It is very early autumn here in the north country, the tops of the maples just beginning to change color while the lower branches remain green. The days are warm, the nights cool. This morning after Carole left for work I took the dogs out on the deck with me and sat for a while enjoying the still-cool morning air, the warm sun, the breeze. The sky was an expanse of pure blue beyond description & the river picked up that color, the surface broken by small wavelets that sent points of brilliant silver light in every direction. It occurred to me that, despite everything, this was the most beautiful morning of my life. Or perhaps it was because of everything. The ten-thousand things in perfect harmony, so that even the sound of a truck grinding its gears as it rattled over the bridge fit perfectly into the music of the morning.
Was I flooded by the life force overnight so that I could wake feeling this blissful? Or am I just high on Percocet? I slept only in bits & pieces last night, actually. Haven’t had this sort of insomnia in quite a while, but when I woke just now after sleeping an hour (from 4:00 to 5:00) I felt filled with bliss. Did the pickup (probably) with a bad muffler wake me? Can’t remember, but I was aware of it coming over the bridge & turning left onto Three Falls Road by following the sound it made downshifting for the turn then accelerating slowly up the first hill across the reservoir. The sound of that broken muffler echoing around the woods & open water & off the banks of the river made me aware how far my sense of hearing reaches, orienting me in space–at least out here in the country–on a far greater scale than my sense of sight. Even when I’m watching the moon, I tend to bring the moon down to me rather than gaining some sense of the great distance between myself & it. I make it intimate. But with the sound of a truck laboring uphill on an otherwise silent summer morning, all of space becomes intimate–“I placed a jar in Tennessee . . .”
I was nodding off just now (see previous post) when I was awakened by a low rumble of thunder. Yesterday we had sunshine & mild air in South Colton, today rain. This rainy weather puts me in mind ofÂ certain mornings from my boyhood. My family lived in Santa Cruz, California, which one ordinarily associates with sunshine & surfing, but which I recall as green & foggy, with redwoods & live oaks. My family lived six or seven miles inland, in foothills. I liked the rain, it made things quiet. Or it made the long, labored silences of my mother & father (& myself) seem natural. A crashing psychological silence muffled by the wholly natural silence of the weather. My family’s silences sometimes found voice in shouts & smashed household objects; the weather too, in winter storms, would howl & break the furniture of the woods. My bedroom was in the tower, which gave me a 300 degree panorama of the weather.
As this sickness I have has become real to me, I have found myself recalling odd images from my boyhood. Not surprising, I suppose. The mind seeks comfort. But my boyhood was not particularly comforting, so that’s not exactly right. It’s more subtle. Even when I was very young I managed to find a way to create mitigating spots of safety. Most of these had to do with the natural–that is, the non-human–world. I was reminded of this the other day when I came across one of the few books I have managed to keep with me since childhood.
This book possesses a talismanic status for me. It must have been given to me when I was five or six years old, long before the text, elegantly written for a smart twelve-year-old, would have been fully available to me. But there was so much information folded into the paintings & charts, that I could spend hours shifting between staring out my bedroom windows & flipping through the pages of the large, satisfyingly heavy book. At a time when some of the uglier parts of the Bible were being driven into my consciousness, this Golden Treasury became an alternative sacred text.
And I could then put the book down, go downstairs & outside the big house pictured above. Walking toward the trees at the bottom of the photograph, I could go down into a ravine cut by Branceforte Creek & wander for hours, though to be truthful, the woods, raw nature, usually produced a kind of anxiety that would send me back to the house (with its own anxieties) & to my books & rock collections & (a little later) my weather instruments. My relation to these things was always more alchemical than scientific, more poetic than analytical. Poetry is always more about the weather than whatever might be happening underneath the weather.
On the cusp of retirement I had already been looking forward to returning to some of my armchair naturalist activities & with this illness I find myself drawn back to the pleasure I take in the weather, the woods & the words used to describe & evoke them. Poetry, to which I have not always been so faithful, has remained faithful to me & now I humbly return to it.
Now here’s a story about particle physics I can understand! Also: The first photograph ever uploaded to the web.
I’m about half-way through my stay in Vietnam. It’s been eye-frying hot the last few days & it has sapped my energy a bit. Glad it’s Sunday & a little cooler. Having a bit of bread & cheese & coffee in my room this morning — there was a large Japanese family in the small dining area downstairs — and I’ll go out before it gets too hot & take some pictures, then try to get some work done this afternoon. The week that starts tomorrow is going to be busy, culminating Friday with my conference presentation on translation “best practices,” so, yes, I’m glad it’s Sunday.
Steve wished me “bon voyage” in a comment to my last post & that wish must have done some good since the “voyage” part of my trip downstate did have some adventurous moments, but turned out well in the end. I had meant to post something about my experience at the Zen Mountain Monastery as soon as I returned, but the semester began, classes, heated up, meetings had to be attended & so I’m just getting a chance to makes some notes about the retreat now, almost two weeks after the event. There is also the fact that describing religious experience is extremely difficult — most such descriptions disintegrate into cliché or bathos. The writings of the great mystics — Western & Eastern — astonish us at least in part because they manage to communicate the ineffable in ordinary human language.
The most adventurous part of my adventure occurred before I ever got to the monastery, but I think that “bon voyage” must have helped, but the trip very nearly became the Zen Mountain Massacre. Fortunately, I was helped by a couple of bodhisattvas along the way and made it to the monastery in time to begin the retreat despite my GPS unit, usually very reliable, trying to take me down a road with a washed-out bridge. I had driven happily through the Adirondacks and down into the Catskills, avoiding the Northway (I-87), which would have been more direct. Around sundown I found myself in Lexington NY on a road that both the satellites and my new iPhone said would get me where I wanted to go. What neither of these smart devices knew was that floods last spring had washed out a bridge. The road ended in a barrier. As it turns out, Zen is all about barriers, but I’ll come to that later. Continue reading “Zen Again”