Tuesday, May 31, 2005
When he first arrived I could tell he was a little nervous. (I would think that he had told Father Joseph why he was coming up here. I sure hope so.)
For whatever reason, he was timid about this meeting. I've noticed this before, though. There is a certain high-strung something in new poets - or, rather, in those who wish to be poets. They also tend to have confessional instincts and a bent towards self-expression. What concerned me particularly in Brother Damien's case was that he might be feeling these things to be powerfully at odds with his monastic vocation. I do not want to be the cause of his unnecessarily abandoning the life of the Coenobitic Seeker for the life of a Seeker-Errant. There are too few as it is who follow the quest according to such a disciplined pattern of common life.
But new poets often wish, as Brother Damien does, to give vent to some hidden thing, some essential core, some secret self that lies buried within, barely visible beneath the surface but throbbing away down there in the depths. And be it devil or angel, it must out!
Not only is this dangerous for a new monk, however, it is not, in my opinion, particularly helpful to learning how to write good poetry. I think this is why most poetry written even by good poets early in their lives is just bad. The impulses are disordered an chaotic. The vision is too self-conscious, even self-referential. Nothing is restrained by the richness and beauty of the language itself. All gives way before the terrible power of self-disclosure. But, hey, we all have to start somewhere - and the Dionysian violence of the hidden, misunderstood self is at least a power to be reckoned with.
I gave him several directions we could take and then after discussing them and plotting a course, we began some poetic exercises - transformations from free verse to iambic, experimentation with trochaic substitution, enjambed versus end stopped lines, etc. This kind of formal manipulation is often just the cure for the overactive ego in a new poet. Fortunately, Brother Damien really took to it. He has a good ear for the language and that is important. A poet who can't hear may be worse than a poet who can't feel. Brother Damien is certainly neither.
We were in the process of working up some childhood memories of home into blank verse, though, when Camilla showed up for lunch.
Brother Damien was quite taken aback.
He had, apparently, met her during her brief stop at St. Godric's, but was under the impression that she was leaving the valley from there.
After 10 or 15 minutes of a relatively awkward exchange of pleasantries, Brother Damien announced that he had better be getting back, as he needed to be home for his late afternoon chores. I gave him some exercises and said I would see him on Thursday.
Given what I observed, I am not sure Camilla wasn't the efficient cause of Brother Damien's coming to me for help in learning how to tell people poetically that he was "not just a brother in a monastery." The timing is certainly suspect and his behavior upon her arrival was odd. Now, this doesn't necessarily mean anything. He could just be peculiarly sensitive to feminine beauty, merely shocked to find that she was still around, or embarrassed to have been found writing poetry with a crazy eremite. And he is, after all, a monk - forgive me. There are a hundred possible explanations.
But I suppose it's worth keeping my eye on if he is to be my student in any way.
Perhaps I should also talk to Father Joseph.
But this is not what I came out here to do! (More on this later.)
Camilla spent the afternoon and early evening at the cottage again. She helped with some of the gardening. I gave her her first fly fishing lesson and showed her a few native edible plants. She asked for a book. I lent her my copy of The Four Quartets.
What a life! Glory to God! Heels up!
Monday, May 30, 2005
the last couple of days
here in the valley
I think the crisis of several days ago has given me a greater capacity to appreciate the valley afresh - to experience jamais vu (pertaining to which, an interesting essay).
Camilla has been here the past two days and the root cellar is now covered.
It's now clear that she knows that I know that she needs more help that she wishes she did ... but she's working through it. She seems to be doing better physically now. I gave her her first fly-fishing lesson, but also told her not to be a purist. If you need a fish and you can't figure out the hatch, dig up a grub and drift it through the hole.
I toyed with the idea of suggesting that she move down closer, but I think that would be a huge mistake. I think she is still going to need a considerable measure of individual integrity and self-reliance to recover from whatever has been through, whatever she came up here to get away from.
Brother Damien is coming up the valley tommorrow for an individual poetry session. It should be fun.
Saturday, May 28, 2005
It was a nice hike. The sun was starting to break through a little bit and I found a nice patch of plantain that I marked for some later harvest.
It took me about an hour and a half to get to the general area, and once I got there it didn't take me long to find her cave. Her sweater was sitting on a backpack just outside the entrance. It was really quiet, though, so I thought she must have been out hiking or collecting food or something.
I sat down on a rock nearby to wait ... threw some rocks ... watched the birds ... tried to compose a haiku. I even had a smoke. But after waiting quite some time (it must have been around two hours) I thought I would just leave a note and head back to the cottage – maybe invite her for lunch the next day or something. I didn't bring any pencil or paper, so thoughI was a bit uncomfortable with doing this, I walked into her cave to see if perhaps she had left anything lying around with which I could leave the note. And to my surprise, there she was, curled up on a pile of pine boughs, fast asleep in the late the afternoon, her feet sticking out from beneath a green flannel blanket. Her hair was uncombed and full of needles and her feet were pretty cut up. As I quickly backed out (bumping my head on the entrance) I saw a bottle of sleeping pills and an empty box of granola bars.
Once outside, I decided I should wait, needed to wait.
I went back to my rock and smoked another pipe in silence.
About an hour before sunset I heard some stirrings from inside the cave and several minutes later she came out yawning and stretched.
"Hi," I said before she had a chance to see me first and wonder what I was doing sitting quietly outside her cave.
She looked up, somewhat startled but not yet fully awake. She paused for a couple of seconds then recognized me with a nervous smile. "Oh! It's you!"
Her ankles and wrists were thinner than I remembered them – quite a bit thinner. And her face was drawn.
"Are you hungry?" I asked.
"Would you like some dinner, I mean? Down at the cottage?"
There was no sign of the initial confidence she had displayed at our first meeting - just a confusion that half-suggested several things at once.
"Hmmm ..." she finally managed.
Perhaps I had been wrong then - my judgment clouded. Or perhaps even then it had taken every ounce of her soul to appear so confident. And catching her unawares I had made such exertion impossible.
"I have a rabbit stew ready to go over the fire."
"Rabbit? Did you ... shoot it?"
"Well ... yes."
"I'm ... a vegetarian."
"You could just eat the potatoes."
"I also saw some plantain on the way up here. We could collect some and make a salad. There are radishes ready in the garden. I had one this morning."
There it was. Something in the corner of her mouth. Her confidence had returned. Either that or she was again summoning something strongly resembling confidence, exerting herself through her force of will.
"Sure. Just a second. I'll be right back."
When she came out the needles were combed out of her hair. She grabbed the sweater from the backpack and pulled it on over her T-shirt.
"All right! Let's go!" she said, and bounced down the trail ahead of me.
"Don't you want your shoes?" I called after her.
"Nah. Come on. Let's go. Maybe I'll even eat the rabbit."
We collected just enough plantain for a salad. When we got back I lit the fire and she helped with the stew. She said the salad was pretty good. And she did eat the rabbit.
She was talkative and lively for most of the night, betraying little if anything of the sadness I had seen in her look the last time and nothing of what I feared I had seen in the cave. She likes to read. We talked about Cannery Row for a while, and also Travels with Charlie and Of Mice and Men. I didn't ask anything about where she had come from, though, or why she had left. Those aren't questions you ask out here. People tell their own stories. Or make up better ones. But one way or the other, only when they're ready.
As she was leaving, I asked if she would come back tomorrow and help me shovel some of the dirt back on to the root cellar. Then I saw the look in her eyes again, the look that gazed into the smoke and knew everything.
"Sure," she said, and walked out into the dark.
Today has settled into a shadowless overcast.
I am somewhat surprised that I have neither seen nor heard from Camilla since that first evening she dropped by. Perhaps she left the valley. I could tell that night that she was in a position to go either way. She was definitely still running and it wasn't yet clear whether or not she found this a safe place to stop and rest, or hide.
This afternoon I will hike upstream and see if there is anything she needs. I'm pretty sure I can find her from her cave from her description. There are several like it close together on the far side of the valley.
Thursday, May 26, 2005
Unfortunately, I had to tell Brother Damien that I simply could not proceed with the poetry workshop in the state I was in. So I asked him to carry my regrets back to St. Godric's and tell them I would see them next week - though I was far from sure of that at the time.
This morning I woke up at 5:30, packed myself a lunch, shoved several nostalgic items into my pocket, picked a radish out of the garden, ate it, said goodbye to the cottage - just in case I didn't come back, and started walking.
When I set out, I really didn't know if I intended to return. I thought maybe my ennui had inspired a new period of Wanderings. Or, rather, I feared that I had only been fooling myself about the Time of Quiet Solitude. I headed up the foothill trail, but turned off the path and took a steeper ascent into the higher hills.
By mid-morning I had gained a vista overlooking the entire valley. Another hour or so and I would be over the crest of this little range of hills, descending into some other valley, some other place.
I sat down, thinking perhaps this would be my final farewell. I couldn't see my cottage or the monastery, but I could see the stream in several familiar places and parts of Lake Finchale, on which St. Godric's is located. I saw several isolated trees that I was particularly fond of.
Then, inexplicably, I fell in love all over again.
How could I leave this place? How could I pick up and start hiking because I had been bored? What in the world had I been thinking? Worse yet, what had been feeling? Bored? Bored of this? Bored after less than three months?
I started crying for what had nearly happened to me.
Leaning back against a tree, I just sat there watching the valley for hours - watching it breathe and sigh and sing. A fat grey squirrel came quite near and I fed her half of my sandwich. A cardinal and a jay got in a tussle over a piece the squirrel dropped. A butterfly landed on my backpack.
I had brought the Grotten Brown with me and I took it out with my half sandwich for lunch. I looked at the Grotten Brown. I looked at my half sandwich. I looked at the Grotten Brown.
This was the moment of decision.
I put the brown back in the bag.
I would stay.
I cut my initials into the bark of an old birch and named the lookout 'Point Decidere'. I was going to have to leave soon if I was to make it back to the cottage by dark.
After a quick lunch I wandered back down, stopping frequently to pick up and examine interesting rocks and bugs and mushrooms and leaves.
I arrived completely cured of the Boredom.
Interestingly enough, I found this quote from Spencer:
"The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity."
I don't know who Ellen Parr is, but I think she's right. Curiosity.
Curiosity and Love.
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
The flux of Seekers-Errant is at an ebb.
There are still five months till Thanksgiving.
I can't think of a damn thing to do for the poetry workshop tomorrow.
The bust of Cardinal Richelieu has gone all wrong.
I can't stop thinking about nothing.
It's so quiet out here.
It's a dangerous, dangerous thing out here.
At least right now.
I may not established enough yet to fight it.
Yesterday it was bad.
Today it was worse.
And tomorrow ...
"Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow"
the taste of fears
sound and fury
and now a wood / Comes toward Dunsinane
Holy Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle; be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray: and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God thrust down into hell Satan and all wicked spirits who wander throughout the world for the ruin of souls. Amen.
Monday, May 23, 2005
When I got up though (at the crack of dawn, which is early these days) Father Joseph was waiting for me. He wanted to take me fishing on the lake in the rowboat. Now, it's not particularly easy to fly fish from a rowboat, but I do consider myself up to the challenge and I would have gone anyway just to spend the morning on the lake with Father Joseph. He really is a remarkable man.
We had an excellent talk about his decision to joing the monastery and the circumstances surrounding his novitiate. It was about 40 years ago. He's 62 now. And it was amazing how similar his pattern of thought was to my own decision to begin my Wanderings. I'll have to relate his story someday.
It also made me wonder at just what a diverse set of men there must be lurking beneath all these habits down here - former sucesses, wanderers, rooted men, seekers-errant, princes, fools, beggars. And yet they all manage to live together according to one pattern of life. It's a testament to the possibilities that exist for humanity, really. I think up till today I have gotten monasteries all wrong.
We caught several nice rainbows, but were catching and releasing. The monastery had no need for fish at present and I was fine as well.
After lunch I hiked back to the cottage and threw a little dirt on the root cellar, but my heart wasn't in it (no to mention my back).
So I've been spending the evening on the porch. Several deer have come through peacefully. And the rabbits are out again. Soon the nighthawks and bats will start feeding.
I think I'll put on a pot of tea.
Sunday, May 22, 2005
Kenko’s Essays in Idleness, Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees and my coming to Ithilien have led me to reflect broadly upon my life. And upon reflection, I have divided my existence to this point into five distinct periods: the Time of Childhood, the Time of Tumult, the Time of the Fixed Ambition, the Time of the Wanderings and this new period, the Time of Quiet Solitude.
The Time of Childhood (Birth to age 13)
The Time of Childhood was a time of Chaos Paradisiacal. Very little was ordered, determined, fixed or even definitively felt. But ah! What a power this time has still upon my imagination! This is what e.e. cummings must have meant in “Chansons Inoccents I” (“In Just- / spring”) by ‘mud-luscious’ and ‘puddle wonderful’ and by ‘eddieandbill’ and ‘betttyandisbel’. If not a time entirely innocent, Childhood was certainly a time more innocent than now, when the world was bounded as a playground and ‘around the block’ was an adventure, when the monsters kept safely to my dreams and dragons could be slain by a virtuous knight.
But Childhood did not last, could not last. The Awakening comes, comes like the ‘goat-footed / balloonMan’ whistling ‘far and wee.’ And we do come running. Yes. We come running from hop-scotch and marbles and jump-rope and piracies.
The Time of Tumult (ages 13 – 17)
Then came like a barbarian onslaught the Time of Tumult. A time of fear and foolishness. A time of Chaos Unbound. A time without boundaries or borders or maps. A time lost in the woods, when the crows have eaten the crumbs. A violent time. A time of clowns – clowns with sharp eyes and cigarettes. The time of the ‘balloonMan’. The frantic time. There is no narrative purpose or structure to this time. Vague, fantastic images dominate my memory of it. First but unfulfilling loves. Geometry. Basketball. A few fights. My first kill. My first kiss. Video arcades. The Mall. The Catcher in the
And then, slowly, a time of something like a settling in – reason gaining sway.
The Time of Fixed Ambition (ages 17 – 25)
Out of the Tumult arose the Time of Fixed Ambition. This was the time of Chaos Defied. This was the time of plans and purposes.
Somehow, despite the Tumult, I had distinguished myself. I was gifted. I was going somewhere: valedictorian, student body president, not the captain of the team but not on the bench either, most likely to succeed. I was going somewhere, so I at least needed to know where that was.
The Fixed Ambition had three sequential iterations – the political, the religious, and the intellectual. The political was brief lived and based upon little of substance. The religious set in a little more deeply and lasted a little longer. I would go to seminary. I would save the world. I would dispense the body and blood. I would take the reigns of the
Finally, realizing that my future did not lie along that path, I turned with real resolve and conviction to the final iteration – intellectual conquest.
I finished my undergraduate studies one year early. Graduate school came easy. I finished my Masters Degree in literature and entered a PhD program at a respected university. I completed my coursework with many accolades and several publications. Ah, to see my name in print! What intoxication!
I prepared to write my dissertation. It was to be an interdisciplinary masterpiece. The launching point for a stellar academic career. Faculty from several departments and even separate colleges were brought in for advice. I rented a small house in the suburbs several miles from the university. Eight months of rigorous study, including traveling abroad to prestigious libraries. Six months of disciplined writing. A carefully directed revision. It was brilliant. I prepared for my defense.
And then … the Crisis.
If I completed the defense of my dissertation, if I sought a tenure-track position at a major university, if I stopped renting and put my name to a mortgage…
Something would die. Something would die forever.
Had I never realized this, I could have gone forward and not looked back with much regret. But I did realize it. I realized it clearly. And this something, this something that lived in me but would die forever if I continued on my path … I simply could not kill it. Not knowingly. I would never have been able to live with myself.
I slipped a note of apology into my advisor’s mailbox, found a fellow graduate student to pick up my lease, sold my car and left without providing anyone with a forwarding address.
The Time of Wanderings (ages 25 – 32)
The Time of Wanderings was a strange time, an odd mixture of all the previous epochs of my existence. Chaos … perhaps … Chaos Recognized. Like childhood, but not. Like adolescence, but not. Sharing something with the spirit of my ambitions, but without a definite aim and certainly without an address.
First I traveled the
Wherever I was, I worked whatever job was available when I needed money. I worked in machine shops, coffeehouses and cattle yards. I picked fruit for day wages. I helped alfalfa farmer buck his hay. I worked in a library one summer.
Finally, returning from
And somewhere during that time in
The Time of Quiet Solitude (32 - ?)
I suppose coming out here to Ithilien is probably considered by anyone who still thinks they know me to be yet another wandering. But I know that’s not the case. So would Mr. P, Jonah, Cyrus, Graham and any of the others. Maybe even Camilla. They would recognize the difference. It doesn’t feel the same and I am not in the same phase of my existence. In fact, even during the Wanderings, I did not have in me the true spirit of a Seeker-Errant. I was following the Quest, yes, but I never found in Seeker-Errantry an actual calling, a profession – as others I know did. I think I was always looking for Ithilien.
Can I say I will be here till I die? No.
Can I say how long I will be here? No.
To answer 'Yes' to any of those questions would be to kill that something in me that I sought to keep alive when the Wanderings began. How can I know what I will be in five years? How can I know what five years will have taught me about questing and wisdom and awakening and mission and purpose? And how can I know that at the end of five years I won't have to leave to keep that something alive? To say I could know would be to renounce myself.
But this is the Time of Quiet Solitude. For however long it lasts.
Saturday, May 21, 2005
I finished the root cellar yesterday.
After getting the black plastic it was pretty easy to put up the log walls and a simple roof. All I have to do now is cover it with earth again and it will be ready to go for the winter.
Speaking of food preservation, I have been experimenting with smoking fish in a little smoker that I borrowed from St. Godric’s, but I think my next building project will be a real smokehouse. I suspect that hunting will be decent enough throughout the winter, but I do want to have something just in case. Of course I will also dry meat and can vegetables. (Can you can meat as well? I suppose you could...)
I tried dandelion greens as a side dish last night – pan fried with onions and garlic. They’re not bad. They are not good, but they are not bad either. Perhaps I should try canning them?
I used to think a lot about dandelions when I lived in the suburbs - kind, gentle creatures. Beautiful. Children love them. In the better part of ourselves, we all love them. We've just forgotten. (That's one of the things I came out here to remember.) And yet in their kind, gentle, beautiful way they draw down upon themselves the never ending wrath of the ChemLawn minions. I’ve actually seen grown men speak with real anger of dandelions in their bluegrass. This hatred of dandelions and preference for is another of the things belonging to the world of the Rooted Folk that I simply refuse to comprehend.
Sometimes in the spring, about this time of year, I would pick bunches of dandelion seed heads and walk through the neighborhood blowing them into the wind like a Johnny Appleseed of the weeds. Or I would pick a bunch of the yellow flowers, tie a red ribbon around them and leave them in random mailboxes.
In my clearer-headed moments, I knew that I couldn't beat ChemLawn. It's too big. Too pervasive. Too many people are in too deep. But it made me happy to try and the children always understood. And that leaves room for hope.
Thursday, May 19, 2005
I finally caught a glimpse of red.
This evening, again near dusk, I saw a human figure walking through the thin trees about 500 yards upstream on the other side. From that distance, I could just tell that she was wearing denim shorts and a red sweater.
About 150 yards from the cottage, she cut through the young ferns to the stream and crossed on a fallen log – holding her hands out to keep her balance. I noticed then that she was walking barefoot.
As she approached, I saw that she was tall and lithe, moving cat-like and confident, taking less care of her bare feet than I would have thought. She was probably 19 or 20 years old. She had a small beige backpack over one shoulder and a silver caribiner in a belt loop of her shorts.
This, of course, was Camilla.
When you two are the only people within a six mile radius and there is no noise more distracting than the crickets, it is considerably awkward to watch a half-known soon-to-be-guest approaching in this manner. Maintaining eye contact required considerable force of will. But it did give me time, at least, to collect myself:
“The Maiden Warrior, I assume?”
She smiled. “Yes. And you must be the Lord Emrys.”
With a deep bow I made my final acquaintance. “Welcome, Lady, to my valley.”
I showed her the cottage, the garden and the root cellar.
She brought two cigars and a bottle of St. Godric’s ale out of her backpack.
While I declined the cigar, we did share the bottle of ale; and I smoked my pipe while she smoked her cigar. She did not smoke vulgarly, or with an overzealous energy that would have indicated unrest. Nonetheless, she carries something deep and brooding around with her. When, at one point, she looked for a long time at the smoke from her cigar, I could see it in her eyes.
She is not running from anything, but she is still keenly aware of some old wound that has only begun to heal.
Though she is beautiful and in many ways young, we will be friends – at least such friends as two people like us can be.
She is staying for now in a shallow cave about three miles upstream and plans to remain at least through the summer solstice. I have granted her free and open use of the valley for as long as she needs it, as well as access to my stores, such as they are or will be. I also promised to teach her how to fly fish with a spare rod I have and invited her to the poetry workshops.
After a while, Camilla left as she had the other night, quietly and by the light of the stars.
Today is my birthday.
I’m thirty-two years old.
Yesterday I spent most of my time doing small chores around the cottage looking over my shoulder or up the valley in hopes of catching a glimpse of red through the trees.
No one even knows it’s my birthday.
This is a good life.
pass quickly overhead,
casting rapid shadows.
Wednesday, May 18, 2005
One of the monks passed by the stream while I was washing up. (He must have gotten up early and I'm not sure where he was going - up the valley somewhere, I guess. He had a curious demeanor). I asked him about the black plastic and he said he didn't think it would be a problem. I think I'll just pick it up when I go down there for the poetry workshop.
I did some gardening in the morning, split some wood and hiked the foothill trail in the afternoon, taking my dinner with me.
I got caught up in a carving about half way up the trail, though. (I carve dead or dying trees into little statues - this one is a bust of Cardinal Richelieu after Bernini.) I didn't return to the cottage till dusk.
But when I did ...
I found this on the doorpost nail:
Dear Myrddin -
Glad to have found you not at home. It gives me the opportunity to leave this note. A better introduction in this case, I hope.
Sorry to have startled you last night at the window. Must have been a shock. I saw your little cottage and was curious.
You sleep very peacefully.
But you startled me as well. So by the time you came out, I had already made the mistake of climbing that oak by your cottage. The one with the birdhouse. Don't know what I was thinking, because if you would have just looked up I would have been trapped.
I decided to keep quiet and wait till you went back inside before I climbed down and continued on my way, but then you just sat down on the porch and started talking to yourself! (Don't worry I couldn't hear what you were saying.)
When you finally went in and shut the door, I climbed out of the tree and headed downstream in the direction I had been walking. A beautiful evening by the light of the stars. Didn't you think?
Must have been well after midnight when I saw a light and found the little monastery. The monks gave me lodging even at such a late hour, but I might also have slept in the garden.
I want you to know that you intrigued me, especially your willingness to talk to yourself like that. But I couldn't come down from the tree. Couldn't tell if you were entirely safe. But the monks gave me your name and with it many kind words.
Yesterday morning, when I walked into the valley, I thought I was just passing through - but even then I couldn't remember where I was coming from and I had no idea where I was going. Seem to have lost my way at the right moment.
With your permission, I would like to stay a while in your valley, perhaps further upstream?
See you soon?
She's real! And she's here!
I did not sleep well last night.
Monday, May 16, 2005
The strangest thing happened to me this evening.
I had already eaten dinner, enjoyed my after-dinner smoke and was resting on my cot in the back room – dozing off and on.
If I am to do anything productively in the late evening, I really need a little nap. And I had planned on sharpening my knives, continuing The Brothers Karamazov and perhaps doing some preparation for the poetry workshop this Thursday.
For some reason I woke up quickly to a strange sensation. It was twilight, but turning towards the front room I swear that I saw, if for no more than a second, a woman’s face looking in through the window! She had short dark hair, somewhat tussled, dark brown eyes, and pale skin.That’s all I caught. Perhaps a fleeting glimpse of something maroon or red as well – a shirt or scarf maybe.
I sat up quickly, but the face had disappeared.
It took me several seconds to collect myself and dash outside, but I saw no one.
If she was here, she’s gone.
I sat on the porch for a long time, waiting for the gloaming to fade and for the stars to come out in their fullness.
Now it’s time for bed.
That sympathetic criticism of “The Solitary” turned upon me almost immediately after I had finished writing it:
“So … you supposedly want ‘healing.’ You supposedly want to be united to these ‘grounded folk’ in some moment of final dissolution-consummation. Really? Then what the hell are you doing out here? What is ‘all this’ other than a flight from reality? This is not a longing for healing, this is a deliberate wound!”
“Well, it’s not quite like that, you see…”
“No. Wait a minute. No. I don’t see. I don’t. And neither do you, really. This is cowardice, plain and simple. There. I said it. You’re a coward. That’s it.”
“Now, hey, you wait a minute ..”
“Me? wait a minute? Wait for what? Your evasion? Your clever escape? Your spin? Your dodge?”
“Ok, you’ve got a point, but …”
“But what? But what? Come on. You rattle off this paean to healing and universal brotherhood. You want to see the unity of the Seekers and the Grounded Folk, the healer and the patient, etc. etc. etc. … yada, yada, yada. But what are you doing about it? What are really doing? You seem to believe that you might have something that will ‘awaken’ them or that they might be able to ‘heal’ you or that maybe both could come true in some way. So what do you actually do? You come out here and you live in a shack. And what for? ‘To escape deliberation … to live as it comes … to watch and to record.’ You came to smoke your pipe, brew ale, and forget what you’ve learned. How in the world is that going to help? Huh? How is that helping real people in the real world?”
“Ok. Stop. Enough. I put my hand over my mouth. You're right. I don’t have the answers. I probably don’t even have the questions. But here I am, and here I am staying. I want to be here. For now that's enough. And I will hope for healing in spite of what you’ve just said. Somehow. Perhaps in a mystery.”
“And you. If you’re going to stay here, you better get used to it. It doesn’t necessarily have to make sense to you. And Rilke? Rilke’s going away. Here. Look at Rilke. Rilke is going on the shelf. Rilke is shelved - deep. There. No more Rilke. Not now. I’m going fishing. Goodbye.”
And I did.
And I enjoyed it.
I even caught a 14 inch rainbow.
Those questions are important. They are extremely important. And someday, no doubt, I will have to face them - perhaps even return. But not know. Because, if I can’t fish through the ultimate questions, here and now, then … what good are they doing me?
When I got back I looked long and hard at my stalled root cellar project. Of course I would love to express the self-reliance and ingenuity that would be necessary to derive a natural resin. I would love to spend all week (all month?) boiling pine roots until I get something worth painting the split logs with. But I need a root cellar.
So I’m going to use black plastic.
The monks have plenty in their toolshed. They cover their tomato mounds with it.
I’ll ask next time I see one of them.
This morning I shot one, gutted it, skinned it, hung it from the eaves of my cottage and cooked it over an open fire for lunch.
This almost makes one want to be a pantheist.
Sunday, May 15, 2005
The opening stanza captures exceptionally well the basic condition, at least the felt condition, of a Seeker - be he or she a Seeker-Errant, an Eremite or a Coenobite:
As one who has sailed across an unknown sea
among this rooted folk I am alone;
It is the dawning of this awareness that began the quest of every Seeker I have ever known.
I am somehow different.
I don't seem to be seeing the world in the same way as the rest.
I don't know how I got here.
I must have come from somewhere else, from off the map, from Elsewhere.
They are rooted and together.
I am drifting and alone.
...the full days on their tables are their own
to me the distant is reality.
Yes, yes! There is a fullness in the life of these rooted folk that the Seeker has a very difficult time understanding.
Can this be all?
Is this really fullness?
Can they really be satisfied?
Could I? With that?
Sehnsucht surges towards a distant telos, finding dimmest relief only in the first few steps of setting out, in the immediate yielding to wanderlust.
But even then...
The Longing remains.
Where do I set out for and when?
Is the end of the Quest in myself or outside of me?
Is there an end?
If only I had a sign.
...their slightest feelings they must analyze,
and all their words have got a common tune.
The things I brought with me from far away,
compared with theirs, look strangely not the same.
Who are these people that "their slightest feelings they must analyze"? Why does the Quest seem to have no hold on them? And what are these things of theirs that mine look so strange amongst them? Is this a trick? A facade? A game?
I believe that whoever they are, these rooted folk, they are my brothers and sisters.
Somehow, strangely, they are my brothers and sisters.
Perhaps they came from across the same unknown sea so long ago that they have forgotten. Perhaps they can be reminded. Perhaps their memories can be wakened. Perhaps they can learn to see, if even asquint, the far off country. Perhaps they can learn to hear the cry of the gulls, to long for lost Atlantis or distant Tir-nan-Og.
Perhaps that's why I'm here.
On the other hand, perhaps I was sent from across the unknown sea to be at home among them, to give up my wanderlust. Perhaps I was sent to learn - to learn, at least, to live at peace with my burden. Perhaps my eyes are unduly dim to the fullness at their tables, their common tune, and their simple feeling. Perhaps I am the one who needs to be healed.
Perhaps that's why I'm here.
I suspect, however, that the real answer to why I'm here, why the rooted folk are here, why we're all here, is to be found neither in healer nor patient, but in the place where they meet and vanish into one another - in the healing itself.
I suspect, whether we know it or not, that we are all both healers and patients, seekers and sought, rootless and rooted.
And it is the nameless something at the center around which we dance that animates us all in our glory and our shame.
Saturday, May 14, 2005
Let me put it this way: the root cellar walls are not finished.
I did spend the entire day splitting logs, though, and they are all ready to go.
I also received a helpful tip from an anonymous Seeker-Engineer. He or she suggested that I use a natural tree resin to create a waterproof seal. Now my difficulty is how to extract tree sap from pine. Any ideas?
If I could lift my arms I would go fishing.
I think I will watch Nights of Cabiria again. And again. And again.
Friday, May 13, 2005
As one who sailed across an unknown sea,
among this rooted folk I am alone;
the full days on their talbes are their own
to me the distant is reality.
A new world reaches to my very eyes,
a place perhaps unpeopled as the moon:
their slightest feelings they must analyze,
and all their words have got a common tune.
The things I brought with me from far away,
compared with theirs, look strangely not the same:
in their great country they were living things,
but here they hold their breath, as if for shame.
Thursday, May 12, 2005
Last week, as I said, the workshop was a little disappointing. I think I must have ventured too early into the music of language before they really felt that they had anything musical to say. This week was much better. We picked up the thread of evocative sensual experiences from the first workshop and, since it was on my mind, I had them describe with as many sensual details as possible some happening from their own childhood.
One of the monks chose a time when his father had put their rabbits to death with a club, marking particularly the screams of the rabbits and the blood running out of the ears onto the white fur.
Another remembered venturing into his parents' bedroom (which had been strictly forbidden), opening the top drawer of his father's dresser, and holding in his hands the silk handkerchiefs, old medals, and collection of straight razors (including one with an ivory handle) that he found there.
Yet another remembered how his parents had made him eat the cornflakes he had been offered by an old man who lived in a shack by himself and fed deer, and how the cornflakes had tasted like salt.
Other memories included a boat ride through the Louisiana swamp, a great aunt's salt and pepper shaker collection, several attics, gardens, toolsheds and garages, and even a trip to Disneyland (which I didn't have the heart to veto).
This workshop was a resounding success - both poetically and spiritually. Though these 'noticings' don't necessarily add up to a poem per se, they do bring one into contact with the poetic fabric of reality and often carry with them all the 'meaning' that a good poem needs.
Between the workshop and dinner, I strolled through the monastery garden with Brother Brendan, St. Godric's chief gardener. Theirs dwarfs mine, of course. In addition to wheat, barley, corn, hops and soy bean fields, they have over 3 acres of vegetables, an excellent greenhouse, and a very efficient organic system. Brother Brendan was able to give me some very helpful tips for my little plot and lent me an excellent book on organic gardening.
And for dinner?
French Onion Soup w/ a Wild Green Salad
Venison Tenderloin with Madeira Green Peppercorn Sauce
served with Garlic Mashed Potatoes
w/ Hahn Estates 2003 Syrah
w/ Jadwiga Mead (Apis Meadery)
I returned to the cottage this evening rather than staying the night. I hope to get an early start and maybe even finish the walls and floor of the root cellar tomorrow.
Fifth Poetry Workshop
Wednesday, May 11, 2005
Drawing can be very frustrating ... to know what you want and not be able to execute it ... to see the picture in your mind and not have it come out on the paper...
Some work in the garden today - weeding, cultivating, tending.
Some work on the root cellar - cleaning up after the rain, fixing a small slide, cutting down several small trees for the logs.
Some reading in The Brothers Karamazov - Alyosha, Grushenka, and an Onion.
Some fishing this evening - very little going on, the stream a little murky, nymphs not producing any action.
Tuesday, May 10, 2005
It rained most of the day today.
I covered the root cellar with an old canvas tarp that I had borrowed from the monastery to use as a tent when I first moved in and was building the cottage. Then the rest of the day I spent indoors drinking tea and reading Fyodor Dostoevsky The Brother’s Karamazov. (I had gotten a little behind in my reading.)
In addition to whatever new reading or miscellaneous re-reading I'm doing, there are four classic novels that I read every year to mark the seasons. Every spring I read The Brothers Karamazov, every summer Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, every fall Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, and every winter J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. These compose for me a literary liturgical calendar, if you will; and the discipline and devotion of reading them has become almost as significant.
Today I finished Part II, including Book VI of The Brothers Karamazov – the three chapters on the life and teachings of the Elder, Father Zosima. Every year that passage is an exercise in humble self-examination and a call to a higher, more spiritually developed way of living in this world.
The clouds have passed.
The stars are out ... threads to the ‘innumerable worlds of God.’
Monday, May 09, 2005
This afternoon I went out to map the valley and found that I simply couldn't do it - at least not in anything resembling a scientific way.
I had in mind a topographical map with a pretty accurate accounting of distances from landmark to landmark and other such things. I wanted something I could work on for a while - the whole summer or longer. But as I strode out with my compass and began estimating my paces, I realized that to map a thing is to conquer it, and I do not want to conquer this valley - ever. I don't want to conquer anything anymore. I have already conquered enough. It is time to allow myself to be conquered.
So tonight I'm working on an altogether different kind of map, something that is closer to one of those ancient touchstones of childhood, a map of experience not of conquest.
When I get a working copy I'll let you see it.
Sunday, May 08, 2005
Long stemmed roses do not grow here.
You will not be able to find a champagne brunch on a country club lawn within 250 miles of here.
And most of us who come here - whether to stay or whether just passing through this place as one stop on the long journey - have, at best, an uncomfortable relationship with domesticity. It frightens us. It smells from a distance like the final triumph of table manners over the human soul.
The flight from domesticity is yet another reason that many of us are 'out here'. This is not to our credit, hear me clearly (though some seem to think so). There is nothing wrong with IRA accounts, lawn fertilizer, and the cabin up at the lake. There is nothing wrong with bills and pets and the PTA. With Mother's Day and Father's Day and Groundhog Day and President's Day and Memorial Day ... But at some point in the life of each Seeker, even if he never abandoned the trappings of domesticity, something just ... smelled funny about it. And if that rejection is in some sense prophetic, well, that still doesn't mean it's to our credit. Quite the opposite is more likely.
In some ways I wish I could have just settled down in 'ordinary' fashion ... gotten a power boat, a dog, a career ... found a wife, bought a house, had children. I think I would have liked having children. And I don't think I'm going to like growing old without them. But at some point ... I just had to get away. I had to get out. And after many long years, here I am, for now.
But there's any interesting thing about this flight from domesticity that seems to be one of the distinctive qualities of a Seeker (especially the Seekers-Errant in whom it is almost certainly a vice on some level). It is not incompatible with a tendency to cherish deep, profound and sentimental memories of childhood, parents and home. These mysterious sensations of the innocence, joy and peace of our younger days have, in fact, become for many of us touchstones of sehnsucht. And these touchstones fuel something deep - something that keeps us from despair but keeps us moving. It's more than just memory, regret or nostalgia. There's a hope and future mixed into it - just out of reach but not so far as to leave no room for the real possibility that something, somewhere, somehow...
And our mothers are almost always wrapped up in it.
So today I want to pay tribute to my two grandmothers and my mother - not for everything mothers always do, but for a few isolated moments, several touchstones in my life for which they are responsible.
My paternal grandmother is still living in the town in which she was born, though she is legally blind and can only hear dimly in one ear. It has been five years since I have seen her and I wish I could communicate how much that pains me. I wish even more than I could just leave here and go visit her. But I can't. Too much keeps me here and too much keeps me away. God forgive me.
Thank you, Grandma, for red-hots from the jar, for graham crackers with frosting, for scrabble, for singing "The Old Rugged Cross," and for coming out on the porch to greet me.
My maternal grandmother had been dead for ... it must be four years now. I lived with her and Grandpa for a couple of summers during my Seeker-Errant days. We got along amazingly well.
Thank you Grandma for fixing sandwiches for me and Grandpa when we would go fishing, and for packing them in the blue cooler and yelling at Grandpa not to put the fish in with the sandwiches even though you knew he would anyway. I was always on your side on that one, even if I never told you. Thank you for making a fuss about my long hair. Thank you for always keeping some ice-cream in the freezer to put over the peaches.
And my mother ... she died in a car accident almost exactly five years ago now. I did not make it home for her funeral. I didn't even hear about it for five days. I was not easy to get a hold of then. She was only 61 years old. Not a day goes by that I don't think of something else I should have said to her.
But for this year, Mom, thank you for raspberries. Thank you for canning. And thank you for books - especially for reading Frederick Beuchner when I was in high school and leaving his books lying around where I could find them. He was a revelation. A first foothold perhaps. A real beginning of something inarticulable but manifest throughout my life. He was a gift you gave me almost as significant as the gift of life.
I knew that you found something in him that you couldn't quite articulate. And I knew that you were glad that I had read him, too. And though it may have seemed at times odd that we couldn't ever really talk about his writings openly, I don't think we needed to.
Tomorrow morning I will continue working on the root cellar. Tomorrow afternoon I think I will start mapping the valley - by myself.
Saturday, May 07, 2005
We fished away the morning together. (It was a little drizzly, but there were good clear hatches and lots of fish - kept two nice ones for a late breakfast and two I will attempt to preserve tomorrow morning.) Then he graciously stayed to help me with the root cellar. I found a reasonable enough hill to dig into about 150 feet from the back of the cottage - which is a little further than I would like to have to go to get a jar of beets in the middle of winter, but not so bad.
Here's what the cellar is supposed to look like when it's finished, though I'm going to push it back a little more into the hill and build a small 'hallway.' (I'm a little concerned about the depth of the frost in the winter.)
I had borrowed some tools from the monastery shed when I was there - a couple of shovels and a pickaxe just in case; but what we needed and didn't have was a wheelbarrow. We had to make a litter to carry the dirt, and that was not ideal, but we got quite a good start on carving out the cellar. We worked on it from 10:30 to Noon, broke for lunch, and then put in another four hours. It's certainly hard work, but it's good work.
And it's good work, really, because it's not for wages and when I'm done with it I am free to enjoy the fruits of my own labor and the unforced labor of my comrades, who will also be welcome to the benefits.
And in a nutshell, that's the heart of Marx's 'communism' proper. The wholesale Entfremdung (estrangement) and Entaüsserung (alienation) of capitalism, the separation of men from the product of their labor, from the beauty and dignity of labor itself, and even from their own humanity, is the principle object of his critique.
I share that critique. Men and women should find satisfaction in their labor. They should work for all. We should be 'comrades' rather than fierce competitors and rabid consumers (which are two sides of the same coin).
As I thought more about that this evening, I realized that whatever stirring in my soul led me out here, it was partly an urge escape everything that Marx also hated. But I came to escape Marx's hatred of everything, as well. The power play that he foresaw and approved, the totalitarian purges that Stalin, Lenin, Mao and others carried out, the forced leveling and 'crude communism' that Marx had naively hoped was only a necessary and vulgar but temporary and intermediate stage to some utopian future, simply cannot be accepted as a means to anything better. Though we may need to disassemble to recreate, we cannot destroy. And Marx's glorious future, a future of which I also dream, was to him only accessible by a path of destruction.
If only there we could find another way.
Karl Marx, "The Alienation of Labor"
in Italo Calvino's The Baron in the Trees
Friday, May 06, 2005
Chilled Cream of Acorn Squash Soup
Pomegranate Quail over Moroccan Cous-Cous, served with Grilled Vegetables and Chantrelle Mushrooms in a Port Wine Sauce
w/ 1999 Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir Cuvee Laurene
w/ 2000 Paradise Ranch Reisling IceWine
While the portions are appropriate to the monastic life, the experience of a dinner at St. Godric's is anything but ascetic. At the same time, it is a deeply religious experience. Every meal is a little version of Babette's Feast - an incarnation of the Glory of the Lord, a Hymn to Christ, a Re-Creation of the Cosmos, an Icon.
The meal always ends with a very unforced appreciative silence of contemplative gratitude. And at just the right distance from the meal, we watched Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon on the monastery projector. At first, I was less impressed than I expected to be. I had never seen it before, and while I was struck by Kazuo Miyagawa's cinematography, the Kabuki-influenced Japanese style of acting has always been a bit difficult for me to appreciate (though I think I might be getting over it).
We retired for the evening without conversation - they to their prayers and I to my cell in the visitor's quarters, so I had some time to think about the film myself before discussing it. The more I thought about it, the more I appreciated it.
Four versions of an event, each told by a deeply invested character. At first I was mechanically caught up in the mere mystery of the plot. What really happened? Did the samurai die by a sword or a dagger? Was his wife faithful? Did Tajômaru fall off the horse or not?
But as these sorts of questions began to exhaust themselves, I began asking more probing questions. Is the point here really to solve the mystery? Can the mystery even be solved? Can a golden thread of 'truth' be pulled out of these four stories that tells us what 'really' happened? What is the art of storytelling all about? Aren't we all really artists? What does it mean to provide a faithful narrative? What is the difference between faithful art and a lie? Do dead men ever tell lies? What do women want, what will they do to get it, and will they be happy when they do? What does it mean to be an honorable man? How compatible is honor with honesty?
This morning I walked back up the valley, growing more and more appreciative of the film, the day, and all other mysteries that have little to do with 'just the facts.'
Third Poetry Workshop
Wednesday, May 04, 2005
Tuesday, May 03, 2005
Today marks two full months here in the valley as well as the anniversary of the execution of the defenders of
And I need a root cellar.
When I made the two initial trips in here, I brought quite a bit of freeze dried food to supplement what I could get from the land, but that stock is almost out. It all tastes disgusting anyway. But I suppose I will have to hike out again at least once this summer, unless I can get someone to bring me some supplies.
The monks are also very generous and I’m certain they would not let me starve, but this fall I would like to can, dry, smoke, salt or otherwise preserve as much as I possibly can for the winter.
The garden is coming along nicely. The first planting of radishes should be ready soon. Lettuce, onions, peas, spinach and cabbage are in. Broccoli and cauliflower should go in this week. So should the beets, chard and potatoes. A little later in the month I’ll be able to put in beans, corn, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, cucumber, and a variety of melons. I’ll also have a nice herb garden, I think.
There are plenty of rabbits and squirrel. I should probably take a couple deer – just to be safe. I don’t see as I’ll ever have trouble getting fish, but I do plan on smoking some anyway.
So I’ll need a root cellar.
I’ve got some plans, though, and they don’t look too difficult; but it is going to take a bit of work. I’ve got help from the monks if I need it and I’m sure some of these Seekers-Errant won’t mind lending a hand – perhaps in exchange for a meal or a good book or one of my finer cigars.
Speaking of which ... I've got to keep an eye out for Cyrus this evening.
Monday, May 02, 2005
Boy, the place has been crawling with Seekers-Errant lately! First Graham stops by, then Mr. P, then Jonah (all of whom were a pleasant if temporary addition to the valley). Then this evening I saw a younger guy with a scraggly beard and an old East German army jacket with the sleeves cut out standing down by the stream.
He was just standing there, knapsack fallen at his side, looking out somewhere across the valley. He stood that way for maybe five minutes and then got down on his knees to get to drink. I think he must have seen a fish, because he paused with his hands over the water and then suddenly plunged them in up to his elbows. Whatever it was, he missed.
I thought about just slipping out behind the cottage and pretending I wasn’t in. (This flock of visitors is starting to take the edge off of the eremitic life!) But in the end I decided to stay close by and, sure enough, he spotted me.
The guy turned out to be a radical egoist pragmatist pacifist evangelist and the worst kind of Seeker-Errant. A real piece of work. All talking, no listening. Wild inarticulate hand gestures that didn't add up to anything. Too well read for his own good and all the wrong books. If he has any stillness inside of himself, it certainly disappears as soon as he enters a conversation – if that’s what you could call me interrupting him every now and then with a half-question.
Three hours and a pot of coffee later, I finally managed to get him to leave by telling him that St. Godric’s would probably have more generous mealtime offerings and that if he hurried he might make it there in time for supper. (He won’t.)
I should find some way to warn them when one of these is in the valley.
Maybe smoke signals.
One more visit like that and the Grotten Brown just might not make it to Thanksgiving.
Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.
Sunday, May 01, 2005
Kenko in Essays in Idleness
i stumbled into the woods near your little house today. I have been a bit lost lately, i must admit, but it is the very fault of that bugger at the last inn who told me to go right at the fork in the road a ways back. All of my forks have 3 prongs at least, and so had this one, and neither of them looked quite right, if you know what I mean. Anyway, i stumbled into your woods and promptly damned them as i tripped over a very inconspicuous log. have you ever fallen onto twigs and prickles and hard cold ground? It sounds a bit pansy I admit, but it hurts like the devil, especially when the little plants' branches snag you face and beard. And i dropped some of my notes as well! Damn them i said and say again! Ahem,Pardon. Now after I had damned your woods, i had a bit of a look around. (After all, it is only after damning a thing that you can start to feel very cozy with it). It is not a bad place I admit. Quite a nice bit of musical, whistling breeze. Perhaps a bit solemn, but overall not a bad tune. i gather that the smaller breezes are not quite serious, but infact mock the elder winds a mite. Overall, i caught a few snatches worth recording in my notes (what was left of them, at least - Da.. ahem). i came upon this little cottage here. You must be gone somewhere. I heard once that the folks in these parts are all a bit serious minded, so perhaps you're off reading books. Books, hmm, well I feel they're a bit too verbose for me sometimes, if you know what I mean. My ear is particular sensitive, but my eyes are just a bit fuzzy at times. And besides i'm a bit of a prosaic fellow, and i gather from the winds and the woods that this place is a bit keen on the poesies. Limericks are more my line. Did you here the one about Mrs. Flanagan? Er, Ahem, well, perhaps that's for another day. Anyway, i sat on your stoop or perhaps your step (you don't happen to have a sandwich or some biscuits lying around here do you?... hmm, can't quite make out - perhaps you need to wash your windows and move that little table there - a body can't see a thing through these windows)and i was joined by a fat, nosy sparrow. i know it was a sparrow as those blighters are everywhere i go, and they will always join you for lunch whether they're asked or not. Haha, tough luck for this bugger, for he won't get food off of me, for i drank, er ate my last meal at the inn, and haven't got a scrap on me. Lord, i wish i had some pipe tobacco handy, or even just a scanty pint of beer. Hmm, or a sausage.... well, you sure like that reading plenty don't you! Hmmph, I figure I'll wander around some more and see if i can find those monks i heard about. The religious are usually pretty free with the comestibles. God keep the blighters. Ah, and what time do you usually have dinner?... just wondering...
What an excellent specimen of a human being! What Dickensian grandeur! What garrulous poetry!
Yes, poetry, Mr. P, pure poetry. Limericks indeed! No one who knows the word "comestibles" can fail to be either a poet, a madman or a lover - which amount to three sides of the same coin anyway. You write and music fills the earth. God bless you friend. Feed the sparrows, write your limericks, and have a pint. (If you want to sample the Grotten Brown, however, you'll have to wait till next Thanksgiving. I told Hektor I would be sure to save it for him.) I hope you find me at home next time, though I doubt you'll find the windows washed. I'm fond of the ambiance.