of a spring breeze.” Walking is a restorative act, able to bring us into a greater state of wholeness–body, mind and spirit interrelated.
Bruce Chatwin in his book, Songlines, wrote about the aboriginal songs or “dreaming track” connected to places in the landscape that allowed people to find their way across various distances by singing the songs. The rhythm and melody sung while walking helped people recognize where they were and connected people to specific places in the landscape as well as connecting them to the footprints of ancestors and the narratives of their origins. “The melodic contour of the song describes the land over which the song passes … certain phrases, certain combinations of musical notes, are thought to describe the actions of the ancestors’ feet. An expert song man … would count how many times he has crossed a river or scaled a ridge – and be able to calculate where, and how far along, the songline he was … A musical phrase is a map reference. Music is a memory bank for finding one’s way about the world,” Chatwin described. When Australia was colonized, however, the songlines were disrupted, similar to other native cultures, languages and traditions worldwide. Indigenous cultures’s way of life has in the Americas as this interactive map shows. According to the Minority Rights Group International, indigenous indigenous people worldwide struggle to survive for reasons such as “impact of armed conflict, land dispossession, forced assimilation and discrimination on the most fundamental aspects of minority and indigenous identities, namely their languages, art, traditional knowledge and spirituality.” How does one hold on through the progressive disintegration of a way of life in the face of oppression? What happens to people when the path they’ve traveled through time has disappeared?
It isn’t only indigenous people whose way of life is threatened. Our warming planet will change the way of living across the world that people have previously been accustomed to. As an example, in the past month, California experienced severe weather with storms bringing down a tremendous amount of rain in a brief period of time. The Sentinel Record reports that “32 trillion gallons of rain and snow to fall on California since Christmas.” Paths once walkable disappeared under the flow of water and mud. In some urban areas water was deep enough for boats to navigate. Coastlines crumbled, water undermined roads in some areas making them give way, and mudslides closed others. Some people lost their homes, others their lives. While these incidents of flooding may not have been directly caused by a warming planet, extreme weather in California is predicted to become more prevalent in the future. Drought and fires have seriously affected California in the past several years. These, along with a higher probability of floods will make the future challenging as the climate continues to warm. It’s not just California that will be impacted by extreme temperatures. As this interactive map shows, the entire world will be affected. People can no longer assume we will be able to move along the familiar ways of living we’re used to, and that’s difficult.
To be alive is to experience change. Even if we don’t belong to a culture that has been oppressed and haven’t yet experienced extreme weather conditions, our life can still flood in ways that prevent our journey along accustomed paths. Lose a partner or a child, and the world shifts. Travel and we may come to see the culture we grew up in differently, causing our beliefs to shift. As a result of an accident or age we might lose your ability to walk. Numerous possibilities can arise causing the way of living that we’ve relied on to disappear. Be it old age, climate change, or some other loss of a way of life, change will come.
The way we view the future and the story we tell ourselves about it affects how we walk in the present. John O’Donohue writes, “It is a strange and wonderful fact to be here, walking around in a body, to have a whole world within you and a world at your fingertips outside you. It is an immense privilege, and it is incredible that humans manage to forget the miracle of being here. Rilke said, ‘Being here is so much,’ and it is uncanny how social reality can deaden and numb us so that the mystical wonder of our lives goes totally unnoticed. We are here. We are wildly and dangerously free.” Returning to this insight that “being here is so much” might be the beginning awareness we need to help during difficulty–to walk on the earth, reminding ourselves of our connection to it, how we are earth, and the miracle it is to be alive. As Thich Nhat Hahn writes in his article on “Walking Meditation” in the Lion’s Roar, “When we walk mindfully on the face of the earth, we are grounded in her generosity and we cannot help but be grateful. All of the earth’s qualities of patience, stability, creativity, love, and nondiscrimination are available to us when we walk reverently, aware of our connection.” A lived awareness of our connection to the earth and to each other is a fundamental quality necessary for survival, and gratitude for that connection generates respect for life, which in turn regenerates more life.
When loss stares us in the face, we become more aware of our relationships. When things are difficult, we often grow internally the most, not when we’re comfortable. Often, it is in the face of loss that we learn how to live more fully as it’s then we more readily recognize we’re standing on a threshold between two ways of being in the world. Though we don’t know exactly where the future will take us, we can cultivate an attitude and way of thinking that helps us face hardships and loss so when the difficulties surface, we are more able to respond to challenges from a place other than fear. As Wendell Berry writes, it’s the impeded stream that sings. It’s when we don’t know where to go that we begin our real journey.
Difficulty and the recognition of imminent loss places us on a threshold and makes us reassess where we stand. When someone is dying, we affirm the relationship we’ve had with them and take extra care for their needs. We spend time with them and tell them what we remember about them that touched our lives. It seems this a way to live when we come to the end of a path we’ve been on and realize we can no longer follow. We affirm what the understanding and gifts the path brought us to. We give thanks and extend gratitude. We take extra time with what we’re letting go of or turning away from in order to see more clearly, and to mourn. We focus our attention more purposefully.
The connection Australia’s indigenous people had with the land with songs and stories that carried them on their journey that Chatwin wrote about can be a window into the understanding that there is a different way of responding to life. Though the future is uncertain, nurturing our relationships with others and with nature–the more than human world–creates more aliveness, and that aliveness and sense of community and connection helps sustain us. In the opening to her book, Inherited Silence, Listening to the Land, Healing the Colonizer Mind, Louise Dunlop writes about listening to a Harvard webinar where an Indigenous Wampanoag elders ‘cautioned against merely academic approach to the university’s treatment of their ancestors. “Our people do not discuss genocide with out prayer and ceremony.”‘ How people hold up under oppression and what happens when the path people have traveled has disappeared is bound to be different for different people. One way we might begin to cultivate a deeper relationship with each other and the earth as we walk into the future is by each day sending out the intention of blessing and gratitude. The One Earth Sangha site has a beautiful expression of this intention toward wholeness.
May all places be held sacred. May all beings be cherished.
May all injustices of oppression and devaluation be fully righted, remedied and healed.
May all who are captured by hatred be freed to the love that is our birth right. May all who are bound by fear discover the safety of understanding. May all who are weighed down by grief be given over to the joy of being. May all who are lost in delusion find a home on the path of wisdom. May all wounds to forests, rivers, deserts, oceans, all wounds to Mother Earth be lovingly restored to bountiful health.
May all beings everywhere delight in whale song, birdsong and blue sky. May all beings abide in peace and well-being, awaken and be free.
May your steps carry you peacefully into the future.
The ocean is an unpredictable place and wild. Stand at cliff edge and listen to the water’s liquid shatter, the crackled fizz as waves expend their energy and turn to foam. Sense the momentary quivering before the next wave rises, ready to roll in. To walk by the ocean, to observe it from a cliff is to absorb some of its essence through your breath and pores. There is a rhythm in the ocean, a wild music as it were, that washes over to envelope one in its presence, sweeping us along into the rush and calm of its life. For a few moments, we let go of our sense of obligations, the stories of what we need to be or do, and are absorbed into a presence much greater than ourselves. Time slows down, dissolves into an awareness that we’re held in a vastness of all we do not know or understand. And though the waves crash in explosions, it’s exhilarating. We are alive. We feel it in our bodies and are content.
The ocean is a liquid wilderness, a place of shifting currents without defined paths. One enters the ocean hoping to find something a bit unexpected. It’s never certain what one might experience or see. In addition to the wonders of encountering shoals of shining fish and banks of colorful coral, from stinging rays and jelly fish to fire coral and riptides, venturing into the sea involves some risk, as my poem below from Buoyant, describes.
Only a dozen of the three hundred shark species in the world attack humans. I didn’t want to risk my ignorance with one that might wish to test my skin, leaving prolonged scars or have one shake me to a bloody death.
Mesmerized by clownfish shyly bouncing out and into bubble coral, a pilot fish traveling with me all day while snorkeling, a manta shrimp’s pivoting eye, trigger fish biting at my mask chasing after my fins— I had twenty-one dives. These were adequate adventures for me.
Others on the boat with possibly a hundred dives or more couldn’t wait to encounter what I feared. Questioning the source of my fear, I found myself underwater, seated back against a rock wall, inhaling quietly, waiting for sharks to arrive.
An offering of fish flesh fastened to a heavy chain dropped from the boat above. In they came with arched spines and fins pulled back, circling the food, carrying their layers of pointed teeth. White tipped sharks and silver, bronze whalers and gray, the frenzied pack closed in on the meat—fifty sharks, maybe more, their strong jaws instinctually grasping, cutting through flesh, rocking back and forth, spinning, sawing, tearing meat. Crunching through bone, eating the carcasses whole.
Their singular focus to feed their hunger, their nature from ancient origin, blood incidental to their fixed intention. I was nothing to them, could breathe calmly. The water between us a space to observe hunger’s ravenous need to be filled, I inhaled the furious vision of gnashing teeth, unspoken groaning, and thundering silence.
Come all you tender people year upon year adapting to nuances of cloudy conditions, strong currents, cold and storm, and histories of grief, adjusting like the octopus to every tide, carrying your hunger like a hidden wound. Come with your strong teeth, piercing starvation, biting jaws, and famished hearts.
There are dwellers in deep water who see your need, places you can meet your fears, breathe them out, and your hunger be fed.
Though the poem is written about an experience as a new diver, no matter one’s level of experience, there are always things in life’s ocean that we’re not fully prepared for, even though we’ve done the work to help us when difficulties arrive. We still feel the challenge. When we dive into the sea, we connect with life, and life simultaneously contains both wonder and experiences of things that wound and threaten to tear us apart. The sea, says Carl Jung, is “the mother of all that lives,” and living, as the poem above describes, can be difficult. Sometimes we are ravenous for things we cannot have or even name. We are starved for what feeds the soul and brings us life. We might find ourselves famished sometimes for places of calm and safety, or ravenous for kindness, hungry for a way to meet basic needs of shelter and food. We thirst for beauty. Natalia Ziniak, 26, the artist whose paintings appear here on this post, was living in Los Angles but visiting her family in western Ukraine when Russia invaded the country in February. She, her mother and younger sister and brother fled the country three days after Putin’s campaign began, their father joining them approximately a half of year later. The family has lived in a variety of temporary homes since that time and has relied on the good will of others, as described in Drew Penner’s Scott’s Valley Press Banner September article. To suddenly lose your home and say goodbye to the earth you know, leave behind its ways of being and speaking, the people and place you love, to move across the world giving up security and familiarity, that is diving into deep water with the sound and sight of hungry sharks swimming through your mind and heart. There might be space between you and the tragedy you touched, but you feel the movement of grief’s biting jaws inside your thoughts. The marrow of your bones groan, longing for comfort and assurance.
It’s incredibly difficult to experience an ongoing state of uncertainty, but the Ziniak family has lived in this stressful state with an openness to daily miracles for many months. Though the waters one might find oneself in are threatening, in the midst of deep difficulty there are places and ways for your hunger to be fed and as the poem above says. There are means to transform sorrow. One of them is painting. Like other artistic endeavors, painting enables one to touch the sun through the rain, as in the title of Ziniak’s painting above. “In my free time I love painting the ocean,” Natalia says in Drew Penner’s article. “It’s the only thing that makes me feel alive, free and peaceful—to go to the ocean and paint.” Besides being threatening, a crisis can alternatively hold the potential to become an opportunity for growth.
Observe the sea, it’s ever changing face, breathe in its air long enough, and know that while it is wild, it is also deeply beautiful and life-giving. People don’t like living with unease and misery. Nevertheless, living with uncertainty has a way of making one aware of the preciousness of all life, the gift it is to inhale a blue sky or to gaze out at the expanse of sea. Natalia Ziniak’s ocean paintings open the heart. Standing in front of her canvases, one can feel a rush of life rising up from the play of light in the colors on her richly textured canvases. Her seascapes are charged with energy–cliff edges and angular rocks divide and cut through water’s fluid motion. There is both firm stability and limitless horizon in these paintings. Water explodes open at its edges, but is healed over and whole in the greater part of its body in the distance. The ocean may hold elements of the ominous, may churn with an aspect of potential danger, but Ziniak’s brush displays that energy as an experience of vibrant sustenance.
Along with everything else in the natural world, we participate in an ongoing cycle of transformation involving simultaneous dissolution and creation, destruction and recreation. Rilke in his Letters to a Young Poet writes, “So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloud shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.” I love the title of Ziniak’s painting below, “Afterwater Waterfall.” There is simultaneously a softness and firmness in the painting’s lines and forms of rock and shape of water. The painting depicts the residual water that pours off of rock after the experience of a wave collapsing over it. Waves of difficulty can crash against you, but in your art you can turn the experience into an embodied reflection that reveals the beauty of forms enduring in spite of life’s turbulent forces while in the process of being worn away and reformed into something new.
To be tender is to allow yourself to be vulnerable, to be open, to remain malleable and alive. Every day we stand at a threshold between worlds. To be tender is to stand at the edge of the sea in its many forms and to let it speak to you. We may look out into the abyss and see chaos, but chaos is also the formless matter out of which the universe was shaped. A person may sense being alone, but when painting, one is not alone. You become one, so to speak, with the world you are translating with your brush. You transform and recreate yourself and the world at the same time through your paintbrush. The poet Nicholas Samaras writes, “God lives in the point of my pen. In writing, I interact with the act of creativity, the act of creation.” I believe the same could be said for Natalia Ziniak and her paint brush.
If you’d like to read more of the poems from Buoyant, where “Regarding Tenderness” is from, you can see more details about the book here. I donate half the price of the book to 5 Gyres, an organization working to reduce plastics in the world’s oceans. You can also message me if you’d like to order a copy.
“When the doors of perception are cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” — Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
The world didn’t have to be beautiful but it is. Morocco’s night skies with a billion stars flung across the heavens like spilled salt, Australia’s Great Ocean Road winding along rugged coastline, Buddhist temples perched on India’s stark and stony Himalaya, wild gibbon calling from among the tree-tops in Borneo, the view of the hillside sweeping down to the sea from a hilltop in Erice, Sicily, Cartagena’s colorful streets—there are myriad beautiful places in the world.
When I recognized I needed to move from my home in Santa Cruz, I didn’t want to leave behind the trees, the sea, the beauty–though I felt that very well might be what would need to happened. After more than a year of looking for a different place to live and finally finding one, we moved in. The yard is large enough for a garden, the house has been updated, and we have pleasant neighbors. I like for things to be the best I can make them, but nothing is perfect. What bothers me about the house I now live in is the floor. It’s not level. The lift and dip can be felt while walking across a room, and some of the furniture doesn’t sit solidly on the floor. Nevertheless, at the last minute when we absolutely had to be out of our previous home, the opportunity for this house appeared and we are here living in it. Despite the floor, beauty can be found nearby. Living here feels right.
Before moving to Sonoma County, we drove out to explore the landscape along the coast. It was then, standing at the edge of the Pacific gazing into its expansive presence I recognized that despite the economic challenges of moving, perhaps my imagination about what was possible was too small. It took Earth eons beyond counting to form the land where I stood, looking out into that particular horizon. Yet there I was in my finite body through some amazing collaboration of circumstances peering into the boundless open heart of Bodega Bay, Earth’s embodied unspoken invitation that I enlarge my mind and imagination.
In her poem, “A Settlement,” Mary Oliver writes about spring–life in all its trembling, hopeful beauty, and the joy that brings–the way I felt about returning home to Santa Cruz, and what I thought would be my forever home, after 26 years of living in foreign countries to live beside the redwoods and the wonder of their amazing presence. Oliver writes,
Look, it’s spring. And last year’s loose dust has turned into this soft willingness. The wind-flowers have come up trembling, slowly the brackens are up-lifting their curvaceous and pale bodies. The thrushes have come home, none less than filled with mystery, sorrow,
happiness, music, ambition.
And I am walking out into all of this with nowhere to go and no task undertaken but to turn the pages of this beautiful world over and over, in the world of my mind.
Therefore, dark past, I’m about to do it. I’m about to forgive you
Mystery, sorrow–these are all there alongside the wonder of the world’s beauty that Oliver turns over and over in her thoughts as she walks about. She has no predetermined path in mind, she’s simply absorbing what is–the music of it all. She lets it fill her.
And that immersion of her full self into the landscape’s presence is what allows her to pause and then to take the next leap– to forgive the past. For everything. That pause she takes between the last two stanzas is essential. In it we can feel her weighing everything in her past before making the commitment to release what has weighed her down, perceived failures, guilt, shame–whatever incompleteness might be there.
What we think at one point in time will be the life we will have can change unexpectedly into something quite different. Moving to a new home as well as other large life changes–unemployment, retirement, disease, divorce, death, and numerous more alterations, requires a letting go, an opening, a release into new possibilities. At our previous house in Santa Cruz we had dreams of an art studio, a meditation bench under the redwoods, a greenhouse, and a terraced hillside with artichokes, berry vines and fruit trees. Those never came to be. Just as a plant produces more seeds than can ever be used or that will ever come to fruition, there are many worlds, lives, and dreams inside us. Not all aspirations blossom or come to fruition. Spring carries with it a history of winter but has to release itself from cold days with little sun in order to liberate itself into new life.
As Oliver suggests, I can forgive what I can’t change, the defects of uneven floors, the insights I wish I had but lacked. I can embrace what is and open the doors to what waits past the plains and borders I’ve previously defined. Oliver’s moment of turning in “Settlement” is a kind of invitation to let go of what weighs us down, what we’ve wanted to be different but wasn’t, to let it drop like clothes changed at the end of the day. We live in a world too big for a small inner life. We can imagine something different, plant the seeds of a different reality, stretch beyond the past hopes we dreamt of that never came true.
“We have an obligation to imagine,” writes Neil Gaiman. “It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that society is huge and the individual is less than nothing. But the truth is individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.” Find an ocean, a sea of billowing grass, a snowy plain, or a desert’s wide expanse. Look up into the infinite sky. We are bigger than other’s definitions of who we are, bigger, too, than the roles and definitions we give ourselves.
It’s literally true, we are stardust. Our very existence depends on the unseen interconnected workings of vast systems of life that hold together not only our planet but the far-flung fringes of the universe. As Charles Eisenstein’s book title states The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, is waiting for us to discover it.
Full in the hand, heavy with ripeness, perfume spreading it’s fan: moments now resemble sweet russet pears glowing on the bough, peaches warm from the afternoon sun, amber and juicy, flesh that can make you drunk.
This month I moved from a place I called home for decades in Santa Cruz County, California, a location rich with beauty that has filled me with wonder and gratitude where morning mist drifted between tree-covered hills and summer’s noon sun lifted the redwood’s green scent from the forest floor. Wasps drinking the grapes’ sweetness hummed under the arbor on autumn afternoons, crickets sang at twilight, and at night the horned owls call from among the redwoods.
Though I lived abroad for over two and a half decades in urban environments, I always looked forward to coming home to Santa Cruz County to be restored, a place with a multitude of trails through forests, as well as being near the coast with the sea stretching into the far distance. After rains, moisture rose from the redwood duff and the bay laurels, making the earth smell medicinal green. Walking on that earth, I felt the sweetness of being alive, as if I were tasting one of the pears Marge Percy describes in the opening stanza of her above poem.
When my husband and I moved to our house in the Soquel Hills of Santa Cruz County years ago, I never suspected I would move, never considered that one day it would be wise to have an easier home to manage and a smaller amount of land to care for. We can’t see all the way to the end of a road we’re traveling on. Needs change, bodies age, environments alter, and so do world economics. As Percy writes,
There is a turn in things that makes the heart catch. We are ripening…
Whenever we let go of what we’ve loved and held dear we experience loss. We have to leave behind much in our lives when moving–people we hold dear, pathways we’re familiar with, places that bring us joy, routines we find comfort in and all the many memories place holds–the tree we sat under in afternoons, the hill we rode down on a bicycle, the restaurant where we ate a favorite food, the steps we argued with someone on, the school we graduated from, the storm that carried the bridge away or the quake that tumbled the house’s chimney–griefs and joys–all the many ways we experience the turn of light and the sounds of the earth we walk on through the seasons across years.
Just as we can’t wear the same shoes throughout our lives and a favorite piece of clothing wears out, even though we may not want it to happen or feel unprepared for it when it does, transitions are necessary. Wanted or unwanted, transformations require adjustment, internal and external. If we can arrive at the place of embracing the change as part of a journey rather than a final destination, we can discover new ways of understanding and being in the world. “We are ripening,” Percy calls it. Potential and possibility are there.
As Percy goes on to say,
Whatever happens, whatever, we say, and hold hard and let go and go on. In the perfect moment the future coils, a tree inside a pit. Take, eat, we are each other’s perfection, the wine of our mouths is sweet and heavy. Soon enough comes the vinegar. The fruit is ripe for the taking and we take. There is no other wisdom.
The past, present and future are all contained in the fruit we hold even though we may not fully see it. The seed, the tree, the fruit, the vinegar–reality is all of these simultaneously, not just one of these things by itself–even if one aspect appears more dominant. Vinegar comes, and with it will come, the sour things we don’t like to taste. But the vinegar is not all. There’s also the fruit. “Hold hard,” Percy says. Let what we love be dear. Feel its weight. Taste the flavor of each other’s perfection and the perfection of the world around us in this moment just as it is, the perfection of its imperfection.
Percy also says, “let go and go on.” Hold on. But also let go! Everything around us is in transformation anyway. It is in relationship with each other and with the world around us that through time we transform and become whole. This is how we are each other’s perfection that Percy describes.
Here are trees I lived beside and called my friends, and this is the garden I nurtured that fed me and gave me beauty, and this is the ocean and fields I loved, though there’s so much more inside the experience of each of these—all the ways the land I lived on whispered its life, bestowed its presence, left its imprint. I hold all these, and more, dear.
There are many ways of knowing something. One of them is to live beside it for a long time, to observe it for many seasons and through many kinds of weather and light until in the end it takes on life. You see the same scene but with more depth, with all its nuances, history, subtleties and character. I have left now these things I’ve held dear, but paradoxically, they are still with me and still alive, as are the many other places and people I hold dear who are no longer with me yet still influence how I live.
The evening I left Santa Cruz for the last time to drive up the coast and then inland to my new home, the sun was setting, an ongoing display of dying light in all its beauty. I’ve entered a new world now, further north in Sonoma County. I don’t know where time will take me from here but I’m holding on to the fruit of this experience, savoring it until it’s again time to let go.
“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid,” wrote Fredrick Buechner. There’s a lot of uncertainty we collectively face as a planet in the years ahead. Moving is a practice in death and rebirth. I hope I can learn to face every future transformation and not be afraid.
Discovering the Deeper Shades of Blue:How to Night Dive
Let go your idea of needing vivid sun or the 10,000 shades of transparent blue.
Embrace night’s serene satin, and slip in, flashlight in hand, to seek life absent during day.
Many divers will wave their torch wildly about, unable to focus the light they have, uncontrollably blasting your eyes as if to blind you without intending to. Move on.
Let go of certainty and greet the unexpected. You’ve changed your lens, are looking with different intention now.
Shine your light into hidden crevices and spot a parrot fish snoozing calmly inside a protective mucous bubble.
Go slowly. Gliding along a wall of flower coral stretching, and retracting their delicate tentacles. Hold your magnifying glass close to their daisy-bright bodies, and then to ghost shrimps’ gleaming copper eyes, their tiny segmented feet intently searching for food.
Skim past morays’ grinning faces ever peeking from their window holes, waiting for news of a meal. Notice others scurry from crevices, swerving between rocks, looking for better digs.
Take time to shine your light beneath ledges absorbing a Spanish dancer nudibranch’s salsa, flexing, bending, and swirling its foot-long scarlet skirt.
Cast your torch across the seafloor to spy an octopus scrambling to climb a coral-covered rock, skin mimicking its color and texture in an instant.
Your air tank nearly diminished, and safety stop complete, turn off your light and whirl your arm through the water, watching plankton trail your movement in spiraling beads of green phosphorescent glow.
Daylight holds one world, night another.
There are worlds within worlds, things you’ll never see if all you know is what daylight holds.
Drop into night’s starry sea. Let yourself be carried into a deeper blue.
There are things we love and look for. There are things we’re not ready to see or embrace though they are present, and there are those things hidden from our site that we only see when we look beneath the surface, willing to greet the unexpected, as the poem suggests. When diving at night, the diver typically moves slower, eyes focused on the band of light one’s torch illuminates. Though vision is limited to what can be seen in the frame of light a diver carries, diving into a night sea encourages a more focused, intimate observation of what might otherwise have been passed over. Similar to how stars are visible at night, things appear in a dark sea that can’t be seen at other times.
Everywhere we turn, disasters seem imminent. These are global concerns and our futures are woven together. There’s a place for mourning says author and Buddhist scholar, Joanna Macy, yet “what a time to be alive,” she exclaims in this video interview with her, “Climate Crisis as a Spiritual Path.” Be with your suffering. Ground it in gratitude, Macy suggests, so that when panic subsides you can recognize you’re held by life. Our greatest gift is our full presence to life. Suffering can open us to each other and help us find a shared strength in life, she explains.
When facing the uncertainty of diving in the dark, it’s beneficial to do as the poem suggests, and “greet the unexpected.” Divers have to trust the sea will continue to lift and carry them, even though they can’t see their way. How do we look at difficulty with different intention and find the resources and courage to dive into the dark? Catherine Lombard, on her blog post, Cultivating Radical Hope as Our Planet Collapses explores this article by ethicists David Schenck and Larry R. Churchill in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, “Ethical Maxims for a Marginally Inhabitable Planet,” giving six ethical maxims for living forward into the future with the dangers we face and that can serve as a kind of light while swimming through a night sea of uncertainty:
Maxim 1: Work Hard to Grasp the Immensity. (…it is always difficult to accept bad news that has a finality to it…Some turns of events demand a change in one’s whole view of the world.) Maxim 2: Cultivate Radical Hope. (…[only] when one reaches a certain level of despair can new resources of hope emerge, in oneself and in the new world in which one finds oneself.) Maxim 3: Have a Line in the Sand (things you won’t do, modes of living you won’t embrace.) Maxim 4: Appreciate the Astonishing and Unique Opportunity. (Appreciate the opportunity you have to accompany humanity in this extraordinary transition and to be present to the earth and the biosphere at this time. Maxim 5: Train Your Body and Your Mind. (Learn skills for getting beyond the emotional and physiological limits of ego.) Maxim 6: Act for the Future Generations of All Species. (Speak for those without voice: the poor, the future generations, other species. Speak for the forests, the seas, the mountains.)
We view things newly and understand the world differently when swimming in a sea of circumstances where it’s difficult to see beyond the band of light directly before us and yet it’s still possible to feel free. As if an eel smiling from inside a rocky crevice or the beads of phosphorescence bubbling in the water’s surge, because of the challenges to vision night time brings, new insights and ways of responding to suffering can emerge from beneath the interior ledges of our selves. While humanity has not previously faced the kind of ecological collapse scientists indicate is coming in the decades ahead, we do have examples of how people have endured hardship with hope. In a recent Time magazine article. “Far From Home,” Afghan women now living in various parts of the world tell the story of what life is like for them, one year after the fall of Kabul. What especially struck me as I read the article is the women’s repeated expressions of determination to build a meaningful life though they have lost a world they knew and held dear. These women have endured serious ongoing hardship, yet when asked how she would describe herself in one word, one of the women interviewed, Batool Haidari says, “I am a warrior. Not because we are at war but because we are fighting to survive.” Another Afghan woman, Masouma Tajik says she is “unstoppable,” and Najiba Ebrahimi describes herself as “free.” Certainly, these women have cultivated radical hope, and continue to train their minds to grasp what has happened to them, as well as to respond to the opportunities they now have.
We can practice transformation now with every difficulty we experience in daily life and we are not alone in our effort. As Thich Nhat Hahn says in a practice called touching the earth, we have the energy of our ancestors in us, “wisdom transmitted from so many generations…I carry in me the life, the blood, the experiences, the wisdom, the happiness and the sorrow of all generations. The suffering and the elements that are to be transformed, I am practicing to transform. I opened my heart and my flesh and bones to receive the energy of insight, of love and of experiences transmitted to me by all my ancestors… ”
There are worlds within worlds, things you’ll never see if all you know is what daylight holds.
Drop into night’s starry sea. Let yourself be carried into a deeper blue.
Lying on the earth, your floor, or imaging yourself floating through the sea, you can prepare for transformation as you listen to Thich Nhat Hahn’s Touching the Earth practice, allowing yourself to be carried into a deeper blue.
The poem, “Discovering the Deeper Shades of Blue:How to Night Dive” is part of my newest book of poems, Buoyant, published by Bellowing Ark Press.
Deserts are important. While deserts seem to be bare, treeless places and can feel like a bleak wilderness, it’s from deserts that some of humankind’s important cultures such as ancient Egypt rose. Thirteen of the fifteen types of minerals on our planet are found in deserts. Plants and and animals found in deserts have developed ways to adapt the harsh conditions and still thrive. (More of desert’s amazing qualities described here.) From deserts came innovations such as irrigation helping to nurture and sustain life across the globe. In a world where things seem increasingly bleak, and where metaphorically speaking it feels we’re heading into the depths of a desolate land without water or shade, perhaps it’s a good time to contemplate the desert.
At some point in our lives most of us come to a place where the world turns arid, lonely and vulnerable. You sense you’re in a wilderness by yourself where the path you once followed has disappeared and you recognize you need some further kind of internal strength to keep going. Barbara Brown Taylor details this wilderness experience in her talk on subsistence spirituality with these words, “In the beginning, you weep. Because all the familiar landmarks are gone, because you don’t know where you are. Because the only food left in your backpack is disgusting. And the little bit of water in your canteen has turned green. You’re hungry, you’re tired, you’re lost, you’re alone, it’s getting dark. And even if the sky is clear enough for stars tonight, you don’t know how to read them. You always meant to, but you never learned. So now what? If you’re a pray-er, you pray. If you’re not a pray-er, you pray. What else can you do once you’ve come to the end of what you can do for yourself? It’s time to find out what faith means out beyond the boundaries of where you were warned not to go.”
When there are no answers, when you’re waiting and waiting for a change in circumstances that never comes, how do we make the waiting bearable? Some wait their entire lives struggling to sustain themselves with adequate food, shelter, and clothing. Though they may be resourceful and diligent, some never obtain opportunities that allow them to develop the abilities they have to the full extent of their longing. Though kind or honest, some people aren’t treated with respect. When coming to the end of our resources of what we know to do, how do we continue? How do we allow our suffering to transform us into people of deeper wisdom and heart rather than fall into a pit of despair or gradually grow bitter?
In his poem “Adrift,” Mark Nepo writes, In the very center, under it all, what we have that no one can take away and all that we’ve lost face each other. It is there that I’m adrift, feeling punctured by a holiness that exists inside everything. I am so sad and everything is beautiful.
While none of us likely wants more suffering or grief, when adrift between seeing all we have and and all we’ve lost, as Nepo points out in his poem, that is when we feel the puncture of the inseparability of wonder and grief that somehow makes us aware of the sacred. It’s this insight that can be the catalyst for internal change that enables us to find a way to live alongside the unbearable.
Saudi Arabia may be a desert country but it also holds one of the world’s major sources of energy: oil. Organic life from previous times transformed under pressure and with heat has become a source of energy. that which has died transforms into new life. Though a place of interest and beauty, nevertheless, pressure and erosion created the caves at Al Qarah. All life is in a process of ongoing transformation.
In the nature, we can experience the inseparability of life and death, how the dying of one life form engenders the birth of another. John Muir wrote “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” The oceans, as well as the mountains, are also a fountain of life, and spending time there is transforming. Saudi Arabia borders the Red Sea, one of the most phenomenal areas to scuba dive in the world, as it is where two continental plates, the African and the Arabian, have pulled apart creating an enormous and extremely deep rift. Inside this Red Sea rift over 1000 species of fish and 150 species of coral can be found–beauty and life thrives.
When I consider the processes of the natural world, I wonder about how I might view the cultural rifts and political erosions in a similar way–a process of deconstruction and reconstruction that are occurring simultaneously–a dying while living. The intersection of these seeming opposites is a place where new awareness and possibilities can arise.
In creative acts people take elements and combine them in ways generating change. Alternatively, as Muir suggests, when we spend time in the natural world, it acts on us and we are changed. We physically sense ourselves held inside a greater reality, a greater wholeness. As Kabir Helminski writes in “Beauty as a Way of Life,” “When the spiritual imagination awakens, the world is transformed. It is the same world, but seen differently.”
In specifically thinking about the challenges women have faced through history and continue to face, I offer this poem from my new book, Buoyant.
In Praise of Women Divers
This is for the woman who took her children to the Red Sea to paddle through water their father had never touched, though he grew up beside it every day looking into its face.
This is for the woman who became a divemaster though told it was dangerous and she’d be seen in a wetsuit, how she led other women underwater though it was illegal, teaching them the ways of fish, discovering together another world, finding every day is a good day to dive.
This is for the women who wore abayas atop their wetsuits as if they were merely onlookers while meeting the Coast Guard, and the men on the boat the only divers.
This is for the friend who stood on the boat deck wearing her snorkel and mask, black robe flapping with wind, smilingly determined to explore what lay beneath the sea’s sun-smoothed surface— all of us others planning to join her.
This is for the women who broke the law by choosing to dive, who probed shipwrecks and gazed at their gaps, who entered through holes blasted into steel holds—how vessels once so strong no water could enter, are now broken open, sunken, propellers forever halted, going nowhere.
This is in celebration of the women who saw wrecks in water clear as windows, the happiness engendered when something so big, so seemingly sturdy, in its destruction became a place of beauty decorated with soft corals, animated with angel and broom-tailed filefish sweeping through.
For those of us wandering in a wilderness, Barbara Brown Taylor leaves us with these words. “So I don’t know what your wilderness is all about. But you do…What you gain though, is the rewilding of your soul. Because the desert is the spiritual wildness protection program, open to anyone willing to leave the pavement and be emptied right out, making room for God knows what is coming next.” In the midst of our desert wandering, we can pause and ask ourselves how we can open into what’s coming next, how we can allow for a reef to form from the sunken vessels in our lives.
(If you’re interested in getting the book, Buoyant, send me a message, and I will see that you get a copy. Check here for more information about the book.)
“Paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world, receiving the gifts with open eyes and open heart.” –Robin Wall Kimmerer
Sometimes, it takes a long time to see something. Maybe you’ve looked at something before and recognized it, but really seeing it can be a different thing altogether. Painting on silk, as Ann Pervinkler does, the artist has to pay attention to shape, angle, blending of color and use of space, but more than that, an artist wants what she’s painting to come alive–to have spirit and life. When I saw Ann’s turtle pillow, I felt the turtle was swimming right to me, and immediately thought of my experience some years back while snorkeling beside a turtle in Sri Lanka.
When I first saw the turtle, I was elated since I’d never before swam so closely alongside such a large turtle. It seemed the size of a small, round picnic table! It moved through the water with grace and ease. Close enough to easily touch the turtle, I began to see it in a new way. You can watch this video version of the poem as I read it to the accompaniment of Kanako Fukumoto on the violin and Satsuki Fujishima on piano, (“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” by A. Senju/ Kimi wo Shinjite.) The turtle in the video was filmed by Marina Goodyear in Malapascua, Philippines.
The Curious Turtle
She wasn’t like other turtles plowing along the ocean bottom tearing up coral with her beak.
She didn’t hide under a rock when I swam by for fear of what I might do. No.
She held intently her full mouth of food as the surge swept her. Trailing a string of bright bubbles she paddled straight to me, placed her face with its glistening eye next to mine and peered into me.
I stared into her eyes’ gleaming depth, her gaze a recognition. Somehow, she knew me.
The universe spinning through its layers of mystery, I’d entered another world, felt how Eve must have felt in the garden before the fall, naked, vulnerable and scintillatingly alive.
When we give ourselves to something with our full attention, looking with the eyes of our heart, we see the world anew. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote in The Little Prince, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Not a mere backdrop we are moving through, when we look at at something or someone with the eyes of the heart, we become more aware of our interbeing with everything around us, the enormous wonder of reality.
In her 1982 essay, “Living Like Weasels,” Annie Dillard wrote about encountering a weasel and being “stunned into stillness…Our eyes locked, and someone threw away the key…the world dismantled and tumbled into that black hole of eyes.” Dillard’s description is very similar to my experience when the turtle’s eye met mine. I saw a depth there, felt what even might be called a wisdom. No longer merely an animal simply to identify and swim beside. I’d met another being with a history, a presence. When we looked in each other’s eyes, something in me woke up: the turtle’s life had depth and a way of knowing beyond my knowing–and one to learn from. I understood the turtle saw his life equally important to mine with his own interests and pursuits. Reality had expanded.
The encounter with the turtle was a gift, changing the way I see not only turtles, but animals and the natural world as a whole and my relationship to it. We can see the world as objects or we can look into the eyes of the world and see it as a marvel alive with presence.
Artists use their skill to help us see the world with the eyes of the heart to help us recognize the wonder that surrounds us that we might otherwise miss without their assistance in bringing it to our attention. Looking into the eyes of a live turtle paddling by, or into silky turquoise water the turtle Ann Pervinkler’s pillow swims through, or the tree branches rolling with wind along the road as you ride home from work–wherever you find yourself, the world is alive and is speaking. Open the eyes of your heart. Listen.
“If there’s magic on this planet, it’s contained in water.” –Loren Eisley
Diving is one of the most otherworldly experience a person can have while still on earth. Immersed in a different world than that of everyday life, one sees wonders that open the heart and boggle the mind with the beauty of the natural world.
Drifting through the water, eyes attentive to fish activity and the surrounding terrain, a diver grows conscious of being both a drop in the ocean and an intimate part of the intricate interweaving of all that is. Snorkeling alongside a whale shark is a rare opportunity allowing a direct experience of that wonder.
Spangled with starry dots and pale streamers on its blue, night-sky body and the size of a bus, the world’s largest fish, the whale shark, journeys thousands of miles seeking warm water and nourishment from the tiniest bits of life in the shallows, filtering plankton, krill and small fish through its enormous mouth, along with a thousand five hundred gallons of water every hour.
Jumping into the water from the side of the boat, there it was, ten feet from my body. I stared directly into the cave of its gigantic mouth. My entire body could be sucked into its gaping maw.
Thinking of Jonah, I pitched my body in the opposite direction, swimming hard for escape.
Breathless, I paused to peer down the shark’s long length, its body’s dazzling radiance. The ineffable grace of its muscled movement, colossal tail brushing from side to side.
Effortlessly, the shark glided into water’s seamless, silent expanse, the stars on its back evaporating into fluid geography.
This isn’t a small life. Some travel immeasurable distances to find what feeds the soul.
For a few breathless moments we feed our yearning, the stardust in our bodies greeting an ancient light glowing still, before disappearing into the invisible.
I’m happy to announce Buoyant, my new book of poems about scuba diving and life inside the sea is now published by Bellowing Ark Press. If you’re not a diver, the poems in this volume will allow you to experience life underwater world while remaining dry. I hope the poems feed your soul.oe
(Let me know if you’d like a copy and I can tell you how to order one.)
This house has been far out at sea all night, The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills, Winds stampeding the fields under the window Floundering black astride and blinding wet –from “Wind,” Ted Hughes
Years ago I bicycled with friends up Ireland’s west coast. The day we biked from Galway to the landing where we were to catch the ferry that would take us to the Aran Islands was supposed to be the flattest terrain and easiest ride of all the days of our two week bike trip. But the rain that morning was visibly horizontal in the wind as we crouched beside benches at a Galway bus stop. We hoped the weather would ease up, but after a time, we realized that it wasn’t going to stop raining. Neither was the wind going to stop blowing. We were going to have to get on our bikes and ride despite the wind and rain if we wanted to catch the ferry to the Aran Islands. We got on our bikes and started peddling. My bike seat kept slipping down, making it challenging to pedal. My legs felt like weights. Nevertheless, I kept going, and arrived at the ferry take-off point and boarded the boat moments before it departed.
Aran Island is an ancient place with homes of stone where life was a challenging struggle with the elements. The beehive huts on the island made of stacked stones are thought to date to medieval times. Though their purpose isn’t entirely certain, they may have been built for religious pilgrims. How cold it must have felt in such dwellings! Heated homes, indoor toilets, running warm water–these are current day expectations, not how life was for humans for thousands upon thousands of years.
A trip up Ireland’s coast and to the Aran Islands gives a small insight into changes the world has experienced but going much further back in time, Earth has seen even far greater changes than the fragments of ruins of ancient cultures we see on the earth’s surface. The way we see the world now and the expectations for our lives is not as it always has been. There have been five mass extinctions in the earth’s history to date. It’s hard to imagine life different from what we know when we have only glimpses and fragments of other lives and ways of being but as much as we don’t always like change, it is part of the natural process of living beings and of our planet.
In his poem, “Wind” Hughes describes the effect of the wind on place where he sits, a description that fits the world’s present day situation. “The house,” he writes,
Rang like some fine green goblet in the note That any second would shatter it. Now deep In chairs, in front of the great fire, we grip Our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought,
Or each other. We watch the fire blazing, And feel the roots of the house move, but sit on, Seeing the window tremble to come in, Hearing the stones cry out under the horizons.
From the pandemic, to rising costs and economic challenges, to ongoing social inequities and oppression, to the effects of climate change, and the current war in Ukraine, people across the world are confronted with strong winds coming from many directions. Day to day we walk in the midst of great change. The day of Thich Nhat Hahn’s recent death, an enormous wind blew where I live. I sat for some time on a hay bale in my back yard and watched the redwoods sway in their roots and the oak trees shake. When I looked high above me, I noticed strands of cloud had formed crossroads in the sky. The sky, the trees, the very earth beneath me seemed to be saying change has arrived, life is different now.
The world is, indeed, shifting, and because there’s so much coming at people at this time, it’s difficult to cope, to absorb and then comprehend how to respond to events. Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy speaks about this time as the great unraveling. Of course what we’re experiencing is depressing and difficult, she asserts in this short film Climate Crisis as a Spiritual Path. It’s not only appropriate to feel grief over the losses and challenges we’re experiencing, it’s important to recognize that the grief comes from a place of love. “The anguish we feel is inevitable, normal, and even healthy, because how are we going to do to create out of the present disarray an exquisite life, sustaining life, respecting society unless we are ready to galvanize everything.” Pain, she explains is the other side of love, and now is the time to expand into our full humanity.
Movement toward new awareness and growth doesn’t necessarily occur in a linear direction, however. Numerous times I’ve thought I was on a path to finding an answer to a question or situation, that I then would be moving in a new direction, only to discover that I was no closer than before, or at least I didn’t appear to be any closer. Questions and dilemmas have a way of persisting. Sometimes it seems to me that perhaps the universe itself is an embodied question wandering around in cycles of birth and death eons long searching for the answer to its own existence.
Ireland’s Saint Brendan is known for his wandering. He set off from Dingle Bay in his thirty-six-foot curragh-like boat made of leather with fourteen (some sources say sixteen) other monks to explore the world in what is thought to be the years CE 512-530. While it’s difficult to tell what aspects of the tale of his journey are factual, or where he actually went, whether to Greenland, the Canary Islands, the Azores or elsewhere, his story is part of a literary genre in Ireland at the time of a hero’s journey to the other world. Their pilgrimage embodied their quest to find the “Earthly Paradise.” All quests require a great deal of faith and theirs was no different.
The legend of their journey describes commonplace encounters such as meeting a boy eating bread and milk that the boy shares with the monks, as well as coming upon an island of birds and an island of grapes. They encounter a variety of dangerous situations however, as when they land on what they think is an island but turns out to be the back of a whale, and when their leather boat is circled by threatening fish, and when blacksmiths throw slag at them as the monks pass by their island. Some of the monks encounters are particularly inexplicable such as drinking water from a well that makes them fall asleep, the appearance of a silver pillar wrapped in a net, and finding a man they took to be Judas Iscariot sitting on a rock in the sea.
The central thing that comes down to us through time regarding St. Brendan is the story of his journey. Not the story of his arrival, his paradise found. While they may be valuable or even necessary to undertake, journeys don’t necessarily bring solutions to situations, though they can provide new insights and perspective. Even after his seven year wandering and enduring the many unknowns and challenges, on his death bed, he told his sister, “I fear that I shall journey alone, that the way will be dark; I fear the unknown land, the presence of my King and the sentence of my judge.” External pilgrimage and internal pilgrimages are connected. Meeting uncertainty is never easy, even when you are experienced at encountering the unexpected. Even if you’ve sought it out. Like St. Brendan, we are forever heading into an unknown land.
Where do we turn when life’s challenges seem insufferable, when the longing for change and resolution isn’t found? How do we during such times expand further into our humanity? Viktor Frankl, who endured the Nazi death camps at Theresienstadt and Auschwitz (as well as two others) said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” The way into the unknown and toward a new way of being may not be a direct path. It may take years of wandering in a wilderness, and the wandering may not finish when we want it to come to an end. It’s the journey, the seeking and the meaning we give to our exploration on our journey that matters.
While reaching toward a greater knowing and unfolding, we carry what we know and what we came from. A stream of water has its own character and appearance as it falls over rocks and meanders its way to the sea, carrying with it bits of sediment from the land it has touched. Streams of water do not run in straight lines. The struggle, the pressing forth into the wind and rain while waiting for change has something to teach us. In our search we can stretch beyond what we know, we meet and respond to others who, like us, are also searching. Direct action doesn’t necessarily bring about immediate solutions to dilemmas. As Rumi wrote,
“Things are such, that someone lifting a cup, or watching the rain, petting a dog,
or singing, just singing — could be doing as much for this universe as anyone.”
Sometimes things that seemingly have nothing to do with the challenge we face is what most needs attending to. Before leaving her bombed out home in Kiev, pianist Irina Maniukina played on her piano one last time. A choice such as this is a purposeful action that can bring us more into the fullness of our humanity that Macy speaks of.
We may need to go wandering like St. Brendan, set out on a long ride or walk, or maybe simply to sit on a couch and give attention to our dog. Change is upon us, but as Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee writes, “We always belonged to this mystery, and maybe we can begin to find our way back, even if it means following an almost hidden path, unrecognized by our rational selves. Despite the growing darkness and images of destruction, the gate to this garden is always open, and if we listen carefully, we may hear the many voices that still beckon us.” Change is Gonna Come