31 December 2018

Setting Stones

The singular coldness of basalt, agleam with the residue of maritime fog, seeps into fingers stiff from work and winter air. The greyness itself seems to transfer to the flesh as if the rock itself is exacting a toll for having been quarried for use by the hands that dared disturb the earth. Fair exchange, perhaps. There is no escaping that in the material world creation incurs disruption, if not outright destruction. We do well to acknowledge that condition through respect for the resources consumed and environments affected. Our destiny is to sleep in the beds we make, and our descendants should not look upon our legacies with disappointment and disdain. They should know we laid the stones with respect for the past and for stewardship of the future.

The head and the heart began collecting stones long before the hands. This last day of the year I sit on a small boulder, chin resting on palms, meditating on coming days of slow and steady work. Even through scuffed leather the skin of the fingers has picked up a faint aroma of iodine and minerals. That scent itself a legacy of the sea just yards away, exhaling its spirit over the beach grass and stones. The cottage itself has been banked with samphire and laver around the base. An old tradition that still has its use even if only to comfort the mind with thoughts of stopping the wind. The waves whisper up the strand. Reaching out, I pick a stone and kneel to the new foundation.

This is what happens when the mind is given pause by deep shadows and short days. Human perception and language creates this border, this separation, this arbitrary terminus est at which the old gives way to the new. Things turn with the year. The hands grip stones, the weights of which inform the heart of desires and directions to feed and nurture through the passage of winter. Our foundations start here, setting stones on the last day of the year.

23 December 2018

Ceres and Poseidon: A Christmas Homily

On an afternoon of clear tranquility I sat by the windows to meditate on an ocean of jade-tinged iron. Through the panes streamed December sunlight, painting the cottage walls the color of a well-worn wedding band. A week of rain and wind had finally departed. Beach and boulders along the headland shone in ecstasy of greeting the sun. Peat smoldered on the hearth, filling the cottage with warmth and the soul with gratitude. Salt air filled the lungs on each slow breath. My empty belly growled as it dreamt of stout and oysters.

This hunger dream manifested itself in the flesh as a Christmas wish possessing an elegant simplicity. It is not greed, it is not selfishness, it is not gluttony. It is appetites to be satisfied by simple means, the result of harvest and craft. Hearing the growls, I wondered how far that simplicity could be extended into a life infused with meaning. Et comedent, ergo sum: “I eat, therefore I am”, is that valid meaning? It seems simple enough.

Hunger drives us all, almost strident in its voice when the days are on the cusp of winter. Cold twilight days combine with erstwhile Christmas spirit to amplify the pressure to desire more, want more, need more. The prevailing social matrix would have you believe that more, even excess, is the cure for hunger. Reductionism to the point where what you consume is made less important than continued consumption itself. Quantity over quality. More over enough, stupefaction over engagement.

The sea continued its stirring. Waves upon the sand brought me to stillness, their susurrus an irresistible entreaty to cease thinking, cease worrying, and be in this moment. I acquiesced.

Brothers and sisters and fellow humans, my belly dreamt of stout and oysters, avatars of the creative expression of field and sea. Each a simple want to be savored in its having, preferably in the company of love. In the quiet of the day, this moment of repose becomes the season of peace and contentment.

Laugh with a full belly. Love with full heart. May you too find your stout and oysters. Merry Christmas to all.

16 December 2018

Disappeared - (Coda)

I left the river that day not free of melancholy wrought by the past, but with an understanding of how I could honor that feeling in my life without it overwhelming me. Realization was crystal clear that they are the disappeared, the people and places that I once knew now gone or altered beyond easy recognition. Rejected or removed, they cannot be forgotten. A factory building, a younger man, a sea of grass or grieving father: the heart holds a place for all of them. They had their habits. But there comes a time when past habits fail to serve us well in present living. We remember, not to relive the past but to learn from it. In this world, to learn is to grow. Growth enables the shedding of our skins in glorious, cyclical rebirth.

I have in my possession a collection of persons that no longer exist, except in the reservoir of memory, held to a bifurcated existence composed of pixels and neurochemicals. These outlines and shadows etched by experience into silicon and grey matter, writ plain on the heart. They are installed in a personal Hall of Memory curated by my future self, to consult in times of need.

09 December 2018

Disappeared (Part 18)

Awake and breathing with tendrils pushing into the soil, slow and sure. Sycamores along the banks of the Patapsco spoke of this as their daily meditation. To hear such missives requires a discipline for stillness. One has to engage with disengagement. Disengagement from the yokes of modern life which decree and direct what you do and when you do it. The yoke could be a job, a phone or tablet, or a machine. The medium matters less than the message when it comes to the potential for distraction. What is distraction? That which prevents the soul from dealing with the truth of the life surrounding its container. Distraction is anything which prevents or inhibits the accommodation of grief, the reveling in love, the savoring of contentment. In short, distraction is anything that gets in the way of that which feeds the soul and therefore prevents growth or understanding.

Walking along the Patapsco River one morning, in the quiet radiance of my daughter’s presence and not long after our arrival back east, I looked up at the sycamores I had so long admired and had so long missed. Their trunks looked little changed from the last time I had seen them. The trunks shone in the sunlight where it filtered through the leaves. The limbs resplendent in shades of gray wolf and marble dust tinged faintly with ambient green. They stood as quiet witness to our presence. Our phones had been left in the car. Perhaps the trees knew this, and respected that choice. Space had opened up for us to talk of many things. Silence, too, had its place. My heart could tell because my mind was calm. The trees, water, and my progeny were the catalyst for a serenity not experienced in years.

What does it mean that the river is still there? Everything. Whether an internal reality manifested as a vision in the mind’s eye or the external reality of water and stones before the senses, it is this riparian presence that has provided a singular constant in a tumultuous cataract of years. From a place such as it I was figuratively born. To a place such as it I literally returned. Strolling by the Patapsco that morning, a comparison became inevitable between it and the rivers of my most recent experience. The Missouri and Mississippi surely possessed more mud, width, and mythology than the humble river I thought of as mine. But what those two stalwarts of American iconography did not have, and possibly never will, was a hold on my heart. Too little time spent in the company of the Mississippi, I guess. The Missouri and I never became friends. I walked its banks a few times and crossed it more than I can recount, but I never felt accepted. I never felt comfortable. Whether that says more about me than about the river is something I may never know. The Patapsco, on the other hand, has always been quick with an embrace. Humble, quiet, content.

The following months became a sine wave of hope and despair, calm and stress. Adjustments to a new life in a once familiar place soaked up extraordinary amounts of time and energy. This life was a new bike. I knew its theory but not its practice. Loneliness, job stress, and family emergencies extracted from me more than I had to give. I became broken and withdrawn. Existence became a question for which there was no clear answer. A demanding fall slipped into a discontented winter as I flailed about searching for proof that the decisions that had led me here were the right ones.

Alone in my apartment one Saturday in the following spring, embedded in a span of directionless free time, I felt my heart fluttering while my mind raced. The walls were too close. I needed to be out. Water, rocks, and trees chorused their siren call. Soon I was on the road to the river flowing through my mind and in the real world of the valley not so far away. The river held some answers. I heard them in the rush and burble that day while perched upon a boulder near the flow. Meditative deep state has never come frequently or easily to me. That day was different. Within minutes my eyes unfocused. Somewhere inside the heart of a blue whale stirred, with its tardo pulse and stately rhythm. Breathing became a languid zephyr stirring the leaves. The membrane between Me and Everything thinned and slipped. I felt the river in my nerves, heard it in my ears. What it said was that all the experiences of the past few years transpired to bring me to the present, this here and now. All the pain, all the joy, all the in between put me where I was meant to be. In the words of Ortega y Gasset, I truly was “myself plus my circumstances”. The whole was truly greater than the sum, I was going to be okay.

I came to, dappled by sunlight dripping through the leaves. How much time had passed was unknown to me. The voices of the past melded and morphed into the sound of water over stones. Standing up, I brushed off my pants, took a satisfying breath, and walked back into the world as the person that I was faded into the shadow of the person I had now become.

02 December 2018

Disappeared (Part 17)

I awoke the following day with the taste of ash on my tongue. Sometime in the night smoke tinged my river dream. The tiny lanterns of fireflies flitting about became embers. The teeming rubicund lights were languid in their downward drift, snuffed out by the ribbon of black mercury that was the water. In my dream, I had shipped my oars so that I could rest. The water was calm but moving steady with no rapids. Ahead I could see the beginnings of sunrise touching the horizon with fingers of peach and gold. Behind me the sky was tinged with red of a different hue, one that spoke of tragedy and loss. Perhaps by stopping to rest the wind had caught up to me, bearing on it the ashes I sought to outrun. The oars dipped into the river. I opened my eyes.

The fire behind and the ocean ahead held us in thrall, a chunk of iron suspended between opposing colossal magnets. Ambition to escape the former and embrace the latter would be the force to liberate us from stasis. My daughter was oblivious to my eager anxiety. The stakes were different for her. She was on her way back to a home she never left. I was on my way back to soil and sea that had never truly left me but to which I would require reacquaintance. While not being a religious man, it struck me that living the reinvented life ahead would be a relearning of the words to a forgotten hymn. Coast, shoreline, river and bank, the houses of worship I forgot I needed. Perhaps it was no coincidence this was the third day of my revival.

Road music. The hum of tires on the asphalt becomes the slither of water along the hull. Fair weather hitched a ride, ambling along as the car nosed its way through Ohio and West Virginia. Lunch in a chain sub shop somewhere in Pennsylvania, while I did not know it then, would be the most memorable thing about the last leg of the trek. There was silence between my progeny and I. This silence was not born of malice or personality fatigue. No, more due to road weariness and anxious anticipation of a landing at the end of the asphalt.

I become the salmon and trout, alewife and blueback, returning to natal rivers from whence we entered this world. Watercourses of deep memory no longer the same but still homes not forgotten. Trees may have fallen on the banks. The rocks abide in the currents. Somewhere upstream it is possible that the riparian channel has shifted course, or in a tectonic shift of circumstances perhaps an old dam has been removed. The years like tons of silt washed downstream by the inexorable pressure of time, of change. I stared down the dirt and debris rushing past under the impetus of the hydrological cycle of my soul. The river of my birth was not swirling about my knees but it was close enough to smell its crystalline, metallic tang. Like my marine cousins, I was navigating by memory and deep structures impossible to see by direct observation.

Memory and deep structures served us well, terminating this cross-country hegira by the quiet parking of our car in a hotel parking lot. Warm summer air, gravity with humidity, flooded the vehicle upon opening the doors. Upon the breeze was a faint hint of iodine and salt, or so my weary senses told me. That the Chesapeake Bay waited just over the horizon was not lost on my psyche. Green waves rolled over my head as I floated just below the sunlit surface. It would not be long now.

Saltwater and smoke are different beasts, with very different and sublime aromas. After the trials of the year behind, my heart chose brine over ash. This became clear as my daughter and I left the hotel to search for dinner. Tightness in the belly slipped away as I stood outside breathing deeply of air which had recently slipped over water instead of grass. My heart throbbed in systolic and diastolic sympathy with waves now not so far away. Blood ebbed, blood flowed. Its pause and rush filled my ears with the sound of breakers caressing the shore.

That night sleep came swiftly. Of the dreams that paid a call, I remember nothing except for standing before a cottage door, wondering if I still had the key.