Recognizing that “Six Degrees Could Change MY World”

NASA The dryer is humming in the background, but the house is only lit by one compact fluorescent and the glow of the television and my laptop. There’s a cup of cold, forgotten coffee next to me, but I am drinking water we filter at home out of a Nalgene bottle I have used a thousand times. We went for a nice hike today, despite the gusty wind and the snow, but we drove to the top of the mountain for a change of scenery rather than take the path from the backyard.

My husband is watching a National Geographic special called “Six Degrees Could Change the World” and I am finding it impossible to focus on an Andrew Harvey book about Christ. The idea of the infinite love of God is tough to focus on when a voice is saying that “a change of just one degree could change American cattle country into a wasteland swallowed by drought.” I have never heard Alec Baldwin sound so terrifying – he’s the narrator of this scary little story I find impossible to ignore.

Instead of listening to the proof of “the dangers posed by global warming,” the litany of awe-inspiring changes that could occur with each degree increase in the global temperature I am writing this and trying unsuccessfully to keep my own fears at bay. It’s cable, so I know that this program will be repeated again and again, so later I can catch those details about how many thousands (was it 500,000?) of species that could be lost if one coral reef died so I can rattle off some statistics next time someone speaks dismissively about climate change. For now, I will watch and worry and wonder how on earth I can stop another polar bear from drowning and whether I will bring my grandchildren to my favorite Cape Cod beach someday.

Is this show going to give us any answers beyond reminding us to recycle and walk more and buy a hybrid (or wait, maybe you shouldn’t since there are so many resources already tied up in your current gas guzzler that putting yet another car on the road just makes it all worse)? I’ll keep watching and let you know.

At the very least, I think I can answer the question that Andrew Harvey posits at so many of his lectures “If you wake up at three o’clock in the morning and look at all of the injustices of the world, what is it that breaks your heart and forces you to action?” I cannot pretend anymore that someone else is going to take care of the corners of this earth that I love; I cannot withdraw into the fear that the science is too contradictory for a mere mortal to understand. The disappearing Arctic ice is my heartbreak; the rising seas will not recede into the neglected background of my modern life.

Advertisements

A Dash of Epic Myth in the Workday

Louis le Brocquy, The Táin. Magic chariot, 1969, lithograph on Swiftbrook paper, 54 x 38 cmThe Táin Bó Cuailnge is the great Irish epic that describes devastating episodes of battle instigated by what is essentially a lovers’ quarrel: Queen Medb and her husband Aillil set to comparing their riches in bed one night; in an effort to match her husband’s fortunes, Medb stages a raid on neighboring Ulster to snatch one particular bull. The amount of individuals ready for a good fight prove that they are clashing over more than a couple and their cows, but that is another topic entirely.

The events in the tale lead to the naming of many aspects of the land, so it seems only right that the story should be “earthy” in every respect. One of my favorite professors always used to say that Irish myth “out moderned the modern” and one of the many ways these stories do that is by proving our Victorian-inspired sensibilities really are recent constructs; legends like these endured long enough to be written down because they were made of all of the stuff of life including passion and revenge and cowardice and more than a few bodily fluids.

A strange angle to take on The Táin, I know, but it is a valid one in light of the discussion, or, well truth be told, “pissing contest” that I engaged in over the subject of Irish myth and language today. Pardon me for putting it like that, I don’t quite have the brashness of Medb to say that without apology, but putting it any other way seems a disservice to this metaphor I am trying to construct. I was introduced to an eager, newly minted PhD who has just joined the faculty. As always, I was introduced with a mention of my own credentials. In such situations I tend to smile mutely, caught between shrugging off Irish Studies as a lovely little phase and fumbling around for an vaguely related arcane witticism in a faltering attempt to flatter myself. By the end of the conversation today, I felt like a fraud hiding for behind knowledge I half remembered, nodding sagely as this lovely seeming woman compared the difficulty of translating medieval Irish to the Norse.

In the car on the way home I cranked up the Decemberists’ EP The Táin and felt a little less ridiculous about the conversation. I had not spoken my truth exactly, but I certainly had permission to talk about Irish myth since it was clearly still a part of my life – in this case it was blasted with heavy guitar and bizarre circus music.

One of the hardest things about working in academia at the same time that I pursue knowledge that is not necessarily wrapped in a scholarly, footnoted package is that one often feels robbed of the ability to speak about issues she cares about with any real authority. I know that subjects co-opted by college and university departments tend to become sanitized or problematized ghosts – how many people would recognize themselves as described by anthropology or folklore or ethnic studies faculty?

The exchange today gave me a new appreciation for the enduring versatility of myth, the ways these origin stories can color so many lives in different ways. They can be fireside diversion or fodder for a professional career, respected tales of a people’s genesis or wisdom imparting vignettes. When I lived and breathed the words and history of Ireland these stories were all about illuminated manuscripts and goddesses and warrior queens who could be read as precursors to the feminist age. Freed of the thesis scribbling imperative, they can take on a new life for me, something much closer perhaps, to their original intention.

Artwork by Louis le Brocquy as it appears in Thomas Kinsella’s 1969 version of The Táin.Louis le Brocquy, The Táin. Cúchulainn mounting into his chariot, 1969

Up Dog. Down Dog. Bad Dog?

Saoirse on the matLife took something of a turn in the days since I walked my parents’ dog Saoirse under that Epiphany sky on Sunday. The most notable causes of difficulty this week were the left ankle I sprained later that very night while on one last stroll with the the beloved hound as well as the fact that said canine was such a nervous wreck in the face of two territorial cats that she has alternately panted or whined through the night since she has arrived. Any semblance of routine my husband and I might be trying to establish in this new year was dashed as I hobbled around with this old injury I thought I had left behind me and we learned what it is like to add a loving omega puppy to the pack.

Tonight I was going to accomplish everything on my list including an ankle-safe walk, whipping up dinner, and finally doing some yoga to unkink these confused muscles and sinews that were shocked by the indignity of lurching around on crutches over the last few days. When I finally had a chance to get to my mat, Banshee, the savasana kitty who loves Saoirse UP CLOSEto curl up on my belly the moment I lie down, started her bid for affection. Saoirse was not about to let that sort of love pass her by, so she quickly took her spot in my lap – all 100 pounds of her. I pushed, I yelled, I growled, I pleaded, I tried to extricate myself but she just kept twisting us both in knots of limbs and tail and seeking doggy tongue.

I have just started reading Eknath Easwaran‘s translation and interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita. I am sure I will be writing a great deal about it, but my first impression was just how true and practical and applicable it all can be, especially through this wonderful teacher’s perspective. He talks about an Eightfold Path that lead to Self-realization, and ultimately to the realization of the Divine. In one of those rare moment when I actually have the ability to practice what I read, I recalled two elements of his Path: slowing down and putting others first. Though I was seeing a sweet, disobedient dog as a distraction to what I was meant to be doing – practicing what yoga I could on one foot – what if I stopped for a moment and looked at what she might need? What if I recognized this situation not as a lack of training but as the Universe suggesting I try something else? Here is a six-year-old only “child” who had been stolen from her life that features daily walks on the beach who is now being left alone all day with strange little creatures who look like little dogs, but most assuredly are a very foreign other. She has had to walk thought mountain slush and ice in woods full of deer and coyotes and other creatures that are so foreign to the sand dunes she is accustomed to roaming. The person sitting on the floor in the middle of prime puppy play space is her only link to that regular life she knows and loves, and now this person is rejecting her.

Surely Easwaran’s wisdom can be lavished on much more complex and serious issues than the classic struggle of yogini versus black lab, but this is a decent place to start, I should think. How is it that we think we can fill our house with adorable, furry fonts of unconditional love without occasionally stopping to realize what their experience of life must be like? The moments I spent holding on to her were the closest to meditation I had experienced in days, but I had fought them as ferociously as she fought for my attention. For once I feel a little closer to understanding what it means to listen to nature and silence that demanding ego-driven self who needs to believe she is in control.Angelic Saoirse

Journeying Under the Cloak of Epiphany

As one might expect, my blog has been coming up on a lot of people’s Google searches and the like since today is the Feast of the Epiphany. I hope that a few people were not disappointed to find that my sorts of epiphanies include Rumi and Irish poetry and talk of global warming and will venture back here even after January 6. Truth be told, my knowledge of this date on the Christian calendar is limited to my Nanna’s tradition of giving us a little gift and taking down the tree on this day.

I wished that this day upon which Christians celebrate the revelation of the one they considered to be infant savior to the Magi, Christ’s baptism, as well Jesus’s first miracle when he turned water to wine at the wedding in Cana seemed to offer more epiphanies to me. On this day at home we were taken with dogsitting for my folks’ wonderful fool of a black lab, Saoirse, and with discussing the shape of our lives in the year(s) to come. Undoubtedly we were planting seeds for eventual bursts of wisdom, but it seemed to simply be a day of snow melt and the sense of standing at the beginning – or perhaps the middle – of a great transitional state.

* * *

In the last moments of daylight I took the dog for a walk, the sense of feeling largely bereft of epiphanies heavy my mind. Instantly I was grateful for the excuse to walk the soft snow in the gloaming, the path glowing white through the gathering gloom. It was yet another moment of deep recollection, the glory there is to be found when disconnected from flickering screens and long lines of words, the uncharted space in my head beyond recorded language that longs to be explored. A body kept bound by obligation and injury and forbidding weather remembered what it was to move, to feel an expansion across her shoulders, an opening of her heart from an unexpected place in the middle of her back.

The sky was neither iron nor pewter – none of those usual winter words to describe these dense clouds that seemed to glow from a place deep within as the snow reflected back the last of the dying light. It was infinitely softer, a sweeter canopy over this temporary thaw. The first image that occurred to me was that the world was lying beneath a great wizard’s cloak – a magical garment made of sun and snow and atmosphere in silver and gray that hinted at blues and pinks and a place beyond color. Then I recalled that there are in fact three wizards abroad this day: the three magicians, the Wise Men of the east who were said to have followed a star that must have glinted like an even more mysterious prism than this northern evening ever could.

After toying with whispers of despair as I felt this day to be devoid of concrete promise, lacking the sort of thoughts and realizations worth committing to a page, it seemed that hope refused to be denied. A day about which I assumed I knew so little, whose name I have used so liberally revealed itself to me in a symbol that enveloped my entire world. I am left to understand the constant, universal journey toward Epiphany.

The Degree To Which We Feel the Chill

Jan 1 snow

A quick trip to the mailbox in the moments between moving from a toasty car to an almost cozy house gave me a few moments under the stars tonight. Our neighbors’ woodsmoke hung heavily in the air and the snow squeaked under my feet as it does when the temperature threatens to linger at zero. Even here on the fringes of the “country” a great stretch of the sky from the horizon to Orion’s edge (perhaps his elbow?) was shaded pink with the lights of the nearby town, but still the constellations stretched with such glory across the top of the world, all at once chilled dignity and ecstatic brilliance.

This was the end of the sort of day that almost everyone complained about. It was cold, truly cold, and though the sun shone brightly, it was difficult to find the place between suffering from the frigid air and sweating under the layers of woolen compensation once you made it inside. During the drive home, I was listening to NPR as usual and heard a piece in the “You Must Read This” series. The contributer was talking about the solace she found in reading Chekhov in Syracuse, New York while she was a teenager. I don’t have much affection for Chekhov, particularly, but we don’t live all that far from there and certainly I understood her talk of the cold. What hit my artistic sensibilities (and my general refusal to use two words when twelve might have the particular lilt I am hoping for) was her description of the climate: “Some years it got so cold it felt like someone was trying to kill us.” Clunk.

Alright, so I might have said that differently (the way the cold seemed to bent on exchanging our bones for icicles or something, but I’m not working with a three minute time limit and well, no one has asked me to broadcast my opinion of books on National Public Radio), but her word choice really just got my attention about what seems to be a broader (and less nit picky) issue.Jan 1 snow

To personify the cold as an agent trying to kill you is to plant yourself (and your city) smack at the center of the universe. It is to take the movement of atmospheric currents and the tilt of the sun personally. Somehow, that just seems a massive waste of energy (the question of climate change aside in this situation, of course). What sort of state do open ourselves to if the weather becomes such an adversary even as we sit comfortably behind the windowpane, teacup in hand? Are we so mentally and spiritually fragile that the cold can penetrate places a parka cannot protect us from?

As soon as I say this, I realize that a week ago I was dissecting the way the darkening days leading to the Solstice set me to contemplate death. Though I did not suggest that the absent sun was in on an assassination plot, I certainly offered my fate to be influenced by waning daylight and other unearthly agents.

Perhaps I am not exactly certain what I am trying to say here, beyond attempting to call for a balance between recognizing that we are creatures constantly affected by our natural world and getting tangled up in blaming nature for its crusade against our personal comfort. How do we understand ourselves to be inextricably bound to the web of all creation and yet maintain a centeredness that means we are not thrown off balance every time the wind blows?

The only answer I can begin to offer is to practice acceptance, to be present to the world around us yet know that we bear stillness within. Since my topic here is winter, maybe I do not drag the metaphor to far to think of the castle that stands firm even after one shakes the snow globe – one steady force amidst a shower of white?

But let me tell you what I think!: Interactive Readership

Over at The Website of Unknowing this morning Carl McColman wrote about the joyful immediacy of the blog world compared to the less “fun” act of book writing and the way that the conversations that mark this electronic realm force one to constantly think and question in new ways. After just over two months writing in this space, I have come to realize how a new appreciation for immediacy has altered my perspective, even the way I read the still beloved printed page.

Today I started a Christmas gift, Andrew O’Hagan’s novel Be Near Me. I have been in a pitiable fiction rut lately, but after only 35 pages, this book reminded what it is I love about literature. The flow of language, the cleverness of the author’s connections, my immediate yearning to understand the “why” of everything that unfolds in this depressed Scottish town that so seem to hate its Catholic priest. All I wanted was to stop and thank O’Hagan for transporting me, for inspiring me again. While I have always been moved by storytelling, this new impulse to drop a book so that I could celebrate how it has touched me is quite new. I am left to wonder how it enhances my ability to interact with a text – to articulate exactly what it is I love (or despise); I also must consider how it might detract from what has always been a meditative, solitary pursuit – breaking the flow of reading another’s work with the need to interject.

Again I am thinking of David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous that I mentioned yesterday: it’s about the way our global culture, which has been created in part through the propagation of the written word, has detracted from our true connection to nature. At the risk of pulling his argument too far from its original course, I believe in some ways it is this new medium that actually can return us, if not to the direct experience of nature itself, then at least to a new ability to be present and responsive to experience.

Perhaps I am bending logic to make sense of this new blog habit that drinks up so much of my time. Certainly I am not considering all that we lose in face-to-face interpersonal experiences by constantly interacting with “virtual” folk. Responding to what we read used to be the stuff of coffee shops and book clubs after all. Maybe I just feel the need to draw connections between narratives that flow through ink on paper with this new form so that I can believe there will be such a think as the spine of a book upon which my name might appear some day. It just might be that the rules really are not written yet and we still have to negotiate what reading and responding will mean in the future. We risk such fragmentation as skip between mediums, always looking to speak rather than listen and contemplate. At the same time, there is beauty in this alternative to reading in a vacuum in which reactions might simply settle to create a thicker mental hummus of vicarious experiences, largely inaccessible and unexamined.

That debate will rage on, but for now I suppose I will have to fall back on that line from Yeats: “Words alone are certain good.” Well, words may not be the only source of good, but they are an excellent rock to cling to.

Pacing the Earth With Humility and Grace

“In order to obtain the astonishing and unifying image of the whole earth whirling in the darkness of space, humans, it would seem, have had to relinquish something just as valuable – the humility and grace that comes from being fully a part of this whirling world.”

– David Abram, Spell of the Sensuous

Apollo 17 Crew, NASA

In his remarkable book, Abram looks at the way written language (and all of the technology that resulted in perfecting that particular form of magic) has altered our relationship with nature. We are almost completely wrapped up in the power of our own minds to the degree that we no longer recognize that living on this planet is to coexist in an infinite partnership. He describes the ability of people of oral cultures to live in harmony with the land and every entity; he makes it clear that we “moderns” have alienated ourselves almost completely from such a symbiotic dance.

I wanted to celebrate the chirp of every cricket right along with him and know what it would be like to see the earth not as an inanimate setting upon which I enact the drama of my life, but to recognize the landscape as a main character. I was able to lose myself in the text. At the same time, the unforgettable element that reverberates through this work is that such a well-crafted narrative can only exist thanks to the innovations that have pulled us away from this original sensibility. And though his story is captivating, I think I would be looking for a little more excitement than the local moss and soaring birds might be able to offer after a little while. He offers a very brief solution to this separation from nature, and that is to return to a localized culture that truly focuses on what is immediately outside your back door rather than on the global vision that entrances us now. I am not sure that his answer is immediately practicable or even attractive, but I gained much simply from Abram’s description of an idealized unity of humans and their environment.

I chose the quote above both because it creates a startling perspective on the consequences of “progress” and because Abram employs the terms “humility” and “grace.” During this period of soul searching I am trying to take a break from my current dilemma that revolves around asking “what’s next?” to move further within to ask “where am I now?” Caroline Myss’s Entering the Castle has been my guide, and in working with this book I have encountered these two words that I have thrown around before but certainly did not fully understand. These words are an interesting choice for Abram because one thing I missed in his book was any direct discussion of God. That is not a failing of this book necessarily – the natural world is the mightiest manifestation of the divine and it is easy to read into this text the sense that removing ourselves from nature is also to separate ourselves from the most beautiful and immediate expressions of the sacred. It is just something that I noticed was absent since so much of what I am reading these days is so overtly laced with “God talk.”

But what does it mean to live with humility and grace? This question is enough to fill endless entries, but it is one that I must begin to pose. At this moment I would consider grace to be the ability to walk through my day knowing that I am a channel of divine energy, conscious of the unity of all creation and of my own powerful place in that continuum. Humility is a concept I am just beginning to get my head around – to understand on a personal level that it is not about fading into the woodwork and sacrificing my personality in an effort to be blandly and angelically good. It is about settling into my truest self so that I am secure enough and grounded enough not to need to be first, not to demand constant attention and praise, not driven to denigrate others in order to improve my own position. It is about honesty and authenticity.

Both of these terms apply so perfectly to the way in which we must be bound to behave on this planet. To act with grace is to recognize our position in this web of life both by refusing to exploit it and by making positive contributions that better this world. And to move from a place of humility is to give up the idea that we are supreme creatures entitled to trample every other species and resource in a mad dash to have more and more and more. It is to recognize our own impermanence and look upon this planet with respect rather than as another foe to be conquered, another force to be controlled.