Welcome to Ithilien
There are two perfect places in the world - Sisters, Oregon and the Land of Ithilien. For one reason or another, I decided to build my cottage in Ithilien. It's a small cottage - two rooms, a wood burning stove, clapboard siding. I'm not a very skilled builder though, so the wind comes through in the winter and I had to buy a sub-zero sleeping bag. But I made the place myself and that means something. If I have to fix it, at least it's my own work I'm fixing.
There is a small trout stream nearby. I suppose if I fished it every day religiously I might occasionally catch a monster. But it's not really that kind of trout stream and I'm content to catch my breakfast every now and then. More often than not I just sit on the porch and watch the mist rise from the water. Watch the hatches. I like to keep a pen with me in case a poem or a fragment of a poem comes to me. I don't have a dog or a cat. That would be just a little too much trouble for what I'm doing out here. I did bring my camera, though. I certainly couldn't do what I'm doing out here without one.
So, what am I doing here?
Well, I'm not Thoreau. I did not come here to live deliberately. Quite the opposite. I came to live far less deliberately. I came to escape deliberation. I came to live as it comes. I came to watch and to record. I came to smoke my pipe. I came to learn how to brew ale. I came to forget what I have learned. I came to remember what I have forgotten.
You're welcome to stay for a while, though I would ask that you bring a tent and pitch it at a comfortable distance. Do stop in for coffee in the morning. Or for dinner. Or for a glass of wine in the evening. If you brought your own fly rod and you have a good day with it, stop by mid-morning and show me what you caught. If you had a bad day, maybe I could let you know what has been hatching. Hell, dig worms and fish with a bamboo pole. I don't care. I'm not that kind of purist. (Afterall, I've got an old gas powered generator that I have to fire up from time to time to recharge my laptop battery.) Besides, bamboo poles and tin cans of worms are evocative in their own way. There's also a nice trail leading to the foothills that takes off right from behind my cottage. It's a great hike. Take it slowly. You might see a couple of my carvings along the way.
If while you're here you happen to pass a remark or ask a question (and please do), more likely than not I will answer you with a koan, a proverb, a photograph, or a moment of silence. I'm not out here to debate or philosophize. I'm out here to live.
Seekers are a very important part of this life I’m living out here, this life in a cottage in the heart of Ithilien. But what is a Seeker? And who are they?
Well, I am a seeker.
And everyone in this little valley is a Seeker, if for no longer than the time they are passing through.
Perhaps even we are all Seekers, though many seem to have forgotten the Quest.
But there are still those in whom the Quest is evident as a way of life, and it is of them I speak most properly when I use the term ‘Seeker.’
While Seekers share far more in common with each other than with anyone in whom the Quest is not evident, there are, broadly speaking, three distinct orders: Eremitic Seekers, Coenobitic Seekers, and Seekers-Errant.
Eremitic Seekerser•e•mite /'er-&-"mIt/
noun : one that retires from society and lives in solitude especially for religious reasonsEtymology: Middle English eremite, from Old French, from Late Latin eremita, from Late Greek erEmitEs, from Greek, adjective, living in the desert, from erEmia desert, from erEmos desolate
er•e•mit•ic /"er-&-'mi-tik/ or er•e•mit•i•cal /-ti-k&l/ adjective
An Eremitic Seeker is one who carries on the Quest chiefly in solitude – though not necessarily in isolation. Some do prefer great isolation, but others do not. Some go so far as to prefer caves. Others, even in their solitude, are fairly woven into the fabric of human society. Most are more or less ascetic, though some are connoisseurs. Historically, The Desert Fathers are the most notable. Henry David Thoreau, was an eremitic in his own way. Søren Kierkegaard was, I believe, an Eremitic Seeker. Many of the great Eastern thinkers I have encountered, even those who spent their lives in the monasteries, were spiritual eremites – Lao Tzu, Kenko, Yamamoto Tsunetomo.
And I am, of course, living the life of an Eremitic Seeker out here in my little cottage. There are others in the surrounding valleys, more that I’ve heard of than met. We don’t encounter each other very often, for obvious reasons, and more than one of us in a valley of this size would be a bit awkward, I think. For some reason we are more comfortable with Seekers-Errant or Coenobitic Seekers than with others of the eremitic persuasion.
Coenobitic Seekersceon•o•bite /'se-n&-"bIt, esp British 'sE-/
noun : a member of a religious group living together in a monastic community
Etymology: Late Latin coenobita, from coenobium monastery, from Late Greek koinobion, ultimately from Greek koin- coen- + bios life
ceon•o•bit•ic /"se-n&-'bi-tik, "sE-/ adjective
Coenobitic Seekers carry out the Quest in a community of like minded seekers, sharing a pattern of life, a discipline and a devotion. Monastic communities are a good example of the coenobitic life. Some other historic communities like the Devotio Moderna (Brethren of the Common Life), Bruderhof, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Finkenwalde uld also qualify. For some, the academic life is a coenobitic life in pursuit of the Quest.
In my little valley, the Coenobitic Seekers have gathered at St. Godric’s, down on the lake. I enjoy their company and they welcome mine; but we both know that I could never formally join them.
adjective : traveling or given to traveling (an errant knight)
Etymology: Middle English erraunt, from Middle French errant, present participle of errer to err & errer to travel, from Late Latin iterare, from Latin itiner-, iter journey, way; akin to Hittite itar way, Latin ire to go
Seekers-Errant are in many ways truest to the questing dimension of the life of a Seeker. They are the wanderers, the rambling men, the hitchhikers and hobos of the Quest. Historically, they are anyone who has ever purchased a six-month Euro-rail pass, stayed in hostels, biked across America, gone two weeks without taking a bath; anyone who doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from but knows they’ll get one; anyone who would drop everything and leave; anyone who’s looking for a master to guide them but doesn’t think they’ll ever find one. I think of Percy Shelley in Europe, John Steinbeck traveling with Charlie, Mark Twain on a boat with Innocents Abroad.
Seekers-Errant are dangerous. They are unstable. They are unreliable, passionate and whimsical. They come without an invitation and leave without saying goodbye. But they are beautiful. In them the seed of the Quest is deeply lodged, though it may never bear fruit.
Many Seekers-Errant come and go through the valley, drawn like a moth to the flame but never quite finding a reason to stay. Some are just passing through, crisscrossing not only Ithilien but the wide world. Some are with us for a couple of days, some for a couple of months.
Interestingly, the Seekers-Errant who come to our valley rarely get along with the monks of St. Godric and the feeling is mutual. While I don’t thoroughly understand this tension, I believe it has something to do not only with my knowledge that I could never become a novitiate at St. Godric’s but also with the vague distrust I have of all the Seekers-Errant who come through here. We Eremitic Seekers, you see, are something of a compromise between the two other orders. We have one foot in each - a bit afraid, I think, of fully committing to either.
One way or the other, if you too wish to be a Seeker, pull up a chair, pitch a tent, don the habit or hit the trail. Move on through, stay a while or stay for a lifetime.
You are always welcome, friend.
The best time to view the new leaves in spring is just after a long rain. They are beautiful against the blackened trunks of trees and light up to a pale green glow in the new sun.
From a distance and silhouetted against the sky, a lone spring tree after the rain looks like a series of velvet black brush strokes covered in explosive splotches and dots of green, more a painting that could never quite be done than itself as a part of unreflected Nature.
Seekers, Turkeys, and a Jewish Novel
A couple of the Seekers from the little monastery at the other end of the valley stopped by today just as I was cleaning up from lunch. We had an interesting chat. They were on their way up the trail, but they've been reading Chaim Potok's The Chosen. They left a copy, so I've put it on the bookshelf. If I don't fall asleep too early, perhaps I'll work my way into it this evening. It is a nice night for just sitting, though ...
Some wild turkeys have moved into the valley. There are about a dozen of them. Did you know they sleep in trees? Craziest thing you've ever seen. Big mass of bird in the top of a tree at night...
I once saw a heron land in a tree. Another of nature's embarassing moments.
Friday, April 22, 2005
A Trip Down the Valley
So, I finished The Chosen last night and decided to walk down the valley to St. Godric's after breakfast. (St. Godric's is the monastery at the bottom of the valley, the monastery the two Seekers who stopped by a couple days ago are from. It sits on the lake into which my little stream eventually meanders.)
Breakfast was beans, toast, and a fried egg - a combination I picked up while traveling in England. After I cleaned up and took care of my plants (the tomatoes will be ready to go in the ground soon!) I packed my knapsack and headed down the valley. It's about a two hour hike at a leisurely pace and I made it in two and a half. The clouds were incredible this morning, so I brought my camera. But though excellent clouds can make or break a landscape, they're not terribly interesting in and of themselves. And this morning, for some reason or another, I just couldn't find a compelling vantage for a true landscape.
When I arrived the monks had finished prayer, breakfast, and their early chores. They were in the midst of their mid-morning classes (usually the more rigorous of their two formal sessions), but I suspected they were holding off the discussion of The Chosen till the less formal afternoon seminar. I strolled the grounds till lunchtime and then joined them in the dining hall.
Lunch with them is always a vegetable dish with bread and their own home brewed beer. Their specialty is a Belgian ale (very nice!) but they also brew seasonal and experimental beers. They bottle their own wine as well, but it's not quite on par with their obvious first love.
After lunch I helped with another round of chores and then joined them for their seminar on The Chosen. Father Joseph usually leads the seminars, but he was absent on business and one of the older monks was leading (they range in age from a very precocious 13 year old to a bright-eyed if no longer as sharp witted 87 year old) .
The discussion was very good. They are honest Seekers, these monks. They wouldn't be here if they weren't. Perhaps even couldn't be here. Our two hour session centered on the following statement by Danny Saunders:
"You can listen to silence, Reuven. I've begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own. It talks to me sometimes. I feel myself alive in it. It talks. And I can hear it."
It was a very good discussion.
Though I almost always stay for dinner (the dinners are incredible - not what you would expect in a monastery at all), the conversation had made me feel 'lonely in a crowd', so I left as soon after the discussion as I politely could.
Night is coming on.
The conversation from the afternoon lingers in my mind.
And the silence of the evening echoes more loudly than I have ever heard it.
Photography is a lot like fly fishing, really.
Both require study and discipline that appear in the final outcome as art and grace.
A great photograph, like a great catch can sometimes happen by accident but is far more often the fruit of long labor and preparation.
Fish must be stalked. A photograph must also be stalked.
Fishing and photograph are both intimately bound to the time of day, the season, the atmospheric conditions, moods of water and light and the precise nature of the subject.
Despite all the work that goes into a great catch or a great shot, the artist receives each of them as grace – a moment of pristine coherence in which all his tremendous effort was but the prelude to a divine gift.
Grotten Brown from a Seeker-Errant
I was out fishing this morning (nice mist ... clear water ... three dozen or so good strikes ... of which, landed about a dozen ... kept none), and when I came back I discovered a note hanging on my doorpost nail from an English 'fellow' I met five or six years ago in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
It was a couple weeks after Mardi Gras (I prefer a lenten French Quarter, frankly). This fellow had stayed on and had been bumming around Southern Louisiana. We met in a café in the morning and ended up spending the whole day together. Clearly he was a Seeker-Errant - almost a radical Seeker-Errant. In the evening, I offered to buy him a hotel room for a night (he needed a bath), but he declined and we parted.
I hadn't seen him since.But apparently he was here this morning.
He couldn't, of course, wait four whole hours for me to return from fishing, so he left a note.
Friend -I am sorry to have missed you, but I have to meet up with a guy from Findhorn in two weeks and I'm about three days behind schedule. I heard you had taken up residence in some valley in Ithilien though, and I thought if I could find your place I might catch you in. Oh well. Maybe next time.
GrahamPS - I slipped a book under the door. It's a little beat up from the trip it took me on to Brazil, but I think you'll like it.
PPS - Check the little bend in the stream just down from your cottage. I left you a little something there as well.
The book was a more than a little beat up copy of The Little Prince (but I will treasure it) and the surprise in the stream was a bottle of Grotten Brown, which I will save for a special occasion.
And who knows if I'll ever even see that guy again.
Consider the Handkerchief
When I ran out several weeks ago, I decided to forgo Kleenex. I am done with facial tissues.
To begin with, ‘tissue’ is a ridiculous name for something that a man blows his nose with. (Not surprisingly, it comes to us from the Old French.) And to what exactly does the ‘facial’ in ‘facial tissue’ refer? Kleenex is even worse – a 1920’s trademark of a fabric called ‘Cellucotton’ that was used in gas masks in WWI and was originally marketed as a cold-cream remover.
Furthermore, it is an utter waste of precious space to pack into the valley even one box of facial tissues.
Finally, the pastel floral-print box looked ridiculous on my nightstand. I am not a purist, but my aesthetic hypocrisy does have its bounds.
So, forget for the moment that it too has its etymological roots in France and consider the handkerchief.
I don’t mean one of those silk accessories to a suit that men wear to dine out before they attend the opera. I mean the good ol’ American bandana-handkerchief, the dusky red ones with paisley print hanging out of the back pocket of any self-respecting car mechanic’s denim overalls, tied beneath the straw hats of California’s migrant workers, and never far from the greasy side compartment of any older Massey-Ferguson, International, or John Deere.
The handkerchief has several advantages over facial tissue.
Durability. The handkerchief not only serves its primary function well, effectively receiving a strong nasal blow, it can be employed with far more force than the facial tissue in the subsequent clean up.
Environmental Friendliness. Out here in Ithilien, where we don’t really have trash cans, this is very important. The handkerchief is washable, reusable, and cuts down on the unsightly if biodegradable waste of facial tissues.
Multipurpose. Here is where the handkerchief really shines in comparison to facial tissues. Whereas the tissue is designed for a very limited one time application, the handkerchief, as I’ve already hinted at, can be put to many diverse uses. The handkerchief can be used as to mop the brow, whereas the facial tissue leaves irritating lint. It can serve as an emergency bandage for serious wounds. If you’re struggling with a particularly slippery fish, the handkerchief again comes in handy; and you can clean your knife with a handkerchief after you’ve cleaned the fish. A small portion of berries can also be effectively carried in a handkerchief. I once used a handkerchief to catch crawdads. (Tie string to the four corners and bait the middle to create a fairly effective net.) Similarly harnessed though differently employed, the handkerchief can be used as a toy parachute if you suddenly find that you need to amuse a younger child. Bandana … gift wrap … cheesecloth … washcloth … small rope …
Consider the handkerchief.
People are too often torn between the love of an idea - even a good one - and the love of a person. This ought not be.
Wednesday, April 27, 2005
I've marked him for death and named him Hektor - next Thanksgiving's turkey.
It seems wrong, like marking the albatross that I will have to wear around my neck - a premeditated version of the the Ancient Mariner's great evil.
I am certain that I will not be able to look at him the same again. A great sadness has passed between us.
But I must admit the prospect of wild turkey for Thanksgiving is attractive and my mouth begins to water now when I see him.
First Poetry Workshop at St. Godric's
Before he left for his trip a couple of weeks ago Father Joseph asked me if I would lead the monks in a poetry workshop once a week in place of their regular afternoon session at St. Godric's, and I agreed.
Today was our first meeting. It was overcast. We took a walk in the woods. They brought their little notebooks.
I wasn't sure what I was looking for when we went out, but near the edge of a clearing I finally found it. Sheltered beneath a newly blooming shrub (in one of those places where the snow is last to melt and even in April you can be surprised by a chunk of ice) was a patch of dead oak leaves.
I asked each of the monks to pick up a hand full of the leaves and crush them between their palms, roll them around, break them up and then cup their hands to their noses and inhale.
After a few deep breaths, they sat around the clearing on deadwood or just on the new grass and followed these directions:
1) List four adjectives that come to your mind to describe the smell of the crushed leaves.
2) List three things that the crushed leaves smelled like.
3) Describe two events or occasions that you associated with the smell you just described.
When they were finished, we returned to the monastery for our workshop.
Here are some of the adjectives we compiled. (I know there were quite a few more, but I can't think of them and I didn't write them down.)
sweet, gritty, earthy, fresh, dim, pungent, dirty, grey, brown, wet, oaky, natural, musty...
Then I asked each of them to choose two of the adjectives that they thought best captured the smell that they had experienced (i.e. "fresh and gritty," "dim and grey," "musty and sweet").
Adjective combinations are even more fascinating, if that's possible, than adjectives themselves. No two combinations are really the same and each new combination offers a distinct flavor of experience. Take, for instance, "dim and grey" versus "dim and brown" - two different qualities of experience! Or "fresh and earthy" versus "sweet and earthy" - so akin but yet so different! "Musty and autumnal" versus "autumnal and grey." "Fresh and sweet" versus "oaky and sweet."
We compared similes. The leaves smelled like a farm, like alfalfa, like new hay ...
We compared the associations. (Smell is the sense most associated with memory, by the way, especially emotional memory.) Most of these were akin to the similes, and for most of the monks the smell returned them to a fall like environment - jumping in a pile of leaves, hay cutting, warm cider, harvest ...
Finally, I gave a brief lecture on my view of poetry, which included four talking points: the engagement of poetry with the sensual world, the poet's heightened concern for the super-communicative powers of language, the interconnectedness of sound and sense, and the metaphoric making of 'meaning.'
To experience the world poetically is to walk through the world as one samples a fine wine. And the poet's job, I told them, is to capture the superabounding fullness of any experience - its concrete, emotional, psychological and spiritual texture - and communicate that experience with language that sings.
Not an easy task.
While they were working on their adjectives, similes and associations I had composed this short poem with which to close:
Late-fall leaves that somehow survived the winter,
now crushed between my hands in spring
(the sweet, loamy smell of mown alfalfa!)
bring back amidst this green explosion,
days of cider and pumpkin pie,
when we were boys and loved the fall
for different reasons.
It is, as the critics say, 'just a workshop poem,' just a noticing, nothing more.
But I must say that I do like it.
And so did they.
And that's enough.
1934 New York Times
I was gone all day yesterday on a hike that carried me through several small valleys into which I had never ventured.
In the foothills of one I found an abandoned old two-story house, probably late 19th century, now completely overgrown. Roots from trees that had grown right up to the house were destroying the foundation. A tree had fallen over the back porch. Animal droppings and scattered leaves littered the inside. And there were the remains of a New York Times from 1934 in one corner of the fireplace! Amazing how that has survived.
At some point someone else had been living there. A can of beans in the corner. An old cot.
It was never a large house by city standards, but out here it would have been a monstrosity of elegance and refinement. Why someone would have built a house like that in Ithilien is a mystery to me and that maybe that's why they abandoned it. It just wouldn't have fit. Perhaps some romantically inclined aristocrat in his failing years tried to make a go of it out here.
But who knows. Perhaps he did make a go of it with the best that was in him. Perhaps he didn't know, at first, what the house would feel like out here. But he built it. And building it, he lived in it. And living in it, he came to understand. And understanding, he made himself ready.
It's a beautiful house now.
A perfect fit.
True philosophy is born in wisdom. Therfore if you are to grow in wisdom, you must be ready for your philosophy to change.
A Note from Mr. P, Seeker-Errant
I returned home late this afternoon from my daily rambles to find this note from a "Mr. P" on the doorpost nail.
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.
Monday, May 02, 2005
One of the Errant Seekers-Errant
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.
Tuesday, May 03, 2005
Two Months, A Garden, and A Root Cellar
Today marks two full months here in the valley as well as the anniversary of the execution of the defenders of Madrid, celebrated in Goya’s famous painting.
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.
Wednesday, May 04, 2005
Two Months Twice Ten Things
Ten Things I Miss
Jalapeno Potato Chips
Ten Things I Don't Miss
Friday, May 06, 2005
Quail and Rashomon at St. Godric's
After our poetry session yesterday (which was nothing to write home about, but we're building), I stayed for dinner at the monastery. Breakfast is bread with a choice of either beans, a hard boiled egg, or dried fish. I've already described their lunches. But dinner ... well ...
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.'
Fishing, the Root Cellar, and Karl Marx
Rising early, I found Jonah already waiting for me down by the stream. I was surprised not to have seen him at St. Godric's Thursday evening and feared he might have had to leave the valley before we were able to fish together. But there he was - some worn khakis hanging over a good pair of hiking boots, a long sleeve plaid shirt over a white T, and an expensive pair of polariods peering out from beneath a floppy hat. Into the hat were carefully laced an assortment of standard flies and a few terrestrials. He had an old St. Croix fly rod, but it was a nice one. Obviously this was not someone I was going to have to teach anything.
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.
Sunday, May 08, 2005
A Mother's Day Greeting from Ithilien
Ithilien does not have a Hallmark card industry.
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.
Mapping the Valley
This morning I finished digging out the cellar and smoothing the walls. I'm trying to figure out what to seal them with, though, as I don't have any plastic sheeting around and don't want to have to rebuild this thing next summer. Hmmm... Reeds perhaps? Clay? I need something to put behind the split logs that will line the interior.
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.
Tuesday, May 10, 2005
Innumerable Worlds of God
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.’
Wednesday, May 11, 2005
Still No Map
OK, I gave it several shots today and I just can't get what I'm looking for. Back to the drawing board.
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.
Thursday, May 12, 2005
The Third Poetry Workshop
I trudged down to St. Godric's again today for the poetry workshop. (The workshop was rescheduled for Friday after the inclement weather on Wednesday and subsequent cleanup on Thursday left them a bit behind on chores for the week.)
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.
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.
Sunday, May 15, 2005
Seekers and Rilke's "The Solitary"
Friday I posted "The Solitary" by Rainer Maria Rilke. That poem may come as close as any I've read to capturing the inner life of a Seeker - in all its glory and its shame.
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.
Last night (as I was recovering from the Rilke poem) I watched several rabbits nibble at the grass. They came out just before twilight and sat statuary except for their twitching mouths and occasional hop-hop.
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.
Putting Rilke Aside and Picking Up Black Plastic
Frankly, the Rilke poem really threw me for a loop.
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.
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.
Wednesday, May 18, 2005
Yesterday I awoke with the resignation that what I had seen had not actually been there. But real or no, I couldn't get the image of her face at my window out of my mind.
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.
A Quiet Birthday
Today is my birthday.
I’m thirty-two years old.
That means I have one year to either get myself crucified or conquer the known world.
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.
Today I pulled some weeds from my little garden, ate my first home-smoked fish and taught some monks how to scan the English language and make words sing.
No one even knows it’s my birthday.
This is a good life.
pass quickly overhead,
casting rapid shadows.
Thursday, May 19, 2005
A Glimpse of Red
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.
Of the Root Cellar Finished and Dandelions
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.
Sunday, May 22, 2005
The Five Stages of My Life
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 Rye. That time behind the school. Wads of gum beneath the bleachers.
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 Kingdom of God and we would bring it to earth.
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 United States for a year and a half – on foot, by bike, in a car when I could get one and until I needed to sell it to eat. I spent a year in California (it was then that my mother died) followed by a year in Idaho and Montana. I went to Europe and the Near East for two years.
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.
I slept on the beach, on benches, under bridges, in the homes of kindly Rooted Folk, in the temporary flats of other Seekers-Errant.
Finally, returning from Israel, I rented an upstairs studio apartment in St. Paul, Minnesota.
And somewhere during that time in St. Paul, the spirit of the Wanderings gave up its ghost.
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.
Can I say that I won’t finally end up a Seeker-Errant or join the brothers in St. Godric’s or even become one with the Rooted Folk? 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.
Monday, May 23, 2005
A Morning on the Lake with Father Joseph
Last night I hiked down to St. Godric's and spent the night in their guest house - mainly so that I could fish the lower part of the stream in the morning.
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.
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
The root cellar's all but finished.
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.
Thursday, May 26, 2005
Last night the vibrant-souled Brother Damien stopped by my cottage to talk about poetry. He didn't find me in and left a note on the doorpost. Fortunately, I had only been sitting downstream a little, thinking, and he caught me on his way back to the monastery. He sat down on the other end of the log I had been occupying and we had a brief but interesting conversation about poetry and writing and self-disclosure.
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.
Skies and Concern for the Cave Dweller
All day yesterday the most wonderful clouds were drifting over the valley - white, ashen, blue grey. The sky was aflame with them.
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.
Saturday, May 28, 2005
Trouble at the Cave
After lunch I went up to the caves across the valley to check in on Camilla.
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.
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.
Tuesday, May 31, 2005
Brother Damien's Poetic Impulse
Brother Damien came by mid-morning. I had just gotten back from fishing - kept several that were 10 - 12 inches. I thought they would make a nice lunch for the two of us. I also found a little patch of sorrel that will spruce up a salad nicely.
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!
A Solitary Day
I spent the entire day alone yesterday.
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.
Thursday, June 02, 2005
The Fifth Poetry Workshop
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 comeson 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!
nd 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
Saturday, June 04, 2005
Camilla was over for dinner again yesterday and stayed and helped me weed the garden.
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.
Late Spring Loneliness
Loneliness is an interesting phenomenon.
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.
Monday, June 06, 2005
Putting Aside the Infinite
I've decided to set The Beauty of the Infinite aside for a while and pick up Blaise Pascal's Pensées.
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.
Tuesday, June 07, 2005
Brother Damien's Poetic Progress
Well, both Camilla and Brother Damien stopped by yesterday.
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.
Thunderstorms and Rivulets
Thunderstorms off and on all day yesterday.
Rivulets through the garden.
Some slippage on the root cellar.
A leak in the cottage roof.
No poetry workshop today.
Thursday, June 09, 2005
Not a Bad Day
All things considered, it turned out to be not a bad day at all.
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.
Saturday, June 11, 2005
Death and Sky
That monk who noticed the kinship between Death and Sky?
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.
Sunday, June 12, 2005
That was the strangest but most beautiful funeral I have ever been to or even heard of. It lasted all night long.
But of the funeral more later. I'm still recovering.
His name, by the way, was Brother Oswald. Oswald Charles Stevenson. 1912 - 2005.
Monday, June 13, 2005
Brother Oswald's Funeral
So I arrived at the monastery Saturday afternoon and everyone was fasting. I joined them, as it seemed disrespectful to do anything less.
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.
Monday, Tuesday and today, in the midst of internalizing this new dimension of death, I've been teaching Camilla how to fly fish.
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.
The Sixth Poetry Workshop
I came down to St. Godric's earlier this morning than I usually do, wanting to sit in on their morning session as well as lead the poetry workshop.
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
Distance and The Graduate
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
Sunday, June 19, 2005
Well, I found out why Camilla decided not to come to the cottage yesterday.
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.
Monday, June 20, 2005
The Solstice Supply Trip
So, here's how it works. The day after every solstice and equinox (except when the winter makes traveling out the valley impossible), a group of monks begins the trek out of Ithilien to acquire what supplies they will need for the next season. Though the monastery is fairly self-sufficient, it would be unnecessarily burdensome for them to produce their own salt, sugar, tools, etc (though I suspect they could if they wanted to).
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.
Preparations for the Trip
Today's my last day in the cottage for a while. I'm going to head down to the monastery this evening.
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.
Tuesday, June 21, 2005
Alea jacta est.
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!
The first day of the journey was uneventful.
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.
It was a perfect day for traveling and we encountered no delays. In fact, we made such good time and the mules seemed to be taking it so well that we passed up their usual base camp and kept hiking till dusk last night.
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.
Friday, June 24, 2005
The Glory of Man
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.
"City of Ships" - Walt Whitman
City of ships!
(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.
I felt very much like Wim Wenders' Damiel today, wandering around this city, spiritually present but materially distant from the whole human project - 0r at least from this glorious facet of it.
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.
Friday, July 01, 2005
I'm exhausted from a day of fiddling with the laptop while Camilla hung around and gardened, but here we are finally up and running and stable.
It was a great trip into the city, but it is very good to be back.
An Excellent Trip
Now that the wireless is stable again, I can report that the trip home was uneventful.
We spent most of the time in silence - each, I suspect, treasuring his own private reflections upon the experience.
And, unfortunately, we still didn't catch the Old Fisherman at home. I wanted to hang around for a little while to see if he showed up, but monks told me that he is sometimes gone for days at a time. The case of St. Godric's Ale we had left was diminished somewhat, though, so I suspect he was just out for the day.
In reflection, the trip to the City was an excellent antidote to what could happen to someone out here in Ithilien. Father Joseph was right.
The ecstasy I experienced upon approaching the city and the joy and delight I felt wandering around the next day were all the evidence I needed after three months here in my valley that 'real life' is not the exclusive domain of Seekers. Though we do represent a vital dimension of the human spirit, we are not the whole of the human spirit - nor do we even exist apart from the City. On the contrary, we exist only in relation to the City. I suspect I will have more to say about this soon - perhaps in relation to my reflections from some time ago upon Rilke's "The Solitary"
While in the city, I did purchase several more books and a CD
First was F.A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, which I will be finishing soon in order to further my conversation with Brother Palgrave.
I also picked up the Ames / Hall translation of the Dao De Jing (with commentary) , Marilyn Robinson's Gilead and Ben Folds' new CD, Songs for Silverman.
So far, Hayek's book is enlightening beyond what I expected from a 60 year old treatise on economics and society, the CD is exceptional and bears repeated listening, the commentary on the Dao and my journey through yet another translation are going to provide a lot of food for thought, and Gilead promises to be a second Jayber Crow. So all in all, I'm very content with my purchase, though I will have to wait until the autumnal equinox to find out the identity of the Half-Blood Prince.
The garden looks excellent. The zucchini blossoms are in their full glory and the onslaught of the never ending squash will soon be upon us.
In addition to keeping up the garden, Camilla did finish the smokehouse while I was gone. She's really proud of it and it does look great - though I feel weird not having built it myself. She also had a couple of excellent days fishing and smoked about a dozen good size trout, two of which we tried for lunch today.
Monday, July 04, 2005
Camilla was up at her cave all day yesterday and none of the monks were around, so I had the day to myself.
It's funny. After the trip to the City, it almost seemed too quiet out here!
I hadn't realized it until late last night, but I needed a day to reconnect to this place, these things, this pattern of life.
I spent the morning checking over Camilla's smokehouse a little more closely - to make sure she didn't mess anything up. (Then I felt bad about doing it.)
I gardened some, though everything was in great shape.
I fished for a while, but could not get into the zone.
After that, I couldn't think of anything I really wanted to eat for lunch so I just tore off a piece of bread and hiked up the foothill trail. I fiddled with the Richelieu sculpture a bit, but I'm at the point with it that I don't want to do anything to mess it up, and I didn't have the mental focus to really devote to sculpting.
So I came back down and sat on the porch for the afternoon, reading Hayek off and on, smoking my pipe, watching the birds. I saw a couple of scarlet tanagers and several Bohemian waxwings - but even those did not stir in me the usual wonder.
At this point, I was in a bit of danger from the Boredom. Throughout the afternoon I was edgy, missing the City, looking for something to do; but without consciously trying I settled eventually into the silence - letting it flow over me, around me, through me. There was still nothing but the silence. Nothing to do. Nothing to contemplate. Nothing even to approach apophatically. Nothing.
It was an afternoon of absence.
But when the silence and solitude grew unnervingly vacant of meaning, I realized that it is this very state that had allowed me to gain a new perspective on all of human society - for that was certainly what my experience in the City represented. Only having somehow transcended or escaped the background noise of life in the City can one see the City for what it is and enter into the joy. I believe this could be done in the City though it could never be done without 'silence' in the truest and deepest sense - silence in which meaning must be for the time being absent.
I wonder if this is why Jesus often went into the wilderness alone to pray.
Camilla is coming by for dinner this evening and tomorrow we are going to set off to check out that new settlement.
Tuesday, July 05, 2005
Recovering the Spot of Time
I walked upstream early this morning intending to fish a little piece of the water that I had hitherto neglected - a stretch that passed through some considerable brambles and fallen trees.
After working my way in there I found the casting very difficult, but came across a little stretch where I thought I could roll cast across the stream to a hole overhung with roots. The surface of the poll was a swirl of obsidian in the dark shadow, but a hatch of small white flies was buzzing around and I saw a couple of ripples on the surface near the front end of the pool.
I cast there first and caught an eight inch brookie.
I caught one more at the front end of the pool, but then noticed that there was very little activity in the downstream portion and wondered if just maybe ... perhaps where the water ducks under that log ...
I roll cast to the middle of the pool and let the fly drift ...
The line snapped up off of the water and zipped out of the reel, and almost before I knew what was going on he was under the log. I played him well, though, and slowly brought him out without getting tangled in the brush.
When he came out from under the log he charged upstream and jumped about mid-pool - a glorious, arching, twisting leap! He must have landed a yard from where he leapt. I kept the line tight and let him run upstream as far as the shallows then gradually played him back onto a sandbar.
It was a 23 inch rainbow!
I released him back into the pool and walked up to Camilla's to meet her for our day trip.
We're at my cottage now but will be taking off soon to visit the new settlement. Brother Damien gave me directions on Sunday.
Winter's End and Scare Squirrels
Well, well, well ...
They are two valleys over and it took Camilla and I five hours to get there, so we didn't arrive until mid-afternoon. But I finally visited the new settlement that Brother Damien has been assigned to help out during the week.
As the path Brother Damien had directed us to came out of the trees onto the valley floor, all I could see of the settlement from that distance was a cluster of whitewashed buildings and some smoke or, more likely, steam rising from somewhere outside the cluster.
Still quite a ways from the buildings we passed through a circle of wooden posts about two feet high - a bit unnerving. Camilla agreed but we kept on going.
As we approached, we passed through another ring, this time a ring of standing stones. I could see children in blue and white running playing tag on a grassy sward bounded by the buildings. To the West of the settlement was a fair-haired man doing the wash.
We finally approached the buildings and Brother Damien came out to meet us, along with a representative of the settlement - a large man dressed in denim overalls and a course white shirt, his head covered by a wide brimmed straw hat on that shaded his eyes from the mid afternoon sun. He introduced himself as Thor and welcomed us to Winter's End.
(I couldn't help but notice him glance at Camilla's head when he greeted her. She's still wearing a kerchief around it, but you can tell she hasn't any hair.)
Whitewashed from the roof to the ground, the houses were glaring in the sun as we walked into the settlement. Their arrangement struck me as odd but a bit unfamiliar. There were 10 identical buildings arranged in an elongated horseshoe shape with a larger structure in the middle of the horseshoe, nearer the closed end than the open (a common lodge perhaps?) . As Thor was confirming my suspicions concerning the central building (though he called it the Meeting House), I finally put the arrangement of the houses together with the standing stones. Though Thor had said nothing concerning the arrangement, Winter's End was laid out, if not in exact proportions at least schematically, in imitation of Stonehenge! The two rings of stones we had passed through had been the Aubrey Circle and the Sarsen Circle! Amazing! (I must have missed the Bluestone Circle - either that or they hadn't installed it.)
Thor showed us through one of the simple houses where we met Sif, Heimdall, and young Loki. (It turns out they all renamed themselves after Norse gods and godesses.) Loki accompanies us as Thor then gave us a tour of the Meeting Hall, which functions as the common kitchen, dining hall, and, well, the meeting hall. They also have a barn and hen house (where the heelstone of Stonehenge would be!).
When he had finished, I casually asked Thor how long it had taken them to assemble the Aubrey Circle out there.
He looked at me with wry astonishment, tipped up the brim of his hat and said, smiling, "Well, so we have a scholar of the old ways with us! Welcome!"
We spent an enjoyable evening at the settlement. Shortly after the tour everyone returned from their chores and we met the entire settlement. They honored us as guests and there was even dancing in the Meeting Hall after dinner. I'm really no dancer but Camilla connived a couple of dances out of me and then I danced with several of the settlement women.
The settlement is small, there are 12 adults and 8 children, but they seem to have worked very hard to get themselves established. Men and women alike all wear the same uniform - denim overalls, course white shirt, straw hats. They all even have the same haircut - shoulder length and either parted in the middle or drawn back into a small pony tail.
On the surface of it, they strike me as a small version of a Findhorn or Bruderhof. I don't know if they are religious at all in the conventional sense. They did say a sort of 'blessing' over the meal, but it was one of those blessings that could easily be adapted to Native American, Christian, or Buddhist spirituality.
I suspect some very clearly articulable reason for them being out here, but we didn't get into any discussion of their philosophy of life or reason for coming to Ithilien. Maybe next time. This was just an envoy to put us on visiting terms.
Camilla and I each slept in one of the vacant dwellings in the horseshoe and left in the morning after breakfast a breakfast of polenta and eggs.
When we got back I discovered that a squirrel had gotten into the damn cottage and knocked everything around. Those little beasts are going to be hell when the fall comes. I wonder if I could shoot a few and make some little "scare squirrels"?
Thursday, July 07, 2005
I was reading the Dao today and I think I saw through my hand.
Perhaps the gradual readjustment in Western physics from a conception of the material world as matter to a conception of the world as energy would accord with a move towards some elements of Eastern metaphysics.
Heading down to St. Godric's for the poetry workshop. I will likely spend the night and carry on my conversation with Brother Palgrave.
Friday, July 08, 2005
The Seventh Poetry Workshop
Though I write chiefly free verse at this point in my life, I have always valued the discipline of formal stanzaic verse. Being forced by the traditional restraints into a consciousness of the rhythms and sounds of the language, knowing when to judiciously substitute an irregular foot for a regular one, learning how to match the form the content of the poem - all of these are invaluable to a poet writing in free verse. Apart from a consciousness of these things, his craft is arbitrary and artless.
So today I lectured on poetic form, with an emphasis upon quatrain stanzas (in my opinion the most useful at present in learning the discipline of a poetic approach to language). If you can learn how to effectively craft and manipulate a variety quatrains, you have learned all you need to learn of poetic language.
For homework, however, I showed them the triolet and asked them to compose one on a subject of interest they had discovered in any of the previous poetry workshops.
Smoked Trout Salad
Roasted Rock Cornish Game HenRoast Vegetables and Small Potatoes
w/ Beaulieu Vineyard Pinot Noir Vin Gris 2001
Vanilla Ice Cream with a Honey Mint Chocolate Sauce
w/ 2002 'R' De Rieusec (Dry) Sauternes
Having finished The Road to Serfdom, I engaged Brother Palgrave in an after dinner discussion of individual liberty in society. We are largely in agreement that society ought to be as libertarian as possible, allowing for the flourishing independence of individuals and free associations; but the extent to which the two of us could butt heads over the details of such freedom in society was almost comical given Ithilien's distance from the actual limitations of any society upon our freedom.
Perhaps if I discover the inclination to do so I will post more on our debate.
Sunday, July 10, 2005
Two Out-of-Season Seekers Errant
Wonder of all wonders have two Seeker-Errant visitors. This isn't the normal season for them to be on the move. But there they were, passing through the valley. Yesterday afternoon I was gathering watercress from a small rivulet that feeds into the stream, and they walked right by me. One was tall and muscular with shoulder-length blonde hair. He wore cutoff jeans and military shirt with the sleeves ripped out. The other was Asian - much shorter and with a buzz cut, but also muscular. He wore surfer shorts and a white t-shirt. Both were barefoot.
I invited them to dinner and they agreed to stay for at least the evening. They're still here, now, though and seem to be enjoying themselves (and my St. Godric's Ale, which I'm going to need to replenish). It's very odd for them to be in these parts during the summer months, though. Perhaps I am entertaining angels unaware.
You see, by some principle of bio-metaphysics, Seekers-Errant, while unpredictable on the micro-sociological level of individual behavior, are fairly stable as a demographic on the macrocosmic level. And like birds, though on different principles, they tend to migrate in the spring and the fall.
The Seeker-Errant Migratory Pattern is something like this:
Spring (April - June) is the time for the Seekers-Errant to move from wherever they have been during the winter to somewhere they have 'always wanted to see.' Therefore, in these months you can find Seekers-Errant purchasing inexpensive airfare to distant destinations, looking for a good deal on a used motorcycle, booking travel on a freightliner, hitchhiking up the Alaskan Highway or preparing themselves in some other such endeavor.
New social groupings form, typically composed of 2 - 5 members.
For many juvenile Seekers-Errant, this migratory pattern begins the summer after their senior year in high school and corresponds with a radical change in their plumage.
Spring is a time of excitement and anticipation for the Seekers-Errant.
During the summer months (June - August) the Seekers-Errant are usually happily occupied in roaming a fixed territory - Europe and the Holy Land being the most common destinations, followed by Alaska, South America, and Central Asia (Tibet and Nepal). The early and middle parts of the summer are times of contentment and openness for the Seeker-Errant. This is the time when they are most likely to engage in meaningful conversation with others in coffeeshops and bars, on buses and subways, or at theaters and parks.
Towards the end of the Summer period, however, a vague ennui begins to mark the transition to the fall. Groups of Seekers-Errant that had formed in the Spring often fall to fighting and squabbling amongst themselves, usually diminishing to no more than two or disintegrating altogether before the predetermined date. Late-summer Seekers-Errant are often surly and incoherent. Sometimes they begin drinking too much, though this usually only lasts for a few weeks.
Fall (September and October) is a period of recovery for most Seekers-Errant. Having come to the end of their summer adventures and found themselves homeless (be it literally or metaphorically) they savor the harmony between themselves in the melancholy season, taking long walks in deciduous forests, writing a good deal poetry, smoking, sitting in libraries, gaining five or ten pounds.
Commonly, however, at some point during this time the Seeker-Errant will stumble upon some vision of common life that offers itself as a more serious project for her life - a plan, an ideal, a shared vision. Maybe she reads an article. Maybe someone asks her what he's going to do for a job during the winter. Maybe she just sees a vagrant beneath a bridge, beginning to shiver in the October frost. Whatever the cause, it is typical in the late fall for the Seeker-Errant to commit herself (though always provisionally) to a common life in a Buddhist monastery, a planned community, even a church or family.
Winter (November - February) is the time when the Seekers-Errant are most in touch with the common life of the human race. Most of them, though not all, have attached themselves to a community and try in good faith to live out that pattern of life. For most Seekers-Errant, this external principle of order and direction is alien and difficult. They often feel externally 'happy' with their new set of relations, but ill at ease in their own skin - like they are waiting for the other shoe to drop.
The end of this season always marks a crisis in the life and identity of the Seeker-Errant. Most of them smell spring in the air and abandon the common life. But if f a Seeker-Errant is to undergo a metamorphosis and become a Coenobitic Seeker, it almost always happens during the winter. He may find that he has acclimated himself sufficiently to the common life he had provisionally committed himself to and decide to stay on and attempt to overcome the feeling of being ill at ease. If this happens, it usually takes between 12 and 48 months for such a transformation to become permanent. At any time during this period, the Seeker-Errant may rise up and depart without so much as a goodbye, inserting himself back into the migratory pattern. Others, in similar fashion, may become Eremitic Seekers or even reinsert themselves into the ranks of the Settled.
So I am glad to have these two with me. If they stay a little longer perhaps we'll be able to engage in some meaningful conversation. They seemed very interested that I was reading the Dao and expressed a general admiration for my little library.
Their names (if they are using their real names) and Markus and Cedric.
Tuesday, July 12, 2005
I've been having a great time with Markus and Cedric. We ran down to the monastery yesterday to get another case of St. Godric's. It reminds me of the good ol' days of the Wanderings!
They're very thoughtful young men, probably more so than your average Seeker-Errant who tends to have well developed intuition and feeling but a lesser capacity to articulate the framework for such intuition and feeling than your average Coenobitic or Eremitic Seeker.
They also happen to be Barefoot Hikers!
I have run into several Barefoot Hikers before and even hiked along with one group for a while. I just never had the time to become a permanent member.
We're having such a good time, I'm not sure how long they'll end up staying.
In order to keep up good relations with St. Godric's, though, I can't let them stay too long.
Thursday, July 14, 2005
Fly Fishing with Cedric
Yesterday morning Cedric came fishing with Camilla and I - or, rather, he watched while Camilla and I fished. He had never had an opportunity, apparently, to observe fly-fishing up close and really wanted to see what it was all about.
For a certain kind of person, the art of fly-fishing does have an overmastering enchantment. Though I always tried to avoid bringing it up, when the subject somehow arose at a dinner party or backyard barbecue or some other such gathering and the person I was talking to found out that I was a fly-fisherman, I could sometimes see a wall of strangeness rising up between us in their eyes, a yearning - as if they had caught a sudden glimpse of whatever it was that distinguished the gods from men on the battlefields of Troy. Cedric is apparently that kind of person.
Markus, on the other hand, didn't want to get up that early.
When I woke Cedric a little before dawn, he scrambled out of his sleeping bag like a kid on Christmas morning, and the whole time we were fishing he just stood back and watched in awe. I caught a few 16 - 18 inch fish and he would run down to the stream with various expressions of amazement.
When we came back for lunch he was asking all sorts of leading questions like "How long would it take to learn to do that?" and "Do you always catch that many?" and "How hard is it to figure out what kind of fly to use?". He would clearly like to learn how to fly-fish.
I told him that if he stayed for a week I could teach him everything he needed to know to undertake the art, but he's not sure if Markus will wait. He even suggested that perhaps Markus could move on to their next Barefoot Hiker meeting by himself and he could catch up with him.
Wednesday, July 20, 2005
Economics in Ithilien
I apologize for those who visit daily, I lost my satellite link for a while again the past few days.
Markus has gone on ahead while Cedric stayed for fishing lessons.
I ended up having quite a conversation with Markus while he has here. I mentioned that I had just finished a book on economics and public policy and Markus wanted to know what I thought. It turns out that Markus is a militant socialist– an advocate of planned economy and the governmental direction of economic resources.
Having just read and agreed with Hayek, who highlights the connection between political and economic freedom and the connection between plannedeconomyy and totalitarianism, I couldn't resist the tendency to engage Markus. We had a spirited conversation that spanned three days. In fact, at one point Camilla and Cedric got frustrated with it and went for a hike.
The basic question on the table was whether the society, the individual and/or both are better off under a limited government that enforces the rule of law and interferes only minimally in economic choices or under a government that takes as its conscious and philanthropic aim the betterment of society through the direction and redistribution of wealth.
I was arguing that the freedom that is achieved under the rule of law and a regulated but free market creates the conditions for individuals and free associations to pursue their own aims and choose their own ultimate ends, while he was arguing that such freedom did not deliver on its promise of equal opportunity for all but merely protected the interests of the socially advantaged.
It was an interesting and helpful discussion, but one of the most interesting dimensions was that the conversation was carried on between two people who have essentially dropped out of the daily ebb and flow of society. There's something to be said for that ...
Thursday, July 21, 2005
We're in the middle of a bit of a heat wave here. Fishing has not been very good for Cedric’s lessons. As in all higher instruction, success is an element in teaching someone how to fly fish. When a new fisherman is not catching fish, he tends to think he's not doing anything right and grows disappointed because he is not getting results. When he's getting fish (or even good strikes) he tends to believe in himself more and want to improve.
The garden is doing well in the heat, though. We can have a complete garden salad every evening.
Monday, July 25, 2005
Plato's Cave and Ithilien
I was thinking some more about the conversation that I had with Markus in connection with Scriblerian’s concern that living out here in Ithilien was an attempt to escape Plato’s cave. I’ve been mulling over the latter since he made the comment and I have decided that being out here both is and is not an attempt to escape from the Cave – depending upon how you read Plato.
Many have taken Plato’s metaphor of human enslavement and freedom to advocate a metaphysical escape from the real world to a world of pure ideas – an escape from things human to things divine. There is some justification for this, especially in the context of Plato’s Phaedra and I do not entirely discount that Plato is engaged in constructing a metaphysic.
But if you take the metaphor of Plato’s cave as phenomenological epistemology rather than metaphysics (and I believe there is considerable warrant for this interpretation in the context of Plato’s discussion of education), then the ascent from the cave represents not a metaphysical escape from the material cosmos but an epistemological escape from the socially constructed ‘images’ of the rhetoricians, politicians, advertisers, power brokers and spin doctors. In this interpretation, the empahsis would be upon the image makers who use the shadows to enslave rather than upon the material conditions for the slavery (our dependance upon the senses and opinion).
Perhaps in this sense, I have come to Ithilien to escape the ‘cave’ – to escape from television advertisements, billboards, promises by politicians to serve the interests of the hoi polloi at the expense of the common good, warnings from doctors about imminent dangers all around us, etc. etc. etc.
Those things are no good for clear thinking and right living, and yet the compose the fabric of basic social existence in the Cave. In order to return with a mission to the world of shadowplay, one must first escape their pernicious influence. What I noticed in my conversation with Markus was that we were able to carry on a much more sophisticated conversation out here in Ithilien than we ever could have done in the City in the context of elections and personal relationships and wider social dynamics.
Cedric left yesterday - very happy and eager to get his own rod when he gets back to 'civilization'.
The Turning Season
Something's turning in the air.
I can feel it.
It's the physical, metaphysical and spiritual nearness of fall.
Camilla spent the day brooding and snappy.
The fish were lethargic.
The heavy air drained all the color from the world.
This is the turning season.
Still in a summer lull.
I didn't realize how much a pattern I could describe and analyze so minutely could still affect me this much.
Life is funny that way, I guess. No matter how well you can analyze its components, you still have to live it in real time. And it is not always clear whether you are living it or it is living you.
I watched Krystof Kieslowski's White and Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing yesterday.
They were both excellent movies and while I was watching them I was fully immersed in those worlds, but as soon as they were over I was back to lulling around the Cottage.
I think I might go on retreat. Maybe to the high mountain country. Maybe for a while. Maybe I won't come back.
Friday, July 29, 2005
I'm headed to the high country for a spiritual retreat.
I leave with the clothes on my back and will return in a fortnight.
Camilla fears that I will not return at all, and asked to take possession of the Cottage in that event. I have consented.
Friday, August 12, 2005
Well, I'm back home.
I lost a lot of weight.
And I think I've found a new path forward.