Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Even In This

There is heart in this world. This is inherent, a given. It weaves through the fabric of experience like a precious, sentient thread. Whatever the situation, it is there and we know it. We sense it. We feel this in numerous ways - hurt, loss, tenderness, affection - the most fundamental appearance of heart in our lives, however, is love.

It is so easy to miss. I have a bad day, a difficult turn, and it seems impossible: ‘Heart in this?’ I wonder. The reply is always affirmative. Perhaps I have forgotten. Perhaps the walls have been built up so high and thick. Perhaps the pain is so great or the circumstance so challenging, but always - always - the answer is ‘Yes’.

How can I possibly know this? Often, far more frequently that I care to admit, I don’t know this. This point is important. Let’s not vilify ourselves with the mistaken impression that any among us is able to hold this fact all, or even most, of the time. 

This acknowledged the question can now be rephrased: How do I know this when I know this? Several replies are possible here; one of these is her.

She came into my life perhaps a year ago and has been a recurring presence ever since. I do not know her name, have never seen her face. But when heart seems absent, she has an uncanny tendency to show up: to appear once more, take me through the last moments of her life, and remind me even in this - even in the most horrific I might imagine - there is heart in this world. There is love.

The stench was what I first became aware of. Mud, flesh, urine, feces, all permeated with the unmistakable, metallic odor of fear. My initial thought was a pig stye. High wooden crossbeams and cold winter air suggested a barn open to the elements on one side. Several days passed before this barn became some sort of human gathering place - an old hockey arena, perhaps, a covered soccer field, a show ring.        

They had been gathered here in the hundreds, quite possibly thousands. Forced from their homes, their beds at night, they had been brought here bleary eyed, barely comprehending. Each held tight to the single suitcase they were permitted. One bag crammed full of a hastily assembled assortment: clothing, photos, jewelry, cash. All that was left of their worldly possessions. All that was left of a now former life. 

Beneath a disorienting assault of headlights and revving engines, growling dogs and barked human insults, the terrifying knowledge of rifles at the ready, bayonets naked and gleaming with reflected light, they hurried down narrow streets. Cobblestones, mostly, slick with rain and near frost to the touch. From half-drawn windows and darkened doorways a curious few watched. Only minutes ago these had been neighbors.

“What is it, Mama?” the boy asks. He twists around to speak these words. Looks over one shoulder, a burst of brown hair exploding beneath his heavy wool cap. His mother hushes and urges them forward. Wonders if she should have brought another sweater. “Keep moving,” she hisses, not wanting to draw attention. “We’ll be there soon.”

The boy is twelve years old. 

His mother only fears where ‘there’ might be.
From the outside the building announces itself as some sort of livestock market. Large white letters spell out the German words on one side. Farmers from the countryside bring their stock here for display, sale, and slaughter. She knows the place but has never been inside. The crowd presses in on itself through a narrow entryway. Shoulders, elbows, suitcases push in. She draws the boy near. Movement slows here. Voices yelling from everywhere it seems. “Keep moving!” they insist. “Keep moving you pigs!” She can now make out the sound of others crying.

Inside there are people everywhere: in the stands, on the muddy floor of the show ring, the small stalls running one wall. Already the stink is enough to make her cough and gag, pull a hand instinctively to her face, cover her mouth. “Mama, what is it?” the boy repeats. “Shhh,” she replies, looking for a place to rest.

For four days this will be home. No food. Precious little water. When others approach a guard to ask for a bathroom, there is only laughter and ridicule. Soon she doesn’t even notice the sight of people urinating, defecating in plain sight. She just looks away as if she had been doing this through the whole of her life.  
For two days people keep coming. First in a steady stream, then in trickles, then in drips of two or three. And then, suddenly and with no warning, the current turns. A rush of troops thrusts into the building - black boots, rifles across the heart, eyes like flint. All of them, she notices. Eyes like flint. They form a wedge with their arrival and cleave about a third of the show ring off from the rest. “Up! Up!” they scream. “Move! Move!”

Children are separated from parents by this. Husbands are separated from wives. A line has been drawn and this seems absolute, nonnegotiable. On one side people are thrust back down in the muck. On the other they are pushed weary and panicked to their feet, are forced out the narrow entryway they’d travelled earlier. Lifetimes ago. “Move! Move!”      

For the first while there are no gunshots, just the sound of engines starting up and pulling away. Early in the morning of the third day, however, the first volley is heard. The sound, she thinks, is not unlike light bulbs bursting. A riot of screams fills the market. “What is it?” the boy asks. “What is it, Mama?” They are deep in the corner of a cramped stall, the two of them. People on all sides. A woman who cannot stop crying. She pulls her son close, wraps her coat over his shoulder. “It will be alright,” she whispers.   

When exactly she made her decision, I do not know. My guess, however, would be this happened in the moment above. Jammed into that dark, stinking compartment. Her only child pressing tight enough she can feel his heart pulsing wild against his chest. I suspect this was when she made her choice, knew how both of them would die.

Grandfather once said, “A warrior never forgets. Not even at the moment of death.” Put another way, then, this would be the moment she - this nameless, faceless woman - became a warrior.

How long until they finally came to empty that stall? After the first raid of the show ring, attention moved to the stands, to those huddled along the hard wooden benches, desperate to hide underneath and in shadowy corners. This took a while. She saw an old woman tossed down the stairs and just left there a heap. She saw a young child thrown against a wall. 

Then they came into the ring, again.

Then, finally, the stalls. 

By then the pattern had dug deep into her body. Shouts and yells, the feeling of sudden, forced movement. A spike of fear stabbing the air. Then tense, breathless silence before a flurry of gunfire. Another few minutes - twenty or thirty, perhaps - and it would start again, continue well after dark.

He was asleep when they came. “Wake up,” she whispered. “Jakob.” As she walked him out of that corral and across the muck of the show ring floor, through the entryway toward the first natural light they’d seen in days, she held him close. I can feel her arms wrapping his body from behind. Forearms reach over his shoulders, hands press one atop the other over his chest. 

To begin I did not understand what was happening with those hands, her hands. Clear light glowing from her palms where they touched his body. This was warm, radiant light. Defiant I might type, but a more accurate description would be impossible to deny. To begin I did not understand and this is how it works with these appearances. I cannot force understanding to come. I cannot think out an answer. Instead I must wait. I must keep my eye on what is unfolding, be faithful and patient and wait.

Once they are outside, a scene: The sky is grey overhead, overcast. Air so cold that, the moment they emerge, billows of white lift into the air, marking their final breaths. A cloud memorial, fleeting and transitory. To their left a small field of well-turned mud. Puddles here and there; those beside a wide brick wall pool red.

They are pushed in this direction, toward the wall perhaps a dozen of them. A few feet distant a cluster of men in uniform, most smoking, rifles slung over shoulders. Behind them several vehicles sinking in the mud. There is also a wooden wagon. This looks out of place beside the automobiles, from a time now forgotten. It is heavy with bodies, all limp and disheveled.

A couple of soldiers lift their eyes as this group takes up position in front of the wall. Not one of these gazes suggests anything nearing recognition. One man shrugs and tosses his cigarette; others follow suit. They begin to form a line.

I can feel the boy shaking where he stands, still in front of his mother. His legs go slack and his eyes widen, almost loosing the eyeballs from their sockets. Someone intones Hebrew further down the line. She is singing very quietly, his mother. I can’t make out the words, but can feel their history. A song from a childhood cut short. Something she used to sing to him at night, when he was afraid, or during the day when he was ill.

It is while listening to this song that, finally, I understand her hands. The soldiers have all found their places in line. One or two are shuffling their feet, trying to find footing on the dissolving earth below. Her hands are radiating light and warmth toward her son. Through her flesh and his clothing she is willing this into his heart, wanting the final thing he knows of his life to be love.

A voice worn raw with repetition fires through the air. Rifles come up and rest against shoulders. For an instant she wonders if some of those shoulders ache from shooting all day. As soon as this thought arises, however, her focus returns to the boy. The husky voice then barks its next command. By now the warmth penetrating the boy’s heart offers heat, like fire. And like fire, this heat speaks. “There is love,” it affirms, again and again. “There is love.”

It seems a long time, the span between this last command and the instruction to fire. In truth it last less than an instant, but it is experienced slowly, as if needing to be seen. In this span, the mother’s love breaks out of her hands and out of his heart and floods the boy’s body and mind. There is a sense of nothing in the moment but this - utter openness and, rising within, love that will not be denied.

This fierce, impossible love is the last thing the boy knows before a bullet pierces one side of his face, drops him to the bloody ground. 

His heart beats once, then twice. 

Then he is gone.

I don’t know where these things come from, so don’t ask me. Sometimes, however, I dismiss them when they arise. ‘Play of the mind,’ I think. ‘Nothing more than imagination.’ Sometimes a more blunt denial: ‘Not real.’ Even typing these words right now hurts; the level of insult and ignorance and aggression in this admission is staggering.

This woman, however - this mother - cuts through all this. Reaching across my stubborn notions of time and space, she spent patient weeks unfolding the above for my benefit. And since then she has returned again and again, almost always at the most timely of instants, moments when the belief becoming real in my mind is this: ‘There is no heart. There is no love. In this, certainly, there cannot be.’

She, however, insists something else. Drawing from the ache she carries now always, speaking, showing, and offering from this difficult place, she insists and cannot be denied. ‘There is always heart,‘ she shows me. ‘There is always love. If even in this, there must be.’

Grandfather’s world is permeated with this understanding. Often I have stood on a rise at his side. Below are the horrors that have befallen his people, the horrors that are to come. Turning his head he looks at me through welling eyes, dark and depthless. Shimmering. His pain is like a fissure in the vast sky above, something that cannot be made right.

“A beautiful world,” he nonetheless says, his words giving voice to the knowing earth below. ‘Beautiful’ here meaning not that my limited notions of good or bad, happy or sad are in any way confirmed. “It is not like this,“ he insists. ‘Beautiful’ meaning it is all so utterly, irrevocably just what it is. And within this, weaved through always, there is love. There is love.         


Thursday, 8 November 2012

Still I Have Not Meditated

A scene from several days ago. Morning sun floats into the kitchen. I stand, hips against the counter, hands immersed in warm, soapy water. It’s mostly quiet now; the silence that follows Caren and Samantha’s departing. I can feel it elsewhere, too. A sense of stillness outside after the hurry of others to school, to work - to somewhere, always. To somewhere.

I’m washing dishes left by the last fourteen hours of family life. Cups, bowls, and cutlery, mostly. But the pot from breakfast oatmeal. The blender not dealt with after dinner. Without thinking I reach across my body for this last. A dripping left hand extends over a pair of open-mouthed mugs, descends toward an oily, glass handle. 

When I close my fingers around this, a flinch. There is sudden pain in that shoulder. Sudden and sharp as if someone has just knuckled the swell of flesh and muscle covering that joint. Someone who knows the sore point. Breath hisses between taut lips. “Damn,” I say, making a note to take some ibuprofen later. With some difficulty I grab the handle, lift the blender, and let it disappear beneath the waiting suds. Air bubbles glug to the surface as it sinks. 

One day later that same arm hangs limp at one side. The sudden pain has become a pulsing, lasting ache. Too powerful to incite with movement and effort, I have adjusted. I am sweeping the floor with one hand. My use of the dust pan, I’m sure, nears comical. It’s also pretty near useless.

It’s while I am tossing the little flotsam I’ve gathered into the trash that I hear the voice. “What does meditation teach you?” it asks. A large fire suddenly appears to one side. Flames lick and dance upward. Sparks fly and crackle in the air. Grandfather sits on a log before this, forearms resting on thighs. His attention is, for the moment, upon the hot, colored movement. It is, to be more precise, in this movement.

He looks up and smiles. “To listen,” he says matter of factly. “It teaches you to listen.” The fire voices agreement. Grandfather bends until one hand touches the earth. The ground is largely dry soil here. Beneath his booted feet, however, smooth, bare rock. A fissure runs near his left foot. He touches this gently with thick fingertips, lingers there, caressing. He glances up. “No,” he corrects, “listening.” His eyes drop again.

After several minutes his head begins a slow nod. Words I cannot hear emerge between barely moving lips. These come as warm, deep sounds - the sounds of the earth speaking to itself. They are directed toward that crack. Dark eyes moisten. When he sits up a lonely tear runs over one cheek. It’s trail reveals dust-covered features. His look seems to hold me forever. Then he gestures toward the exposed rock. “There is history here.”

My shoulder groans. Plates shift; tectonic ache.       

It takes another day but eventually I lay down. I close my eyes and guide attention to where that moan arose. Tears rise like a tide. My throat clogs with debris. There is history here.

I still, to this day, remember the sound. More than the feeling across the knuckles of my right hand, it is the sickening crack I recall. Like the meat locker scenes in Rocky. It was Monday morning after a big swim meet. Four or five teams were using the pool for an early workout before racing off to the airport and dispersing to different parts of the country.

I was swimming in one of the wall lanes, the right side of my body gliding beside the low deck, moving past a big yellow slide. Years later some who were there would retrieve the moment. “Sounded like a fucking gun when you hit that thing,” a friend observed. “Freaked me out.”

My coach wandered to meet me at the other end. “Hand okay?” he asked. 

“Not bad,” I answered. “But the shoulder hurts like hell.”

Hindsight, they rightly say, is 20/20 - perfectly perceptive with the wisdom of experience and the safety of distance. But I have to wonder what might have happened if I stopped right there. If I had taken that day, a week perhaps, to let that hurt subside and allow my shoulder the chance to heal. Would this still have grown into the shadow that tracked me the rest of my days in the water, eventually ending this part of my life?

What might have happened? In many ways such speculation is pointless. For I could no more crawl out of that pool and rest than I could will an end to my own breathing. I, instead, swam single-armed for a couple of days. Until my other shoulder joint - the left one, the one that today brings tears to my eyes - exploded. Then I kicked two weeks worth of workouts on my back.

Every time I move to rise, Grandfather leans forward. A quick glance my way. A couple fingertips graze the bared rock underfoot. ‘There is history here.’ He nods and returns upright.

Images, shards of a life, rise and pass. Sitting in the car after a physiotherapy session, unable to move either arm, unable to drive. Other vehicles come and go; I lean my forehead against the wheel and weep. A coach asks, “How do you feel?” and I nod the answer I know he wants to hear - anything to get back in that water. “Good,” I say, not wanting to overdo it. Knowing from the very first stroke I’d made a mistake. “You used to be fast,” someone saying. “What happened?” Even this better than the eventual silence of no one saying anything.

At a certain point I have had enough. I push quickly upward. Grandfather meets this with speed of his own. While still on my elbows he presses five fingers into my chest. The contact is difficult, insistent. I lay back down. Fire smolders in his eyes before he speaks. “There is history here,” he repeats. 

A year ago I assumed the role of Assistant Teacher at a month-long meditation retreat. Toward the end there was a celebration. Toasts were made. A good friend offered one in my direction, a touching nod. “And he works so hard,” he said. I felt these words enter and lodge in my body. Between two ribs on the right side, a little lower than the heart. “He works so hard.”       

I remember reading an interview with Bruce Springsteen. This was post-Born in the USA Springsteen, all Bossed out and living in California trying to escape the weight of his own myth. He went into therapy. “I started wondering why so many of my songs were about driving,” he said. “I started wondering why all my shows were such events. I started wondering why I was always working so hard.”

I open one eye where I lay.

From his place by the fire, Grandfather nods.  
A day later I try to return to that shoulder but cannot. The ache remains but something is different. I am slumped on the couch when I hear Chogyam Trungpa. “Ego,” he says, “can turn anything to its will.” ‘Spiritual materialism’ he calls this - using spirituality to build rather than open one’s sense of self. ‘Spiritual bypassing’ is John Welwood’s term - using spirituality to bypass tasks essential to our psychological development. 

The spot on the floor where I laid only minutes ago seems suspicious to me now. I see myself there, little barricades and coils of wire protecting the body. Outside the rain has, for a moment, stopped. Blue sky peeks through cloud cover. Sunshine. Yesterday my therapist looked at me. “Sounds lonely,” he observed. For the first time in that room, I cried.

This afternoon I sit on our couch. From the moment I assume this position I am struck by how foreign it feels. Strange. ‘Have I ever done this?‘ I wonder. Whatever the answer, I am afraid something bad is going to happen. If I don’t keep moving, keep working so hard this world will finally get me. And then what?

I am reading poems by Gary Snyder. “We always made love in the dark.“ From the kitchen, Sarah Harmer sings. “Ah come on, these streams of light are not so subtle / All along the ditch the signs of life in sinking puddles.”

Hot tea rich with milk.

Shoulder throbbing, alive.

Still I have not meditated.   


Sunday, 4 November 2012

I Feel So Different

A feeling like flight and me wanting out. Out of this moment. Out of this body. Out of this life. The tension born of this want grabs at the throat, the chest, the belly, reducing my ability to speak and breathe and eat. Elsewhere I have described life as a dance; these last few days this life, my life, has felt more like something out of Fight Club - me struggling for mastery over a foe that cannot be defeated; this knowledge doing nothing at all to diminish my punitive efforts toward victory. 

The instruction, in theory at least, is simple: Relate to your life. Come into the body and experience what waits - the surges and sighs, pulses and waves. But what of those moments or hours or days in which this seems the one thing I cannot do?

I tried laying down earlier today. Feet planted, knees raised, hands folded over the chest I closed my eyes and willed myself to feel in very specific, particular ways. ‘There,’ I directed attention again and again. A was storm roiling around the diaphragm. Not an earthly storm, though, one more cosmic in scope. Clouds of stardust swirling about charged space. Energy building, collecting. ‘Go there,’ I tried to force myself. ‘Go there. Feel that.’ The effect was like trying to push opposing magnets into contact. Or, more vividly, like shoving a young dog’s face into the mess it’s left behind the couch. 

An image appears showing an anonymous adult encouraging two children toward one another. “There we go,” the grown up says. Her sing-song voice does nothing to disguise the ‘make nice’ façade she is working to maintain. Her hands rest one on each boy, one on each shoulder. The force she is exerting, her insistent need, strains the air. “Now let’s all get along, can’t we?”

Even the most cursory glance at either kid’s face reveals the obvious: Right now, in this moment, these two hate each other. The adult’s effort to bring them together, to encourage them toward a reasonable reconciliation, is provoking nothing less fierce than cellular repulsion. 

Yet still she pushes. And as she does this her smile begins to crack. Forearms quiver. Eyebrows collide. It looks like the lower lip has been tucked between teeth; her jaw pulses at each point. Observing this, one can almost hear the thoughts, feel their bitter resentment, her fear: ‘Come on you little bastards, make the fuck up!’ 

After a while, I push up off the floor.

The instruction, in theory at least, is simple.

Ten minutes later lunch has been consumed: Three granola bars, six crackers, two pieces of bread, a bite of feta cheese, and two heaping handfuls of chocolate chips all inhaled with the desperation of a drowning non-swimmer. That I can recall this menu in such detail strikes me as impressive; at the time, I taste, am aware of exactly none of it. Only the uneasy feeling in my gut, the sugar rush assaulting my body tells me I have eaten anything at all.     

So what, then, of those moments in which relating with life seems impossible?

The line of awake that streams through Chogyam Trungpa has, among other things, been called the ‘Mishap Lineage’. There is permission in this designation. I hear songs of welcome and drum beats of empowerment in this. It reminds us that awake is everywhere, even in the so-called mishaps of our lives. Naropa gets hit in the face by a shoe and it’s a moment of enlightenment.

Put one way, this label affirms the fact we cannot wander away from our journey - it is always here, underfoot. Put another, it assures us we cannot fuck this up. No matter how stupid, worthless, degraded, depressed, hopeless, insane we might believe ourselves, the path is always right here. The Mishap Lineage, then, offers a curious gift: A reminder there are no mishaps; it is all the journey.

So what of that question? What of those moments in which relating with life seems the one thing I cannot do? Well, this is it. This is the path, this is the journey, this is the dream I have been waiting for. Life, right now, is revulsion screaming with all the wild rebellion of a child who wants nothing more than to murder the friend standing a few feet away. I want nothing to do with how I am feeling. I want nothing to do with this body, this life, this being. Relate with this.

I put on music to soften the enterprise. A distraction, maybe, but I am hoping it will lend me something essential. It is Sinead O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. The first track opens with a haunting recitation of A.A.’s Serenity Prayer:

“God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.” 

O’Connor’s voice then retreats into a whisper. In this the Irish-born performer is at her most stunning: a singing whisper coiled tight with child-like vulnerability and a stinging, waiting rage: “I am not like I was before...”

Somewhere in these seven words floodgates open. Hardness washes from my musculature and in it’s place... For a long while I have no sense of what has come, what has lifted to the surface once resistance melts. I sob at our kitchen table, night surrounding me, quietly supportive. At a certain point, I become aware than my hands are overlapped, covering my mouth. My jaw strains against this. Lips fight to part. I am so angry. I want to scream.

Sinead keeps on singing: “I feel so different / I feel so different / I feel so different.” I am no longer paying attention. I do hear her voice but it is not these words I am aware of, it is those few that started us out: “I am not like I was before...” Anger feels poised, ready to strike. Needing. 

‘How much are you willing to believe this life is a gift?’ Sometimes I feel this is the only question I have come here to consider. Night wind rustles through dying leaves. The weight of sleep presses in from elsewhere, from the others in the building. Someone shouts out on the street below and I hear that query: ‘How much do you trust life’s generosity?’
I used to think I could find this in books - books with precious titles and calming cover art and authors who evidently knew something. That I treated these volumes with gentle care while depriving my own life of such cautious attentiveness now strikes me as tragic folly. Feeling like shit I would run to the bookshelf, gingerly remove a text, and run one finger through the index in search of an answer. ‘How do I deal with this?’ I‘d wonder. ‘What do I do?’ I do not recall ever guessing the answer was really not in there but almost always right here.

Welcome to the Mishap Lineage.

From the corner of one eye, I see a saucer shake loose and tumble toward the floor. It moves slowly, as if wanting to give me the chance to watch, to witness. Striking a hard, linoleum-covered surface, the porcelain shatters into countless pieces. The sound of impact cracks the air. In the same instant O’Connor’s words break into lines, a haiku: 

I am not
I was before    

I sit looking at this in my mind for several minutes. Another variation on that question arises: ‘How much do you trust?’ The intonation suggests inquiry, but I hear instruction. I’m being shown something. More accurately, offered something. How I know this is unclear; I just know. So I get out my meditation cushion and sit down.

My body feels exhausted now, drained. My mind feels similarly emptied, but clear and light. That haiku hangs in the midst of this. I place my attention on these three lines and begin to meditate. What the breath might be doing is not my concern. I am taking those words as my focus. Having done this, I wait for them to open and reveal.

Anger still fires throughout the body. Qualities gradually emerge from this. First there is heat, movement, a consuming intensity. After a while these resolve, refine into strength, clarity, and determination. I feel each coursing into my limbs. Simultaneously I scramble to find reasons for this experience. I want to locate my rage on this event, that person. Those seven words, however, keep resisting such impositions. They want to show more than my petty interpretations and soon they do - blanks appear in the first and third lines:

I am not _______
I was _______ before

That middle line, that single word ‘Like’, now seems to divide two distinct but related statements. “I am not _______.” “I was _______ before.” This allows each the space and the opportunity normally afforded a statement, a declaration. A voice, typing this, emphasizes “A proclamation.’

I wonder ‘What?’ and a parade of candidates marches by. ‘Hurt.’ ‘A victim.’ ‘Alone.’ These are all far too easy and obvious. They are lazy conclusions. Waves of anger pick up and wash each aside with a force that both impresses and intimidates. ‘I am not ______.’ ‘I am not _______.’ this practice repeats until, eventually, a word appears. 

This comes with the certainty of one who stands with two feet deep in the earth. It emerges from a darkness abundant with terrors and wounds. This is a darkness that holds all the others of this large, swelling tribe and pulses with a communal strength that will be neither denied nor defeated.

In the instant before the word becomes conscious I remember a message I was given many years ago: “Your challenge is to speak your truth. You have been killed for this in the past.” This memory shakes the land, but I do not move.

The word then becomes conscious, the statements whole:

I am not silent.

I was silent before.

The tribe now begins to emerge from darkness. These are my people - some reticent, some howling, many blood-covered and bruised - showing themselves one by one. Their masses slowly surround and, in doing so, muster support. A strength that will be neither denied nor defeated. 

When you look upon our dirtied faces, please do not feel sorry or sad. Do not lay such limited judgments upon this precious moment. There is joy and celebration in all of it. If you listen, you will hear drums off in the distance. People somewhere are dancing about firelight. Turning to find these, I see some of my group peeling off and joining in the wild movement. Features ignite at this and voices lift up free into the night.

Stirrings swell in my own throat.

‘One day,’ I understand. ‘Not now, but one day.’

The mind flickers with thought: ‘Where did this come from?’ A voice arises quick in reply. Insistent it says, “Do not make too much of your desire to know. It is distraction - attend and you miss much of great import.” Then this: “There are rivers of life which, if you think of them, disappear. Submerged to the neck, you believe yourself dry.”   

It has been hours since I started this work - years, perhaps - and I am so tired. But those figures, alternating flickers of shadow and light, moving and ecstatic for what this is, offer welcome reminder. ‘This life is good,’ their bodies insist. The fire cracks at this; sparks float into the sky and burn, for an instant, like red-hot stars. This life is good.


Wednesday, 24 October 2012

A World Reborn

I’ve left the element on.

More and more this is what it feels like. I might be halfway down the street when the image appears: a metal coil burning red-hot in one corner of a faintly clean white stovetop. I try to convince myself it’s unlikely. Steeling my jaw, I force first one leg and then the other into my sense of its next step. The image has a pull like gravity, though. And this begins to overwhelm whatever else might be waiting in my day, whatever else I might be heading toward: a meeting, a class, groceries. My legs become heavy under the influence.

At one point I assumed this dynamic would lessen. Abandoning one agenda today certainly means I’ll get to do what I want tomorrow. Right? This has not been the case. In fact, my experience has been pretty much, pretty consistently the opposite. Going back to look at that element right now almost ensures I’ll do the same tomorrow. Not out of choice, particularly. But because that pull - that gravitational ache - becomes stronger, more insistent every time I surrender to its wanting.    

Out on the street I curse myself again.

Then I do what now seems near inevitable: I turn around and head for home.

There is no time - have I told you this? How else to explain all these appearances? Here I am riding in a swim team van, music blaring tinny and loud from an overwhelmed dashboard stereo. Here I am spinning gentle circles with my body as Hank Williams mourns in one ear. And here - feel the high flutter of panic in my chest? Breath coming short and sharp? A recently slammed door pressing against the moist warmth of my back? I’ve just run home from school again, scared from start to finish one of them might catch me.

Each of these arrives perfect in its every detail. Not some apparition from a distant and fading past as my cherished notions of ‘how things are’ might insist. You know the drill: ‘There is past, there is present, there is future.’ I tell myself this in a quiet but stern voice. Very much the way one talks to a child. The way one scolds a child. ‘This, clearly, belongs in the past.’

Only now this no longer seems to describe how things work - how they really work. Now these appearances seem as very ‘real’ as any of the other details that fill my ‘present’: the blanket hanging warm over my shoulders, the tired drone of the fridge behind me, the sticky sound of a car whizzing by on rain-soaked asphalt. That element, burning red-hot on the stove.

Years ago I woke from a dream. “Come outside,” a voice insisted. I looked out the window. Dawn was just starting to break. A faint glow spread over distant mountains. Both the air and the light of the moment were thin as autumn ice on street puddles. I imagined reaching out and cracking their surface with a single touch. My body shivered. I retreated back into warmth, slipped under my covers. ‘Later,’ I thought.

It was the other end of the day before I was able to finally follow the instruction I had received. Bundling myself against the falling chill of a winter evening, I stood on the land that seemed to have offered those words and looked around. The fading sky was deep blue by then. The emerging lights that twinkled throughout the valley looked like so many campfires burning upon the land. I thought I might have heard drums.

How long I waited I can’t say. Fifteen minutes? Thirty? Cold and fed up I eventually hurried back inside, stomping my feet on worn carpet in a effort to revive their ability to feel. “Only now,” I heard. It took a moment for me to be certain; it was the morning’s voice again. “Only now,” this told me. “It is always only now. You cannot go back. You cannot go back.”

A beat-up couch spread out to my right. I flopped into it’s support, dejected. Tired near tears. I knew in my bones I had missed the chance. Knew in my bones this might never arise again. “Come outside,” that voice had told me - asked me? Fourteen, fifteen hours later I understood this offering was time-sensitive, not to be negotiated - which is exactly what I had tried to do. ‘Later,’ I thought. That bed was so cozy. ‘Later.’

At a workshop this weekend, I spoke of a talk I once gave entitled, ‘Ten Reasons We Don’t Meditate’. Because it’s relevance seems limited by neither place or occasion, I return to this teaching with some frequency. When spoken, the first couple reasons are usually greeted with an ‘oh-those-crazy-kids’ kind of laughter. After this, the room becomes progressively more subdued. 

Reason One: “I’m busy with school, maybe later.”

Reason Two: “School was tough, so after I finish traveling.” 

Reason Three: “Who has time for meditation? I’m in love!”

Reason Four: “I really want to, but I have this new job.”

Reason Five: “I know I should but we’ve bought this house and it needs a lot of work.”

Reason Six: “Once the kids are older.”

Reason Seven: “The kids are older now but it takes so much time driving them around.”

Reason Eight: “I’m exhausted. I hate my job but need to stick it out for the pension. I’ll start after I retire.”

Reason Nine: “Work was tough, so after I finish traveling.”

Reason Ten: “My hips hurt so much, there’s no way I can sit still long enough to meditate!”

The point here is there’s always going to be some very good reason for doing something else. A new job. A new baby. My warm bed. Yet from its timeless depths life offers what life offers and it is always now. When we see that ad: ‘Learn to Meditate’. When that email announcement comes across our desk: ‘A Meditation Retreat’. When a voice wakes us on a chill winter morning: “Come outside.”

So perhaps I should be thankful this is what it feels like to me: I’ve left the element on. Perhaps I should be thankful this feeling seems to only burn stronger with time. I once attended a month-long meditation retreat from which the only words I recall the head teacher speaking are these: “We need to practice gratitude for our lives.” Wise counsel. I love that he used the word ‘practice’.

It is four in the morning and I would rather be in bed. But about an hour ago something yanked me out of sleep with a pull that would not be denied. I tried gathering the covers tighter. I tried clamping my eyes. That element was burning red-hot by then, though. Glowing on one corner of our faintly clean oven it was like a beacon, a call. “Come outside.”

A note card appeared earlier today:

There is no need to hide -
Our struggles
Are for the others

That only hours later I received a beautiful email from an other who had read an earlier post seems no mistake. “I read your blog,” he began. Words that seemed to crack open a heart.

I sometimes feel foolish living my life in this way. Getting up in the middle of the night. Chasing threads of feeling and intuition like a madman. Sharing what I’ve found and been shown in pieces like this. ‘Just meditate,’ I tell myself again and again. ‘Just sit down, shut up, and follow the fucking breath.’ But there’s that damned pull again, that red-hot element; this, it seems, is all part of it’s glow. “What else would you do?” my wife asks when informed of these doubts. Indeed.

Still, reminders such as the above are appreciated when they come: “There is no need to hide - / Our struggles / Are for the others” and “I read your blog.” “We need to practice gratitude for our lives.”

So I threw back my covers and, now, here I sit.

What’s waiting here I don’t know; it still seems too soon to tell. But as the clock on my laptop ticks off another minute, I feel it as sure as I feel the keys under my fingertips. Something is waiting.

I pull the blanket around my shoulders. The coarse weave scratches my neck, my chin. It’s still dark outside; no hint yet of morning’s arrival. I know, however, that if I sit here long enough, I will eventually meet the now this particular day is waiting for. This is the now that will allow a bright, burning star its first peek over the horizon.

Soon after this, a gradual light will spread over the landscape below. It will look so familiar, all of it. The foliage, the landmarks, the topography. But something - some thing - will have altered. Perhaps this will be an introduction, an alteration. It might not be much, but it will change everything. Nothing will be quite the same once it becomes apparent. The world will have been reborn. Again.


Monday, 15 October 2012

This Whole Life

An interesting thing happened in 1971. The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) began to require that all radio stations in this country devote a certain percentage of their playlists to Canadian content - material that had been written, produced, and/or performed by citizens of this nation.

Prior to this decision, such material was considered more a quaint novelty than anything else; curious arisings of our backwater country, certainly nothing to be taken seriously. Actually, being thought of in this way, being thought of at all, was a bit of a best-case scenario for most musicians of this era; without a hit elsewhere, Canadian artists were typically denied airplay altogether. Even with a hit, however, they were considered generally inferior to performers from Britain or the States.

All this started to shift in 1971. After the CRTC ruling, Canada’s music scene began to take on new life - one characterized by exposure, esteem, diversity, and importantly, financial potential. By the 1980s acts like Prism, Chilliwack, Red Rider, Bryan Adams, Blue Rodeo, Jane Siberry, the Tragically Hip, and many more were enjoying the considerable benefits regular access to radio waves provided.

Of course new life takes time to gestate. In the early days, while radio stations did have enough native material to fill their content quotas, pickings often seemed a little thin and could, as a result, become quite repetitive for those listening.

I was over my head in the swimming world during those early days. By the mid-1970s I was doing a workout a day - sometimes two - which required a whole lot of driving. It took us twenty minutes to journey from home to pool. This meant forty minutes, sometimes eighty, were passed in the car, invariably listening to the radio: crackling signals from CFUN, CKLG, and, if poor reception necessitated such desperate measures, Victoria’s own CKDA.    

I remember these rides. Three or four swimmers packed into the cramped confines of our family’s pale blue Mercury Bobcat. The pungent scent of chlorine salted the air. The windows fogged white with condensation. I always leaned against one of those windows for support. Bundled tight in an army-green parka, hood often wrapping my head, the rumble of the engine and the bumps of the road shook me awake again and again as I drifted elsewhere.

In those days a great deal of Anne Murray and Terry Jacks was interspersed amongst international superstars such as Abba and Chicago, Elton John and the Captain and Tenille. I knew nothing about content quotas then, but knew the seemingly endless plays of ‘Snowbird’ and ‘Seasons in the Sun’ did nothing for me. The opening strums of anything by Gordon Lightfoot, however, was another matter.

Born and raised in Orillia, Ontario, his craft honed in the coffee houses and bars of Toronto’s folk circuit, Lightfoot was - like Murray and Jacks - one of the early beneficiaries of Canadian content regulations. ‘Early Morning Rain’, ‘Bitter Green’, ‘Sundown’, ‘Carefree Highway’ - all these became as familiar as the stiff white powder, the dried chlorine, that covered my skin back then. Warm and tired in the back of that Bobcat, I reveled in something I heard and felt in these songs.

Like Hank Williams and John Lennon and Karen Carpenter, there was something painfully resonant in Lightfoot’s songs. Something that spoke to me in my life. “I never thought I could feel this way / And I’ve got to say that I just don’t get it” he sings in ‘If I Could Read Your Mind’. Huddled in my seat, head bumping against the rumbling window pane, I used to ache for these words as we moved through this song. My throat caught and tears watered my eyes every time these lines finally did arrive.    

Fast-forward a few years.

I was in junior high by this point. Swimming demanded two practices on most days, so I was still driving a lot and still listening to the radio. Lightfoot and the rest of his ilk, however, had been displaced by the next wave of homegrown talent: acts like April Wine and Trooper, Burton Cummings and Dan Hill ruled Canada’s airwaves.

I remember arriving at school one morning to find a group of friends huddled in the bike racks. Four or five in number, most attired in lumberjack shirts. One had a large white on blue patch reading RUSH affixed to the back of his jean jacket. The attention of this bunch was directed toward the newspaper somebody held in both hands. ‘Lightfoot In Concert’ a quarter-page black-and-white ad proclaimed.

The voices around the circle seemed excited. ”We should go!” somebody exclaimed. My heart started to pump. Even now, decades later, I can feel my eyes widen. My head turns and looks around. As that patch suggests, a new music was taking hold among my peers: Rush, Nazareth, Zeppelin. That I went along with this change does not mean I understood or shared these emerging enthusiasms. I still found something delicious in the occasional airings Lightfoot’s ‘Rainy Day People’ received. That these others, my friends, might feel something similar...     

“Yeah,” another in our circle cried. “We could rush the stage. Toilet paper the whole fuckin’ band!” Everyone burst into laughter; I was confused. The morning buzzer sounded and the group turned en masse toward the door. The person with the paper, crumpled the ad and tossed it to the ground. Someone used a hiking boot to rub it into the dirt and gravel.

While following the flow toward the day’s first class, I remember glancing back at that rumpled ad. Only a portion of Lightfoot’s wrinkled, shadowy face was now apparent. One eye was encircled in a soil-stain bruise. I remember thinking he looked really sad down on the ground like that and I felt bad leaving him this way. I felt I was abandoning him, betraying him even. I felt I was leaving him behind.

I was at the library earlier today. A thick-spined CD set caught my attention. Gordon Lightfoot Songbook the cover read, a career-spanning compilation. I have had our home to myself through the last hour or so, and this is what I’ve been listening to. Caren’s at Starbucks getting some work done. Samantha’s swimming with a friend. I was going to meditate during this time, but have been sitting here instead - a fact I feel simultaneously jubilant and guilty about. Jubilant because this is what I need to do; guilty because that, of course, is what I should be doing.

As these dueling feelings compete with one another, ‘Summer Side of Life’ is playing. I’ve turned up the volume loud enough to feel tremors under my skin. When Lightfoot’s vocals pick up for the lines "And if you saw him now / You would wonder why he would cry / The whole day long", I feel myself smile. I have no idea what he’s singing about here, but this isn’t really the point. This all just seems so good,so right. 
I have left so much of myself behind through the course of this life. I suppose we all do. From those junior high years alone a sudden cascade of images: A night spent wandering in the rain, soaked. ‘This is stupid,’ I thought. Words I would not air because to the others this, apparently, was “Awesome” and “Wild” and “Cool”. Same with the evenings passed cruising empty streets in search of fist-fights. Or the day I watched three of my friends push a schoolmate up against a locker and proceed to wipe heat rub all over his face. Some unvoiced part of myself sliced off in these moments. Like an iceberg calving, a piece of the whole broke away and disappeared silently into the cold, dark, murky waters below.         

In shamanic terms, leaving part of oneself behind is referred to as soul loss. For whatever reason - usually some form of self-preservation - we slice off difficult or contradictory pieces of ourselves and jettison them on our journey through life. Often these pieces are associated with moments of ‘Big T Trauma’ - illness, injury, abuse - but not always. Perhaps even more commonly these soul fragments are ‘little t’ parts of ourselves that we just can’t weave into the fabric of our present lives. Like wanting to see ‘Lightfoot In Concert’ while the rest of one’s peer group wants to “rush the stage” and “toilet paper the whole fuckin’ band.” 

Over time there is a cumulative cost to ongoing soul loss. Decreased energy, life force, joie de vivre, anxiety, insomnia, depression, and more are common. Soul retrieval is the shamanic response to such situations. A shaman journeys to the realm in which the soul fragment resides, and brings it back for integration and healing - healing, as always, meaning a return to wholeness.

This is worthwhile, valuable work. A question that arises, however, is this: Where is that ‘realm’ in which the fragmented self resides? My experience with meditation suggests the physical body might be the repository of those things left behind. Just today, for instance, there is tension in the jaw: biting, gripping, holding. Then the memory of wanting, needing to say something. I am so angry, feel so violated but voicing this feels impossible so I hold back, clench my teeth. This is one of those pieces longing to return, yearning to be healed. My task as a practitioner? Simply relax in welcome.      

So my experience with meditation suggests the realm of which shamanism speaks is the body. My experience with life, though, suggests something even bigger, even more encompassing might be the true vessel of my being - both those parts accepted and tended to, and those parts calved off and apparently left behind.  

I use the word ‘apparently’ here because I am beginning to suspect those fragmented parts of ourselves are never really left behind. They instead wait for us in the realms of shamanism. They wait for us in the meditating body. They wait for us as well - and perhaps most importantly - in our lives, in the ever changing cast of people and circumstance that plays through our days.

Here they flirt with our attention - that book that ‘jumps out’ at you, the person you unexpectedly meet on the bus - reminding us in ways both subtle and blunt that what has been left behind has, in fact not been left behind at all. Our fragments are nearby and wanting. Healing is ever close at hand. 

How else to understand the sudden (re)appearance of Gordon Lightfoot today? I suppose one could call this a ‘coincidence’, but what a shame to render this beautiful world without compassion or intelligence. Songbook has come because life for decades has gently held an uncertain fourteen year old who could not say to his galloping peers, “I really like this.” That calved off part has quietly - or not so quietly - bobbed beneath those dark, murky waters, and now, through a four-CD set published by Rhino Records, it has returned to the surface for welcome.

It’s ‘Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ that’s playing as I begin to type toward an end, a curious selection indeed. As I listen to this tale of a great freighter’s last moments, my spirits lift and bob. It occurs to me that I linked ‘whole’ and ‘heal’ earlier; another connection seems worth raising now. The words ‘whole’ and ‘holy’ are also relatives, which is really what we are talking about here. The wholeness of the world - it’s all here, everything we are and everything we need. The holiness of this life.

Back on the Fitzgerald the crew has been told there will be no food tonight, it’s too rough. At the kitchen table where I’m writing, I feel a tremendous appreciation and gratitude for the opportunity life is offering on this day. I am being given the chance to go back and pick up that soiled newspaper ad from long ago. The chance to smooth the wrinkles, brush off some dirt and grime.

As I do this, I see the face looking up at me doesn’t seem quite so sad now. It doesn’t appear anywhere near so abandoned, which makes a lot of sense. After all, when you get right down to it, the face that was left behind on that junior high morning, the one I am welcoming back now many years later, it’s not really Gordon Lightfoot’s at all - it is my own.