Monday, August 15, 2005
I learned something – at first, certainly – that had not been one of the teachings of my small, smothered life; learned to be amused, and even amusing, and not to think for the morrow. It was the first time, in a manner, that I had known space and air and freedom, all the music of summer and all the mystery of nature. And then there was consideration – and consideration was sweet. Oh, it was a trap – not designed, but deep – to my imagination, to my delicacy, perhaps to my vanity; to whatever, in me, was most excitable. The best way to picture it all is to say that I was off my guard.
in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw
Friday, August 12, 2005
Friday, July 29, 2005
Thursday, July 28, 2005
I didn't realize how much a pattern I could describe and analyze so minutely could still affect me this much.
Life is funny that way, I guess. No matter how well you can analyze its components, you still have to live it in real time. And it is not always clear whether you are living it or it is living you.
I watched Krystof Kieslowski's White and Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing yesterday.
They were both excellent movies and while I was watching them I was fully immersed in those worlds, but as soon as they were over I was back to lulling around the Cottage.
I think I might go on retreat. Maybe to the high mountain country. Maybe for a while. Maybe I won't come back.
Tuesday, July 26, 2005
I can feel it.
It's the physical, metaphysical and spiritual nearness of fall.
Camilla spent the day brooding and snappy.
The fish were lethargic.
The heavy air drained all the color from the world.
This is the turning season.
Monday, July 25, 2005
Many have taken Plato’s metaphor of human enslavement and freedom to advocate a metaphysical escape from the real world to a world of pure ideas – an escape from things human to things divine. There is some justification for this, especially in the context of Plato’s Phaedra and I do not entirely discount that Plato is engaged in constructing a metaphysic.
But if you take the metaphor of Plato’s cave as phenomenological epistemology rather than metaphysics (and I believe there is considerable warrant for this interpretation in the context of Plato’s discussion of education), then the ascent from the cave represents not a metaphysical escape from the material cosmos but an epistemological escape from the socially constructed ‘images’ of the rhetoricians, politicians, advertisers, power brokers and spin doctors. In this interpretation, the empahsis would be upon the image makers who use the shadows to enslave rather than upon the material conditions for the slavery (our dependance upon the senses and opinion).
Perhaps in this sense, I have come to Ithilien to escape the ‘cave’ – to escape from television advertisements, billboards, promises by politicians to serve the interests of the hoi polloi at the expense of the common good, warnings from doctors about imminent dangers all around us, etc. etc. etc.
Those things are no good for clear thinking and right living, and yet the compose the fabric of basic social existence in the Cave. In order to return with a mission to the world of shadowplay, one must first escape their pernicious influence. What I noticed in my conversation with Markus was that we were able to carry on a much more sophisticated conversation out here in Ithilien than we ever could have done in the City in the context of elections and personal relationships and wider social dynamics.
Cedric left yesterday - very happy and eager to get his own rod when he gets back to 'civilization'.
Thursday, July 21, 2005
We're in the middle of a bit of a heat wave here. Fishing has not been very good for Cedric’s lessons. As in all higher instruction, success is an element in teaching someone how to fly fish. When a new fisherman is not catching fish, he tends to think he's not doing anything right and grows disappointed because he is not getting results. When he's getting fish (or even good strikes) he tends to believe in himself more and want to improve.
The garden is doing well in the heat, though. We can have a complete garden salad every evening.
Wednesday, July 20, 2005
I apologize for those who visit daily, I lost my satellite link for a while again the past few days.
Markus has gone on ahead while Cedric stayed for fishing lessons.I ended up having quite a conversation with Markus while he has here. I mentioned that I had just finished a book on economics and public policy and Markus wanted to know what I thought. It turns out that Markus is a militant socialist Â an advocate of planned economy and the governmental direction of economic resources.
Having just read and agreed with Hayek, who highlights the connection between political and economic freedom and the connection between plannedeconomyy and totalitarianism, I couldn't resist the tendency to engage Markus. We had a spirited conversation that spanned three days. In fact, at one point Camilla and Cedric got frustrated with it and went for a hike.
The basic question on the table was whether the society, the individual and/or both are better off under a limited government that enforces the rule of law and interferes only minimally in economic choices or under a government that takes as its conscious and philanthropic aim the betterment of society through the direction and redistribution of wealth.
It was an interesting and helpful discussion, but one of the most interesting dimensions was that the conversation was carried on between two people who have essentially dropped out of the daily ebb and flow of society. There's something to be said for that ...
I was arguing that the freedom that is achieved under the rule of law and a regulated but free market creates the conditions for individuals and free associations to pursue their own aims and choose their own ultimate ends, while he was arguing that such freedom did not deliver on its promise of equal opportunity for all but merely protected the interests of the socially advantaged.
Friday, July 15, 2005
Socrates in Plato's Republic
Thursday, July 14, 2005
For a certain kind of person, the art of fly-fishing does have an overmastering enchantment. Though I always tried to avoid bringing it up, when the subject somehow arose at a dinner party or backyard barbecue or some other such gathering and the person I was talking to found out that I was a fly-fisherman, I could sometimes see a wall of strangeness rising up between us in their eyes, a yearning - as if they had caught a sudden glimpse of whatever it was that distinguished the gods from men on the battlefields of Troy. Cedric is apparently that kind of person.
Markus, on the other hand, didn't want to get up that early.
When I woke Cedric a little before dawn, he scrambled out of his sleeping bag like a kid on Christmas morning, and the whole time we were fishing he just stood back and watched in awe. I caught a few 16 - 18 inch fish and he would run down to the stream with various expressions of amazement.
When we came back for lunch he was asking all sorts of leading questions like "How long would it take to learn to do that?" and "Do you always catch that many?" and "How hard is it to figure out what kind of fly to use?". He would clearly like to learn how to fly-fish.
I told him that if he stayed for a week I could teach him everything he needed to know to undertake the art, but he's not sure if Markus will wait. He even suggested that perhaps Markus could move on to their next Barefoot Hiker meeting by himself and he could catch up with him.
Wednesday, July 13, 2005
Tuesday, July 12, 2005
They're very thoughtful young men, probably more so than your average Seeker-Errant who tends to have well developed intuition and feeling but a lesser capacity to articulate the framework for such intuition and feeling than your average Coenobitic or Eremitic Seeker.
They also happen to be Barefoot Hikers!
I have run into several Barefoot Hikers before and even hiked along with one group for a while. I just never had the time to become a permanent member.
We're having such a good time, I'm not sure how long they'll end up staying.
In order to keep up good relations with St. Godric's, though, I can't let them stay too long.
Monday, July 11, 2005
Sunday, July 10, 2005
I invited them to dinner and they agreed to stay for at least the evening. They're still here, now, though and seem to be enjoying themselves (and my St. Godric's Ale, which I'm going to need to replenish). It's very odd for them to be in these parts during the summer months, though. Perhaps I am entertaining angels unaware.
You see, by some principle of bio-metaphysics, Seekers-Errant, while unpredictable on the micro-sociological level of individual behavior, are fairly stable as a demographic on the macrocosmic level. And like birds, though on different principles, they tend to migrate in the spring and the fall.
The Seeker-Errant Migratory Pattern is something like this:
Spring (April - June) is the time for the Seekers-Errant to move from wherever they have been during the winter to somewhere they have 'always wanted to see.' Therefore, in these months you can find Seekers-Errant purchasing inexpensive airfare to distant destinations, looking for a good deal on a used motorcycle, booking travel on a freightliner, hitchhiking up the Alaskan Highway or preparing themselves in some other such endeavor.
New social groupings form, typically composed of 2 - 5 members.
For many juvenile Seekers-Errant, this migratory pattern begins the summer after their senior year in high school and corresponds with a radical change in their plumage.
Spring is a time of excitement and anticipation for the Seekers-Errant.
During the summer months (June - August) the Seekers-Errant are usually happily occupied in roaming a fixed territory - Europe and the Holy Land being the most common destinations, followed by Alaska, South America, and Central Asia (Tibet and Nepal). The early and middle parts of the summer are times of contentment and openness for the Seeker-Errant. This is the time when they are most likely to engage in meaningful conversation with others in coffeeshops and bars, on buses and subways, or at theaters and parks.
Towards the end of the Summer period, however, a vague ennui begins to mark the transition to the fall. Groups of Seekers-Errant that had formed in the Spring often fall to fighting and squabbling amongst themselves, usually diminishing to no more than two or disintegrating altogether before the predetermined date. Late-summer Seekers-Errant are often surly and incoherent. Sometimes they begin drinking too much, though this usually only lasts for a few weeks.
Fall (September and October) is a period of recovery for most Seekers-Errant. Having come to the end of their summer adventures and found themselves homeless (be it literally or metaphorically) they savor the harmony between themselves in the melancholy season, taking long walks in deciduous forests, writing a good deal poetry, smoking, sitting in libraries, gaining five or ten pounds.
Commonly, however, at some point during this time the Seeker-Errant will stumble upon some vision of common life that offers itself as a more serious project for her life - a plan, an ideal, a shared vision. Maybe she reads an article. Maybe someone asks her what he's going to do for a job during the winter. Maybe she just sees a vagrant beneath a bridge, beginning to shiver in the October frost. Whatever the cause, it is typical in the late fall for the Seeker-Errant to commit herself (though always provisionally) to a common life in a Buddhist monastery, a planned community, even a church or family.
Winter (November - February) is the time when the Seekers-Errant are most in touch with the common life of the human race. Most of them, though not all, have attached themselves to a community and try in good faith to live out that pattern of life. For most Seekers-Errant, this external principle of order and direction is alien and difficult. They often feel externally 'happy' with their new set of relations, but ill at ease in their own skin - like they are waiting for the other shoe to drop.
The end of this season always marks a crisis in the life and identity of the Seeker-Errant. Most of them smell spring in the air and abandon the common life. But if f a Seeker-Errant is to undergo a metamorphosis and become a Coenobitic Seeker, it almost always happens during the winter. He may find that he has acclimated himself sufficiently to the common life he had provisionally committed himself to and decide to stay on and attempt to overcome the feeling of being ill at ease. If this happens, it usually takes between 12 and 48 months for such a transformation to become permanent. At any time during this period, the Seeker-Errant may rise up and depart without so much as a goodbye, inserting himself back into the migratory pattern. Others, in similar fashion, may become Eremitic Seekers or even reinsert themselves into the ranks of the Settled.
So I am glad to have these two with me. If they stay a little longer perhaps we'll be able to engage in some meaningful conversation. They seemed very interested that I was reading the Dao and expressed a general admiration for my little library.
Their names (if they are using their real names) and Markus and Cedric.
Friday, July 08, 2005
So today I lectured on poetic form, with an emphasis upon quatrain stanzas (in my opinion the most useful at present in learning the discipline of a poetic approach to language). If you can learn how to effectively craft and manipulate a variety quatrains, you have learned all you need to learn of poetic language.
For homework, however, I showed them the triolet and asked them to compose one on a subject of interest they had discovered in any of the previous poetry workshops.
Smoked Trout Salad
Roasted Rock Cornish Game Hen
Roast Vegetables and Small Potatoes
w/ Beaulieu Vineyard Pinot Noir Vin Gris 2001
Vanilla Ice Cream with a Honey Mint Chocolate Sauce
w/ 2002 'R' De Rieusec (Dry) Sauternes
Having finished The Road to Serfdom, I engaged Brother Palgrave in an after dinner discussion of individual liberty in society. We are largely in agreement that society ought to be as libertarian as possible, allowing for the flourishing independence of individuals and free associations; but the extent to which the two of us could butt heads over the details of such freedom in society was almost comical given Ithilien's distance from the actual limitations of any society upon our freedom.
Perhaps if I discover the inclination to do so I will post more on our debate.
Thursday, July 07, 2005
Perhaps the gradual readjustment in Western physics from a conception of the material world as matter to a conception of the world as energy would accord with a move towards some elements of Eastern metaphysics.
Heading down to St. Godric's for the poetry workshop. I will likely spend the night and carry on my conversation with Brother Palgrave.
Wednesday, July 06, 2005
They are two valleys over and it took Camilla and I five hours to get there, so we didn't arrive until mid-afternoon. But I finally visited the new settlement that Brother Damien has been assigned to help out during the week.
As the path Brother Damien had directed us to came out of the trees onto the valley floor, all I could see of the settlement from that distance was a cluster of whitewashed buildings and some smoke or, more likely, steam rising from somewhere outside the cluster.
Still quite a ways from the buildings we passed through a circle of wooden posts about two feet high - a bit unnerving. Camilla agreed but we kept on going.
As we approached, we passed through another ring, this time a ring of standing stones. I could see children in blue and white running playing tag on a grassy sward bounded by the buildings. To the West of the settlement was a fair-haired man doing the wash.
We finally approached the buildings and Brother Damien came out to meet us, along with a representative of the settlement - a large man dressed in denim overalls and a course white shirt, his head covered by a wide brimmed straw hat on that shaded his eyes from the mid afternoon sun. He introduced himself as Thor and welcomed us to Winter's End.
(I couldn't help but notice him glance at Camilla's head when he greeted her. She's still wearing a kerchief around it, but you can tell she hasn't any hair.)
Whitewashed from the roof to the ground, the houses were glaring in the sun as we walked into the settlement. Their arrangement struck me as odd but a bit unfamiliar. There were 10 identical buildings arranged in an elongated horseshoe shape with a larger structure in the middle of the horseshoe, nearer the closed end than the open (a common lodge perhaps?) . As Thor was confirming my suspicions concerning the central building (though he called it the Meeting House), I finally put the arrangement of the houses together with the standing stones. Though Thor had said nothing concerning the arrangement, Winter's End was laid out, if not in exact proportions at least schematically, in imitation of Stonehenge! The two rings of stones we had passed through had been the Aubrey Circle and the Sarsen Circle! Amazing! (I must have missed the Bluestone Circle - either that or they hadn't installed it.)
Thor showed us through one of the simple houses where we met Sif, Heimdall, and young Loki. (It turns out they all renamed themselves after Norse gods and godesses.) Loki accompanies us as Thor then gave us a tour of the Meeting Hall, which functions as the common kitchen, dining hall, and, well, the meeting hall. They also have a barn and hen house (where the heelstone of Stonehenge would be!).
When he had finished, I casually asked Thor how long it had taken them to assemble the Aubrey Circle out there.
He looked at me with wry astonishment, tipped up the brim of his hat and said, smiling, "Well, so we have a scholar of the old ways with us! Welcome!"
We spent an enjoyable evening at the settlement. Shortly after the tour everyone returned from their chores and we met the entire settlement. They honored us as guests and there was even dancing in the Meeting Hall after dinner. I'm really no dancer but Camilla connived a couple of dances out of me and then I danced with several of the settlement women.
The settlement is small, there are 12 adults and 8 children, but they seem to have worked very hard to get themselves established. Men and women alike all wear the same uniform - denim overalls, course white shirt, straw hats. They all even have the same haircut - shoulder length and either parted in the middle or drawn back into a small pony tail.
On the surface of it, they strike me as a small version of a Findhorn or Bruderhof. I don't know if they are religious at all in the conventional sense. They did say a sort of 'blessing' over the meal, but it was one of those blessings that could easily be adapted to Native American, Christian, or Buddhist spirituality.
I suspect some very clearly articulable reason for them being out here, but we didn't get into any discussion of their philosophy of life or reason for coming to Ithilien. Maybe next time. This was just an envoy to put us on visiting terms.
Camilla and I each slept in one of the vacant dwellings in the horseshoe and left in the morning after breakfast a breakfast of polenta and eggs.
When we got back I discovered that a squirrel had gotten into the damn cottage and knocked everything around. Those little beasts are going to be hell when the fall comes. I wonder if I could shoot a few and make some little "scare squirrels"?
Tuesday, July 05, 2005
After working my way in there I found the casting very difficult, but came across a little stretch where I thought I could roll cast across the stream to a hole overhung with roots. The surface of the poll was a swirl of obsidian in the dark shadow, but a hatch of small white flies was buzzing around and I saw a couple of ripples on the surface near the front end of the pool.
I cast there first and caught an eight inch brookie.
I caught one more at the front end of the pool, but then noticed that there was very little activity in the downstream portion and wondered if just maybe ... perhaps where the water ducks under that log ...
I roll cast to the middle of the pool and let the fly drift ...
The line snapped up off of the water and zipped out of the reel, and almost before I knew what was going on he was under the log. I played him well, though, and slowly brought him out without getting tangled in the brush.
When he came out from under the log he charged upstream and jumped about mid-pool - a glorious, arching, twisting leap! He must have landed a yard from where he leapt. I kept the line tight and let him run upstream as far as the shallows then gradually played him back onto a sandbar.
It was a 23 inch rainbow!
I released him back into the pool and walked up to Camilla's to meet her for our day trip.
We're at my cottage now but will be taking off soon to visit the new settlement. Brother Damien gave me directions on Sunday.
Monday, July 04, 2005
It's funny. After the trip to the City, it almost seemed too quiet out here!
I hadn't realized it until late last night, but I needed a day to reconnect to this place, these things, this pattern of life.
I spent the morning checking over Camilla's smokehouse a little more closely - to make sure she didn't mess anything up. (Then I felt bad about doing it.)
I gardened some, though everything was in great shape.
I fished for a while, but could not get into the zone.
After that, I couldn't think of anything I really wanted to eat for lunch so I just tore off a piece of bread and hiked up the foothill trail. I fiddled with the Richelieu sculpture a bit, but I'm at the point with it that I don't want to do anything to mess it up, and I didn't have the mental focus to really devote to sculpting.
So I came back down and sat on the porch for the afternoon, reading Hayek off and on, smoking my pipe, watching the birds. I saw a couple of scarlet tanagers and several Bohemian waxwings - but even those did not stir in me the usual wonder.
At this point, I was in a bit of danger from the Boredom. Throughout the afternoon I was edgy, missing the City, looking for something to do; but without consciously trying I settled eventually into the silence - letting it flow over me, around me, through me. There was still nothing but the silence. Nothing to do. Nothing to contemplate. Nothing even to approach apophatically. Nothing.
It was an afternoon of absence.
But when the silence and solitude grew unnervingly vacant of meaning, I realized that it is this very state that had allowed me to gain a new perspective on all of human society - for that was certainly what my experience in the City represented. Only having somehow transcended or escaped the background noise of life in the City can one see the City for what it is and enter into the joy. I believe this could be done in the City though it could never be done without 'silence' in the truest and deepest sense - silence in which meaning must be for the time being absent.
I wonder if this is why Jesus often went into the wilderness alone to pray.
Camilla is coming by for dinner this evening and tomorrow we are going to set off to check out that new settlement.
Saturday, July 02, 2005
We spent most of the time in silence - each, I suspect, treasuring his own private reflections upon the experience.
And, unfortunately, we still didn't catch the Old Fisherman at home. I wanted to hang around for a little while to see if he showed up, but monks told me that he is sometimes gone for days at a time. The case of St. Godric's Ale we had left was diminished somewhat, though, so I suspect he was just out for the day.
In reflection, the trip to the City was an excellent antidote to what could happen to someone out here in Ithilien. Father Joseph was right.
The ecstasy I experienced upon approaching the city and the joy and delight I felt wandering around the next day were all the evidence I needed after three months here in my valley that 'real life' is not the exclusive domain of Seekers. Though we do represent a vital dimension of the human spirit, we are not the whole of the human spirit - nor do we even exist apart from the City. On the contrary, we exist only in relation to the City. I suspect I will have more to say about this soon - perhaps in relation to my reflections from some time ago upon Rilke's "The Solitary"
While in the city, I did purchase several more books and a CD
First was F.A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, which I will be finishing soon in order to further my conversation with Brother Palgrave.
I also picked up the Ames / Hall translation of the Dao De Jing (with commentary) , Marilyn Robinson's Gilead and Ben Folds' new CD, Songs for Silverman.
So far, Hayek's book is enlightening beyond what I expected from a 60 year old treatise on economics and society, the CD is exceptional and bears repeated listening, the commentary on the Dao and my journey through yet another translation are going to provide a lot of food for thought, and Gilead promises to be a second Jayber Crow. So all in all, I'm very content with my purchase, though I will have to wait until the autumnal equinox to find out the identity of the Half-Blood Prince.
The garden looks excellent. The zucchini blossoms are in their full glory and the onslaught of the never ending squash will soon be upon us.
In addition to keeping up the garden, Camilla did finish the smokehouse while I was gone. She's really proud of it and it does look great - though I feel weird not having built it myself. She also had a couple of excellent days fishing and smoked about a dozen good size trout, two of which we tried for lunch today.
Friday, July 01, 2005
Sunday, June 26, 2005
The truck is loaded and as soon as the monks are done with church we'll be heading back up into the hills.
To sleep, perchance to dream
Saturday, June 25, 2005
In a bookshop I folded out three four twenty dollar bills to pay for my purchase and waited eagerly for the change so I could hear it jingle in my pocket, so I could put a quarter into a gum ball machine, so I could say to the lady in line at the hot dog stand, "Here, let me get that," as she struggled to find three more pennies in her purse.
At a park I played hide and seek with a young girl through a hole in a tree and sat on a bench with "Jenny loves Alex" carved into the back, watching children swing. In the distance a father and son were flying a kite while their retriever ran back and forth barking.
As evening drew near, I made my way to the district with the fancy restaurants, the clubs and the small cafes to watch friends, lovers and strangers make their way in a world they little understand.
And in all of these things I am no longer bound up. No longer an insider. For all of this I am out of tune.
At the end of the day the bookstore clerks, the playground children, the suited businessmen and women, the lovers and friends, even the homeless living under the bridges, the dogs and the pigeons all retire to what they have made of their own place in the world. And I, loving them and loving to see them retire to these places, long only for my home apart my "fair country of climbing woods and swift-falling streams."
But not matter how great the distance between myself and these others, it was all day a distance of love and wonder, and I did feel the mystery of things even angels long to look into.
Instead of forever hovering above, I'd like to feel a weight grow in me to end the infinity and to tie me to earth. I'd like, at each step, each gust of wind, to be able to say "now." "Now and now" and no longer "forever" and "for eternity."
Friday, June 24, 2005
I had never truly seen a city until I descended into this one at dusk after having lived 3 months at my cottage in Ithilien.
We arrived at the fisherman's shack a little after noon. It's a beautiful little run-down shack about 100 yards from the bank, with a sagging roofline and a bit of moss here and there. But unfortunately the old man was not at home. (I had hoped to meet him. He sounds like an interesting fellow.) We left his case of St. Godric's on the back porch, recovered the keys from a hole in a post, got the mules settled into the barn and headed right out in the truck.
The drive down out of the hills, through small communities, through growing small towns, and through a couple of sprawling suburbs was a little like Marlowe's journey in reverse (though I question where to posit the 'heart of darkness' these days). Old Bill's Diner and Bait Shop with a single pump out front gave way to the Gas n' Go gave way to huge, glowing BP stations. Martha's Grill gave way to A&W gave way to McDonalds and Burger Kings with huge plastic playgrounds.
We crested a hill in a residential neighborhood and were met with the site in the photos below.
Having never been so far away from society for so long, I had forgotten it enough to be awe struck for the first time by the beauty of 21st century human civilization - almost like the first time I saw the ruins of the Parthenon.
I have never until now understood Whitman's ecstasy.
(O the black ships! O the fierce ships!
O the beautiful, sharp-bow’d steam-ships and sail-ships!)
City of the world! (for all races are here;
All the lands of the earth make contributions here;)
City of the sea! city of hurried and glittering tides!
City whose gleeful tides continually rush or recede, whirling in and out, with eddies and foam!
City of wharves and stores! city of tall façades of marble and iron!
Proud and passionate city! mettlesome, mad, extravagant city!
Spring up, O city! not for peace alone, but be indeed yourself, warlike!
Fear not! submit to no models but your own, O city!
Behold me! incarnate me, as I have incarnated you!
I have rejected nothing you offer’d me -- whom you adopted, I have adopted;
Good or bad, I never question you -- I love all -- I do not condemn anything;
I chant and celebrate all that is yours -- yet peace no more;
In peace I chanted peace, but now the drum of war is mine;
War, red war, is my song through your streets, O city!
I spent the late evening strolling alone through the streets, looking again for the first time at the things these hands have made.
We should be at the fishing shack by mid-day, where the monks usually spend the third night, and we'll be in the city by evening - which may mean that we get to spend an extra half-day.
During our hike we had an interesting conversation about classical liberalism and democracy versus socialism and social planning. I promised Brother Palgrave to read F.A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom.
Brother Brendan is an excellent gardener, but his coffee is weak. I'm off to brew my own pot before we hit the trail.
Thursday, June 23, 2005
A very good morning.
Had to make minor repairs on a trail bridge.
Light showers mid-day, but nothing to slow us down.
We slept in pup tents, the brothers two to a tent and me with my own.
I'm afraid Brother Palgrave's English nose is capable of a prodigious snore, so I didn't sleep as much as I might have liked.
Coffee and a light breakfast then we'll set off under overcast skies.
Tuesday, June 21, 2005
My travelling companions will be:
Brother Brendan, the chief gardener of St. Godric's;
Brother Thomas, an Albanian refugee who joined the monastery 20 years ago before the fall of communism in his homeland;
Brother Francis, a twenty-something close associate of Brother Damien's;
and Brother Palgrave, an older monk from Northumbria.
What larks we'll have!
Camilla's here and we've run through the plans for the smokehouse and the basic principles of gardening for while I'm gone. She'll see me off this evening and I'm carrying several letters out for her.
Lots will be drawn tonight at sunset (they keep them waiting right up till the last) and we leave tomorrow at dawn.
I am, of course, bringing my laptop and should be able to post from the road.
I'm also bringing my camera and plan to use it liberally.
Monday, June 20, 2005
Four monks are drawn by lot from the 57 currently at the monastery - excepting those too elderly or sick to make the trip.
It's a three day journey out of Ithilien with the mules. Near the border of Ithilien, there is an old man who lives in a fishing shack on the upper stretch of the big river into which all the streams of Ithilien eventually run. For a small rental fee and a case of St. Godric's Ale, he allows the monks keep an extended-cab Chevy Silverado in a barn on his property. There we will swap the mules for the truck and drive out on a gravel road. About 100 miles from the fisherman's shack, we will start running into small towns and then pretty quickly arrive in the city where the monks get their supplies, pick up mail, etc.
After the shopping, we'll dine out, perhaps enjoy a show, then spend the night in a five star hotel. The next day we head back to St. Godric's.
It should be a good trip. I'm very much looking forward to it.
Drawing by lots, each monk will make this trip about once every 3 - 4 years.
In addition to the practical task of retrieving supplies, Father Joseph also believes that this serves an important purpose for the monks themselves - keeps them grounded in another kind of reality than that which grounds us in Ithilien. Another important reality. "Though they are monks," he told me, "they are also men, and must not forget it. The world belongs to men, and though we have come out here in some measure to escape it, it also belongs to us."
Having just finished The Brothers Karamazov, I was put reminded of Father Zossima's words to the monks of his monastery:
"Love one another, Fathers," said Father Zossima, as far as Alyosha could remember afterwards. "Love God's people. Because we have come here and shut ourselves within these walls, we are no holier than those that are outside, but on the contrary, from the very fact of coming here, each of us has confessed to himself that he is worse than others, than all men on earth.... And the longer the monk lives in his seclusion, the more keenly he must recognize that. Else he would have had no reason to come here. When he realizes that he is not only worse than others, but that he is responsible to all men for all and everything, for all human sins, national and individual, only then the aim of our seclusion is attained. For know, dear ones, that every one of us is undoubtedly responsible for all men -- and everything on earth, not merely through the general sinfulness of creation, but each one personally for all mankind and every individual man. This knowledge is the crown of life for the monk and for every man. For monks are not a special sort of men, but only what all men ought to be. Only through that knowledge, our heart grows soft with infinite, universal, inexhaustible love. Then every one of you will have the power to win over the whole world by love and to wash away the sins of the world with your tears....Each of you keep watch over your heart and confess your sins to yourself unceasingly. Be not afraid of your sins, even when perceiving them, if only there be penitence, but make no conditions with God. Again, I say, be not proud. Be proud neither to the little nor to the great. Hate not those who reject you, who insult you, who abuse and slander you. Hate not the atheists, the teachers of evil, the materialists -- and I mean not only the good ones -- for there are many good ones among them, especially in our day -- hate not even the wicked ones. Remember them in your prayers thus: Save, O Lord, all those who have none to pray for them, save too all those who will not pray. And add: it is not in pride that I make this prayer, O Lord, for I am lower than all men.... Love God's people, let not strangers draw away the flock, for if you slumber in your slothfulness and disdainful pride, or worse still, in covetousness, they will come from all sides and draw away your flock. Expound the Gospel to the people unceasingly... be not extortionate.... Do not love gold and silver, do not hoard them.... Have faith. Cling to the banner and raise it on high."
Father Joseph is a wise man.
We start Wednesday.
Sunday, June 19, 2005
I was washing my face at the stream this morning. It was getting warm already (for up here anyway) and I could tell it would be a hot day by the time it was done. I looked upstream and saw Camilla's now familiar figure crossing the logs just as she had the first time I saw her - in denim shorts and a red shirt. But she also had one my red handkerchief's tied around her head like a bonnet, and there was something new in her step. A lightness. A determination without urgency. The complete disappearance of hesitation. Then ... she started skipping!
That little girl who had been hiding for God knows how long came skipping down the path.
And just as she got close enough for me to begin wondering what it was besides her step that was different, she ran and threw her arms around my neck, knocking me over backwards into the steam!
I got up sputtering and looked at her, shocked.
Laughing like I wouldn't have believed she could, she pulled off the handkerchief-bonnet and yelled, "Look what I did!"
Her hair was completely gone! She was bald! And laughing!
And more beautiful than ever.
"What ... well ..." I managed before she pushed me back into the stream again.
"Come on," she said, "Let's have a beer! I feel like celebrating!" And off she ran down the stream towards 'the cooler'.
"It's not even seven o'clock!" I yelled after her, shaking myself off. I was glad I ran to catch up, though, because I arrived just in time to keep her from uncorking the Grotten Brown that I had hidden in the trunk of the willow. She was absolutely ecstatic. I wrestled it away from her and agreed to have a St. Godric's Ale with her if she must drink before breakfast.
Back at the cottage she sat down on the porch, leaned back against the wall, and smiled gently. "I've never felt so free in my life. Never. Thank you."
As it turns out, she didn't stay at her cave yesterday, nor had she intended to.
Over breakfast, she told me what had happened that had produced such unexpected freedom and peace and lightness of being.
Though she had never mentioned it to me, she too had been invited to make the solstice journey out of the valley with the monks. And, as I suspected, she was deeply torn. It was not leaving the valley that frightened her, but her knowledge that if she left she almost certainly wouldn't come back. And she didn't know what she wanted to do. It wasn't even a matter of wanting one thing and not knowing what was the right course. She really didn't even know what she wanted.
I had told her about my crisis at Point Decidere shortly after it happened and she hiked up there yesterday to make her own decision. If she left for the solstice trip, she was leaving for good. So if she decided she wasn't leaving for good, she wasn't going to go on the trip.
She thought a lot about Rilke, she said, and what she had been learning from him about herself and about reality. She thought a lot about The Graduate and our brief conversation after the movie. She thought a lot about her past and what she would do if she returned.
But none of this was of any avail in helping her to a decision.
Finally, she just stopped and thought about building the root-cellar and the smokehouse, about learning to fish, about hiking up and down the valley every day. And then it all became clear. Only in this valley had she ever known that kind of happiness. To leave the valley now, before it had really settled into the core of her being, would be death.
Immediately she took out her knife and cut off as much of her hair as she could.
The decision was made. She would stay.
Back at her cave last night she carefully shaved her head with a razor and slept like she hadn't slept since she arrived. No longer afraid of the night. No longer afraid of the next day. No longer wishing she still had some sleeping pills left.
We spent the morning on the porch in the shade, letting the day float by with the cottonwood seeds. Talking some, but not a lot. We did 'finish' our discussion of The Graduate, but such a discussion was merely academic given what we both knew she now knew.
Out here. Out here is the chance to start over for people like us. Out here is the place that you can't get to on the bus. Out here is a place to gain a foothold. Out here is freedom. Out here is life.
Like me, she may, of course, return some day.
But for now, she's here to stay.
She'll watch the cottage while I'm gone and wants to finish the smokehouse before I return.
She's down by the stream now, sitting on a log and cooling her feet with her back to the cottage.
I think I'll go join her. Maybe skip a few rocks. Catch a waterbug. Wait for the sunset. Watch the stars come out.
Blaise Pascal in Pensées
Saturday, June 18, 2005
Last night I received quite a shock.
Camilla had been down for the day, first for a fly fishing lesson, then for lunch, then to help me begin work on the smokehouse, then for dinner (never as fancy fare as I receive at the monastery, but I do my best when I have company). After dinner we decided to watch a movie and ended up choosing The Graduate.
The shock was the alarming distance I already feel from that culture, that whole world, having been out here only three months! Who am I now?
Here in the valley, I have at most a very limited set of social relationships – and even that set diminished by the long term assignment of Brother Damien’s to assist in the establishment of a settlement in another small valley near here.
(As a side note, I’m going to have to check that out. Something about a settlement nearby makes me feel funny. Maybe I’ve grown too territorial. And I wonder about Brother Damien’s assignment and some of my earlier suspicions. God, I wish I could just drop the whole thing from my mind and let things like that roll off me, but they stick. They stick and I can’t get them out, even when I should.)
At any rate, watching The Graduate (which is an excellent movie in every way) made me realize just how far outside of things I have gotten. Yes, during my wanderings I was also something of an outsider. But then I was alone in the midst of everyday 21st century society. Here, I am a part of a society apart. Camilla, the Brothers of St. Godric’s and the occasional Seekers-Errant – these are so distant from Mr. and Mrs. Robinson, from Mr. and Mrs. Braddock and from all the rules made up by “all the wrong people” or worse yet the ones that make themselves up.
What is it?
A life in the void?
An opportunity, I think.
An opportunity for distance and reflection. An opportunity to create without the rules set by the Braddocks and Robinsons of the world.
After the movie Camilla and I discussed this for about an hour and though she was going to stay around her cave today (for what reason I did not ask) we agreed to carry on the conversation tomorrow.
It is approaching the summer solstice, which means that several of the monks will be taking one of their quarterly trips out of the valley for supplies. I have been invited along and intend to accompany them. We leave the day after the solstice.
I’m wondering if Camilla will come along - and if she does, whether or not she will return
Benjamin Braddock in Mike Nichols' The Graduate
Friday, June 17, 2005
The morning session is the more intellectually rigorous of the two, and for a couple of weeks they have been reading some of the Eastern fathers and talking about apophatic theology as an intellectual pathway to an encounter with God. The discussion was very good and the Via Negativa has always been attractive to me as a theological mode. Outside the context of faith, I'm not sure that it preduces much at all. But maybe that is a good thing; for in the context of faith its humbling tendency clears the way for more immediate encounters with God in the depths of the soul, in the Hesychastic prayer, in liturgy, in another person, in nature or in the arts.
In general, the monks at St. Godric's (especially folks like Brother Damien and Father Joseph) have struck me as very open to these kinds of insights, not as handicapped by mere dogma as some of the churchmen I met out there in the broad world. But I was surprised that several of the younger monks and even a couple of the older brothers were opposed (and the older ones most vehemently) to apophaticism, labeling it 'dangerous to the truth claims of the Church' and 'not distinctively Christian.'
At the end of the day I have very little to say to such objections because they assume an entirely different telos for theological discussion than the one towards which I order my own thoughts. I believe that the immediate, proper and final end of all theology ought to be the 'experiential knowledge' of God, which produces an attendant practice of his Kingdom.
This middle ground of 'truth' ... to think about something simply to discover its 'truth' or 'falsehood' ... I have no use for such an endeavor. Anything I discover to be 'true' that I do not very quickly perceive to be both good and beautiful as well, must be a deception and a failure of my intellectual faculties.
Though it may be articulated alsant in language, Truth is properly apprehended in the Beautiful and Practiced in the Good.
This, by the way, was the substance behind my doctoral dissertation, which concerned the critical application of such a theological aesthetic to literature, with an emphasis upon Steinbeck. It would have been a good career.
After lunch we had our sixth poetry workshop.
We began with an improvisation of mine - apophatic poetic contemplation.
I sent each of them to various points on the shore to spend 30 minutes in silence, contemplating everything that the lake is not. Look at the lake. Jot down whatever negative realities the lake suggests. Look first for the absences. Wait for the presence.
It was a fascinating experience, weaving in and out of apophatic contemplation, losing myself in the lake and the lake's absence in presence, presence in absence. The mental condition such contemplation produced, in fact, was a lot like those 'spots of time' in fly-fishing!
The lake does not have fixed boundaries.
The lake does not have infinite freedom.
It is not transparent.
It lake is not opaque.
It is not male.
It is not female.
It is not genderless.
It does not have personhood.
It is not impersonal.
The lake is not the water.
The lake is not the shape.
The lake is not the space it occupies.
After this exercise, I simply couldn't 'lecture' on anything poetic or ask them to turn this experience immediately into some formal exercise. It would have been vulgar. This is one of the virtues of apophatic contemplation, a sense for the often unseen sacrilege of the mind and the instinct to avoid it.
So I had them write the rest of the time in silence and gave them an 'assignment' over the next week. I wanted them to apophaticly contemplate at least three more realities around them and, at the end, write a one page reflection upon the apophatic approach as a source of poetic inspiration, with reference especially to the four dimensions of poetry I had highlighted during the first workshop.
Bruschetta with Caponata
Radicchio and Endive Caesar with Ciabatta Crisps
with New Potatoes and Roast Peppers
w/ Robert Mondavi Chardonay 2002
Dessert Peach Cobbler
w/ Chard Farm Gewurztraminer 2002
Wednesday, June 15, 2005
Thinking too little about things or thinking too much both make us obstinate and fanatical.
If we look at our work immediately after completing it, we are still too involved; if too long afterwards, we cannot pick up the thread again.
It is like looking at pictures which are too near or too far away. There is just one indivisible point which is the right place.
Others are too near, too far, too high, or too low. In painting the rules of perspective decide it, but how will it be decided when it comes to truth or morality?
Blaise Pascal in Pensées
Fly fishing really isn't as hard as most people assume. Of course it is hard to become a master, but it is not difficult to become competent. Of all my activities, though photography runs a close second, fly fishing makes me feel most alive - most aware of the raw present. Norman Maclean puts it this in A River Runs Through It:
"Poets talk about 'spots of time,' but it is really fishermen who experience eternity compressed into a moment. No one can tell what a spot of time is until suddenly the whole world is a fish and the fish is gone."
This is true.
And more than anything, this is why I fish. And it's more than just the lost or landed fish. Even when I catch nothing, every cast carries with it the anticipation of such a moment - a feeling for the imminence of eternity in a spot of time.
The cast. Careful. Careful. The strike?
The cast. Again. Careful. Let it drift.
The cast. Careful.
No. Gone. Missed it.
Is it still there?
The cast. Careful. Careful.
Yes! There! He's on!
There is no past and no future in such an experience of reality. Each cast carries with it equal excitement, equal anticipation, equal opportunity for ecstasy or despair. Supported by art, skill, patience and discipline, fly fishing is the ultimate experience of the fabric of life.
Fly fishing is eudaimon.
Camilla is not quite ready for this, though. There is a rudimentary discipline that one has to establish first. A pattern. A habit. An effort. Then the grace comes in its fullness.
I watch her when she's practicing, though, and I think she senses it - senses the nearness of eternity even in her fumbling 20 foot casts. I can see it in her eye. And in the way she approaches a hole. I can see it in her finger on the line. I can see it when she forgets that it is me who is instructing her and thinks only of the instruction.
Two weeks from now she'll be there with the eternity in a moment. And perhaps that will be a source of healing - or at least of respite from her wounds.
She hasn't mentioned anything more about that Rilke poem, by the way, though we've had dinner together the last two evenings. I'm not sure what if anything I should say. Giving me the poem was clearly something. But was it an invitation to ask questions? Was it a confession? Was it an apologia? How would I ever know?
I think it's best when I don't try to know, or better yet, when I don't need to know.
But, like those 'spots of time' in fly fishing, such moments of contentment between two people, such comfort and delight in ignorance and pace, such willingness to allow one person to be the mystery that they are all come as grace - and a kind of grace for which I may not yet have disciplined myself.
Monday, June 13, 2005
They went about their daily chores, but all discussions and classes were replaced by silent meditation.
During the afternoon session, I walked down to the lake and sat on a log, watching the reflection of the sky in the water and wondering just how deeply woven into the fabric of creation this thing was.
At dusk, the monks processed to the graveyard, carrying the body of Brother Oswald in a simple coffin.
It grew darker.
By lamplight and silence each took turns digging his grave and finally lowered in the coffin.
Then, we stayed.
We kept vigil all night long. Some of the monks fell asleep on the ground. Others stood as much as they could. Some sat. Some prostrated themselves before the grave. No one spoke a word.
The sky grew lighter. Everyone began assembling more tightly around the open grave.
As dawn broke, Father Joseph threw in a handful of dirt, turned, and walked away back down the path to the monastery.
Each monk, taking whatever time he needed, stood over Brother Oswald then threw in a handful of dirt, turning to leave immediately thereafter.
Somewhat abashed, I threw my handful in and turned to go.
When I arrived at the monastery, everyone was about their morning chores. Father Joseph saw me, thanked me for coming, and asked if I wanted to go fishing again.
So we did.
We talked about the difficulty of asparagus bugs, my need to begin weatherproofing my cottage, and the fact that all of the monks are issued a pair of long-johns for the winter, to wear under their habits.
in Charles Williams's War in Heaven
Sunday, June 12, 2005
Saturday, June 11, 2005
It's not very spectacular, I suppose. He was old. But his pronouncement had very much affected me and now his death does the same.
When I was a child, Death was the raw and strange experience of others' communal grief. I remember when my uncle died of a massive heart attack in what I now know was his early 50s. (He was must my uncle then, and not a man who could in any way be 'in his early 50s'.) The funeral was a lot like church, except we had to dress up even more, everyone was crying and there was a box up front with Uncle Charlie in it. And there were more flowers. Lots of flowers. Big, fake looking flowers with little notes attached.
Afterwards we went to my grandmother's house and it was like Thanksgiving but with more people. There was a potluck. And pictures of Uncle Charlie. And we all had to sit still until Mom finally told us we could go play.
Later Death became a philosophical question - a serious one, one that certainly had implications for the here and now, but one without an internal reality much different than that silly question "What is Truth?".
To be or not to be. What dreams may come? Be not proud. Memento mori. Not without hope. The doorway to the absurd. Freedom from order. The final enemy to be defeated.
I wrestled with Death then and would not let go, looking perhaps, like Jacob, for a blessing. But none came.
The death of my mother taught me something new - Death as permanent absence. Death as the loss of a self from the universal. Death as a violent tear in the fabric of human relationships. And as this view of death sank in and came to rest, towards the end of my wanderings, I came to know my own death in similar terms - my death as my own future departure from the entire network of relationships - even out here in Ithilien - that I know to be my life.
Knowing this, maybe I even came out here to die.
But now, in the passing of this old monk who seems to have seen his own reflection in the sky and called out Death! ... I have the scent of something new.
Something beyond loss.
Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Teresa passes through my mind.
There will be a funeral at St. Godric's this evening.
Midway through my life's journey I go down expectantly.
Thursday, June 09, 2005
No one showed up from St. Godric's, but I've told them before that if I am not in time for the poetry workshop, something must have come up and they should use the time as they please. I think there was a general consensus among them to practice poetic vision one way or the other even if I wasn't there. Perhaps they will run through some of the exercises again.
Camilla came early mid-morning and gave me a hand with the clean-up. Her cave was fine, of course. We dug a drainage ditch around the cottage, the garden, and the root cellar in case we ever get rain like that again. I think the soil is absorbent enough to handle most rain, but yesterday was something. I wouldn't be surprised if we got over two inches.
We also had to prop up some of the vegetables.
We both got very dirty, but it was a good dirty. We washed up after dinner and sat on the 'porch' for a while.
Before she left for the evening, she pulled a folded and somewhat crinkled piece of yellow tablet paper out of her jeans pocket.
"Here," she said, "This is why I like Rilke. You can read it later." Then she got up to go.
After I watched her disappear into the trees on far side of the valley, I unfolded the paper, brushed it smooth, and read:
"The Song of the Waif"
I am nobody and always will be.
I'm almost too little to live, right now,
and even later.
O mothers and fathers,
have pity on me.
But it's not worth your bother:
I'll still be mowed down.
No one can use me: it's too early. Wait
until tomorrow - then it's too late.
I've only this little gown,
and it's getting thin and faded ...
but it holds an eternity,
and even before God, maybe.
I've only this lock from her brow
(it stays always the same)
it was father's treasure once.
He doesn't love anything now.
Tuesday, June 07, 2005
Camilla came by in the morning. She has been enjoying Rilke, though she said she wasn't quite ready to articulate why yet. (An odd way of putting it, but honest I think.) She left after lunch to take the foothill trail.
Brother Damien showed up mid-afternoon. It was pretty hot by then. It must have been 85 or 90 degrees. Not particularly good poetry weather to my mind, but we did find some shade down by the stream and I got the Speedway Stout that Damien had left the other day. It was chilling in the stream, supported by roots of one of the cottonwoods.
It is very nice stout. Wow. And it took the edge off of the heat enough for us to get down to business.
First we tackled the prose account that Damien had left on the doorpost nail:
Sucking on a skinned almond I taste its slick ridges, the point addresses the tip of my tongue with yielding persistence. Between molars, split in two, I lap at its smooth interior planes. Even before I clench around it's silky flesh I can feel the sticky mach embedded in my bicuspids. It is sour. It is untamed and therefore not bred for ingestion. It is laced throughout with arsenic, a natural component of the undomesticated almond. Never mind my house burning across the seat. Taste the bitter on the back of the tongue, almost in the throat. Swallow the urge to heave out the poison. Stretch out my hands to warm them in the glow of red and yellow. Lie back in the snow, smell the cold, hear the stars prick my eardrums.
His chief question was, "Is this poetry?"
I don't think so. But it's not unrelated to poetry.
I cut an nice straight branch from a mulberry tree last time I was down at St. Godric's. It's sitting in the corner of my cottage by my bed. My intention is to make a simple hunting bow.
The tree is not the bow.
The branch is not the bow.
The image of the bow in my mind is not the bow.
It will be a bow when I craft it and shape it into a bow.
Life is not poetry.
An observation is not poetry.
The thought I have for a poem in my mind is not poetry.
But when I craft and shape language to account for an observation I have made about deep-rooted life, that is poetry.
Broadly speaking, the poetic vision incorporates tree, branch, and bow - even soil and sap. And certainly the poem must conform to the artist's vision. But the poem proper is a finished work of art, an artifact of the imaginative vision.
I encouraged Brother Damien to work it over. Write it as a sonnet. Write it as a series of three haiku. Write it as blank verse. Revise it. Fall in love with craft and perhaps a form will suggest itself. Even if one doesn't, the appropriate free verse form might suggest itself to him through experimentation.
The second item let on the doorpost nail was more promising as a finished poem:
Circled fingers in that megaphone shape
The corrugated cake cone
The smooth silk soft serve
Chinlick by lipbite shaping cream to peak
The inside ribs poke at the gums
Cold freezes teeth to their roots
Throat and stomach spread
The coolwarmth out to tacky fingers
Here we have something that is leaning must more towards a poem. A branch already shaped somewhat by the knife. But a little more work is required. More choice. More selection. More rigid coherence of sound and sense.
All that aside, this is well on its way to firing arrows and already represents a significant stage two in the process from vision to poem.
For one, it bears the marks of poetic efficiency. For another, it speaks of ice cream, but of more than ice cream. It speaks of eddieandbill and betyandisbel. And it speaks well through 'tacky fingers' and 'flipflop toes'. It marks sacred time chinlick by lipbite, and I like that.
I like that a lot.