BRACING FOR THE NEW YEAR

Much happened in my life in the past year that I haven’t mentioned in the blog. My attention was largely focused on the new novel, which underwent three major revisions, completely changing its focus from, first, what Cassia discovered about her hippie father to, second, what she discovered about her Greek-American family through his photos to, third, finally the way she emerged from the emotional loss and grew stronger and wiser as a consequence. Now that What’s Left (the third title, by the way) is finally released as an ebook (Cheers!), you can tell me if it was worth three years of angst, fasting, and flagellation on my part.

One personal accomplishment was my reading the Bible straight-through at the beginning of the year. I started with Everett Fox’s extraordinary translation of the Five Books of Moses and ended with David Bauscher’s translation of the New Testament from Aramaic, while covering most of what’s in-between in the New Jerusalem version. Wanted to hear it all afresh. My notes from the experience will probably fuel an upcoming series, likely at my As Light Is Sown blog.

Also on the religious front, I attended the entire Holy Week (what they regard as Passover) services in the Greek Orthodox tradition. Outwardly, it’s about as far as you can get from my quietist Quaker aesthetic, but again, it was a powerful way of hearing the story afresh. With the shortest service running about an hour-and-a-half and the longest well beyond that, the closest comparison I could come up with would be Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (nightly) or Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which runs shorter in time and isn’t repeated the next morning. It was a miracle the priest and psalmists had any voice left by Easter. And the final services border on chaotic, wax-dripping celebration. Well, that’s the short take. My one regret is that I’ll never again be able to experience this for the first time.

In late spring, I felt called to assist our neighboring Indonesian immigrant community as a number of Christian refugees face deportation to a land where they fear profound religious persecution. As many of us have found, accompanying them to monthly immigration appointments an hour from home has been a life-changing experience. The vigil outside the federal building has been the biggest ecumenical gathering in the state, with clergy and laity blending together. I’m getting teary simply typing this. A last-minute federal court stay has us hopeful, but nothing’s certain as we await the final rulings. I am so proud that my Quaker Meeting has stepped up to this challenge, supported by at least a dozen other congregations in our corner of the state. Whatever action we take, we cannot do alone, but we feel God’s Spirit leading.

At home, our garden flourished, especially with an unprecedented fall in which the first frost didn’t strike until November 8 — a full month later than normal. We still had our own tomatoes up to New Year’s Day.

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NOT ALONE BY A LONG SHOT

When the name Jnana was bestowed on me back in 1972, it was soon expanded to Jnana-Devanandashram – or Jnana-Dev, in a diminutive.

Apart from recognizing my unique character and giving it focus, the name also linked me to a major saint and at least one mythical spirit in India’s past.

Prominent among them was Jnanadev, born in 1275 and described – I love this – as a mystic poet and slave of love. His Jnaneshwari is considered the second most-important commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. Alas, he died at age 21.

Now I see there’s another of our own time who’s a musician who performs with Tibetan monks.

That’s before we get to Facebook, with its host of entries, or the Jnana Yoga displays. As for Jnana alone in a Google search? There are millions, thanks to those software engineers from India.

Still, let me guess, I’m the only one you know. Am I wrong?

YET, I’VE NEVER RETURNED

Another factor is that I’ve never even returned to Washington State

Or other situations I’ve loved too much

It’s not that I haven’t had familiar places of return, but rather that they are now rooted in my heart, more than my eye. In how many intense experiences, maybe she, too, confesses of some desire to return to familiar spaces — especially those we shared before parting? Whoever she is anymore. My quest for the spirit or soul leads, indeed, to somewhere in the mud or dust.

~*~

I, who am usually quite restless, now admit, somewhat reluctantly, to having entered a settling. What happened to the desire to travel and explore? Now, come the weekend or a vacation, I prefer to stay close to home. Perhaps some of this can be attributed to the long daily commute, or even to those two years spent largely on the road covering fourteen states as a sales representative. Perhaps some of this also reflects the fact that I’ve had twenty-four addresses in eight states over the course of my life. Once, in the span of a single year, there were four addresses in three states. Maybe I simply want to feel rooted.

Even if I had the time and the money to travel, I feel a greater need to write or to work on projects around the house. Being a homeowner, after so many years of renting, also shifts my focus: a tour around the garden, observing its detailed changes, rather than a trek up a mountain.

I think of places I’ve dwelled in and experienced intensely, though it’s now unlikely I’ll ever return, except in memory. From satellite photos, I finds that many, including the ashram, no longer exist.

Other places I’ve visited intensely, if only once or twice, like the Olympics or cross-country spurts in a rented truck, may be savored a lifetime.

I live in a rich environment, one many consider a travel destination. I reside within a half hour of Maine beaches, sparkling lakes or forest trails, and slightly more than an hour from Boston. Even in my own small city, I sometimes catch a glimpse of the fantasy — a movie on a screen or a postcard. What am I doing driving or even singing in a chorus along the Charles River or the Public Garden of Boston? What am I doing beside a waterfall in the mountains? How is it that I am worshipping in a Colonial-era meetinghouse? To be in places of dreams, then, or the pages of a travel magazine. How seldom do I find a moment to enjoy this or to explore a bit more? Obligations press. Even so, maybe I’ve arrived in my destination.

Time, then, becomes part of the journey. And who can reenter time once it’s passed?

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.

RETURNING TO THE TREES

For me, the act of walking is a way of slowing down, to live at a more manageable pace. I’ve had good friends who have used running as their way of release from daily tensions, but I felt myself already speeding over too many details. I forget too much; exactly what did she say, much less mean? Write me a note so I’ll remember. Walking, then, becomes a time for observing and recollection. (So I often carry a small notebook when I go. Stop, scribble a word or phrase, and move on.)

How much of this grows out of my Boy Scout experiences? I was a member of a troop that prided itself in monthly long hikes and primitive camping. Looking back, I realize how many of those hikes began at their church in the city and wound out along railroad tracks or river levees; how many, too, wound up at the end of city bus lines. Not exactly high wilderness, but enough to instill a flavor, even close to home. Today, though, none of those hikes would get beyond suburban sprawl. I could contrast it, of course, against the week of backpacking on the Appalachian Trail or compass courses through the forest around Lake Vesuvius or in the bluegrass country of Daniel Boone settlement. Our scoutmaster, a toolmaker of mangled grammar and childlike sentimentality, conveyed his love of birds and trees and the land. How could one forget the outing that began with a field trip where a coal company proudly demonstrated how it leveled forest for strip mining and how its Big Bertha shovel filled a truck with each bite into the earth, only to be countered later in the day by time planting seedling pine in the pavement-like clay left behind, hoping that in another century, true forest might reappear, though never in a state approaching what had been destroyed. I carry that lesson whenever I enter forest.

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WITH THE LOCO IN LOCOMOTION

My awareness of the importance of forested trails of my own sanity and balance has evolved slowly. I see two parts at work here.

First is the aspect of locomotion. I could begin with the fact I’ve never been an athlete. As a youth, I delighted in speed — as in running or riding a bicycle — or in swimming, with its parallel of flying suspended in space. But I’ve never enjoyed the repetition of exercise for its own sake, gym class was a bore, and team sports have largely eluded me. Since I existed largely within mental activities, such as science or the arts, the idea of doing something that involved a mindfulness to my own body in motion did not register with me, at least until I took up yoga after college. I could add to this a recognition that I’ve also been filled with nervous energy and general restlessness. Sitting still — and focused — is something I’ve had to learn in the course of practicing meditation and attending Quaker meeting for worship.

Second is an encounter with natural history. Somehow, at an early age, I was introduced to geology, birding, tree identification and the like. I’ve also been interested in maps and map-making. Human history, too, which often turns up as discards in places returning to the wild.

What I’ve come to appreciate, though, is largely an esthetic response in walking through places of repose. If forest trails are the symbolic ideal here, I must admit they are not the only examples. Walking miles along the Atlantic on the outer Cape Cod shoreline, for example, serves well (although walking on sand always presents an effort) or trekking above treeline or through wild meadow can be heavenly. Even a stroll through a wooded cemetery or a city park can be recommended. But I speak of forest because of its timeless nature, in both senses of the phrase; this is what this land would remain at climax, forever. Everything is in balance or harmony. There are, of course, seasonal changes, but these are within a rhythm or cycle of returning, much like the movements of a symphony played over and over. Somehow, this begins to merge with the rhythm of walking, which itself begins to pace my own thoughts and emotions. Nothing too rushed, too overwhelming: everything, one step at a time. Uphill or down, all within reach. Walking along a city street or even a country highway can induce some of the step-by-step rhythm, but the balance is off: traffic rushes past, always as a threat, especially at intersections; there’s too much commotion or stimulation; my soul’s not at rest. Look around and notice all the trash and discard, all the waste as a social illness. The wilderness, in contrast, is continually healing. “Come to the woods for here is rest,” John Muir counseled. “There is no repose like that of the deep green woods.”

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.