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