A Path to Someplace

The seaweed fingers of the ocean laced themselves through Friday night’s post as I dreamed of a Cape Cod childhood. The specter of all I didn’t really appreciate living with the ocean so near to my door sweeps ever closer as I delve into the essence of place.

pathWe are steeped in the language of landscape – after all, this corner of the blogosphere is stated to include notes from a spiritual quest, and what is a quest if not a journey along a path? Only one part of me envisions a trail through a forest; the rest of me relies on the abstract – images of neural pathways or a trek up a spiritual mountain with little reference to reality. We have reached a point where we move through life without ever risking blisters as our feet never touch the ground. William Blake’s vision has been realized in so many ways: “Imagination is the real and eternal world of which this vegetable universe is but a faint shadow.”

So often in my life I have lived this creed, devouring poetry for the sway of the verse rather than to feel the rise of the hill being glorified on the page. We can discover countless aspects of the planet with such speed and alleged accuracy, but still I am left to wonder if I have ever actually seen a moose by the side of the road or if I have just watched the opening credits of Northern Exposure often enough to feel I have that big mammal all figured out.

At last I am beginning to realize that my moments of greatest unhappiness (often after heady flushes of joy) generally swallow me when I am most oblivious to the cycles of nature, the constant spin of birth and death that exists well beyond my narrow scope. It strikes me as strange that we can completely forget the ground beneath our feet. Does a sailor ever forget the ship that keeps him from slipping into the sea?

These considerations come at a time when my husband and I talking about where to set roots for an eventual family. Back to the Cape, back to Europe, some foolishly warm part of this country, or perhaps just embracing the community in which we currently find ourselves. There are so many factors that would inform that decision – occupation and livelihood; the proximity of family and friends; whether residents of these new places would seem to be “of our tribe”; is it too hot, too provincial, too landlocked? What would it mean to make the decision not only in light of such practicalities, but because of the pulse of a place, the language of the land itself rather than the vocabulary we have thrust upon it?

Finding My Fins at the Foot of a Mountain

http://www.flickr.com/photos/joebackward/I was born a Cape Cod girl with salt water in my veins (though I would not realize this until the ocean was no longer a mile from my door). I discovered my fairytale soul and soaked it in romance on Prince Edward Island (not recognizing until later the dangers of treating my teenage self with such painful earnestness). I became a Galway girl and parodied the Normans to be “more Irish than the Irish themselves” (not that I would have owned that dubious distinction at the time). As the shine of childhood and collegiate entitlement began to dull, I resigned myself to be someone caught between being a chameleon and a fish out of water and lived in a few landlocked spots that meant nothing to me at all. I have tried on more than a few guises and landscapes trying to find my own true home. Now, after nearly four years in a little town in the Hudson Valley at the foot of a ridge that leads to the Catskills I am beginning to realize aspects of myself beyond ocean and nation and alienation. At the same time, I am also able to recognize that the identity I forge is still built from the stuff of sand dunes and sea grass.

More and more I am coming across references to the essential nature of place and the way that location is an active participant in the events of one’s life. In so many ways this is a quaint notion that seems to apply to people who find joy in composting or who hail from a line of wisewomen and men stretching back to time immemorial. It is a luxury that seems to apply to people with large families in spots that are either too idyllic to leave or too destitute to escape. As I read about the vibrancy of some seem to see in their homeland I wonder at the privileged and the blighted few who enjoy such intimate knowledge of each stone and leaf.

Somehow in reading such texts I forget that I grew up with a list of my top five favorite beaches – one had the best waves, another the best sandbars, another the best rocks upon which to figure out the allure of sunbathing (this redhead has still to sort out that mystery of adulthood), etc. I was raised by people who chase across our peninsula on the three or four most perfect nights of the summer to see the sun set and the full moon rise on opposite sides of the sky over different faces of the sea. Just last weekend my mother and I rolled a busted buoy far further than might be considered sane to enhance a driftwood and debris sculpture and make part of that Chatham shoreline our own.

Woods Hole Research CenterI spent eighteen years on a world famous arm jutting into the Atlantic with parents who love to sail and collect heart shaped rocks and still don’t mind if the dog jumps into the water minutes before getting back into the car, and somehow I have managed to feel disconnected from an authentic sense of belonging, from a place that seemed to know my name as well as I knew its.

Now we can point to a global society riddled with modes of communication that has afforded us the ability to eat strawberries in February and play Scrabble with friends in Budapest in the middle of the night as the source of this separation from the land. This new parallel existence has also allowed us to trade organic “place” for self-determined “space” so that we get to define our world rather than letting it define us. I know that I gain infinite wealth from this wired world, just as I profit immeasurably from the first frontier that separated us from the earth around us, the printed page. At the same time, I am beginning to realize the reciprocal relationship that exists between me and the corner of the planet that gave birth to me as surely as my parents did. Nature is calling out to cradle us as sweetly and as strongly she always did, if only we are willing to listen.

The next mystery to sort out is how loudly the waves are calling me home…

Dreaming the Present Moment

I spent a few quiet moments during the boisterous Thanksgiving holiday reading David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous by my parents’ fireplace, completely captivated by his description of the Aboriginal people’s concept of Dreamtime. The landscape is fully mapped by the trail of the ancestors, each hill and valley associated with Kangaroo Dreaming Man, or Tortoise Woman, or one of the many other animal spirit beings that are thought to have preceded the natives of Australia. Individuals come to be connected with an ancestor and they learn the stories and songs associated with the “songline” of that being. The songline is one of many trails that cross the country, taking a route through areas most rich in resources. It seems that the ancestors marked the paths that could sustain the people in times of scarcity as these trails would lead the singers of the songline to ample food, water, and shelter.

How interesting that I read part of this chapter on a bus full of college students all plugged into more electronic equipment per square foot than the average Best Buy. No one spoke as screens flickered in nearly every seat and we crawled through towns that couldn’t imagine scarcity. Now I write this back in the mountains of New York, thinking about a book I read not far from the waters of Cape Cod. I have traveled much in the last few days, but I never gave the act of moving across the land a thought (beyond taking a bus instead of renting a car). What is it to move not because the journey was informed by traditions deeper than memory, but simply because of the cut of the highways and a holiday dictated by calendar and national decree? (It is not as if we were all hiking home because the full moon indicated it was time for the harvest, after all.)

One of Abram’s central theses is that the alphabet, written language, made it possible for humans to essentially live without concern for the natural world that sustained and informed all aspects of our own ancestors’ experience. Certainly the excess of food on a Thanksgiving table produced in countless forgotten corners of the planet and the massive migration of Americans in their quest to be reunited for family and football is a time in which we generally forget our allegiance to the planet as we contemplate traffic, getting along with relatives, and the shopping season ahead.

But then again, in its own way Thanksgiving itself is a tradition deeper than memory since we celebrate it not because of a children’s tale of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a meal in some remote context, but because the ancestors who inform us of who we know ourselves to be have taught us to feast together at the end of each November. It may be an event less than four hundred years in the making and it may not tell an origin tale that is quite as fundamental as Adam and Eve, but it comes close. In reading Abram’s book I have worried over what we may have lost in the translation of capturing life on a page (or a screen). The indigenous societies he describes all sound idyllic and all of their myths sound pure. But perhaps their stories that we now idealize made some of the tellers cringe because they knew survival of their world came at the cost of other races and species, just as the story of this country often makes me shudder even as I recognize its inherent beauty and revel in its bounty. Perhaps after much happiness enjoyed with my family marking a day that forms the national consciousness, I am able to see beyond the romance of times irretrievably lost to the demons of progress and understand the joy there is to be gained in living right now.

Hoping and Fearing and Sliding Into the Sea

Yankee Beach on a slant

I took this photo this summer on Prince Edward Island’s Yankee Beach in honor of Nanna who always took pictures on an angle (now granted, this was in the days of square photos, so she had some noble artistic license on her side). When I came across it today I was struck by the way this picture encapsulates one angle of my world view. I can find myself in great tumults of panic at the state of the world and can start to believe that we are on a steep slide into oblivion. Granted, this wash of emotion is often related to the ocean rising and swallowing the land rather than the other way around, but the spirit is the same.

I am sure that there are basic personality archetypes that make one more or less likely to spin into alternating fits of passion and despair at the state of the wider world. As I have moved from thinking that fiction then poetry then women’s rights then law then environmentalism then spirituality was the most pressing concern during this particular chance I have on the planet, I realize I am most certainly one who cannot get the state of the universe off of her mind. Another aspect of this need to engage with the broken world seems to be the belief that this is the worst it has ever been – I mean look at the carbon crisis and nuclear proliferation and preemptive warfare and global epidemics and the poverty and sexism and racism that just will not go away! While I am certain that many wise people could talk about natural fluctuations in the earth’s temperature and the evils of typhoid and the fact that we have an African American and a woman running credible campaigns and all the rest, for me these issues just will not go away.

When certain members of my family hear about the fact that I have my doubts about saving for retirement because I don’t really think the banking system will exist in the forty or so years that separate me from my 401K (but I save anyway because, as we have established earlier, I am a really well meaning hypocrite – aren’t most of us?) they always tell me that I just don’t know how good things are now. I’m told to consider the politics of assassination or that the Vietnam casualties were more than ten times that of the wars now and that hey, we fixed that hole over Antarctica, didn’t we? (Wait, did we? I remember lots of talk of CFCs and the ozone layer in elementary school, but we seem to have lost interest in that particular angle…) I just leave the conversation wondering who is fooling themselves – those who cannot bear to imagine that we are on the path to a social/political/environmental disaster or those who are desperately afraid we are on a lethal collision course of our own making?

Many times I have tried to sort out why such a big part of me believes we are in such a terrible state. What do I gain from living my life with tinges of Armageddon on the horizon? Does a belief in humanity’s narcissistic penchant for annihilation a) get me off the hook since we are all lost anyway, b) give me a sense of purpose because I have obsession with someday playing some sort of savior or c) is it just an organic aspect of who I am, a(n) (over)sensitivity that whips me into a muted frenzy? And how do I explain that despite this worry and dread, I am still a hopeful creature who believes we can walk through the darkest times and emerge a stronger, more beautiful world?

But as I spend my evening writing this rather than considering how to quit my comfortable job with its terribly comforting benefits package in order to chain myself to a tree along the Amazon or join Mother Teresa’s nuns in Calcutta, I realize that enough of me must be able to deal with the ills listed herein. Or perhaps none of those terrible phenomena have yet hit quite close enough to home…

A Post About My Cats (and Milkweed and Bittersweet and Vine Swinging)

Banshee and Seamus getting acquaintedFunny thing about epiphanies – not only are you glowing with insights about all that you never realized before, you are also glowing a little with shame at the silly things you did and said and thought before the revelation. Now I don’t plan to dwell too much on self recrimination, but I think it healthy to recognize a few minor revolutions in my perspective.

Last week, buried in a post that rambled on about phenomenology I mentioned that we had a gotten a new kitten and were nervous about how our cat Banshee would accept him. In trying to describe the way that we felt the need to control feline nature rather than allow it to take its natural course and hence were disassociated from the greater patterns the universe, I did apologize for lowering the tone of this space to encompass house pets. Well, I’m not sorry and I am about to do it again.

This afternoon I broke what has become a tradition for me since my husband started working Saturdays. Instead of hunching in my writing spot that is surrounded by windows and wondering if the squirrels were cold out there, I went out to join them. We have miles of trails behind the house – a nature preserve and state park in one direction and a great college town in the other – and it’s a big month if I get out there once. Ah yes, I am the ecofeminist who is too busy reading to feel actual wind in my hair.

I tried to make it a walking meditation; I realized there were brief statements sent in God’s general direction, but really I was just writing blog posts in my head and at one point was repeating “Row, row, row our boat” like a mantra. No real idea why the usual one was replaced with a nursery rhyme, but it might have been something to do with looking at the world through my mostly forgotten childhood eyes. I glanced at bittersweet on the way out and thought of the way Nanna used to collect armfuls of it. I noticed the milkweed pods, their white fur waiting for a strong breeze to send them dancing on the air and remembered collecting them near the swans’ marshes in Falmouth once upon a time.

On the return trip I saw a vine hanging across the path and wondered if I could jump and reach it. Even though the November afternoon chilled my exposed belly, I grabbed hold and swung for a while; this was not a typical Saturday afternoon. When I came upon a patch of milkweed this time I climbed through the brush to feel its silkiness and liberate a few dozen parachutes of seed. So this was what it was like to notice the outer world, to delight in all that it invited me to see, to be.

The sanitized, cerebral version of myself filtered through what I have studied presents an extremely limited view of who I am, and from what I know about epiphanies, they don’t thrive in the presence of limitation. How did I assume I could elucidate anything about my relationship to “Nature” when I was leaving out an inherent aspect of my own nature: I’m a sucker for anything four legged and furry. It’s a condition I’m really quite proud of and I do not even worry that this affliction gets worse with age (I slipped a promise of a puppy into my husband’s wedding vows – it’s been 13 months and Bacchus the golden retriever has yet to materialize, but that is another story).

So my cat related epiphany is about patience and trust. After only seven days, the newcomer has pretty much been accepted by herself. His name is Seamus, and he is really quite shameless, and his dance with Banshee has taught me more in the last week about acceptance and adaptability than any self-help guru I’ve had occasion to hear.S&B curled up

Nature, Ignored, Still Red In Tooth and Claw

Or, black in growl and hiss.

Today I started reading David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous. The first sixty pages are heavy with my underlining and marginalia as I considered phenomenology and allowed myself to sink into his beautiful aesthetic, communing with condors and spinning with spiders. Phenomenology, to my limited understanding was first developed by Edmund Husserl as a “science of experience” rooted in the body’s direct interaction with other entities. The intention is to locate ourselves in the “real world” and realize that we can never be truly unbiased or unaffected because everything we observe is filtered through the experience of our own existence. Husserl feared that modern science was driving the West into crisis as a complete separation from the experience of being human was idealized in the pursuit of objective “truth.”

Others have taken up the thread of this philosophy so that it seems to validate the belief that everything we encounter is another universe in and of itself. We can never truly observe something in its entirety because we can never experience all planes of another’s existence. What I take from it at this point (admittedly without even finishing this particular chapter) is the inherently interconnected nature of all things because, to quote Abram’s rhetorical statement: “Does the human intellect, or ‘reason,’ really spring us free from our inheritance in the depths of this wild proliferation of forms? Or on the contrary, is the human intellect rooted in, and secretly borne by, our forgotten contact with the multiple nonhuman shapes that surround us?” Judging this book by its cover, I am thinking we are building to the recognition that we are an integral part of this world’s ecology obligated to work for its salvation and that observing and empathizing with the living creatures around us is only the beginning.

unhappy kittyBut really, this is a post about my cat(s?). (Just this once, I swear I am not turning to stupid pet tricks.) Our beloved four-year-old former alley cat who only drinks out of pint glasses always seemed desperately lonely when left alone for a weekend or even a workday, so when the opportunity came to adopt a homeless kitten we decided to see if Banshee wanted a pet. It has been a disastrous seven hours that has involved a lot of dueling dust bunnies to reclaim our quaking feline from beneath the bed. She is hissing and groaning and hiding and looking as miserable as any furry black faced mammal could without being caught in a trap or stuck in a well. But, you see, the book said that cats live longer when they have a companion and that if you follow these instructions for introducing a new kitten (not that we actually involved a neutral third party and performed a for-our-pet-only pantomime, but we read the page aloud and considered engaging in such absurdity) all will be assimilated nicely. And well, this is our domain and we are only looking out for Ms. Kitty’s best interest with our massive largely homo sapien cerebral cortices and we really must know best, so what if her first reaction is despair? The book also says we have to ignore the new little soul until alpha kitty tells us it is time to recognize her, so there is a four month old kitten hiding in a closet somewhere wondering who these giants are who seem so generous with the food but so stingy with the affection.

And so it goes that one can spend the morning reading about integrating with the brilliance that is the natural world, but still play dictator at home when it comes to the surrounding non-human life (I gleefully sucked up a bunch of spiders with the vacuum today too) – and play it badly. Because we lack the faculties to understand what it is that either of these quadrupeds is thinking we traumatize them both and inflict a mix of human morality and cat handbook logic (written by a biped, mind you) upon them. You see, I was all set to believe that Abrams really was able to chat with a squirrel, but I have to call this cat woman a lunatic because she contends Banshee can tell if I am even looking at the interloper while in another room. It seems we love nature in its place, safely within the pages of a book; it’s completely different in one’s living room. How can I hearken to the pulse of the planet if I cannot make my own cat purr?

If you’ll excuse me, I have to obsess over whether to try to touch our new pet and marvel at the burden of my sweet minded hypocrisy. They’re just cats, after all.

Right?