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.
Monday, June 06, 2005
It's not that I haven't been enjoying The Beauty of the Infinite - I think it may be the most important book I have read since undertaking Hans urs von Balthasar's The Glory of the Lord in graduate school. But ... here's an example of an relatively readable passage:
"If then a theology of beauty stands with the concrete and particular, in defiance of any species of thought that places its faith in abstraction or generalities, it militates of necessity against practices that simply sort narratives into discrete categories of story and metaphysics, myth and meaning, symbol and reality, and then rest content; the more difficult practice of approaching narratives already prepared to be defeated by the unique, uncategorizable, and irreducible in each, is also the more fruitful (and charitable). Beauty, when not made subject to a symbolic economy, calls attention to those details of surface, those nuances and recalcitrant peculiarities, that distinguish one story from another, one narrative moment from another, and so discourage idle chatter concerning the “nature” of religious language or religious truth. If indeed Christianity embraces “the aesthetic principle par excellence,” then abstraction is the thing most contrary and deadening to the truth it offers. This provides perhaps the best definition of metaphysics, in the opprobrious sense of the word: an inexorable volition toward the abstract. “Metaphysics,” so conceived, has no real name for beauty, and can account for it, if at all, only in terms of a formless ideality that is, aesthetically speaking, the only true deformity: the privation of form. God’s glory, though, is neither ethereal nor remote, but is beauty, quantity, abundance, kabod: it has weight, density, and presence. Moreover, it has been seen in the form of a slave, revealed in a particular shape whose place and time in space is determinative of every other truth, every other beauty. In the end, that within Christianity which draws persons to itself is a concrete and particular beauty, because concrete and particular beauty is its deepest truth."
This is extremely important. My entire life of the mind depends upon this paragraph.
Nonetheless, when that's a readable paragraph ... well ... Pascal's little notes on "the Machine" and faith are a lot easier to digest under a cottonwood tree by the stream.
I'll pick up The Beauty of the Infinite again this winter - when the landscape is burried in monochromatic death in life.
Sunday, June 05, 2005
Brother Damien was supposed to come by Friday - but didn't. Nor Saturday.
Camilla hasn't come around the last two days either.
It isn't solitude that creates loneliness, but the unmaterialized expectation of company.
Things go on as before. Nothing has changed. The past two days were fabulous for cloud watching. The shade of the trees was just as cool in the late afternoon.
But the fading expectation of company dampens all.
God look with mercy upon all the Annies and Eleanors in the world tonight.
Saturday, June 04, 2005
It's coming along nicely - when I can keep those cursed rabbits out. I put chicken wire around the entire plot but they still manage to get in every now and then. Find a hole and slip through. Of course, if I can catch one of them in there, it does give me an easy shot.
Maybe I should skin of of them and stuff him and make a little rabbit scarecrow. With a little felt hat. Maybe some little obsidian eyes.
I've already harvested some peas, mustard greens, leaf lettuce, and kale. In the next week or two I should get the first heads of cauliflower and broccoli. Carrots and beets should be ready soon, too. I pulled one carrot, but it was too small. Good, but small.
Friday, June 03, 2005
Thursday, June 02, 2005
The poetry workshop went well again. I thought we would follow the pattern that I seem to have inadvertently established of alternating between form and feeling, sound and sense. Since we spent the last time we were together scanning, I decided that this week we would begin to explore poetry's tendency to make meaning by metaphor.
When most people think of 'metaphor' they think of it as a mechanical 'poetic device' - a tool in the poet's toolbox, a simile without 'like' or 'as', something to be 'used' for some other purpose.
But metaphor is not a thing to be used. Metaphor is an articulation of an entire way of Seeing - perhaps of an entire way of Being. Metaphoria is a state of mind. It is the domain of the poet and of the poetic in all of us. It is the essence of language and probably of thought. All that is worthwhile is worthwhile because of metaphor. Metaphor is ecstasy. Metaphor is the quintessence. Metaphor is the mushroom of life.
In life, metaphor surrounds us, encompases us, moves through us like the air. You can feel metaphor on a warm brick wall, along the scar that runs across the back of your thumb, in the grass beneath your feet, in a look in your lover's eye.
In poetry, metaphor happens when two seemingly unlike things are brought near and their likeness revealed - their spiritual unity unveiled by the poet.
Consider, for instance, this little poem by Carl Sandburg:
The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
Who can read that poem and not exclaim, "Yes! Amen!" It is right that the cat and the fog were brought near! Thank you Carl Sandburg! We do see their spiritual unity! Fog will never again come in on anything less than 'little cat feet'!
And one of the great things about metaphor is that metaphor bleeds both ways. It is not safe and linear. Through Sandburg's poem, we not only become more conscious of what it means to be fog but also of what it means to be a cat. And in perceiving these connections, we also learn that what it means to be fog and what it means to be a cat are not that different from what it means to be a man or a woman.
At any rate, the monks and I spent the afternoon skipping stones and conjuring metaphors down by the lake.
Not all of them were good. Some of them were downright bad. But that's OK. Both Seeing and Being take time and practice.
One of my favorites, though, was the discovery of the spiritual unity between the Sky and Death. It's not immediately apparent, but it's there. Oh, yes. It's there. And you learn to pay attention when an aged monk lies down on his back for 30 minutes staring up into the sky and then sits up and pronounces with a look of excitement on his face - Death!
And so we proceed to dinner -
New Potatoes Stuffed with Smoked Salmon and Horseradish
French Onion Soup
Filet Mignon with Mushrooms and Madiera Sauce
served with a Green Salad
w/ Diamond Mountain Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2000
w/ Inga Grappa di Moscato
in Italo Calvino's The Baron in the Trees
What relief for an eremite!
I did some gardening in the early morning. (I like gardening best in the early morning when the dew is still heavy and the sun is just breathing life into the world again.) Afterwards, I hiked up to Point Decidere. I was going to hike over the crest of the hill, just to see what I could see - to see what was on the other side. But after the crisis last week, it just didn't seem right to go casually exploring beyond the pale of my decision. So henceforth, until I leave forever, I will not cross the ridge of hills on my side of the valley. It has become a sacred barrier.
I found some nice oyster mushrooms on the way down and cooked them up for dinner. Very nice.
This afternoon I will be heading down to St. Godric's for the poetry session. I think we will probably work with haiku. And I am definitely staying for dinner.