New Leaves

There’a a miasma of negativity in the air these days that can sometimes seem like a toxic fog or something choking, like the smoke from last year’s wildfires. It’s almost that tangible. This is one reason I haven’t posted anything recently. No need to add to the glut of opinions on where we are, how we got here, and where we’re going, when nobody really knows. Looking through some old posts, I see that I already weighed in on several occasions, most recently in the summer of 2019.

In a series of posts called, Cycles, Gyres, and Yugas, Part1, Part2, and Part3, I discussed some prophetic statements that Paramahansa Yogananda made in 1940, which were later published in a pamphlet called World Crisis. He spoke of the kind of upheavals we are now facing. The good news is, that in his view, things will end well. The bad news is, that ending won’t come anytime soon.

Yet even during times of chaos and fear, Spring comes. I was reminded of this recently by new leaves on the maple trees.

A year ago, a long-suffering linden tree in the back yard died. Due to our poor soil, a tree service recommended replacing it with maples. Two in the front yard, planted a decade ago, are thriving, so we picked out two saplings at a large local nursery and planted them in the back. Unfortunately, the man who sold us the trees also recommended what proved to be a large overdose of starter fertilizer. As a result, from May through late October, the leaves that appeared would soon burn. All through that first season, the trees looked like they were dying.

An expert at a another nursery told us the trees would survive. I was hopeful but not convinced until I saw the new buds begin to unfold this year.

My pleasure at watching these leaves appear brought to mind “a lowly and unlearned man by the name of Nicholas Herman of Lorraine,” who later became known as Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, one of the most appealing but little known figures in the literature of world mysticism.

Born in 1619 to a peasant family, poverty forced him to join the army as a teen during the 30 years war. “At the age of 16, he saw a leafless tree in the middle of a battlefield. Realizing that the tree would be in full leaf and flower in a few months, he saw the tree as a symbol of God’s ability to transform the human heart.” (1)

Ten years later, after leaving the service wounded, and then working as a footman, he followed his vision and the example of an uncle and joined a Carmelite monastery in Paris as a lay brother. He lived there until his death in 1691. This unlearned man drew the attention of poor people, other monastics, and religious scholars because of the aura of peace that surrounded him. Abbé Joseph de Beaufort, a noted cleric, held numerous conversations and exchanged letters with Brother Lawrence, and published a selection of these after his death in a small volume, The Practice of the Presence of God, a spiritual classic of only about 60 pages.

There are not many accounts of such conversions or enlightenment moments, and most of those I have seen come from the east. In one story, a Tibetan seeker lay on his back on a hillside next to his spiritual teacher to gaze at the night sky. His moment of awakening was sparked by the sound of a barking dog. An Indian guru conveyed enlightenment to his disciple with a sudden blow to the head with his sandal, not out of anger, but to open his crown chakra when the moment was right.

All of us have seen bare trees bloom and heard dogs bark, and many of us have had too many blows to the head, but without experiencing any profound awakening. A common point in these stories is that these moments come when the mind is free of all habitual thoughts, emotions, assumptions and meanings, when awareness is clear so something new can arise. Both of the eastern seekers in these stories had spent years practicing spiritual disciplines with their teachers. Brother Lawrence’s vision came at a moment of stillness after a pitched battle. Saint Francis’s conversion also followed military service, after a serious illness during his year as a prisoner of war, and later, when a vision came after he set off on another campaign (1).

Events of the last two years have shocked millions of us out of our “habitual thoughts, emotions, assumptions, and meanings,” but with one major difference from the previous accounts. Brother Lawrence, Saint Francis, and the two eastern seekers lived at times when a coherent world view, Christian and Buddhist respectively, shaped people’s lives, their cultures, and the meanings they gave to powerful “breakthrough” experiences.

We no longer have anything of the sort. Yet we still have the changing skies and seasons, the bees and geese returning, and squirrels scampering along power lines. And we have leaves reappearing on bare trees. Paying attention to these “small” messages from the natural world seems like a good place to start looking for something deeper and more nourishing than the next headline or trending hashtag.

Remembering Robert Bly

Robert Bly, at “Poetry Out Loud MN,” March, 2009, by Nic’s Events, CC BY-SA 2.0

Robert Bly died on November 21, at the age of 94, but I didn’t find out until yesterday. The local paper published an obituary the week after his passing, but I missed it. Bly never got much media coverage, and when he did, it was often dismissive, accusing him, in his own words,of telling men to “run around in the woods and beat drums.”

He was an activist, author of more than 50 books of poetry, an editor, and a translator, but he’s best remembered as the author of Iron John: A Book About Men, 1990. The book grew out of a series of men’s conferences he co-hosted with James Hillman and Michael Meade. Those gatherings, along with the Power of Myth conversations between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell, mark the 80’s as a rare time when large numbers of people were attuned to story, dream, myth, imagination, and soul.

Perhaps noting how quickly the moment had passed, in 1996 he published The Sibling Society, in which he argues that we have become a nation of adolescents who resist growing up because it’s too hard. The book wasn’t well received by critics, who faulted his discussion of causes and solutions as fuzzy, but it’s impossible to look at the headlines of even the past week without recognizing the core truth of his premise.

Robert Bly created a life in which he could follow his passions and inspire those able to read his work as expressions of soul and imagination. He lived to be 94, and according to his son, died peacefully, surrounded by family.

His was a life well lived!

Spirits

On Sunday, a 39 year old man drove an SUV through the annual Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Five people are dead and many more injured, including 18 children between the ages of 3 and 16, who suffered abrasions, broken bones, and serious head injuries. I remember the joy of a Christmas event like that when I was about 4, that climaxed with Santa arriving by helicopter. Will Advent and Christmas ever be joyful again for the people of Waukesha?

The media mostly glossed over the event. If the killer had used a gun or had a political motive, it would have been front page news, but apparently regurgitated opinions on the Rittenhouse trial got more clicks than another massacre in America.

As of this morning, we know the accused man was on bail after allegedly running over the woman who claims to be the mother of his child at the start of the month. On Sunday, he was involved in a “domestic altercation” before plowing into the crowd. One of the few comments I saw the night of the attack came from Marianne Williamson, who said “an evil spirit” was loose in Wisconsin, and we needed to pray.

Williamson evoked some mockery during the 2019 Democratic primary debates for statements like that, but hers was the one comment I still remember from those events. She said “No amount of policy wonkiness can overcome all the hate in this country.” More recently she echoed words I’ve heard from other leaders in other spiritual traditions that, “There are no political solutions for what ails the nation.

I’ve been thinking about belief in spirits, both good and bad. Some acts are so heinous it’s hard to believe that “mere” human malevolence lies at the root – the Manson murders and Jonestown come to mind. As far as I can tell, only western culture since “the Enlightenment,” has refused to acknowledge the possibility of non-material influence on our behavior. Belief in spirits was part of original Christianity, and “distinguishing between spirits” was listed as a gift of the Holy Spirit by St. Paul (1Co 12:10 NIV). When you’re hearing voices, it’s good to know if they’re trustworthy!

We can call them spirits or call them neuroses, but at times like this, it’s dangerous to call ourselves invincible. In a more peaceful time, when the Star Wars movies first came out, everyone knew the Force was good and wanted it, without taking it literally. It’s worth remembering now that all it takes to turn us to the Dark Side is anger and hatred.

A Family Ghost Story Revisited

Because Halloween is coming and because I’ve been looking at old family albums, I decided to re-post a story I first published in July, 2010, a month after I started blogging. It concerns the “family ghost story” my great-grandmother used to tell. Except it may have been a “rural legend” once told widely in the midwest. Since the timeframe was the 1880’s, it really doesn’t matter. The story still evokes the mystery and excitement of my childhood Halloweens…Enjoy!

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I heard this from the time I was little, a story told by my great-grandmother, Hannah Shook Outwater. I was ten when she died at the age of 88. Her gift of a hand puppet for my third Christmas was a huge catalyst in sparking my lifelong love of making and telling stories, but that is a tale for another time.

Hannah Outwater in her 20’s

When she was seven, Hannah, the seventh of eight children, rode with her family in a covered wagon from Ohio to Michigan. Her younger brother, Freddy, age two, didn’t survive the trip. They say he was flat on his back in the wagon with fever, but the evening he died, he sat up with a beatific smile and reached out his arm to angels no one else could see.  At least that’s the family legend. When I was young, Freddie’s child-sized fork lay in the silverware drawer.

When they reached Kalamazoo, Hannah’s father, Isiah Shook, rented a farm. Then the incidents began.

Hannah’s older sister was of the age to go courting. The family would hear the wagon drive up bringing her home, open the door and find no one there. Some nights the family heard such a commotion in the barn it sounded like the animals were about to kick it down. When they ran out to investigate, they found the cows and horses asleep and everything quiet. Then there was the reddish stain on the guest room floor they could never scrub out…

You have to imagine my great grandmother pausing to look around the room.  She knew how to build suspense.  It might be halloween – it was certainly winter, with the lights turned low.  Those were the days before the SciFi channel and Freddy Kreuger.  Before CSI and the horrendous headlines that have become all to common.

The old lady would lean forward and speak in a low voice so we would have to lean in too.  “Once we needed to move a big old chest in the cellar.  That’s when we found it.  Mind you, those were the days of dirt cellars, but in the far corner was a single patch of cement about six feet long.”

She would let that sink in, and then say, “We had been there about six months when my father heard the story.  The neighbors said a wealthy horse dealer came through town and spent the night with the people who lived there before you.  No one ever saw him again.  The couple who lived there said he left before dawn.  Funny that they moved away two months later.  We never understood where they got the money to up and go so suddenly.”

Hannah’s family moved not long after. And “No,” she said, they never quite dared to dig and see what was buried under the cement slab.

AFTERWARD

My sister and I and our friends grew up with that story, and after Hannah was gone, my mother told it. Some ten years ago, however, while spending the night in a vacation cabin, I found a stack of American Heritage magazines, and one of them had an article on legends common in rural America a century ago – and there was the family ghost story! Or so I think, because I didn’t have the sense to write down the magazine date, and later attempts to find it again in libraries or used bookstores never panned out.

Was it pure legend?  Was it born of a scandalous crime that was the talk of the midwest in the era before TV and tabloids?  Was it like certain crimes that became the stuff of ballads that are still sung hundreds of years later?

When I first found that copy of American Heritage, I thought it was very important to find out what kind of story it really was – exactly how true.  Now I don’t think it matters.  For me the story will always be true, whether it happened or not.

The Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens

Path through the Woodland Garden

“For me beauty is the primary proof of the existence of God. Beauty is sublime, transcendent, and fulfilling. It takes us to the very edge of our capacity for knowledge…The world considered without its beauty is a world perceived without its God.” – Thomas Moore

“You must protest, you must protest, it is your diamond duty; ah but in such an ugly time, the true protest is beauty.” – Phil Ochs

James Hillman often railed against psychology’s “medicinal complex.” He looked to Greece and the Renaissance for inspiration as he championed a psychology of soul, image, and eros, in which “the primary value is beauty,” (A Blue Fire). A lack of beauty is pathological, he said, both in the lives of individuals and cultures. I thought of this often during this seemingly unending summer, with its record heat, smoke from another disastrous fire season, and a resurgent pandemic, set against a backdrop of too much traffic, too many angry drivers, and too many miles of billboards and decaying strip malls. For those, and other reasons, in mid-September, we set out for the coast, which we hadn’t visited since 2018.

Begonia Pavillion

Two days before we left, the temperature hit 106, so the 60 degree days alone would have made the trip worthwhile, but there was more than just a preview of fall in Fort Bragg, where we hadn’t stayed before. There were independent restaurants, coffee shops, a marine museum and the Skunk Train terminal, in the “downtown” area along the coastal highway. A few blocks away, wide streets and and quiet neighborhoods invited evening walks in glow of the coastal evening light. But the real surprise and most inspiring feature of the trip was the Mendocino County Botanical Gardens, just a few miles south of Fort Bragg www.gardenbythe sea.org.

We spent portions of two days at the gardens, which was only enough time to begin to explore, but that didn’t really matter. When a place mirrors the landscape of the soul, feeling like home on a deep level, it’s enough to just be there, and rest, and pay attention, letting the sense of presence arise.

“The flowers had the look of flowers that are looked at.” – T.S. Eliot

In the Dahlia Garden

Multiple paths meander through multiple groves, gardens, and open spaces, opening onto new vistas a every turn. Huge old trees bend and twist as if synchronized to the smaller plants that surround the trunks.

I’ve always enjoyed Japanese gardens, which blend the natural world with design and draw us into stillness. Here, there’s a wildness at the center of the garden designs, like an echo of the wildness of the ocean. The result is to draw us into wonder.

Memorial benches border the paths, with small plaques given by families of people who loved or supported or worked on these gardens. What a wonderful tribute that seems as one sits, surrounded by the beauty of the place they helped to create!

“The soul is born in beauty and feeds on beauty, requires beauty for its life.” – James Hillman

It rained the second day we went to the gardens, but everyone there seemed to enjoy it, both those who live on the coast and those, like us, visiting from inland. The clouds and rain added an extra shimmer to the foliage.

These gardens are an inspiring place to visit if you get a chance to visit the Mendocino coast. They brought to mind at least one similar feature near home that I haven’t explored in some time, and must get back to. Tt was also rewarding to pot several of the succulents we brought home. Just a small thing, but nothing that feeds the soul is ever too small.

From Sea to Shining…

One of my favorite photos of our nearest shining sea. Sunset, Bandon, OR, 2013.

A story that Tibetan meditation master, Orgyen Chowang Rinpoche told during a Zoom teaching last year came to mind this Independence Day.

Rinpoche said that when he was young, his passion was to learn ultimate truths. He said he eventually realized that ultimate truths are beyond the grasp of our ordinary, discursive minds, and the question he now asks is, “Is this beneficial?”

Historical truths are more accessible than metaphysical ones, but this July 4, the contention over even fundamental “facts” is central to our national malaise. I remain convinced that for a nation, just as for an individual, a fearless admission of wrongs is a pre-requisite to further efforts to manifest dreams and ideals.

Our national ideals of equality, freedom, and democracy, are now International dreams. So are the forces of fear and greed that feed the rising waves of world-wide authoritarian movements. The dream of democracy will survive, and now would be a good time to pray that nations that currently embody it do as well.

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This seems related – Mary and I were out this morning, and when we got back, it was too hot for a vigorous walk with the dogs, but we took them to the park anyway, sticking as much as possible to the grassy and shady areas. Not many people were out, but at one picnic table, three guitarists with portable amps were playing a stunningly good instrumental version of Dear Mr. Fantasy! It seems like just the song for this Independence Day.

Here’s a nice version of Steve Winwood playing it at Crossroads, 2007.

Normal, anyone?

These days, it’s impossible not to daydream of “getting back to normal,” though it gets complicated the moment you try to figure out what that means. Much of “normal American life” led to our current messes, and some of the least desirable normal things, like mass shootings, have been the first to return to our not-yet, post-pandemic world.

I am profoundly fortunate, with a reclusive temperament and a living situation that allowed me to weather 2020 safely, with a fair amount of residual sanity. Even so, yesterday, I discovered how much I miss some normal things. Mary and I left for an errand near downtown, with nothing more than a piece of toast, so by 10:30, when we were done, we were more than a little ravenous. An impulse led us to Lido’s, on Fair Oaks Boulevard, which has always had outdoor dining on the front porch. Several tables were open by then.

We hadn’t been to a restaurant since the second week of March, 2020, so scrambled eggs, country potatoes, a bowl of fruit, and coffee seemed like the finest breakfast I’d ever had. The good spirts of those dining on the porch were contagious. The downside became apparent after breakfast, when I masked up to go indoors to use the restroom – the place was jammed with maskless people, and I could only reflect that the end of the pandemic is in no way assured!

Stupidity is as normal as genius in this country, and I think we’ve become conditioned, especially after the last four years, to pay closer attention to the former. And yet…

In the afternoon, as I sat on the back porch, two hummingbirds joined the bees in circling and darting through through the apple blossoms.

Cheri Huber, a Zen teacher I met years ago, had a favorite saying: “The quality of your life is determined by the focus of your attention.”

She was right.

Fear in a Handful of Dust

T.S. Eliot, 1934. Public Domain.

And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in handful of dust.
— T.S. Eliot in “The Waste Land,” 1922

For me, the phrase, “fear in a handful of dust” signifies that sense of nameless dread that can arise without an immediate cause. Anyone who hasn’t experienced such a sense of impending doom sometime this past year was not paying attention!

The poem from which the line was taken, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste land, is considered one of the most important early 20th century poems, announcing the ascendency of modernism in poetry – there was little appetite for 19th c. romanticism after the First World War. At the same time, as Eliot made clear in extensive notes, he drew heavily on an ancient legend, that of The Holy Grail, a central image in the Arthurian legends, but with roots stretching back to the Bronze Age.

Like Eliot before him, Joseph Campbell wrote extensively of the Waste Land. The legend revolves around Sacred Kingship, where the health of the land and the health of the sovereign are one. Behind the ailing Arthur is the Fischer King, with a wound that will not heal. The land is waste and can only be healed by the recovery of the Holy Grail. (The Masks of God: Creative Mythology).

Quest for the Grail, Creative Commons.

In Christianized tellings the Grail was the cup of the Last Supper, but in Wolfram Von Eschenbach’s Parzival, the version most quoted by Campbell, the Grail is a stone: “Its name is ‘lapis exiles,’ which is one of the terms applied in alchemy to the philosopher’s stone.” The gifts of the Grail are different for each person, corresponding to their deepest desires.

In Wolfram’s telling, to redeem himself and the land, the Grail seeker must ask the right question: “Whom does the Grail serve?” For all my fascination with the Grail legend over the years, I’ve never been able to understand that question. Until maybe last year.

Sheltering in place, cut off from most ordinary activities, there was plenty of time to reflect. The most important reflection was probably, “What is most important?” What matters most to me? What do you say to fear in a handful of dust, or fear in the darkness when you wake up at 3:00 am during a plague year?

At this moment in time, I’m old enough to say I know. For now. Answers change as we change, but answers may not be the main thing. To redeem the Grail what matters most is asking the right question.