Archive | April, 2013
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Nurturing Our Own Spirits, Nurturing Others

21 Apr

There are so many things I wonder about. How about you?

In the house of my youth we often kept the shades pulled or the curtains closed for the sake of what my parents called “privacy.” It made me want to go out into the street and see what I could see from out there. Nothing, really. Not even shadows. As a small child, and even as a larger one, I didn’t understand it. What did we not want to be seen? And who would be looking in, anyway? We lived on a dead-end street, one proerty away from a second-growth forest of Western Red Cedar and Douglas Fir. I imagined a doe, nose to the window, or maybe a bear. What are these humans in there anyway? What are these waffles they have for breakfast on Sundays, and those tiny glasses filled with orange juice made from concentrate? Would love to have been nose to nose with a deer or a bear, with the window between. Wished they would peer in any old day. Assumed they slept, as we did, at night, cozy in some cave, some nest of moss and ferns and old fir boughs.

Well, maybe the milkman, our uncle from across the street, carefully placing a few real glass bottles on the porch, with that terrible lumpy cream rising to the top. Oh, how vulgar! Or maybe his Cocker Spaniel, heading over to see what was new. Or maybe the oil man coming to fill the tank in the backyard.

What could be the harm of it? I never did figure it out.

But now, at seventy, things look different. It’s not just eyes looking in, or the fear of eyes, but MINDS. but consciousness itself. It’s the thought, I think, of being seen, and KNOWN, even by themselves, that has people so upset–and not just parents, but almost every adult I know.

“Don’t KNOW me!” is what masses of people seem to be saying–adults, anyway. “Don’t even TRY to know me! And don’t try to BE known! Knowing and being known are revolting! There’s no excuse for it! Stay away! Keep your thoughts and feelings, your values and your observations, to yourself! Keep yourself to yourself. Surface only wanted here. Be modest, be timid, be silent, be shy, be passive, be accommodating, be obedient to my every whim be humorous sometimes—-but, for goodness’ sake, don’t be who you are!”

Alas, I took to heart my parents’ admonition not to tell lies–and also the idea–from somewhere–that every decision to remain silent is a moral decision–because there are consequences of speaking and xonsequences of remaining silent. You might harm someone–or harm yourself–either way. It was not a simple thing.

I remember Emily Dickinson advising us all to “tell all the truth but tell it slant.” “Success, in circuit, lies,” she says. “Too bright for our infirm delight, the truth’s superb surprise.” She compares iit with lightning. We don’t tell kids that if lightning strikes them they will probably be dead. We say some nice, harmless, cute metaphorical thing like “God went bowling and got a strike.” In her words, “As lightning, to the children, eased, with explanation kind,/ the truth must dazzle gradually, or every man be blind.”

I’ve pondered that, now, for fifty years.

And how about Robert Frost’s famous lines: “We make ourselves a place apart behind light words that tease and flout,/ but, oh, the agitated heart, till someone really find us out./ ‘Tis pity, or so we say, that we speak the literal to inspire the understanding of a friend. But so with all, from babes that play at hide-and-seek to God afar, so all who hide too well away /must speak and tell us where they are.”

And how about Paul Laurence Dunbar, who says, in “We Wear the Mask,” “We wear the mask/Thatr grins and lies,/ It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,–/This debt we pay to human guile; / With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,/ And mouth with myriad subtleties./ Why should the world be overwise,/ In counting all our tears and sighs?/ Nay, let them only see us, while/ We wear the mask. / We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries/ To Thee from tortured souls arise. / We sing, but oh., the clay is vile/Beneath our feet, and long the mile. . . .”

And James Baldwin, in his story, “Sonny’s Blues,” tells so clearly, and so honestly, and so beautifully, how Sonny puts all his realness into his music, while his brother, thre, at last, in the audience, tries to listen, and we, the readers try to listen too, because we do understand, as Baldwin does, that the tale of how we suffer, and how we might triumph is never new, it must be heard, and some of us risk everything to try to tell it as we see and feel it, to keep trying to make it new so it might, once more, stand a chance of being really heard and known.

And where, if we hear, does this hearing take place? Not in our logical left brains. Not on the surface, but “down deep,” as we say, down deep in our heart, wherever it is that we feel and hear and know, and understand and recognize at the same time, our individual suffering and joy, and our sense that even then we are one with all others who feel and know and are aware and conscious and courageous enough to see and to feel–or at least to put all we have into being open to it, into trying to see and to feel and to know.

Sometimes I think now that maybe there isn’t much in a lot of people that’s worth knowing, and that, sometimes, it’s not “something” that people are protecting; it’s the nothingness, the emptiness, the lies, the hypocrisies, the manipulation, the selfishness, the arrogance, the rudeness, the meanness, the indifference, the total emptiness, that people are defensive about. They wish they weren’t so empty after all. They wish they had done their mental/emotional homework. They wish others had loved them better, that they had loved others better. They held themselves to a standard too high to live up to, and so the only way they knew to try to even the score was to try to make someone else, preferably the most innocent someone else, suffer in their place, to be their Isaac on the chopping block.

And so maybe it comes down not to the love of others, which is , of course lacking, but also love of self, which so many feel is not appropriate and not even possible.

The way I look at it, that’s the starting point–not perfection, but the best we can do, knowing that even the best gardeners sometimes forget to water their flowers, and that many, if not most,, of those green and growing plants, have a way of hanging onto the water we have given them, and can endure periods of drought at times. I think we don’t have to do it perfec tly, as Julia Cameron says; we just need to commit ourselves to nurturing the spirits we have, that wait as patiently as they can for our attention and our care.

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On Looking Forward and Back

15 Apr

On Looking Forward and Back

Sometimes it’s good to stop where you are for a while, breathe, rest, be quiet, get your bearings–and not focus so intently on what we call “moving ahead.” What IS “moving ahead” anyway? Death, ultimately. Why rush?

A little before my sixty-fifth birthday, I finally persuaded someone to hike across the Grand Canyon with me. I didn’t think I should try it alone, at least not the first time. Sure, I’d been “below the rim,” but that’s a vast territory down there. Years before, I’d hiked fifty miles of the Appalachian Trail by myself. It was something I felt I “had to do,” and couldn’t depend on anyone else for. Solo for the sake of solo. Solo for the sake of feeling my own aloneness. You have to do that sometimes, I think. That felt like the time. Of course I wasn’t alone there either. I met a bear twice the first night, also a bobcat, also the tail end of a snake, also a tense moment with a so-called fellow human being. Stories to tell–but later.

The Grand Canyon was different. The Appalachian Trail went on for a couple thousand miles. I didn’t feel a need to hike it all. It was enough to know that others had done it and will do it. A taste was enough. I thought so, anyway, at the time.

I don’t know about you, but I have always thought the Grand Canyon was different–a huge thing to savor, and never be done savoring. How does one savor, anyway? Can you savor on the run? Savor in a day or a week? How about a lifetime? That’s my speed. (“Really slow,” is what others would probably say if they had the misfortune to accompany me. “Hey! Come on! Hurry up! It’s just a rocky hole in the ground.” Like the first time I went–to the North Rim–on my way to a conference in Ogden. Decided to take the scenic route–a couple days early, quite a few miles in the opposite direction–just to walk and look and walk and look, and stand still, and breathe. And what I remember, as half a dozen cars were waiting patiently in line on a steep grade, was a brassy lady’s voice calling out to her husband, who was rummaging in the trunk, “Hey John! Don’t forget the mayo!” There was all that beautiful scenery, positively glowing in that intense blue , cloudless sky that we never see here in Washington, evergreens that are not Red Cedar or Douglas Fir–though they are wonderful too, but familiar, and thrive on coolness and wetness– immeasurable slabs of ancient Southwest rock, hot hot air that has that “Summer in Northern Arizona” fragrance–and this lady is thinking about the mayonnaise! I was all alone in my car, laughing out loud, and wondering if John was as oblivious as his wife. A clear reminder that beauty and grandeur and awe and humility are not in the eye of every beholder!

Well, I knew only one person who might be able to do this hike, though I knew plenty who dreamed about it. I had hiked with a couple who knew the Olympics like packhorses, and who took everything from home that they might conceivably miss, at least fifty pounds each, sometimes more–stash some here, and there, and go back for it sure not to run out then, of whatever it was. I didn’t know their point in going–not to simplify their lives, though.Not to breathe the air. Not to feel free.Not to feel timeless. Maybe to feel, well, at home. I, had asked them to escort me, a few times, so I could work on my African American History project, which was to walk where Black miners had walked a hundred years ago, and reflect on what their days and lives might have been like back then, and commune with their spirits if they were still up there. Her husband’s heart condition prevented him from hiking in heat. One hundred ten degrees were not sixty on a hot day. His wife said yes, but didn’t tell me until we arrived there that she had just given up smoking after a lifetime of taking polluted air with her everywhere. She went to a hypnotist–twice–and stopped. Pouf! Gone. Just a lifetime of residue in there . Still a chance for fresh air. How about the altitude? Well, hm-m-m. Never thought about it.

It was hard for her to get her breath as she got off the bus at the North Rim campground–flat ground. Oh-oh. What’s the matter? That’s how I learned.

Then rain. It “never” rains in the Grand Canyon. That’s what I thought too, but it was GRAND, I thought, to arrive at 8,000 feet and find it pouring down, with llightning, and thunder crashing and echoing all around us. Thrilling! Wow! It was almost dark as we were laying out the tent, weaving the shock-corded poles through the thin wet fabric sleeves. “Why don’t you have a modern tent?” she asked, not out of curiosity. I laughed, told her I lived frugally. It was the only tent I had–and didn’t leak either. Told her I thought it was wonderful, putting up the tent in the rain! It was! I knew my tent well, patiently threaded those poles, singing to myself. She stood under a tree. I said that probably wasn’t the best place to stand in a lightning storm. Maybe the bath house/restroom would be better. I didn’t mind. I was close to the ground, in an open space, would soon be done.

We lived kthrough the first night.

“Why is your pack so heavy?” I asked. Mine was fifteen pounds, counting half the tent, plus water. Hers was near fifty. “It’s what I always carry,” she said. “That’s in Washington,” I said. “What’s in there?” Teddy Bears, for the grandchildren, changes of clothes and shoes, and a different pair of earrings every day, nested pots and pans. Stuff from home. I said we could send back a bunch with our sleeping bags in the morning. Don’t need much down there: food, salty snacks, water, fresh socks, first aid kit. But it’s like home, she said. .

We compromised. We kept one titanium pan. How many pans do you need? She kept the sparkly earrings and an extra pair of sandals to match. Wanted to find out if she was still atractive to men after all these years. Men go for sparkly earrings and sandals down there.

We sent the rest back. Each carried about 32 pounds down to Phanton Ranch. A sign there, made for us, said, “For fifty dollars, the mules will carry your pack up the South Rim.” “See that sign?” I asked. “It’s for US. Either that, or we live at Phantom Ranch and retire here. Wear those sandals for the rest of your life.”

It wasn’t bad, really. We learned that a trail is not a path in Arizona, any more than it is in Virginia. A trail is a lot of rocks that your boot doesn’t fit in or on or next to, and you have to keep your eye, not on the prize, but on the ground at your feet. Beautiful ground–where so many feet had walked before us. Every turn, a new and amazing view. Purple roots growing out of rock, Golden flowers towering far above our heads, flowers that bloomed that year because of the rain. Reeds waist high where the trail crossed water and wet mud, water , in places, racing , tumbling over boulders, leaving quiet pools in unexpected places, hikers gathered there, bootless, like kids, shouting and laughing. You never know what you might decide to call luxury.

Fourteen miles down, seven miles a day. Seven miles, that is, in eleven hours, no strolling, every second picking your way, placing your feet, sometimes backing down the way you would on a ladder from a high roof. Way down there, a tiny bridge. We go over THAT? We get THERE? TODAY? Guess so. One foot after the other. Our pace, whatever it is. Plenty of stops, enjoy each inch. Such a privilege, to have your feet there, and the rest of you, having this experience. Like hiking through the clay vessels of giants from millions of years ago, down, down, down, to the giants’ cave, and then–oh, yeah–UP again to the other side.

Well, one side, one step, at a time.

The bottom, Phantom Ranch, in walls of heat, is like a kiln that fires itself, and yet, everywhere, green deciduous trees, water flowing, mules resting, hikers from both directions mingling, eating ice cream bars. A microcosm of the earth–so many languages, so many cultures, represented, so many histories, so many lives–and yet all together , united by their tired feet, and their endurance, and their awe of a world they did not create, and that would be here long after they were gone.

A voice calls out to me: “Hey! Aren’t you Dr. Gill, from Bloomsburg?” “I AM! And you?” He was one of my students the year we did our program in Centralia, the town with the mine fire under it. Smaller world than I thought. He and his buddies were RUNNING down the South Rim, up the North. Running. Not even in my youth would I ever have thought of it.

We took our time down there. Day-hiked along the river, sat near ruins of native populations that HAD called this area home. An honor, to be where they were, to stand where they stood. A marvel to think of living without a Bloomingdale’s or a KFC, or a Texaco station, or plastic bags. A marvel, too, to imagine how the black bridge might have been built, and the tunnel on the other side. A marvel not to have forward motion for a few days, a marvel to breathe and not to work, to stand under green trees, and feel the hot breeze, to look far above the tree tops to where we would somehow , miraculously, be sometime the next evening. Ten miles up in one day–singing “Doe, a deer, a female deer, ray, a drop of golden sun. . . ” Amazing how you sound there–you and the family from Boston, singing several zigzags above you. Great acoustics there. Try it.

“When you get back to the motel,” someone said, “Lie down on the floor and put your feet up on the sofa edge. Just lie there–five, ten minutes. You’ll be ready to go again.”

Well, I am, and have been. Imagine–a world like that, at a walking pace, a pace that allows, even requires, you to savor each step, each breath, and that, in that glorious way, reminds you of your mortality, and everyone else’s mortality. How lovely even the thought–of doing it again and again.