Thursday, 19 January 2012

In Galvin's Meadow

“The real world goes like this:”
- James Galvin, The Meadow

A friend lent me a copy of The Meadow. I was facing a long day of travel, wanting something to pass time. “I love this book,” she enthused. “It’s one of my favorites.” Written by poet James Galvin, the book watches a century pass in the high mountains of the Colorado-Wyoming border. In an act of literary meditation, the author rests his attention on this place, a lonely oasis of grass and hay, while a cast of characters - homesteaders and hermits, families and renegades - comes and goes in the manner of passing thoughts.

A central insight of the novel concerns the primacy of land in human life. Though Galvin does not draw unnecessary attention to the fact, the meadow emerges as the central character in this work. The meadow is the constant. It is the presence that lingers through all the years we witness - there before certain players appear, there after others leave, die, vanish, are forgotten. Buildings rise and fall; the meadow remains. Relationships begin and end; the meadow continues.

This relatively small piece of landscape is also the most demanding character in the book. Though few of the people we meet count flexibility or submissiveness as significant personality traits - most are fierce, stubborn, independent - the meadow forces all of them to bend to its rhythms and moods. And when ‘city folk’ arrive from nearby Fort Collins, intent on ignoring the demands of place in favor of their own whims and fancies, the results are predictably disastrous.

As often happens when reading works like this, The Meadow quickly had me longing after a way of being in which land’s primacy is honored. Anything composed by Wendell Berry draws me into this territory. Wallace Stegner, too. Now Galvin’s book. There seems something woefully disconnected in modern living. The asphalt speed, the high-rise distraction, the urban immersion feels so complete I sometimes forget that, even in the city, I am necessarily, irrevocably part of the natural world.

Which is a curious state of mind: believing that city living, living at this time, necessarily precludes involvement with the phases and patterns of a greater world. It’s quite an ignorant conceit, actually, believing my living circumstance precludes a sense of, a relationship with the natural world.

I recently spent a month meditating near the same country Galvin inhabits in his book. Much of this span was passed on my back, as any familiar with the process of ‘meditating with the body’ will expect. For those who aren’t, a fair portion of this practice involves laying on the earth.

If this sounds like no big deal, I would argue otherwise. For many years I was involved in Victoria’s Iyengar Yoga community. From the first, the teachers in this collective impressed me with their presence. It wasn’t that they were remarkable in any extraordinary sense of the word. They were, instead, remarkable in a very ordinary fashion. They seemed rooted in a manner I was not at that time familiar with. Like trees or mountains they seemed in some quiet way fundamentally, basically themselves.

“Do you attribute this to yoga?” someone asked not long ago. My answer came without consideration. “No,” I replied. “I attribute this to the fact their feet touch the earth for several hours each day.” After this exchange I started looking at the feet bared about me in class. There was a notable sense of connection between those soles and the earth. There was a sense of continuity.

In the meditative tradition of which I am part, humans are considered aspects of the earth. We are born of the earth. We live as the earth. Our journey, it is said, unfolds in relation to the earth. There is an inherent continuity between ‘us’ and the planet - and there is that word again. ‘Continuity’. Curious in light of the fact this tradition is rooted in the tantric lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. Another term for ‘tantra’? Continuity.

So what of our modern sense of discontinuity with the natural world? Just because we don’t live in the same way as Galvin’s characters, just because our behavior tends not to honor the pulse of the place in which we live, just because our actions seem in so many ways to threaten this pulse - none of this necessarily means we are disconnected from the earth.

Disconnection speaks of relationship broken or lacking. The continuity mentioned above, on the other hand, whether described as the continuity of tantra or the continuity in those teachers’ feet - both of which may amount to the very same thing - strikes me as unconditional. We can no more break this relationship than we can break our relationship with our parents. We can ignore this, certainly. We can deny or rebel against this. We can obstruct and delude ourselves about the bedrock nature of this relationship. But I don’t know that we can break it in any true way.

When we go to a meditation retreat and are asked to lay down, backs on the floor, feet planted and knees raised, we are being given a chance to experience this continuity in a relatively immediate way. It doesn’t matter where we come from or how we make our living. The manner in which we conduct our days is irrelevant, as is whether we have ever practiced in this way before. When we arrange ourselves on the ground like this the opportunity is always the same: to feel connection.

The fact we often encounter tense muscles and a wandering mind in this position does not negate what is being revealed. As the suffering encountered in the First Noble Truth is more deeply understood as our retraction from the sharp nearness of life, the discomfort and distraction that appear when we lay down actually betray our minds’ panicked reaction to the inescapable truth every body knows: we are of this earth.

From this perspective, rather than reflecting hopeless separation, such experiences evidence the unwavering continuity we are born into. If our lives ask us to travel a path of ever-increasing recognition of this fact, physical holding and psychological discursiveness inform us we are on the right track.

Which gets me wondering about the ease, familiarity, and fidelity evidenced by the people who pass through Galvin’s one hundred year meditation. Even though their lives are difficult, there is a certain grace in how these qualities manifest. An enviable grace, in my opinion. Doesn’t connection with place necessarily give birth to these? If modern city-dwellers are, in fact, connected, don’t we get to see some of these appear in our experience too?

Pema Chodron comes to mind at this point; her oft-quoted phrase, “Start where you are.” We must, she insists, start where we are. There is no other option. “The real world goes like this:” The Meadow opens, using different language to affirm the same. “The Neversummer Mountains, like a jumble of broken glass. Snowfields weep slowly down. Chambers Lake, ringed by trees, gratefully catches the drip in its tin cup, and gives the mountains their own reflection in return. This is the real world, indifferent, unburdened.”

Our relationship with the land of our lives is irrevocable. In this sense we are all indigenous, “occurring in a particular place.” For most at this point in history, however, this irrevocable relationship is complicated by ignorance and mistrust. Whether this is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in many ways is irrelevant. It is just where we are; so here we begin.

We lay our backs on the ground, plant our feet, raise our knees. We let the body surrender, allow the earth to rise. Whatever we experience here is as it should be, as right and as natural as the snow falling outside my window this cold January morning. Do we find tension or ease? Anxiety or welcome? It all speaks of connection and relationship - perhaps not in the way we expect or would like, but then how important really are our hopes and preferences? Quite small against the vast blue of a Colorado sky, the sharp chill of winter wind. “The real world,” indeed, “goes like this:”


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