Monthly Archives: December 2006

Sweetgrass and salt water

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I woke up this morning to a brilliant sky, cold and clear. When Vince and I stepped out for our morning walk, I caught a whiff of something on the wind that it took me a moment to recognize. It was familiar but strangely out of place; something not quite a perfume yet a grassy smell, not quite an incense yet it made me think of blessingways. Finally my nose caught on: sweetgrass. Pungent sweetgrass hung low over the street like it had just been harvested from the fields, or lingered after burning for hours in some temple nearby.

But there are no temples on my street, no crops to speak of, and no one burns sweetgrass to stay warm in the bayside frost. The town is not that big, there was no accounting for the sweet smell that accompanied me halfway up the hill and down again. Heading home again I gazed out as I do almost every day across the bay, beyond the headlands, to the wild ocean. A filmy gauze of high clouds bent like the arm of a long spiral whose center was far out over the Pacific, and the crazy thought crossed my mind that maybe the sweetgrass smell had blown in from very far away.

I have now spent a full year living on the edge of the mighty Pacific. Like a new neighbor I have been courteous and friendly, happy to talk but not overly probing in our acquaintance so far. Getting to know the ocean is something I imagine is fundamentally impossible within the span of a human life, so I am content to approach it slowly and savor the moments of closeness as they come, letting them gradually pile up and take shape. Merely having an affinity for the ocean does not make me presume familiarity.

Still, this morning I had the distinct impression of the ocean as a bit of a trickster, picking up scents from around the Pacific Rim and depositing them at random points on the opposite shore. Maybe a fisherman in Japan woke to the aroma of chocolate from Ghiradelli Square. Maybe someone in Juneau felt certain she smelled hot curry on the wind. That long, spindly arm of cloud has a large wooden mixing spoon in her hand, and those of us on the edge of the bowl get the first taste of all her new flavor combinations.

At the turning of this new year, I am standing on the edge of the world breathing in deep. It is not just the sweetgrass, harbinger of new beginnings, that I smell. There is salt water for purification and cleansing, not brackish but full of life from the swelling moon. There is an earthy, slightly green smell from the dark soil heavy with rain. Not a spring green smell but a winter green, wet and chill, a placeholder in the air for the pungent, sprouting smell of new growth we will get in a couple months. Above it all is a skittish, flitting scent of burning tobacco. Maybe someone out of view is greeting the new day with a prayer, or a morning smoke.

Pipe dreams, that’s what all our New Year’s hopes and wishes are. We hope for the best at the beginning and work the rest of the year on accepting whatever comes. We are audacious and bold, setting forth with our best foot forward as we walk off that cliff with all the other fools. Because what better move is there? The future will always be uncertain, and we are grand mammals with even grander dreams and visions. In this year, may the best of them all come true.

Some thoughts on chaos

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How close outside the door chaos dwells. And closer still the faster we race, the more details we leave to chance, like stitches dropped in a daisy chain. It is crazy season out there. The rain drives everyone into the ground, we are drenched before we reach the car, and there is never enough time to dry out by the fire before going back out again. It is a time custom-made for chaos.

A few days ago I dashed into the post office to collect my mail, then dashed out again, slipping the box key into a jacket pocket instead of its rightful place in my shoulder bag. Yesterday at the post office I searched the bag and found no key. I couldn’t collect my mail, and couldn’t recollect either what I’d done with the key, besides having a vague muscle memory of slipping it into my pocket. But it wasn’t in my jacket. Stumped, I walked more slowly out of the building and brooded on the way home.

Later I sat on my couch and mentally retraced my steps. Yes, I remembered putting the key in my jacket. Yes, that was the same jacket I wore today. No, the key was not in the pocket. The pieces should have added up, but they didn’t. Where was the flaw? At which step had my memory failed?

Loss, even trivial loss, is surreal. It kicks us back into a sort of pre-verbal incapacity. We think we have things figured out, we have a plan, a way forward. And then a stitch gives way, the door opens a crack, and chaos slips back in. Chaos, that which gives birth to all things, is both our inspiration and our demon. With its promise that anything is possible, we create. But when it shows up on opening night, all hell breaks loose.

All of our creations are constructs shielding us from that source out of which they have emerged. Our families, our careers, all the familiarity of friends and routines that make us feel secure, stable, supported. What a very thin wall they are between ourselves and the forces of chaos.

Yet creation is what we humans do. It is what we are made for, a primal urge, and we are good at it. In moments like these, who can resist the impulse to go over our steps once more, searching for the stitch we dropped, seeking a way to make our picture whole again?

I am tired of loss, tired of setbacks, deaths, and near-deaths among those I hold dear. My circle of friends has been hard-hit by chaos this year, as has much of the world. It is an act of courage some days to just stand up, to get out of bed and move forward with our plans, our visions of what is possible. But the cardinal rule of life in a world run by chaos is: Never ask, “What next?” for you will surely find out.

The only antidote I know of for chaos fatigue is gratitude. Chaos comes to remind us of how fragile life is. We would be spurning its gifts if we did not give thanks, then, for the life that we have. So at a certain point last night I just had to give up my puzzle of where I put the key, and accept the fact that I did not know, and could not explain things. It was okay, I would survive, it was a very trivial loss. I let it go.

Then, just before bed, a breakthrough: I had been wearing a different jacket that day. It was the wool jacket with the deep, smooth pockets, still resting on the back of a chair where I’d left it to dry. That moment of discovery was so sweet, but I did not jump up immediately and try the pocket. In fact, I went to bed without checking, without knowing for sure whether the puzzle pieces would all fall into place. Having worked so hard to be at peace with not knowing, I wanted to savor for as long as possible this feeling of happiness that had come from gratitude, not from accomplishment. I slept contented, and this morning I woke, gave thanks for the day, and slipped my hand into that jacket pocket. The key was there.

This is the season of chaos. Be careful, be mindful. Move slowly if at all possible. Sleep deep, and on waking give thanks for rising warm and dry in the very dark of the year. Blessed be.

Reality-Based Blogging

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I spent last evening with magazine pictures spread all over my dining room table, sifting through them, cutting and rearranging my favorites on a big piece of black paper. Also at hand were scissors, glue stick, clear contact paper, and a brand new spiral-bound journal. I was assembling a collage to cover my new journal, an act I perform every few months as the old one fills up.

It is a practice I adopted from Jeremy Taylor, whose journal covers are quite awe-inspiring. I am skilled at plenty of things, and visual art has never been one of them. For this reason alone, I torment myself by toiling over pictures and placement, letting the part of my brain that is unused to coming out to play take over and call the shots for a change. Sometimes the collage comes out really nice, sometimes I am completely frustrated from beginning to end. Either way, I live with the finished product for the life of that particular journal, and try again the next time.

All this is part of my effort to practice what I preach, namely that those of us who make our living teaching need to remember how to be students, too. Mastery in one area doesn’t mean we get to stop being beginners. On the contrary, particularly for people who profess to have some spiritual wisdom, it is essential that we regularly practice something that we’re not good at. Without the reminder that we’re just bumbling humans like everyone else, it is so easy to fall into the lap of hubris, and from that position begins our downfall into the hell realms, as the Buddhists would say. If it were just ourselves who suffered the ill-effects of our inflated self-importance it would scarcely be worth mentioning, but the sad fact is that the more influential or charismatic we are, the more people will be hurt as our downfall proceeds.

If you have been paying attention to political commentators lately you will hear lots of them saying that a giant collective bubble of self-delusion is in the process of popping in this country. They speak happily of a return to reality-based decision-making in government. And they worry about how many thousands or even millions will be hurt by a president who surrounds himself with a (shrinking) circle of supporters who help to keep him from facing the things he is no good at.

It is easy to see this drama being played out on the national stage. Harder to spot are the ways we keep ourselves from stepping out of our own bubbles of self-delusion. Here’s a quick tip on entering a reality-based lifestyle that we can all attend to in the new year: cultivate old friends. If you have some, get back in touch and stay in touch. If you don’t have any, make some new friends and do what you must to keep them for a long time. They are your best insurance against leaving reality behind.

Only someone who has known you for a long time will be able to spot the ways you’re repeating old patterns when you think you’re doing something new. An old friend is someone who has earned your trust and respect, someone you will listen to if they say you are deluding yourself. If you think you have found The Answer, you would be well-advised to consult with at least three people you trust and respect, and listen to what they tell you. Then notice: are these people I have met recently, who might be as starry-eyed about The Answer as I am? Or have these people known me for a longer time, and can offer a more objective perspective on my current pursuit?

This has been a hard year for almost everyone I know. Difficult times make us turn to our comfort zones and just try to endure. There’s nothing wrong with that; everyone needs a little respite. But they only help us if we can also stretch ourselves to meet the challenges life presents us, painful as they may be. I can guarantee that we’re not going to like all the things we have to do this next year, either. But if we’re lucky, some nights our biggest challenge will be to sit at a table and struggle to bring disparate bits of color and image together, into something that might even pass for beauty.