Monthly Archives: October 2007

Stillness

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This morning I woke at 5 am and could not get back to sleep. I lay in bed for an hour verifying the fact, then rose and walked quietly through my dark house. I was drawn to the windows facing west, which were filled with moonlight. Looking out I noticed with surprise that the sky was perfectly clear; gone was the overcast of previous mornings.

I stepped outside onto my front porch to take a closer look. In my thin robe, I was prepared to brace against the chill air that comes with late Fall mornings. But there was no shock to my system; the air was almost warm, and completely still.

The waning moon hung over the bay in strange detail, revealing a face that somehow I didn’t think I’d ever seen. Orion was taking aim directly at the moon, so it could have been donning a disguise until it had a chance to slink out of range.

All around me, nothing moved. I heard no sound other than the foghorn and the dull roar of the surf a mile away. No birds calling out into the pre-dawn air, not even a sea lion grunting off in the distance as it got more comfortable on its rocky bed.

The town spread out before me in the darkness which is not shadow but emptiness. It was so still I could feel the drops of dew forming slowly on my face and hands, each molecule quivering as it joined the others in the long magnetic process of like seeking like.

Across the bay, a pair of headlights appeared just as I heard the swoosh of a car engine somewhere nearby. The sound was so close I had a hard time believing it came from the other side of the water, but as I watched the headlights wind slowly around the horseshoe of the bay, each curve they described was matched by a simultaneous change in the engine noise.

After a few moments the headlights disappeared from view but I continued to track through sound the progress of the only other people awake and outside besides me. When they reached the highway and sped out of town I was left alone again on my porch, in the gathering dew, witness to the incredible stillness of this pre-dawn hour.

My tolerance for stillness and silence has greatly increased over the years, but I am still a lightweight. With nothing dramatic to catch my attention I soon drifted back indoors, put on the kettle and turned on the kitchen light.

An hour later I went back outside. There was light in the east, a fishing boat on the water and woodsmoke in the air. My little neighborhood slowly roused from sleep as the moon slipped away and the stars disappeared. It will be another day of activity, during which I will ponder how there can be more weight in a moment of stillness than in several hours of effort.

It’s Not That Simple

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Just a quick post today for all of you thinking Pagans, mystical scientists, and citizens who fear the inroads fundamentalism has made into our schools, city halls, and the White House. I was deeply heartened a few months ago when I stumbled onto videos from the 2006 Beyond Belief Conference, where astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson had his way with intelligent design theory.

A video of his complete 40 minute lecture (actually there are two presentations of his from the conference) is available for viewing here, and there are overlapping fragments of it posted on YouTube. The presentation is based on his essay “The Perimeter of Ignorance“, published in Natural History magazine in 2005. (Art students and educators will want to see his second presentation, posted in two parts here and here, in which he describes the revelation of astronomy and a moment of enlightenment which came through drawing pumpkins in class.)

Basically, Tyson makes the point that throughout the history of science, when astronomers and mathematicians came to the edge of what they could account for using observation and calculation, they invoked God as the greater intelligence which created such complex mystery. So intelligent design does have a place in the history of science. It should not, however, be taught in the science classroom because it is a “philosophy of ignorance” rather than a “philosophy of discovery.” Once we decree that something is unfathomable because God made it, no further inquiry is possible.

Tyson does a great job of showing how socially sanctioned religious viewpoints shut down intellectual inquiry, going from 12th century Islam to 21st century North America. And towards the end of his talk he has a marvelous rant about “Stupid Design”, documenting how the majority of conditions in the universe, the cosmos, our planet, and our very biological structure are not intelligent at all, and in fact conspire against sustained life.

So that’s it for today, let’s keep thinking and talking about how to have a society where faith and belief are not pre-requisites for a seat at the table where public policy is hammered out.

Initiation Song

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Recently an old, dear friend of mine took off on an extended midlife journey. He sold or stored his possessions, left his practice, untied the mooring lines which kept him here in the Bay Area, and let the current take him without knowing whether it would bring him back.

Having dinner with him and a few other friends shortly before he left, I was reminded of this poem. I used to give a copy of this to everyone I knew who was going through a rite of passage, whether adolescent or adult, and before my friend left I sent him a copy, too.

It is by Ursula Le Guin (the second of her poems I’ve posted in these pages), from her little-read masterwork Always Coming Home. It is set far in the future in the Na Valley (Napa Valley, CA), where post-apocalyptic clans live with collaborative technologies, storytelling and ritual, and come to terms with their history and their ancestors (us).

I found the book a fascinating, inspiring, though sometimes tedious read, and feel her vision rooted in this land as much as or more than any other Western writer. (Fun fact: Serpentine Music takes its name not only from the geologic formation and the insinuation of serpents, but from one of the Houses in the Na Valley.) There were two poems in the book which stood out from the rest for me. One I want spoken at my funeral. The other is this:

Initiation Song from the Finders Lodge

Please bring strange things.
Please come bringing new things.
Let very old things come into your hands.
Let what you do not know come into your eyes.
Let desert sand harden your feet.
Let the arch of your feet be the mountains.
Let the paths of your fingertips be your maps
and the ways you go be the lines on your palms.
Let there be deep snow in your inbreathing
and your outbreath be the shining of ice.
May your mouth contain the shapes of strange words.
May you smell food cooking you have not eaten.
May the spring of a foreign river be your navel.
May your soul be at home where there are no houses.
Walk carefully, well loved one,
walk mindfully, well loved one,
walk fearlessly, well loved one.
Return with us, return to us,
be always coming home.

Fire in the Mountain

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Today I took a much-needed break after weeks of teaching, travelling, and working hard. I had been getting progressively more tired as the weeks went by, but I didn’t realize how bad off I was until I heard myself suggest to a friend that she take a day off to recharge. It was one of those moments when realization finally breaks through the fog: I am giving someone the exact advice I need to take.

So I freed up the day, tied up the dog, and headed for the one place I know can unravel all my layers of stress: a hot springs. It is the big reason I am grateful for living on the Pacific Ring of Fire. Sure, it gives us earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. But the distillation of all that dynamic moving and shaking, the watery jewels in the ring of fire, are the hot springs.

In my case it was Harbin Hot Springs, a perfectly lovely healing retreat space. There are a lot of things I don’t like about the Harbin scene, in fact that would be an amusing rant to get into someday, but the land itself and particularly the hot pool is a sacred site to me. It is the one place I know I can go and touch the heart of the mountain, let everything go, and come away renewed.

Harbin is situated on rugged, hilly terrain just east of Napa County’s Mt. St. Helena. The mineral baths of Calistoga, the Geysers, the hot springs, all tap deep into the roots of that old volcano. The hot water bubbles up from a narrow cleft in the hill, and it is piped into a deep pool where you can stand and be submerged up to your chin. The pool itself is housed in this funky old shack, open on two sides, with a faded fresco on one wall and opposite it a Demeter image with fresh flowers and lit candles sitting directly above the spout of flowing water.

The dim light, the silence except for the sound of water pouring into the pool, the intense, enveloping heat: you don’t have to squint very hard to feel like you are in some crumbling, forgotten temple, or at least have stepped into a Romantic era painting of one. After a series of hot and cold soaks, I like to lie on one of the cold, wet benches in that drafty room, with the rain dripping on me through cracks in the ceiling, and let my mind wander through the landscape.

As the tension sloughed off me like shale tumbling down a mountainside, I felt how if we are really lucky, the spot we choose as our own remakes us over time in its image. Standing strong and firmly rooted, riding with the changes, being fed by the fire at the center of the earth—I would be hard pressed to come up with a better spirit to aspire to. Today I felt that these times of extreme weariness serve one important function: they help grind away what no longer serves, and make it a necessity that we stay open to that constant flow of water from the heart of the mountain.