Endings

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“It’s important in life to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go. Otherwise you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse.”

~ Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Friends, 

Happy New Years Eve. This is my last email to you. Our theme today is endings, goodbyes. We will begin as usual with The Endurance, wrapping up a story that I hope has encouraged you. Next is a take on grief by author and psychologist Francis Weller, which incidentally came my way just this morning. Next David Whyte will speak to the riches within loss in his short poem. I will conclude our emails with my essay from 2017, On Leaving Sport, Or Anything That Has Possessed You. And from there we will all move forward to a new moment, a new hour, a new year. Thank you for your company during this one.

The Endurance

The crossing of South Georgia has been accomplished only by one other party. That was almost forty years later, in 1955, by a British survey team under the able leadership of Duncan Carse. That party was made up of expert climbers and was well equipped with everything needed for the journey. Even so, they found it treacherous going.

Writing from the scene in October, 1955, Carse explained that to make the crossing, two routes were available – the ‘high road’ and the ‘low road.’

‘In distance,’ Carse wrote, ‘they were nowhere more than 10 miles apart; in difficulty, they were hardly comparable. We today are travelling easily and unhurriedly. We are fit men, with our sledges and tents and ample food and time. We break new ground but with the leisure and opportunity to probe ahead. We pick and choose our hazards, accepting only the calculated risk. No lives depend on our success – except our own. We take the high road.

They – Shackleton, Worsley and Crean – took the low road. I do not know how they did it, except they had to – three men of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration with 50 feet of rope between them – and a carpenter’s adze.’

Every comfort the whaling station could provide was placed at the disposal of Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean.  They first enjoyed the glorious luxury of a long bath, followed by a shave. Then new cothes were given them by the station’s storehouse.

That night after a hearty dinner, Worsley went on board the whale-catcher Samson for the trip around South Georgia to Pegotty Camp where McNeish, McCarthy, and Vincent were waiting. The Samson arrived the following morning at King Haakon Bay. Very little is known about the meeting except that the three castaways at first failed to recognize Worsley because his appearance was so drastically altered now that he was shaved and had on fresh clothes. McNeish, McCarthy, and Vincent were taken on board the whale-catcher, and the Caird, too, was loaded. The Samson arrived back at Stromness the following day, May 22.

Shackleton, meanwhile, had arranged for the use of a large wooden whaler, the Southern Sky, in which to return to Elephant Island for the relief of the party there. The following morning, less than seventy-two hours after arriving at Stromness from across the mountains, Shackleton and his two companions set out for Elephant Island. 

It was the beginning of a maddeningly frustrating series of rescue attempts lasting more than three months, during which the pack ice surrounding Elephant Island seemed resolutely determined that no rescue ship could get through to relive the castaways. 

It was now August 3, nearly three and a half months since the Caird had sailed for South Georgia. Throughout each failure of the subsequent rescue attempts, Shackleton’s anxiety had risen to the extent that Worsley said that he had never seen him so on edge. He had consistently appealed to the government back in England to send a proper ice vessel to get through the pack. Now word came that the Discovery, which had originally carried Scott to the Antarctic in 1901, was finally on her way from England. But it would take weeks for her to arrive, and Shackleton was in no mood to sit idly and wait. Instead he appealed to the Chilean government for the use of an ancient sea-going tug, the Yelcho. He promised not to take her into any ice, for she was steel-hulled and her ability to weather the sea – much less any pack – was doubtful. The request was granted, and the Yelcho sailed on August 25. This time the fates were willing. Five days later, on August 30, Worsley logged: ‘5:25am full speed… 11:10am… base of land faintly visible. Threading: our way between lumps ice, reefs and grounded bergs. 1:10pm sight the camp to SW…

For the twenty-two castaways on Elephant Island, August 30 began like almost any other day. At sunrise the weather was clear and cold, giving promise of a fine day. But before long heavy clouds rolled in and the scene once more became, as Orde-Lees recorded, ‘the prevailing gloom to which we are now so inured.’

As always, almost everyone tramped individually to the top of the lookout bluff to satisfy himself once more that there was no ship to be seen. By now they did so more out of habit than of hope. It was simply a ritual to which they had become accustomed, and they climbed the bluff without anticipation and returned to the hut without disappointment. It had been four months and six days since the Caird had left, and there was not a man among them who still believed seriously that she had survived the journey to South Georgia. It was now only a matter of time until a party was sent to the Wills on the perilous journey to Deception Island.

After breakfast, all hands got busy digging snow from around the hut. But later in the morning the tide was low and they decided to postpone their digging in order to gather limpits, a small crustacean which had been found in some numbers in the water off the spit. Wally How was acting as cook and he was preparing a lunch of boiled seal’s backbone, a dish of which everyone had become extremely fond. The hoosh was ready about 12:45, and they all gathered in the hut except Martston, who had gone to the lookout bluff to make some thumbnail sketches.

A few minutes later they heard his footsteps running along the path, but nobody paid much attention. He was simply late for lunch. Then he put his head inside and spoke to Wild in a tone so breathless that some of the men thought he sounded casual.

‘Hadn’t we better send up some smoke signals?’ he asked.

For a moment there was silence, and then, as one man, they grasped what Marston was saying.

‘Before there was time for a reply,’ Orde-Lees recorded, ‘there was a rush of members tumbling over one another, all mixed up with mugs of seal hoosh, making a simultaneous dive for the door-hole which was immediately torn to shreds so that those members who could not pass through it, on account of the crush, made their exits through the ‘wall,’ or what remained of it.’ Some put their boots on – others didn’t bother. James put his on the wrong feet.

Sure enough, there was a small ship, only about a mile offshore. Macklin dashed to the lookout bluff, tearing off his Burberry jacket as he ran. There he tied it onto the halliard of the oar that served as their flagpole. But he was only able to hoist it part of the way up before the halliard jammed. (Shackleton saw the signal at half-staff and his heart sank, he later said, because he took it to be a sign that some of the party had been lost.)

Hurley gathered up all the sennegrass he could find, then poured over it some blubber oil and the two gallons of paraffin they still had. He had a hard time lighting it, and when it finally ignited – almost with an explosion – it produced more flame than smoke. But no matter. The ship was headed toward the spit.

Wild, meanwhile, had gone to the water’s edge and was signaling from there the best place to send the boat. And How had broken open a tin of precious biscuits and was offering them around. Few men, however, stopped to have one. Even so rare a treat held little appeal in the excitement of the moment.

Macklin returned to the hut and lifted Blackboro to his shoulders, then carried him to a position on the rocks near Wild where he might better see the thrilling sight. 

The ship approached to within several hundred yards, then stopped. The men ashore could see a boat being lowered. Four men got into it, followed by the sturdy, square-set figure they knew so well – Shackleton. A spontaneous cheer went up. In fact the excitement ashore was so intense that many men actually were giggling.

Within a few minutes the boat was near enough for Shackleton to be heard. ‘Are you all right?’ he shouted. 

‘All well,’ they replied.

Wild guided the boat to a safe place among the rocks, but because of the ice around the spit it was impossible to make a landing, so the boat was held a few feet off. Wild urged Shackleton to come ashore, if only briefly, to see how they had fixed the hut in which they had waited four long months. But Shackleton, though he was smiling and obviously relieved, was still quite noticeably anxious and wanted only to be away. He declined Wild’s offer and urged the men to get on board as quickly as possible.

Certainly no great urging was needed, and one at a time they jumped from the rocks into the boat, leaving behind them without a second thought dozens of personal little items which only an hour before had been considered almost indispensable. 

One load was rowed out to the Yelcho, and then a second. Throughout it all Worsley had watched anxiously from the bridge of the ship. Finally he logged: ‘2:10 All Well! A last! 2.15 Full speed ahead.’

Macklin wrote: ‘I stayed on deck to watch Elephant Island recede in the distance… I could still see my Burberry jacket flapping in the breeze on the hillside – no doubt it will flap there to the wonderment of gulls and penguins till one of our familiar gales blows it all to ribbons.”

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“That bungled goodbye hurts me to this day. I wish so much that I had one last look at him in the lifeboat, that I’d provoked him a little – yes, I know, to a tiger, but still – I wish I had said, ‘Richard Parker, it’s over. We have survived. Can you believe it?”

~ Yann Martel, Life of Pi

The Writing: Francis Weller from The Wild Edge of Sorrow

“No one escapes suffering in this life. None of us is exempt from loss, pain, illness, and death. How is it that we have so little understanding of these essential experiences? How is it that we have attempted to keep grief separated from our lives and only begrudgingly acknowledge its presence at the most obvious of times, such as a funeral? ‘If sequestered pain made a sound,’ Stephen Levine says, ‘the atmosphere would be humming all the time.’

In the accumulated losses of a lifetime that slowly weigh us down – the times of rejection, the moments of isolation when we feel cut off from the sustaining touch of comfort and love. It is an ache that resides in the heart, the faint echo calling us back to the time of loss. We are called back, not so much to make things right, but to acknowledge what happened to us. Grief asks that we honor the loss and, in so doing, deepen our capacity for compassion. When grief remains unexpressed, however, it hardens, becomes as solid as a stone. We, in turn, become rigid and stop moving in rhythm with the soul. When we are in touch with all of our emotions, on the other hand, we are more verb than noun, more a movement than a thing. But when our grief stagnates, we become fixed in place, unable to move and dance with the flow of life. Grief is part of the dance.

As we begin to pay attention, we notice that grief is never far from our awareness. We become aware of the many ways it arrives in our daily lives. It is the blue mood that greets us upon waking. It is the melancholy that shades the day in muted tones. It is the recognition of time’s passing, the slow emptying of our days. It is the searing pain that erupts when someone close to us dies – a parent, a partner, a child, a beloved pet. It is the confounding grief when our life circumstances are shattered by the unexpected – the phone rings with news of a biopsy; we find ourselves suddenly without work, uncertain as to how we will support our family; our partner decides one day that the marriage is over. We tumble and fall as the ground beneath us opens, shaken by violent rumblings. Grief enfolds our lives, drops us close to the earth, reminding us of our inevitable return to the dark soil.

We are laid low by grief, taken down below the surface of the world, where shadows and strange images appear. We are no longer moving in our brightly lit, daytime existence. Grief punctuates the solidity of our world, shatters the certainty of fixed stars, familiar landscapes and known destinations. In a breath, all of this can be shaken, will be shaken by an unexpected loss. In this place, everything moves slowly – time, body, thought. Grief feels like it will never pass. This brings us great fear. We worry that this house of sorrow will be our final resting place, that our days will always be overcast, gray, and dulled by the sadness we carry. We have the sense that we are on a slow walk with no obvious direction. Fortunately, grief knows where to take us; we are on a pilgrimage to soul.

It is challenging to honor the descent in a culture that primarily values the ascent. We like things rising – stock markets, the GDP, profit margins. We get anxious when things go down. Even within psychology there is a premise that is biased toward improvement, always getting better, rising above our troubles. We hold dear concepts like progress and integration. These are fine in and of themselves, but it is not the way the psyche works. Psyche, we must remember, was shaped by and is rooted in the foundations of nature. As such, psyche also experiences times of decay and death, of stopping, regression, and being still. Much happens in these times that deepen the soul. When all we are shown is the imagery of ascent, we are left to interpret the times of descent as pathological; we feel that we are somehow failing. As poet and author Robert Bly wryly noted, ‘how can we get a look at the cinders side of things when the society is determined to create a world of shopping malls and entertainment complexes in which we are made to believe that there is no death, disfigurement, illness, insanity, lethargy, or misery? Disneyland means ‘no ashes.’

When we are able to see times of loss as inevitable and, in a very real way, necessary, we are able to engage these moments and cultivate the art of living well, of metabolizing suffering into something beautiful and ultimately sacred. It may be strange to imagine grief leading to beauty, but imagine, for the moment, the shining face of someone who has just released his or her cup of tears standing before us cleansed. We are seeing someone as beautiful as Botticelli’s Venus or Michaelangelo’s David.

It feels somewhat daunting to step off into the depths of grief and suffering, yet I don’t know of any more appropriate way to undertake the journey of soul than by spending time at that grief shrine. Without some measure of intimacy with grief, our capacity to be with any other emotion or experience in our life is greatly compromised.

Coming to trust this descent into dark waters is not easy. Yet until we can make this descent successfully and come back up, we lack the tempering that can come from such a deep experience. What do we find there in the well of grief? Darkness, moistness that turns our eyes wet and our faces into streams of tears. We find the bodies of forgotten ancestors, abandoned dreams, ancient remnants of trees and animals – things that have come before and that have the power to lead us to the place to which each of us will return one day when we, too, leave this life, which has been gifted to us for a short time. This descent is a passage into what we are, creatures of the earth.”

“Sometimes we forget how far we have traveled while we are looking ahead to the next steps. It’s good to lie down and remember what it took to get this far, all those karmic hoops we had to jump through, all those overcomings. It’s good to stroke our face with love and to remind ourselves how much courage it took and who we would have become if we hadn’t braved the journey. It’s good to say ‘thank you’ to the inner spirit that walks within and beside us, whispering sweet somethings in our inner ear, reminding us that we are simply and utterly worth fighting for. We ARE simply and utterly worth fighting for.”

~ Jeff Brown

The Poetic: David Whyte

THE WELL OF GRIEF
By David Whyte

Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief,

turning down through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe,

will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,

nor find in the darkness glimmering,

the small round coins,
thrown by those who wished for something else.

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“…you’ll feel so homesick that you’ll want to die, and there’s nothing that you can do about it apart from endure it. But you will, and it won’t kill you. And one day, the sun will come out – you might not notice straight away – it’ll be that faint. And then you’ll catch yourself thinking about something or someone that has no connection with the past. Someone who’s only yours. And you’ll realize that 

this is where your life is.”

– Ellis, “Brooklyn”

On Leaving Sport (or Anything That Has Possessed You) 

By Shannon Thompson 

“There’s no going back,” we agreed. 

My friend and I were seated across from one another, tea in hand as the snow fell outside – predictably unpredictable weather for late March in Flagstaff. We were discussing the experience of moving away from a singular focus on sport, a disorienting, exciting, and heartbreaking process that had crept up on us both over years. Injuries slowly broke the walls to his tunnel; the financial pressures of my sport broke mine. The road to this place twisted blindly, climbing toward a leaving that neither one of us had foreseen when we first stepped upon it. Deeply immersed in this forest and many miles from home, each of us expected a vista to appear as we rounded each bend. But instead we found interminable climbing that relentlessly rose toward our end. 

Both my friend and I had experienced a similar process of departure. “I felt relieved,” he told me, when the decision dropped rock solid in his mind. Personally, I’d sought relief long before the moment came, and even though I was visited daily by tears following my decision, I’d long known it was the right one. We’d both engaged in admirable struggle, which ultimately cracked the spell of sport, and through those cracks other loves crept through. The whole world got in. 

Once this happens there’s no going back. 

Youthful infatuation with a craft is a sublime blessing. I’m deeply grateful for mine. The rapture of inspiration, possessed by conviction toward a goal; it’s exquisitely, divinely intense. 

Memories such as these… I’m a little scared of them to be honest. I promised that little girl we would make it to the Olympics. The one who tied rope to her bicycle handlebars to pretend they were horse’s reins, who plastered her walls, ceiling, and floor with pictures of equestrian greats; the girl who drew Olympic rings in every margin of every school notebook. The one who practiced at 5am, for years. The young lady who slept on the floor because she couldn’t afford a bed, and is no doubt still paying for years of sleep debt due to the hours required to train and work for this debatable blessing of a passion. We didn’t make it after all. 

Sometimes I’m touched unexpectedly by spirits of another time. They ride on smells and music, and are ever present in certain places. Fresh cut grass, misty mornings draped across rolling fence lines, bark mulch trails. All assault me with emotions yet resolved. I’m often struck by a sweet sadness, highly uncomfortable, a mixture of love and grief and confusion. Did I really leave you? 

“I’m grateful mine happened slowly,” he said. Me too. Even after my decision was made to return to school I was provided a lovely horse to ride. My weaning was kind, a slow easing of an incurable illness and overwhelming infatuation, resulting in now, when I stand grieving and grateful for my freedom from both. 

For many athletes the leaving is not slow or foreseen. Rocked by sudden injury, or a personal catastrophe, the cessation of athletic life as they know it can come out of nowhere, a sudden death. Others make the choice to depart while still tormented by its call. 

The pursuit of mastery is both blessed and dangerous because it narrows our attention and experience. If we have been deeply consumed our options for happiness, sources of deep pleasure, and definitions of success can become inseparable from the means to these through our craft. There is safety within the singular focus of goal pursuit, and comfortable familiarity after many years. Often, such a goal makes priorities and best actions crystal clear. We can hide from the rest of our lives in dreams until the end is suddenly or gradually upon us. 

This is the time of hanging in space. Who am I? What am I? What do I do each day? Suddenly the expanse of living stretches before us, unnervingly vast. How do I be here? Now we often feel old. 

I did, at 29 when I decided to go back to school. Although grateful for my years immersed in sport I wondered if they’d doomed me to many more of struggling to become a real adult. Had my dream forever handicapped my life? 

I can remember a time when I worried what would become of me if I didn’t “make it” as an equestrian. I didn’t believe that I could ever find satisfaction as true as riding success. I was wrong. Now, five years after leaving my sport, life is rich. Watching the athletes I’ve worked with succeed is very different, but just as magical. I never believed I could actually feel like I’m out there with each of you, but I do. 

I must tell you that my transition is not perfect or pain free. Something in my heart hurts every time I see a horse. Every single time. When I watch riding (which is rare), I can feel the connection in my body. I can see the distance to the jumps, and between me and my old love. This is the price and the gift of investing oneself in anything deeply meaningful. When I’m assaulted by old memories – smells, music, friends, and places, it’s always with sadness first. It’s a mixture of nostalgia, disbelief, and confusion. Guilt too, for abandoning those dreams. But that response alone does not honor the extraordinary blessing of those years, or the version of myself who lived them. So, I’ve learned (by practicing) to say “thank you,” and “it’s nice to see you.” And mean it. And that’s all. 

We’re constantly asking each other, “how are you,” and I’ve been struck that there’s no longer a simple answer for that. When we’ve lived lives of striving, failing, loving, leaving loves, when we’ve chosen complex crafts and professions, we are always a multitude. I don’t know where horses will fit in my life again if at all and right now I do not wish for them back. And, I can’t put into words how I love my present focus. Perhaps success in life is not related to ascent in status, or achievement, or even simple happiness. Perhaps it is related to the development of depth and dimension – greater and more nuanced understanding of this experience of living. 

Finally, for those of you still consumed by your craft, with the light of a childhood dream alive in your eyes, go catch it! Love every corner of this painful and passionate place. Your family in spirit is cheering for you now, and still will be when life turns again, and the whole world spreads out before you. 

“There will come a time when you believe that everything is over. That will be the beginning.”

~ Louis L’Amour

Friends, I leave you this New Year’s Eve with this excerpt from Neil Hilborn’s poem, “The Future”

“I know tomorrow is going to come
because I’ve seen it. Sunrise is going to come,
all you have to do is wake up. The future has been
at war, but it’s coming home so soon. The future
looks like a child in a cape. The future is the map
and the treasure. The future looks just like gravity:
everyone is slowly drifting toward everyone else.
We are all going to be part of each other
one day. The future is a blue sky and a full
tank of gas. I saw the future, I did,
and in it I was alive.

And you too.

Thanks for being on this journey with me.

Sincerely,

Shannon

Fire

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“In order to give light one must endure burning.”

~ Viktor Frankl

Good evening friends,

Our theme tonight is fire. I hope you enjoy these short, bright, intense words tonight. 

The Endurance

“Mathias Andersen was the station foreman at Stromness. He had never met Shackleton, but along with everyone else at South Georgia he knew that the Endurance had sailed from there in 1914… and had undoubtedly been lost with all hands in the Weddell Sea.

Just then, however, his thoughts were a long way from Shackleton and the ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. He had put in a long work day, beginning at 7am, and it was now after four o’clock in the afternoon and he was tired. He was standing on the dock, supervising a group of his men who were unloading supplies from a boat.

Just then he heard an outcry and looked up. Two small boys about 11 years old were running, not in play but in terror. Behind them Andersen saw the figures of three men walking slowly and with great weariness in his direction.

He was puzzled. They were strangers, certainly. But that was not so unusual as the fact that they were coming – not from the docks where a ship might come in – but from the direction of the mountains, the interior of the island.

As they drew closer he saw that they were heavily bearded, and their faces were almost black except for their eyes. Their hair was as long as a woman’s and hung down almost to their shoulders. For some reason it looked stringy and stiff. Their clothing was peculiar, too. It was not the sweaters and boots worn by seamen. Instead, the three appeared to have on parkas, though it was hard to tell because their garments were in such a ragged state.

By then the workmen had stopped what they were doing to stare at the three strangers approaching. The foreman stepped forward to meet them. The man in the center spoke in English.

‘Would you please take us to Anton Andersen,’ he said softly. The foreman shook his head. Anton Anderson was not at Stromness any longer, he explained. He had been replaced by the regular factory manager, Thoralf Sorlle. The Englishman seemed pleased. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘I know Sorlle well.’

The foreman led the way to Sorlle’s house, about a hundred yards off to the right. Almost all the workmen on the peer had left their jobs to come see the three strangers who had appeared at the dock. Now they lined the route, looking curiously at the foreman and his three companions.

Andersen knocked at the manager’s door, and after a moment Sorlle himself opened it. He was in his shirt sleeves and he still sported a his big handlebar mustache.

When he saw the three men he stepped back and a look of disbelief came over his face. For a long moment he stood shocked and silent before he spoke.

‘Who the hell are you?’ he said at last.

The man in the center stepped forward.

‘My name is Shackleton,’ he replied in a quiet voice.

The Writing: Shunryu Suzuki from Zen, Mind Beginner’s Mind

NO TRACE

When we practice zazen our mind is calm and quite simple. But usually our mind is very busy and complicated, and it is difficult to be concentrated on what we are doing. This is because before we act we think, and this thinking leaves some trace. Our activity is shadowed by some preconceived idea. The thinking not only leaves some trace or shadow, but also gives us many other notions about other activities and things. These traces and notions make our mind very complicated. When we do something with a quiet, simple, clear mind, we have no notion or shadows, and our activity is strong and straightforward. But when we do something with a complicated mind, in relation to other things or people, or society, our activity becomes very complex.

Most people have a double or triple notion in one activity. There is a saying, ‘to catch two birds with one stone.’ That is what people usually try to do. Because they want to catch too many birds they find it difficult to be concentrated on one activity, and they may end up not catching any birds at all! That kind of thinking always leaves its shadow on their activity. The is not actually the thinking itself. Of course it is often necessary to think or prepare before we act. But right thinking does not leave any shadow. Thinking which leaves traces comes out of your relative confused mind which sets itself in relation to other things, thus limiting itself. It is this small mind which creates gaining ideas and leaves traces of itself.

If you leave a trace of your thinking on your activity, you will be attached to the trance. For instance, you may say, ‘This is what I have done!’ but actually it is not so. In your recollection you may say, ‘I did such and such a thing in some certain way,’ but actually that is never exactly what happened. When you think in this way you limit the actual experience of what you have done. So if you attach to the idea of what you have done, you are involved in selfish ideas…

We should not forget what we did, but it should be without an extra trace. To leave a trace is not the same as to remember something. It is necessary to remember what we have done, but we should not become attached to what we have done in some special sense. What we call ‘attachment’ is just these traces of our thought and activity.

In order not to leave any traces, when you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely. If you do not burn yourself completely, a trace of yourself will be left in what you do. You will have something remaining which is not completely burned out. Zen activity is activity which is completely burned out, with nothing remaining but ashes. This is the goal of our practice. That is what Dogen meant when he said, ‘Ashes do not come back to firewood.’ Ash is ash. Ash should be completely ash. The firewood should be firewood. When this kind of activity takes place, one activity covers everything.

So our practice is not a matter of one hour or two hours, or one day or one year. If you practice zazen with your whole body and mind, even for a moment, that is zazen. So moment after moment you should devote yourself to your practice. You should not have any remains after you do something…

When you practice Zen you become one with Zen. There is no you and no zazen. When you bow there is no Buddha and no you. One complete bowing takes place, that is all. This is Nirvana.

The Poetry: Robert Frost

FIRE AND ICE

By Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

“Keep a little fire burning, however small, however hidden.”

~ Cormac McCarthy

The Spiritual: Li/ The Clinging, Fire from the I Ching

“Fire has no definite form but clings to the burning object and thus is bright. As water pours down from heaven, so fire flames up from the earth. What is dark clings to what is light and so enhances the brightness of the latter. A luminous thing giving out light must have within itself something that perseveres; otherwise it will in time burn itself out. Everything that gives light is dependent on something to which it clings, in order that it may continue to shine. 

Thus sun and moon cling to heaven, and grain, grass, and trees cling to the earth. So too the two fold clarity of the dedicated man clings to what is right and thereby can shape the world.”

The Musical: Fire of Time by David Ramirez

Keep the fire burning, however small, however hidden, friends.

Sincerely,

Shannon

Creativity

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“Leave to your opinions their own quiet undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be pressed or hurried by anything. Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each impression and each germ of a feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist’s life: 

in understanding as in creating.”

~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Good evening friends,

Our theme today is creativity. We’ll begin with The Endurance as usual, and will follow that with some writing by doctor and author Oliver Saks, who advocates imitation as initiation to originality in creative work. Next is a poem about exceptionally creative poet, John Berryman, and we will conclude with Bohemia by Mt. Wolf, truly creative musicians well worth exploring further.

The Endurance:

“For more than an hour they traveled downhill, then they came in sight of the water once more. There, outlined by the moonlight, was Mutton Island, sitting in the middle of Stromness Bay. As they made their way along, other familiar landmarks came into view, and they excitedly pointed them out to one another. Within an hour or two they would be down.

But then Crean spotted a crevasse off to the right, and looking ahead they saw other crevasses in their path. They stopped – confused. They were on a glacier. Only there were no glaciers surrounding Stromness Bay. 

They knew then that their own eagerness had cruelly deceived them. The island lying just ahead wasn’t Mutton Island, and the landmarks they had seen were the creations of their imagination. Worsley took out the chart and the others gathered around him in the moonlight. They had descended to what must be Fortuna Bay, one of the many coastal indentations on South Georgia lying to the west of Stromness Bay. It meant that once more they had to retrace their steps. Bitterly disappointed, they turned and began to plod uphill again.

For two miserable hours they kept at it, skirting the edge of Fortuna Bay and struggling to regain the ground they had lost. By 5 o’clock they had recovered most of it, and they came to another line of ridges similar to the ones that had blocked their way the previous afternoon. Only this time there appeared to be a small pass.

But they were tired now to the point of exhaustion. They found a little sheltered spot behind a rock and sat down, huddled together with their arms around one another for warmth. Almost at once Worsley and Crean fell asleep, and Shackleton too, caught himself nodding. Suddenly he jerked his head upright. All the years of Antarctic experience told him that this was a danger sign – the fatal sleep that trails off into freezing death. He fought to stay awake for five long minutes, then he woke the others, telling them that they had slept for half an hour.

Even after so brief a rest, their legs had stiffened so that it was actually painful to straighten them, and they were awkward when they moved off again. The gap through the ridges lay perhaps a thousand feet above them, and they trudged toward it, silent with apprehension of what they would find on the other side.

It was just six o’clock when they passed through, and the first light of dawn showed that no cliff, no precipice barred the way – only a comfortable grade so far as they could see. Beyond the valley, the high hills to the west of Stromness stood away into the distance.

“It looks too good to be true” Worsley said.

They started down. When they had descended to a height of about 2500 feet they paused to prepare breakfast. Worsley and Crean dug a hole for the Primus stove while Shackleton went to see if he could learn what lay ahead. He climbed a small ridge by cutting steps in it. The view from the top was not altogether encouraging. The slope appeared to end in another precipice, though it was hard to tell for sure. He started down – and just then a sound reached him. It was faint and uncertain, but it could have been a steam whistle. Shackleton knew it was about 6:30am… the time when the men at whaling stations usually were awakened.

He hurried down from the ridge to tell Worsley and Crean the exciting news. Breakfast was gulped down, then Worsley took the chronometer from around his neck and the three of them crowded around, staring fixedly at its hands. If Shackleton had heard the steam whistle at Stromness, it should blow again to call the men to work at seven o’clock.

It was 6:50… then 6:55. They hardly even breathed for fear of making a sound. 6:58… 6:59… Exactly to the second, the hoot of the whistle carried through the thin morning air. They looked at one another and smiled. Then they shook hands without speaking.

A peculiar thing to stir a man – the sound of a factory whistle heard on a mountainside. But for them it was the first sound from the outside world that they had heard since December, 1914 – seventeen unbelievable months before. In that instant, they felt an overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment. Though they had failed dismally even to come close to the expedition’s original objective, they knew now that somehow that they had done much, much more than ever they set out to do.

But 500 feet down they discovered that Shackleton had indeed seen a precipice at the end of the slope. And it was terrifyingly steep too, almost like a church steeple. But they were in no humor to turn back now. Shackleton was lowered over the edge, and he cut steps in the icy face of the cliff. When he had reached the 50-foot limit of the rope, the other two descended to where he stood and the cycle was repeated over again. It was progress, but slow and dangerous.

It took them three full hours to make the descent, but finally, about ten o’clock, they reached the bottom. From here there was an easy grade down into the valley, then up the other side. It was a long climb, however, nearly 3000 feet in all, and they were very, very tired. But with only one more ridge to go, they drove their weary bodies upward. At noon they were halfway there, and at twelve-thirty they reached a small plateau. Then at last, just at one-thirty, they gained the final ridge and stood looking down.

Spread out below them, 2500 feet below, was Stromness Whaling Station. A sailing ship was tied up to one of the wharfs and a small whale catcher was entering the bay. They saw the tiny figures of men moving around the docks and sheds.

For a very long moment they stared without speaking. There didn’t really seem to be much to say, or at least anything that needed to be said. “Let’s go down,” Shackleton said quietly.

Having got so close, his old familiar caution returned, and he was determined that nothing was to go wrong now. The terrain below demanded caution. It was a severe, ice-covered grade, like the sides of a bowl, sloping in all directions down toward the harbor. If a man lost his footing, he might plunge the entire distance, for there was almost nothing to get ahold of.

They worked along the top of the ridge until they found a small ravine which appeared to offer a footing, and they started down. After about an hour the sides of the ravine were getting steeper and a small stream flowed down the center. As they made their way along, the stream increased in depth until they were wading through knee-deep water that was frigidly cold from the snowy uplands that fed it.

About three o’clock they looked ahead and saw the stream ended abruptly – in a waterfall.

The reached the edge and leaned over. There was a drop of about 25 feet. But it was the only way. The ravine here had grown to the size of a gorge, and its sides were perpendicular and offered no way of getting down.

There was nothing to do but to go over the edge. With some trouble they found a boulder large enough to hold their weight, and they made one end of the rope fast to it. All three of them pulled off their Burberrys, in which they wrapped the adz, the cook pot and Worsley’s diary, then pitched them over the side.

Crean was the first to go down. Shackleton and Worsley lowered him, and he reached the bottom gasping and choking. Then Shackleton lowered himself down through the water. Worsley was last.

It was an icy ducking, but they were at the bottom, and from here the ground was almost level. The rope could not be recovered, but they picked up the three articles that remained and started off for the station, now only a mile or so away.

Almost simultaneously, all three of them remembered their appearance. Their hair hung down almost to their shoulders, and their beards were matted with salt and blubber oil. Their clothes were filthy, and threadbare, and torn.

Worsley reached under his sweater and carefully took out four rusty safety pins that he had hoarded for almost two years. With them he did his best to pin up the major rents in his trousers.

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“Art like prayer is a hand outstretched in the darkness, seeking for some touch of grace which will transform it 

into a hand that bestows gifts,”

~ Franz Kafka

The Writing: Oliver Saks from The River of Consciousness

Susan Sontag, at a conference in 2002, spoke about how reading opened up the entire world to her when she was quite young, enlarging her imagination and memory far beyond the bounds of her actual, immediate personal experience. She recalled, 

When I was five or six, I read Eve Curie’s biography of her mother. I read comic books, dictionaries, and encyclopedias indiscriminately, and with great pleasure…. It felt like the more I took in, the stronger I was, the bigger the world got…. I think I was, from the very beginning, an incredibly gifted student, an incredibly gifted learner, a champion child autodidact…. Is that creative? No, it wasn’t creative…[but] it didn’t preclude becoming creative later on…. I was engorging rather than making. I was a mental traveler, a mental glutton…. My childhood, apart from my wretched actual life, was just a career in ecstasy.

[…]

I started writing when I was about seven. I started a newspaper when I was eight, which I filled with stories and poems and plays and articles, and which I used to sell to the neighbors for five cents. I’m sure it was quite banal and conventional, and simply made up of things, influenced by things, I was reading…. Of course there were models, there was a pantheon of these people…. If I was reading the stories of Poe, then I would write a Poe-like story…. When I was ten, a long-forgotten play by Karel Čapek, R.U.R., about robots, fell into my hands, so I wrote a play about robots. But it was absolutely derivative. Whatever I saw I loved, and whatever I loved I wanted to imitate — that’s not necessarily the royal road to real innovation or creativity; neither, as I saw it, does it preclude it…. I started to be a real writer at thirteen.

If imitation plays a central role in the performing arts, where incessant practice, repetition, and rehearsal are essential, it is equally important in painting or composing or writing, for example. All young artists seek models in their apprentice years, models whose style, technical mastery, and innovations can teach them. Young painters may haunt the galleries of the Met or the Louvre; young composers may go to concerts or study scores. All art, in this sense, starts out as “derivative,” highly influenced by, if not a direct imitation or paraphrase of, the admired and emulated models. 

When Alexander Pope was thirteen years old, he asked William Walsh, an older poet whom he admired, for advice. Walsh’s advice was that Pope should be “correct.” Pope took this to mean that he should first gain a mastery of poetic forms and techniques. To this end, in his “Imitations of English Poets,” Pope began by imitating Walsh, then Cowley, the Earl of Rochester, and more major figures like Chaucer and Spenser, as well as writing “Paraphrases,” as he called them, of Latin poets. By seventeen, he had mastered the heroic couplet and began to write his “Pastorals” and other poems, where he developed and honed his own style but contented himself with the most insipid or clichéd themes. It was only once he had established full mastery of his style and form that he started to charge it with the exquisite and sometimes terrifying products of his own imagination. For most artists, perhaps, these stages or processes overlap a good deal, but imitation and mastery of form or skills must come before major creativity.

Why is it that of every hundred gifted young musicians who study at Juilliard or every hundred brilliant young scientists who go to work in major labs under illustrious mentors, only a handful will write memorable musical compositions or make scientific discoveries of major importance? Are the majority, despite their gifts, lacking in some further creative spark? Are they missing characteristics other than creativity that may be essential for creative achievement — such as boldness, confidence, independence of mind? 

It takes a special energy, over and above one’s creative potential, a special audacity or subversiveness, to strike out in a new direction once one is settled. It is a gamble as all creative projects must be, for the new direction may not turn out to be productive at all.

Creativity involves not only years of conscious preparation and training but unconscious preparation as well. This incubation period is essential to allow the subconscious assimilation and incorporation of one’s influences and sources, to reorganize and synthesize them into something of one’s own…. The essential element in these realms of retaining and appropriating versus assimilating and incorporating is one of depth, of meaning, of active and personal involvement.

Early in 1982, I received an unexpected packet from London containing a letter from Harold Pinter and the manuscript of a new play, A Kind of Alaska, which, he said, had been inspired by a case history of mine in Awakenings. In his letter, Pinter said that he had read my book when it originally came out in 1973 and had immediately wondered about the problems presented by a dramatic adaptation of this. But, seeing no ready solution to these problems, he had then forgotten about it. One morning eight years later, Pinter wrote, he had awoken with the first image and first words (“Something is happening”) clear and pressing in his mind. The play had then “written itself” in the days and weeks that followed. 

I could not help contrasting this with a play (inspired by the same case history) which I had been sent four years earlier, where the author, in an accompanying letter, said that he had read Awakenings two months before and been so “influenced,” so possessed, by it that he felt impelled to write a play straightaway. Whereas I loved Pinter’s play — not least because it effected so profound a transformation, a “Pinterization” of my own themes — I felt the 1978 play to be grossly derivative, for it lifted, sometimes, whole sentences from my own book without transforming them in the least. It seemed to me less an original play than a plagiarism or a parody (yet there was no doubting the author’s “obsession” or good faith).

I was not sure what to make of this. Was the author too lazy, or too lacking in talent or originality, to make the needed transformation of my work? Or was the problem essentially one of incubation, that he had not allowed himself enough time for the experience of reading Awakenings to sink in? Nor had he allowed himself, as Pinter did, time to forget it, to let it fall into his unconscious, where it might link with other experiences and thoughts.

“The creative self [asks] the surrender of ordinary conceptions of identity and will for a broader kind of intimacy and allegiance.”

~ Jane Hirschfield

The Poetic: W.S. Merwin

BERRYMAN
by W.S. Merwin

I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war

don’t lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you’re older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity

just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice

he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally

it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop

he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England

as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry

he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

The Musical: Bohemia by Mt. Wolf

I wish you empiphanies and insights.

Sincerely,

Shannon

Curiosity

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“I chose life over death for myself and my friends… I believe it is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown. The only true failure would be not to explore at all.”

~Ernest Shackleton

Good evening friends,

Our theme tonight is curiosity and I want to point out something very curious that I have noticed over the years: almost always, when myself or someone I know has made a very good and important decision for their life (usually a determined change in behavior, attitude or action), something arises to throw that person off course. The obstacle is normally medium to large in size, and always just daunting enough to stop that positive project in its tracks. When one can recognize that obstacle for what it is, the adversity that is a sure sign you are headed in the right direction, they can climb up over that obstacle and even use it as a stepping stone toward even greater progress toward their goal. The trick is to recognize it and to continue in the direction you were going before the obstacle arose. 

This brings me back to The Endurance. You will know by now that this entire story is completely extraordinary without any added difficulty near its end. At this point these men have been on the ice or the ocean for 16 months. That is almost twice as long as we have been dealing with covid, and for the most part in far more dire conditions. Now, 6 men are on a mission to find help. They have landed on South Georgia Island after facing the most brutal storm of the whole ordeal. Next, they must climb on foot over never before crossed terrain in sailor’s boots, ragged clothing, and with greatly limited rations. 

At this point the obstacles become absurd. What is this story of ludicrous adversity? You will ask. And I want you to consider that it is in fact all of our story, every time we try to pursue our true purpose, or overcome limiting beliefs and behaviors, or change and grow in a way that is genuine and meaningful. So, enjoy the rest of this tale as it draws to a close – the relentless struggle, and every single courageous choice this crew makes – and consider where in your own life the same battle may be faced and survived.

And, below The Endurance is a stunning read on science, mystery, poetry, and the spiritual. Plus there’s a poem, a song and a movie 

The Endurance:

“It was a curiously quiet moment, almost devoid of rejoicing. They had accomplished the impossible, but at a staggering price. Now it was over, and they knew only that they were unutterably tired – too tired even to savor much more than the dim awareness that they had won. They managed, however, to shake hands all around. It seemed like the thing to do.

Yet even in that small moment of victory, tragedy threatened. The surf inside the cove was especially heavy. It had swung the Caird’s stern around, and she was pounding against the rocks. They stumbled back down the beach, but the rocks were rough and their legs were rubbery with weakness… Sitting on the rocks waiting for morning, Shackleton came to the conclusion that instead of sailing to Leith Harbor, they would remain on the south side of the island and three of the party would go overland to bring help. By sea it would have been a voyage of more than 130 miles out around the western tip of the island and then along the north coast. By land it was a scant 29 miles in a straight line. The only difference between the two was that in the three-quarters of a century that men had been coming to South Georgia, not one man had ever crossed the island – for the simple reason that it could not be done.

A few of the peaks on South Georgia rise to somewhat less than 10,000 feet, which certainly is not high by mountain climbing standards. But the interior of the island has been described by one expert as a ‘saw-toothed thrust through the tortured upheaval of mountain and glacier that falls in chaos to the northern sea.’ In short, it was impassable.

Shackleton knew it – and yet there was no choice. He made his announcement after breakfast, and all of the men accepted it routinely and without question. Shackleton said he would make the journey with Worsley and Crean as soon as it seemed feasible.

Shackleton was extremely anxious to begin the journey, primarily because the season was getting on and the weather was bound to turn bad before long. In addition, the moon was now full, and they were certain to need its light while traveling at night. However, the next day, May 16 dawned cloudy and rainy, keeping them confined under the Caird nearly all day. They spent the time discussing the journey and McNeish busied himself fixing their boots for climbing. He had removed four dozen 2-inch screws from the Caird, and he fixed eight of them into each shoe to be worn by the members of the overland party.

Again on May 17 the weather was not fit for travel, with squally winds and sleet blowing… May 18 was another day of disagreeable weather, and Shackleton was almost beside himself to begin the journey… At dusk the break came. The sky showed signs of clearing. Shackleton met with McNeish, whom he was leaving in charge of the three men staying behind.

By 2am the moon was shining down brilliantly, and the air was wonderfully clear. Shackleton said the time had come. A final hoosh was prepared and they ate as quickly as they could. Shackleton wanted to get away with the least possible fuss in order not to emphasize the significance of their leaving in the minds of those who were staying behind. It took only a few minutes to gather up their meager equipment. Then they shook hands all around and Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean crawled out from under the Caird. McNeish accompanied them for about 200 yards, shook each of their hands again and wished them luck, then walked slowly down to camp.

It was 3:10am. The final journey had begun. The three men made their way along the shoreline to the head of the bay, then started upland, climbing a fairly steep, snow-covered slope…

By daybreak Worsley estimated that they had covered about 5 miles, and as the sun rose higher the fog began to thin out. Peering ahead they saw an enormous snow-covered lake, just slightly to the left of their easterly course. The lake was a rare bit of good luck because it promised the opportunity of a level route across its entire length, and they started toward it.

For an hour they followed an easy downhill route, though there was an increasing number of crevasses. At first these were thin and shallow, but before long they grew wider and deeper, and it soon became apparent that the three men were descending the face of the glacier. It was an unusual situation because glaciers rarely emptied into lakes – and yet there it was, stretching invitingly before them.

By seven o’clock, however, the sun had risen high enough to burn away the last traces of the fog, and they suddenly saw that the lake extended all the way to the horizon. They were marching toward Possession Bay – the open sea, on the northern coast of South Georgia. They had, in fact, covered about seven miles and almost crossed the island at the narrow neck. But it was of absolutely no use to them. Even if they could have descended the perpendicular headlands below them, there was no shoreline along which they could make their way. The glacier fell sheer into the sea. There was nothing to do but to retrace their steps, and they started back upland.

The worst of it was that it cost them time. Given time, they could have probed and reconnoitered for the best route, resting when they felt the need and traveling only when they were fit, and when the weather was best. But they had dared all for the sake of speed. They had neither sleeping bags nor tents. And if they were caught in these mountains by a change of weather, they would be powerless to save themselves. The blizzards of South Georgia are considered among the worst on earth.

It took two toilsome hours to regain the ground they had lost, and then they set off again toward the east. By eight-thirty they saw that a range of small mountains lay ahead, a series of ridges and spurs – four altogether, like the knuckes of a tightly clenched fist. Worsley figured that their route lay closest between the first and the second, and they set their course in that direction…

Finally, about eleven-fifteen, they gained the summit. Shackleton was the first to peer over. He saw beneath him a precipitous drop, ending in a chasm 1500 feet below. It was strewn with the shattered fragments of ice that had plunged from where he crouched. He waved for the others to come see for themselves. There was no way down. Furthermore, to the right lay a chaotic mass of cliffs and crevasses – impossible territory. To the left was a steeply descending line of glaciers dropping away into the sea. But dead ahead – the direction in which their course lay – was a gently rising snow slope, stretching away for perhaps 8 miles. It was this they had to reach – if only they could get down to it. It had taken more than three hours of strenuous effort to reach the summit, but now the only thing to do was retreat, to retrace their steps again and try to find a different way, perhaps around the second peak…

Finally, about three o’clock in the afternoon, they were in sight of the ridge – a cap of blue-white ice. The view from the top revealed the descent to be every bit as frighteningly impossible as the first had been, only this time there was an odd menace. The afternoon was getting on, and heavy banks of fog were beginning to form in the valley far below. Looking back, they saw more rolling in from the west.

Their situation was starkly simple: Unless they could get lower, they would freeze to death. Shackleton estimated their altitude at 4500 feet. At such a height, the temperature at night might easily drop well below zero. They had no means for obtaining shelter, and their clothes were worn and thin.

They moved as quickly as they could, but there was very little speed left in them. Their legs were wobbly and strangely disobedient. The time for hesitation was past, and Shackleton swung himself over the side. Working furiously, he began to cut steps in the face of the cliff, descending slowly, a foot at a time. A bitter chill had come up in the air, and the sun was nearly down. Gradually they were getting lower, but it was maddeningly slow progress.

After thirty minutes, the ice-hard surface of the snow grew softer, indicating that the grade was not so steep. Shackleton stopped short. He seemed to realize all at once the futility of what he was doing. At the rate they were going it would take them hours to make the descent. Furthermore, it was probably too late to turn back. He suggested that they slide.

What if they hit a rock? Crean wanted to know. What if there were another precipice? Shackleton’s patience was going. Again he demanded – could they stay where they were? And so the decision was made. Shackleton said they would slide as a unit, holding on to each other. Altogether it took a little more than a minute, and Shackleton did not permit any time for reflection. When they were ready he kicked off… Faster and faster – down… down… down! A moment later they came to a halt in a snowbank.

The three men picked themselves up. They were breathless and their hearts were beating wildly. But they found themselves laughing uncontrollably. What had been a terrifying prospect possibly a hundred seconds before had turned into a breathtaking triumph.

After a meal of biscuit and sledging ration they started up the snowy slope toward the east. It was tricky going in the dark, and extreme caution was needed to watch for crevasses. But off to the southwest a hazy glow silhouetted the mountain peaks. And after they had spent an hour in anxious travel, the glow rose above the ranges – the full moon, directly in their path.

“I wrote the first faint line,
faint, without substance, pure
nonsense,
pure wisdom
of someone who knows nothing,”

~ Pablo Neruda

The Writing (the science and the spiritual): Biologist, Erwin Chargaff from Heracleatin Fire

“I came to biochemistry through chemistry; I came to chemistry … partly through the youthfully romantic notion that the natural sciences had something to do with nature. What I liked about chemistry was its clarity surrounded by darkness; what attracted me, slowly and hesitatingly, to biology was its darkness surrounded by the brightness of the givenness of nature, the holiness of life. And so I have always oscillated between the brightness of reality and the darkness of the unknowable. When Pascal speaks of God in hiding, Deus absconditius, we hear not only the profound existential thinker, but also the great searcher for the reality of the world. I consider this unquenchable resonance as the greatest gift that can be bestowed on a naturalist.

I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale. We should not allow it to be believed that all scientific progress can be reduced to mechanisms, machines, gearings, even though such machinery also has its beauty.

Neither do I believe that the spirit of adventure runs any risk of disappearing in our world. If I see anything vital around me, it is precisely that spirit of adventure, which seems indestructible and is akin to curiosity.

It is clear that to meditate on the whole of nature, or even on the whole of living nature, is not a road that the natural sciences could long have traveled. This is the way of the poet, the philosopher, the seer. A division of labor had to take place. But the overfragmentation of the vision of nature — or actually its complete disappearance among the majority of scientists — has created a Humpty-Dumpty world that must become increasingly unmanageable as more and tinier pieces are broken off, “for closer inspection,” from the continuum of nature. The consequence of the excessive specialization, which often brings us news that nobody cares to hear, has been that in revisiting a field with which one had been very familiar, say, ten or twenty years earlier, one feels like an intruder in one’s own bathroom, with twenty-four grim experts sharing the tub.

Without a firm center we flounder. The wonderful, inconceivably intricate tapestry is being taken apart strand by strand; each thread is being pulled out, torn up, and analyzed; and at the end even the memory of the design is lost and can no longer be recalled.

It is hoped that our road will lead to understanding; mostly it leads only to explanations. The difference between these two terms is also being forgotten… These are two very different things, for we understand very little about nature. Even the most exact of our exact sciences float above axiomatic abysses that cannot be explored. It is true, when one’s reason runs a fever, one believes, as in a dream, that this understanding can be grasped; but when one wakes up and the fever is gone, all one is left with are litanies of shallowness.

In our time, so-called laws of nature are being fabricated on the assembly line. But how often is the regularity of these “laws of nature” only the reflection of the regularity of the method employed in their formation! … Science is still faced with the age-old predicament, the lack of ultimate verification.

For a scientific concept to be formulated successfully, a concerted interaction of many requisites must occur. First of all, the right [person] must ask himself the right question. This may well be a random event that occurs much more often than we are aware… Less fortuitously, this [person] must find an audience, i.e., he must be able to publish and to find readers; and this may not have been so easy even in the bucolic days of the last century. But, most importantly, the times must be ripe for both question and answer.

If art represents the highest form of reality that man — or at least modern secular man — is capable of attaining, the many instances in which great creations were rejected initially, and often with incredible malice, show how reluctant we are to grasp reality. We accept only what has been predigested for us by the so-called tastemakers; but this is then a spurious reality.

Our understanding of the world is built up of innumerable layers. Each layer is worth exploring, as long as we do not forget that it is one of many. Knowing all there is to be known about one layer — a most unlikely event — would not teach us much about the rest. The integration of the enormous number of bits of information and the resulting vision of nature take place in our minds; but the human mind is easily deceived and confused, and the vision of nature changes every few generations. It is, in fact, the intensity of the vision that counts more heavily than its completeness or its correctness. I doubt that there is such a thing as a correct view of nature, unless the rules of the game are stated clearly. Undoubtedly, there will later be other games and other rules.

When I look back on my early way in science, on the problems I studied, on the papers I published — and even more, perhaps, on those things that never got into print — I notice a freedom of movement, a lack of guild-imposed narrowness, whose existence in my youth I myself, as I write this, had almost forgotten. The world of science was open before us to a degree that has become inconceivable now, when pages and pages of application papers must justify the plan of investigating, “in depth,” the thirty-fifth foot of the centipede; and one is judged by a jury of one’s peers who are all centipedists or molecular podiatrists. I would say that most of the great scientists of the past could not have arisen, that, in fact, most sciences could not have been founded, if the present utility-drunk and goal-directed attitude had prevailed.

It would seem to me that man cannot live without mysteries. One could say, the great biologists worked in the very light of darkness. 

[…]

What is success in science? Illuminated darkness is not light. We find ourselves in the cavern of limitless possibilities. Take a flashlight with you, and you may find you are only in a lumber room. If I know what I shall find, I do not want to find it. Uncertainty is the salt of life.

What I remember of my beginnings is the truly lyrical shudder with which I contemplated nature. I am not sure that I even knew what I meant by nature. It was the blood and the bones of the universe, its dawn and dusk, flowering and decay, firmament and graveyard. The alterations of the spiritual and the material tides, the oscillations between future and past, the mysterious fates of everlasting stone and short-lived fly: they filled me with admiration and reverence. Nature, it seemed to me, was almost the entire non-I, the entire non-small-boy… A small boy begins by being unable to explain the explainable, but when he grows old he often looks away from what cannot be explained. I am grateful that fate has preserved me from this form of blindness. Surrounded by a surfeit of solved riddles, I am still struck by how little we understand.

I would not go so far as to claim that knowledge and wisdom are mutually exclusive; but they are far from being communicating vessels, and the level of one has no bearing on that of the other. More people have gained wisdom from unknowledge, which is not the same as ignorance, than from knowledge.

Should I not have thought of becoming a painter or a poet? But I was entirely ungifted for the first and not courageous enough for the second… I was a monad searching for a destiny that did not exist… What I had at the time — and it has never left me — was a dream of reality that we could only touch tangentially, an awe of the numinous of nature whose power rested in its very unattainability. It was a feeling for the necessity of darkness in the life of man. In the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo depicts the creation of man, God’s finger and that of Adam are separated by a short space. That distance I called eternity; and there, I felt, I was sent to travel.

That this may be a voyage without a destination was no concern of mine … Only the road counted, not the goal… When I floated into science, a naive young man could still imagine that he was devoting himself to the study of nature… For me nature has still remained a synonym for the highest form of reality.

The feeling that there is always more than he can find, that he is only pulling shreds out of an unfathomable continuum, forms part of my definition of scientist.

[…]

It is the sense of mystery that, in my opinion, drives the true scientist; the same force, blindly seeing, deafly hearing, unconsciously remembering, that drives the larva into the butterfly. If he has not experienced, at least a few times in his life, this cold shudder down his spine, this confrontation with an immense, invisible face whose breath moves him to tears, he is not a scientist. The blacker the night, the brighter the light.

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The Poetic: Mary Oliver

MYSTERIES, YES!

by Mary Oliver

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
 to be understood.

How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds will
never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

What gets projects done for me is not inspiration. I have no idea what inspiration really is. I know that I get really curious about things, and when that gets mixed with rigor, a project gets completed. And that’s basically it, it’s that simple. When curiosity and rigor get together, something happens. And when one of these things [isn’t] there, nothing happens, or the project doesn’t really reach people.” 

~ Andrew Zuckerman

The Cinematic: The Future Belongs To The Curious

The Musical: Memorized by Blake Stadnik

“First of all, the right person must ask themself the right question.” That’s a worthy idea to sign off on this evening. Happy pondering 😉

Sincerely,

Shannon

Trees

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“There is rumor of a total welcome in the forests of a winter morning.”

~ Mary Oliver

Good morning, friends

Today our theme is trees. However, we will begin with the next stage of the journey of The Endurance (the crew of which would surely love to catch sight of a tree after 16 months on the ice). Next, we will move on to Herman Hesse’s Ode To Trees. Following this we will hear from young poet, Jack Shea (whose account of the dance of trees makes me smile everytime I read it) and passed poet, Mary Oliver. Peter Wohlleben will then describe the incredibly social life of trees. We’ll close with a brief film about “our silent friends,” Alt J’s “Hunger of The Pine, and a short paragraph of mine.

The Endurance:

“No choice remained but to hoist sail and try to claw their way offshore into the teeth of this fiendish gale. But it could not be done. No boat – least of all the Caird – could beat to windward under conditions like these. 

Schackleton rushed aft and took over the lines of the tiller from Crean. Then Shackleton pulled the Caird’s bow around to the southeast, and the wind, like a solid object, struck her a shuddering blow that all but capsized her… She moved forward half a boat-length before the first sea struck her and stopped her dead. Solid water was flung over the masthead, and the strain was so great that her bow planks opened up and little lines of water squirted in through the seams. Once more she moved ahead, and once more the sea clubbed her to a halt. Over and over again the process was repeated until it seemed certain that she would burst her planking, or have the masts torn out of her. 

But for all their efforts they seemed only to be standing still. Occasionally the clouds were ripped aside, revealing the coast off the port quarter, just as close as ever. After more than an hour they had demonstrated the truth of what they first suspected – it could not be done. No boat could beat to windward in such a storm. Shackleton was sure the end was very near. 

But actually they were making headway. Gauged against the indistinct outline of the coast, it was imperceptible, but it was real nonetheless. They became aware of it suddenly just after four o’clock when a rift in the storm showed a great, craggy peak off the port bow. It was Annenkov Island, a 2000-foot mountaintop shoved up out of the sea some 5 miles off the coast. And they realized at once that it lay directly in their path. 

Though the Caird’s bow was pointed well seaward, she was powerless to prevent the gale from driving her downwind. Thus her actual course was more sideways than forward. Nor was there any way to turn. Astern lay the coast, and the chart showed that off to port there was a successive line of reefs. Only to starboard was there open sea – and that was surely the one direction she could not go, for that was the direction from which the wind was blowing.

There was nothing to do, therefore, but to hold to the southeasterly course, as close into the wind as possible, and pray God that somehow she could edge by the island – if she held together that long. Neither was at all likely. By now it was getting dark, though the sky was somewhat clearer, and Annenkov Island was plainly visible most of the time as a black shape against the sky. 

The sight it presented was the more awesome by contrast. While they were literally enveloped in the wild ferocity of the storm, struggling simply to remain afloat – off to port lay this huge, resolute bulk which was implacably creeping closer through the darkness. Before long they could hear the deep booming of the surf against the cliffs.

Only the man at the helm actually could see what was happening, for the others dared not pause in their bailing for fear that the water would get ahead of them. Periodically they changed tasks in order to get relief. Thirst had long since ceased to matter, along with everything else except the fight to keep the boat under them. Periodically they changed tasks in order to get some relief. Thirst had long since seemed to matter, along with everything else except the fight to keep the boat under them. Each helmsman in turn, mindful of the anxiety of those below, shouted down to them reassuringly, ‘she’ll clear it – she’s doing it.’

But she wasn’t. By seven-thirty they were on top of the island, and the sheer mass of it now dominated everything to leeward. The sound of the seas against its side virtually drowned out even the screaming of the wind. The foaming backwash of the breakers thrown back from the cliffs swirled around the Caird, and the towering, snowy peak above them was so close they had to crane their necks to see it.

Worsley thought to himself of the pity of it all. He remembered the diary he had kept ever since the Endurance had sailed from South Georgia almost seventeen months before. That same diary, wrapped in rags and utterly soaked, was now stowed in the forepeak of the Caird. When she went, it would go, too. Worsley thought not so much of dying, because that was now so plainly inevitable, but of the fact that no one would ever know how terribly close they had come.

He waited at the helm, silent and tense – braced for the final, shattering impact when the Caird’s bottom would be torn out against some unseen rock. As he watched, the water streaming down his face and dripping from his beard, the sky to the east crept into view.

‘She’s clearing it!’ he screamed. ‘She’s clearing it!’

The bailers stopped and everybody looked up and saw the stars shining to leeward. The island was no longer in the way. They had no idea how, even why – perhaps some unexpected eddy of the tide had driven them offshore. But no one then stopped to seek and explanation. They knew only one thing – the boat had been spared.

Now only one obstacle remained – Mislaid Rock – three-quarters of a mile beyond the western tip of Annenkov Island. So they clung to the southeasterly course, close to the wind. But somehow it all seemed easier. The roar of the breakers grew fainter, and by nine o’clock they knew they were safely past everything.

All at once they felt inexpressibly weary, numb, even indifferent. The gale, too, appeared exhausted by the struggle, or perhaps it knew that it had lost, for the wind rapidly died off, and within the short space of thirty minutes it had swung around to the SSW.

They came about and set a course for the northwest, giving South Georgia a wide berth. The sea was still high, but the viciousness had gone out of it. 

They had to continue to bail almost until midnight before they had reduced the Caird’s burden of water to the extent that three men could handle it. Then Worsley’s watch was sent below to get some sleep, while Shackleton, Crean, and McNeish remained on duty.

At three-thirty, Worsley’s watch took over and toward seven o’clock, South Georgia came into view again, about 10 miles off to starboard. The set a course straight for the land, but the Caird had hardly settled onto it when the wind shifted to the northwest and fell very light. Thus, throughout the morning their progress was steady but painfully slow. At noon they were almost abeam of Cape Demidov once more, and dead ahead were two inviting glaciers which held the promise of ice to be melted into water. But it was evident that they could not reach them before dark.

Consequently they came about to head for King Haakon Bay. For twenty minutes they made good progress, but then the damnable wind swung around to head them off, blowing from the east – straight out of the bay.

The sails were lowered, and with Shackleton at the helm, the other men took turns rowing, two at a time. Before long the tide turned and began to set to the south, thus aiding the wind in keeping them offshore. And it soon became apparent that they were doing little more than holding their own. However, by three o’clock they had managed to pull close enough to see relatively calm water in the bay beyond the reefs – and they also saw what appeared to be a safe passage. But they could not possibly get through before dark – not under oars.

It was time for a last desperate attempt. Another night, this time without a drop of water, and possibly another gale – they simply did not have it in them. Hurriedly they ran up every sail to its full height and headed for the narrow opening in the reefs. But it meant sailing straight into the wind, and the Caird simply could not do it. Four times they lay off, and four times they tried to tack into the wind. Four times they failed.

It was well after four o’clock and the light was beginning to go. They ran the Caird a mile to the south, trying to get the wind as much abeam as possible. Then they came about once more onto the starboard tack. This time she just managed to slip through. Instantly the sails were dropped and the oars were put out. They rowed for about ten minutes, then Shackleton spotted a small cove in the cliffs to starboard. The entrance was protected by a small reef of its own over which the surge of the swell was breaking. But they saw an opening – though it was so small the oars had to be taken in at the last moment.

About 200 yards beyond was a steep, bouldered beach. Shackleton stood in the bow, holding the frayed remains of the sea-anchor line. Finally the Caird rose up on a swell and her keel ground against the rocks. Shackleton jumped ashore and held her from going out. As quickly as they could, the other men scrambled after him. It was five o’clock on the tenth of May, 1916, and they were standing at last on the island from which they had sailed 522 days before. They heard a trickling sound. Only a few yards away a little stream of fresh water was running down from the glaciers high above. A moment later all six were on their knees, drinking.

 “How strong, vital, enduring! How dumbly eloquent! What suggestions of imperturbability and being, as against the human trait of mere seeming. Then the qualities, almost emotional, palpably artistic, heroic, of a tree; so innocent and harmless, yet so savage. It is, yet says nothing.”

~ Walt Whitman

 The Writing: Herman Hesse from Wandering: Notes and Sketches

For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. . . . Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.

A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.

So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.

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And so I walked under the trees, full of indecision, praying for light.”

Thomas Merton

The Poetic: Jack Shea and Mary Oliver

 THE PINES WON’T DANCE 

By Jack Shea 

The type of celebration called
for merely seeing a loved one.
The way a dog greets their owner, the way a grandparent greets
their grandchildren.
The wag of a tail.
A swift shuffle with a smile
worth a thousand wrinkles.
This celebration involves a dance, because they can’t help but to dance. 

A walk through town,
my chin rises from the ground. Sycamore
White Oak,
quaking aspen.
Their leaves can’t help but dance,
for their love requires a dance. For no other reason to dance besides the sight of a loved one. Their leaves bend and weave like a wave.
Their leaves shine like a western smile.
A genuine dance,
they can’t help themselves but to dance. 

When my feet wander from town, my eyes peal back to the ground. The ground goes from
concrete to dirt, 

the leaves go from round to sharp.
The ground goes from smooth to rough 

the leaves go from flexible to stiff. My feet brush against the dirt, quickly now,
picking up pace. 

Deep in the woods now, certainly leaving my trace. I’m not dancing
No, 

I’m not dancing.
My eyes lift from the dirt,
my ears perk for a rustle.
But the pine trees don’t dance, no,
the pines won’t dance. 

HOW I GO INTO THE WOODS

By Mary Oliver

Ordinarily I go to the woods alone, with not a single friend, for they are all smilers and talkers and therefore unsuitable.

I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to the catbirds or hugging the old black oak tree. I have my way of praying, as you no doubt have yours.

Besides, when I am alone I can become invisible. I can sit on the top of a dune as motionless as an uprise of weeds, until the foxes run by unconcerned. I can hear the almost unhearable sound of the roses singing.

**

If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love you very much.

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“The other, the greater beauty must come when all is ready for it, as animals come to drink when night holds sway and the forest is free of strangers.”

~ Rainer Maria Rilke

The Science: Peter Wohlleben from The Hidden Life of Trees

“Forest air is the epitome of healthy air. People who want to take a deep breath of fresh air or engage in physical activity in a particularly agreeable atmosphere step out into the forest. There’s every reason to do so. The air truly is considerably cleaner under the trees, because the trees act as huge air filters. Their leaves and needles hang in a steady breeze, catching large and small particles as they float by. Per year and square mile this can amount to 20,000 tons of material. Trees trap so much because their canopy presents such a large surface area. In comparison with a meadow of a similar size, the surface area of the forest is hundreds of times larger, mostly because of the size difference between trees and grass. The filtered particles contain not only pollutants such as soot but also pollen and dust blown up from the ground. It is the filtered particles from human activity, however, that are particularly harmful. Acids, toxic hydrocarbons, and nitrogen compounds accumulate in the trees like fat in the filter of an exhaust fan above a kitchen stove. But not only do trees filter materials out of the air, they also pump substances into it. They exchange scent-mails and, of course, pump out phytoncides, both of which I have already mentioned.

But we shouldn’t be concerned about trees purely for material reasons, we should also care about them because of the little puzzles and wonders they present us with. Under the canopy of the trees, daily dramas and moving love stories are played out. Here is the last remaining piece of Nature, right on our doorstep, where adventures are to be experienced and secrets discovered. And who knows, perhaps one day the language of trees will eventually be deciphered, giving us the raw material for further amazing stories. Until then, when you take your next walk in the forest, give free rein to your imagination-in many cases, what you imagine is not so far removed from reality, after all!

But the most astonishing thing about trees is how social they are. The trees in a forest care for each other, sometimes even going so far as to nourish the stump of a felled tree for centuries after it was cut down by feeding it sugars and other nutrients, and so keeping it alive. Only some stumps are thus nourished. Perhaps they are the parents of the trees that make up the forest of today. A tree’s most important means of staying connected to other trees is a “wood wide web” of soil fungi that connects vegetation in an intimate network that allows the sharing of an enormous amount of information and goods. Scientific research aimed at understanding the astonishing abilities of this partnership between fungi and plant has only just begun. The reason trees share food and communicate is that they need each other. It takes a forest to create a microclimate suitable for tree growth and sustenance. So it’s not surprising that isolated trees have far shorter lives than those living connected together in forests. Perhaps the saddest plants of all are those we have enslaved in our agricultural systems. They seem to have lost the ability to communicate, and, as Wohlleben says, are thus rendered deaf and dumb. “Perhaps farmers can learn from the forests and breed a little more wildness back into their grain and potatoes,” he advocates, “so that they’ll be more talkative in the future.

When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives with larger machines. When trees grow together, nutrients and water can be optimally divided among them all so that each tree can grow into the best tree it can be. If you “help” individual trees by getting rid of their supposed competition, the remaining trees are bereft. They send messages out to their neighbors in vain, because nothing remains but stumps. Every tree now muddles along on its own, giving rise to great differences in productivity. Some individuals photosynthesize like mad until sugar positively bubbles along their trunk. As a result, they are fit and grow better, but they aren’t particularly long-lived. This is because a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it. And there are now a lot of losers in the forest. Weaker members, who would once have been supported by the stronger ones, suddenly fall behind. Whether the reason for their decline is their location and lack of nutrients, a passing malaise, or genetic makeup, they now fall prey to insects and fungi.

But isn’t that how evolution works? you ask. The survival of the fittest? Their well-being depends on their community, and when the supposedly feeble trees disappear, the others lose as well. When that happens, the forest is no longer a single closed unit. Hot sun and swirling winds can now penetrate to the forest floor and disrupt the moist, cool climate. Even strong trees get sick a lot over the course of their lives. When this happens, they depend on their weaker neighbors for support. If they are no longer there, then all it takes is what would once have been a harmless insect attack to seal the fate even of giants.

Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover. Next time, perhaps it will be the other way round, and the supporting tree might be the one in need of assistance. When thick silver-gray beeches behave like this, they remind me of a herd of elephants. Like the herd, they, too, look after their own, and they help their sick and weak back up onto their feet. They are even reluctant to abandon their dead.

Every tree is a member of this community, but there are different levels of membership. For example, most stumps rot away into humus and disappear within a couple of hundred years (which is not very long for a tree). Only a few individuals are kept alive over the centuries, like the mossy “stones” I’ve just described. What’s the difference? Do tree societies have second-class citizens just like human societies? It seems they do, though the idea of “class” doesn’t quite fit. It is rather the degree of connection-or maybe even affection-that decides how helpful a tree’s colleagues will be.

You can check this out for yourself simply by looking up into the forest canopy. The average tree grows its branches out until it encounters the branch tips of a neighboring tree of the same height. It doesn’t grow any wider because the air and better light in this space are already taken. However, it heavily reinforces the branches it has extended, so you get the impression that there’s quite a shoving match going on up there. But a pair of true friends is careful right from the outset not to grow overly thick branches in each other’s direction. The trees don’t want to take anything away from each other, and so they develop sturdy branches only at the outer edges of their crowns, that is to say, only in the direction of “non-friends.” Such partners are often so tightly connected at the roots that sometimes they even die together.”

The Cinematic:  Our Silent Friends

The Musical:  The Hunger of The Pines

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Today I’ll close with an excerpt from an essay I wrote four or five years ago. I love small highways, especially those of the Canadian Rockies, which incidentally I hope to be driving shortly. This piece was written on one such a journey, at this time of year, when trees are laden with snow. I suspect that many of you can look out your window now and see trees heavy with snow nearby, and so you know what I’m talking about. I also think that our constraining circumstances of the past year, especially now as we experience constant limitation due to an upswing in this virus, could cause us to feel metaphorically heavy with snow. 

From “Mountain Highways”

“Still in body, stirred in spirit, listening, listening, lifted and lowered, lifted and lowered by the swells in the mountain highway. Constant sharp bends limit my vision. My hands rest upon the wheel, worn rough and smooth in patches, evidence of a life blessed by an abundance of this form of freedom. Miles upon miles of trees bear witness. Snow too heavy for the strength of their branches clings, unaware of the fatigue it inflicts upon its host. The silence is all that there is, but the trees hear the promise. Despite branches pressed low by the weight of winter, peace and patience are what they speak. There is trust that this burden is the cost of summer; one day, the snow will become water that nourishes their deepest roots. Melt will descend softly, thank you, thank you, at last soothing every deep frozen fissure of exhausted, forgotten bark. 

Trust and stillness line this highway. Maybe that’s all I’m meant to know. The silence is all that there is, the acceptance of winter, suffering held until it isn’t. So, I’m still and I’m flying. A small tear of trust travels my cheek, cresting this rise as my car rides the mountain, holding my winter along with the trees.

Let’s pray for an early spring.

Sincerely,

Shannon

Belonging

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“Eternal belonging liberates longing into its surest and most potent creativity. This is why your longing is often wiser than your conventional sense of appropriateness, safety and truth… Your longing desires to take you towards the absolute realization of all the possibilities that sleep in the clay of your heart; it knows your eternal potential, and it will not rest until it is awakened.”

~ John O’Donahue

Hello friends,

I hope this email finds you well. Initially, when I decided to create an email on belonging I was concerned that I was going to be able to find enough content. As it turns out there was  plenty. Here is a guide to what you have in store: As usual we will begin with The Endurance, currently in the throes of one of its most daunting storms. Next we will visit the insights of David Whyte who insists that the feeling that one doesn’t belong is in itself proof of one’s belonging. Next is Marie Howe’s poem, “Singularity” written for the late Steven Hawking in honor of his discoveries and pursuit of the theory of everything. A short summary of the complimentary and parallel evolution of scientific and religious thought by two leading minds in each field follows. Next, John O’Donahue validates our longings as belonging in an eternal sense. Finally, a short film of the poem Singularity, and the song The Observatory by the White Buffalo conclude today’s email.

The Endurance:

Shackleton was the only one who spoke.

“We’ve done it,” he said, and his voice was strangely unsteady. Not a sound came from the others. They simply stared ahead, watching for the land to reappear, just to be sure. And in a minute or two, when the clouds had blown away again, it did. Feeble, foolish grins spread across their faces, not of triumph or even joy, but simply of unspeakable relief.

The held the Caird on a course straight for the point they had first seen and within an hour they were close enough to make out the general contour of the land. Worsley took out his notebook and drew a rough sketch of it. He then compared it with the chart and it appeared to correspond to the area of Cape Demidov. If so, it meant that his navigation had been very nearly faultless. They were only about 16 miles from the western tip of the island, the point for which they had originally been aiming.

By two-thirty, the Caird was a little more than 3 miles off the coast and it was possible to see patches of green lichens and areas of yellow-brown tussock grass showing through the snow on the steep sides of the headlands. Growing things – the first they had seen in more than sixteen months. And they would be standing amongst them in an hour or a little more.

Everything seemed perfect. But not for long. Within a few minutes, the rumbling sound of breakers reached them. Then dead ahead and off to the right an occasional spout of bursting spray shot skyward. As they drew closer they could see the backs of great seething combers hurtling shoreward as the Cape Horn graybeards blindly advanced to their destruction on uncharted reefs.

The whole complexion of things was suddenly changed. There could be no thought of landing, not here at least, for the boat would not have lived ten seconds in those breakers. It was something they didn’t deserve – a needless cruelty. The land lay just in front of them, and they had earned it. Yet now that the journey was done, sanctuary was ironically denied them. A decision had to be made quickly. 

Thus at 3:10pm, Shackleton gave the order to come about. They swung onto the starboard tack and headed seaward once again to lay off until morning in the hope that they could then make a better approach or perhaps find a way through the reefs… As the boat heeled to port before the following wind, hardly a one of them spoke. Individually they were fighting somehow to console their awful disappointment. But there was now, truly, but one night to go.

The wind had an ominous sound, and it was rising with every hour. At eight o’clock, rain began to fall. Before long the rain turned to sleet, then hail drummed across the decking. By 11pm, the storm had reached gale force, and the Caird was caught in a cross sea that drove it in every direction, hurtling the boat one way, then slamming her another.

The remainder of that night was an eternity, composed of seconds individually endured until they merged into minutes and minutes finally grew into hours. And through it all there was the voice of the wind, shrieking as they had never heard it shriek before in all their lives. 

The dawn of May 9 finally came, but there was no real dawn. Instead the wild blackness of the night slowly gave way to a thick gray pall. Only an estimate could be made of the wind’s actual speed, though it was at least 65 knots. The rollers that raced shoreward were perhaps 40 feet high, maybe more. 

The Caird, with her miserable little rag of a trysail blown stiff by the wind, rose to the top of each onrushing swell and there she quivered before the fury of the gale. It seemed strong enough almost to peel the canvas decking off her. There, too, it was difficult even to breathe. The atmosphere was a saturated substance, composed less of air than of rain and snow, and mostly wind-driven mist, torn from the surface of the water. Visibility was reduced to a hazy sphere surrounding the boat. Beyond that was only a blinding sameness that screamed by without interruption. And though they had not the vaguest idea where they might be, they knew one thing all too well: somewhere off to leeward the black cliffs of South Georgia were waiting, steadfastly hurling back this colossal onslaught of water. They wished they knew how far.

It seemed inconceivable, but during the morning hours the wind actually rose, and by noon it was probably close to 80 knots out of the southwest. To prepare food was out of the question, but they had almost no appetites for eating anyhow. Their tongues were swollen with thirst, and their lips cracked and bleeding.

The Caird’s bow was kept pointed into the wind. But it was astern that they looked, trying to catch a glimpse of the island or the treacherous reefs that had kept them at bay the previous afternoon. All morning they heard it getting closer. Deep below the high-pitched shriek of the wind and the tormented upheaval of the sea, there was a thudding bass heartbeat, more felt than heard – the impact of successive waves breaking on the coast, transmitted through the water as a series of muddled shocks which struck the boat.

Then, at just about two o’ clock, they saw where they were. A quirk of wind tore the clouds apart, and two wicked peaks loomed above a line of cliffs and the perpendicular faces of glaciers that dropped sheer into the sea. The coastline looked to be about a mile away, perhaps a little more.

But vastly more important, in that single glimpse they saw to their terror that they were only a short distance outside the line of breakers, the point at which the seas ceased to behave like swells and became combers instead, rushing faster and faster toward their own destruction against the land. As each swell passed under them they could feel it tugging momentarily at the boat, trying to get hold of her and hurl her toward the beach. It seemed now that everything – the wind, the current, and even the sea itself – were united in a single, determined purpose – once and for all to annihilate this tiny boat which thus far had defied all their efforts to destroy it.DSC06463.jpg

The Writing: David Whyte

To feel as if you belong is one of the great triumphs of human existence — and especially to sustain a life of belonging and to invite others into that… But it’s interesting to think that … our sense of slight woundedness around not belonging is actually one of our core competencies; that though the crow is just itself and the stone is just itself and the mountain is just itself, and the cloud, and the sky is just itself — we are the one part of creation that knows what it’s like to live in exile, and that the ability to turn your face towards home is one of the great human endeavors and the great human stories.

It’s interesting to think that no matter how far you are from yourself, no matter how exiled you feel from your contribution to the rest of the world or to society — that, as a human being, all you have to do is enumerate exactly the way you don’t feel at home in the world — to say exactly how you don’t belong — and the moment you’ve uttered the exact dimensionality of your exile, you’re already taking the path back to the way, back to the place you should be. 

You’re already on your way home.

The Poetic: Marie Howe

SINGULARITY
by Marie Howe

          (after Stephen Hawking)

Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity
we once were?

so compact nobody
needed a bed, or food or money — 

nobody hiding in the school bathroom
or home alone

pulling open the drawer
where the pills are kept.

For every atom belonging to me as good
Belongs to you.
   Remember?

There was no   Nature.    No
 them.   No tests

to determine if the elephant
grieves her calf    or if 

the coral reef feels pain.    Trashed
oceans don’t speak English or Farsi or French;

would that we could wake up   to what we were
— when we were ocean    and before that 

to when sky was earth, and animal was energy, and rock was
liquid and stars were space and space was not

at all — nothing

before we came to believe humans were so important
before this awful loneliness.

Can molecules recall it?
what once was?    before anything happened?

No I, no We, no one. No was
No verb      no noun
only a tiny tiny dot brimming with 

is is is is is

All everything home

The Scientific and Spiritual in Parallel: Fritjof Capra and David Stendl-Rast from BELONGING TO THE UNIVERSE: Explorations on the Frontiers of Science and Spirituality 

This is a preview to the contents of the book titled above. Personally, I enjoy sources that highlight the complimentary nature of science and spirituality. This summary of the evolution of thinking within science and spirituality in recent years is a lovely example of such.

New-Paradigm Thinking in Science by Fritjof Capra 

New-paradigm thinking in science includes the following five criteria — the first two refer to our view of nature, the other three to our epistemology. 

In the new paradigm, the properties of the parts can be understood only from the dynamics of the whole. Ultimately, there are no parts at all. What we call a part is merely a pattern in an inseparable web of relationships. 

1. Shift from the Part of the Whole 

In the old paradigm it was believed that in any complex system the dynamics of the whole could be understood from the properties of the parts. 

2. Shift from Structure to Process 

In the old paradigm it was thought that there were fundamental structures, and then there were forces and mechanisms through which these interacted, thus giving rise to processes. 

In the new paradigm every structure is seen as the manifestation of an underlying process. The entire web of relationships is intrinsically dynamic. 

3. Shift from Objective Science to “Epistemic Science” 

In the old paradigm scientific descriptions were believed to be objective, i.e., independent of the human observer and the process of knowledge. 

In the new paradigm it is believed that epistemology — the understanding of the process of knowledge — is to be included explicitly in the description of natural phenomena. 

4. Shift from Building to Network as Metaphor of Knowledge 

The metaphor of knowledge as building—fundamental laws, fundamental principles, basic building blocks, etc.—has been used in Western science and philosophy for thousands of years. 

During paradigm shifts it was felt that the foundations of knowledge were crumbling. 

In the new paradigm this metaphor is being replaced by that of the network. As we perceive reality as a network of relationships, our descriptions, too, form an interconnected network representing the observed phenomena. 

In such a network there will be neither hierarchies nor foundations. 

5. Shift from Truth to Approximate Descriptions 

The old paradigm was based on the belief that scientific knowledge could achieve absolute and final certainty. 

In the new paradigm, it is recognized that all concepts, theories, and findings are limited and approximate. Science can never provide any complete and definitive understanding of reality. 

Scientists do not deal with truth (in the sense of exact correspondence between the description and the described phenomena); they deal with limited and approximate descriptions of reality. 

(“The study or a theory of the nature and grounds of 

knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity” -Merriam-Webster Dictionary) 

New-Paradigm Thinking in Theology
a paraphrase by Thomas Matus and David Steindl-Rast 

New-paradigm thinking in theology includes the following five criteria — the first two refer to our view of divine revelation, the other three to our theological methodology. 

1. Shift from God as Revealer of Truth to Reality as God’s Self-Revelation 

In the old paradigm, it was believed that the sum total of dogmas (all basically of equal importance) added up to revealed truth. 

In the new paradigm the relationship between the parts and the whole is reversed. The meaning of individual dogmas can be understood only from the dynamics of revelations as a whole. Ultimately revelation as a process is of one piece. Individual dogmas focus on particular moments in God’s self- manifestation in nature, history, and human experience. 

2. Shift from Revelation as Timeless Truth to Revelation as Historical Manifestation 

In the old paradigm it was thought that there was a static set of supernatural truths which God intended to reveal to us, but the historical process by which God revealed them was seen as contingent and therefore of little importance. 

In the new paradigm the dynamic process of salvation history is itself the great truth of God’s self- manifestation. Revelation as such is intrinsically dynamic. 

3. Shift from Theology as an Objective Science to Theology as a Process of Knowing

In the old paradigm theological statements were assumed to be objective, i.e., independent of the believing person and the process, of knowledge. 

The new paradigm holds that reflection on non-conceptual ways of knowing — intuitive, affective, mystical — has to be included explicitly in theological discourse. 

At this point there is no consensus on the proportion in which conceptual and non-conceptual ways of knowing contribute to theological discourse, but there is an emerging consensus that non- conceptual ways of knowing are integral to theology. 

4. Shift from Building to Network as Metaphor of Knowledge 

The metaphor of knowledge as building—fundamental laws, fundamental principles, basic building blocks, etc.—has been used in theology for many centuries. 

During paradigm shifts it was felt that the foundations of doctrine were crumbling. 

In the new paradigm this metaphor is being replaced by that of the network. As we perceive reality as a network of relationships, our theological statements, too, form an interconnected network of different perspectives on transcendent reality. 

In such a network each perspective may yield unique and valid insights into truth.

Shifting from the building to the network also implies abandoning the idea of a monolithic system of theology as binding for all believers and as the sole source for authentic doctrine. 

5. Shift in Focus from Theological Statements to Divine Mysteries 

The manualistic paradigm of theology suggested by its very form as “summa” or compendium that our theological knowledge was exhaustive. 

The new paradigm, by greater emphasis on mystery, acknowledges the limited and approximate character of every theological statement. 

Theology can never provide a complete and definitive understanding of divine mysteries. 

The theologian, like every believer, finds ultimate truth not in the theological statement but in the reality to which this statement gives a certain true, but limited expression. 

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“You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place,”

~ Maya Angelou

The Spiritual: John O’Donahue from Eternal Echoes: Exploring Our Hunger to Belong

“The hunger to belong is at the heart of our nature. Cut off from others, we atrophy and turn in on ourselves. The sense of belonging is the natural balance of our lives. Mostly, we do not need to make an issue of belonging. When we belong, we take it for granted. There is some innocent childlike side to the human heart that is always deeply hurt when we are excluded. Belonging suggests warmth, understanding, and embrace. No one was created for isolation. When we become isolated, we are prone to being damaged; our minds lose their flexibility and natural kindness; we become vulnerable to fear and negativity. The sense of belonging keeps you in balance amidst the inner and outer immensities. The ancient and eternal values of human life—truth, unity, goodness, justice, beauty, and love are all statements of true belonging; they are the also the secret intention and dream of human longing.

There is some strange sense in which distance and closeness are sisters, the two sides of the one experience. Distance awakens longing; closeness is belonging. Yet they are always in a dynamic interflow with each other. When we fix or locate them definitively, we injure our growth. It is an interesting imaginative exercise to interchange them: to consider what is near as distant and to consider the distant as intimate.

The restlessness in the human heart will never be finally stilled by any person, project, or place. The longing is eternal. This is what constantly qualifies and enlarges our circles of belonging. There is a constant and vital tension between longing and belonging. Without the shelter of belonging, our longings would lack direction, focus, and context; they would be aimless and haunted, constantly tugging the heart in a myriad of opposing directions. Without belonging, our longing would be demented. As memory gathers and anchors time, so does belonging shelter longing. Belonging without longing would be empty and dead, a cold frame around emptiness. One often notices this in relationships where the longing has died; they have become arrangements, and there is no longer any shared or vital presence. When longing dies, creativity ceases. The arduous task of being a human is to balance longing and belonging so that they work with and against each other to ensure that all the potential and gifts that sleep in the clay of the heart may be awakened and realized in this one life.

Our hunger to belong is the longing to find a bridge across the distance from isolation to intimacy. Everyone longs for intimacy and dreams of a nest of belonging in which one is embraced, seen, and loved. Something within each of us cries out for belonging. We can have all the world has to offer in terms of status, achievement, and possessions. Yet without a sense of belonging it all seems empty and pointless.

There is a desperate hunger for belonging. People feel isolated and cut off. Perhaps this is why a whole nation can assemble around the images of celebrities. They have no acquaintance with these celebrities personally. They look at them from a distance and project all their longings onto them. When something happens to a celebrity, they feel as if it is happening to themselves. There is an acute need for the reawakening of the sense of community.

Our bodies know that they belong; it is our minds that make our lives so homeless. Guided by longing, belonging is the wisdom of rhythm. When we are in rhythm with our own nature, things flow and balance naturally. Every fragment does not have to be relocated, reordered; things cohere and fit according to their deeper impulse and instinct. Our modern hunger to belong is particularly intense. An increasing majority of people feel no belonging. We have fallen out of rhythm with life. The art of belonging is the recovery of the wisdom of rhythm.

In post-modern culture there is a deep hunger to belong. An increasing majority of people feel isolated and marginalised. Experience is haunted by fragmentation. Many of the traditional shelters are in ruins. Society is losing the art of fostering community. Consumerism is now propelling life towards the lonely isolation of individualism. Technology pretends to unite us, yet more often than not all it delivers are simulated images. The “global village” has no roads or neighbours; it is a faceless limbo from which all individuality has been abstracted. Politics seems devoid of the imagination that calls forth vision and ideals; it is becoming ever more synonymous with the functionalism of economic pragmatism. Many of the keepers of the great religious traditions now seem to be frightened functionaries; in a more uniform culture, their management skills would be efficient and successful. In a pluralistic and deeply fragmented culture, they seem unable to converse with the complexities and hungers of our longing. From this perspective, it seems that we are in the midst of a huge crisis of belonging. When the outer cultural shelters are in ruins, we need to explore and reawaken the depths of belonging in the human mind and soul; perhaps, the recognition of the depth of our hunger to belong may gradually assist us in awakening new and unexpected possibilities of community and friendship.

Perhaps your hunger to belong is always active and intense because you belonged so totally before you came here. This hunger to belong is the echo and reverberation of your invisible heritage. You are from somewhere else, where you were known, embraced and sheltered. This is also the secret root from which all longing grows. Something in you knows, perhaps remembers, that eternal belonging liberates longing into its surest and most potent creativity. This is why your longing is often wiser than your conventional sense of appropriateness, safety and truth… Your longing desires to take you towards the absolute realization of all the possibilities that sleep in the clay of your heart; it knows your eternal potential, and it will not rest until it is awakened.”

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“Where is the answer, where ya been hiding, whatcha been running from? Two worlds colliding. Everybody hides, everybody bleeds, everybody hurts, everybody feels, everybody cries, everybody dreams, everybody wants, everybody needs love. And I am one. And I am one.”

~ The White Buffalo

The Cinematic: Singularity after Stephen Hawking by Marie Howe

The Musical: The Observatory by The White Buffalo

May we all trust our belonging.

Sincerely,

Shannon

Joy

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“All the works that have in them the element of joy are records of this adventure.”

~ Lawren Harris 

Merry Christmas friends,

No doubt this finds everyone in different circumstances (from one another and from the norm), especially this Christmas. Regardless of your circumstances (internal and/ or external), in the words of C.S. Lewis, may you be surprised by Joy which can arise from anywhere, anytime, and is of equal value whether it does or does not arrive on Christmas. 

Today we have the next stage of the journey of The Endurance, followed by another account of joy from Annie Dillard. Mary Oliver and Jane Hirshfield will share two poems on our theme. Next, C.S. Lewis will describe how he was surprised by Joy as a young man. We will conclude with two favorite Christmas songs of mine.

 The Endurance:

“The little group of dark figures waving goodbye were silhouetted against the white snow, and they made a pathetic picture from the Caird as she lifted to the increasing swell.

Worsely held her on a northerly course and Shackleton stood beside him, alternately peering ahead at the approaching ice, and turning again to look at the men he was leaving behind. It was only a short time, it seemed, until they were no longer discernible. 

Before long the whole of Elephant Island widened out astern, its craggy headlands and glacier walls catching the sun. Off to the right, tiny Cornwallis Island, rising steeply out of the sea, came into view from behind Cape Valentine; and a little while later the snowy peaks of Clarence Island could be seen, delicately half-hidden by the violet tinted mists. In the water, an occasional seal or a small flock of penguins swam past, looking curiously at this strange creature that was moving across the surface of the sea.

It was just two o’clock when the Caird reached the ice, which proved to be a thick line of ancient floes that had been broken and melted into a myriad of different shapes. They rose to the long westerly swell in stately cadence, producing a hoarse, rustling noise.

Worsley swung the boat east, parallel with the ice, to search for the opening that he and Shackleton had seen from the spit earlier in the day. It took them almost an hour to reach it, and they discovered that that it was nearly clogged with floe fragments and patches of brash ice. Nevertheless Worsley brought the Caird’s bow around and they started through.

Almost at once the boat was dwarfed by weird shapes of ice, some of them twice the height of the mast. They swayed and bowed in the lazy movement of the sea. Above the water they were pure, snowy white; beneath it they shaded into ever deepening blue.

The wind had gradually swung around to the southeast, the perfect direction for driving them north. Shackleton ordered the sails set, and after they were up he sent Crean, McNeish, Vincent and McCarthy forward to get some sleep, saying that he and Worsley would stay on duty throughout the night to watch for ice.

When everything was squared away, Shackleton turned and looked astern. It was just possible to make out Elephant Island as a hulking, shadowy mass. For several minutes he stared without speaking.

A forbidding-looking place, certainly, but that only made it seem the more pitiful. It was the refuge of twenty-two men who, at that very moment, were camped on a precarious, storm-washed spit of beach, as helpless and isolated from the outside world as if they were on another planet. Their plight was known only to the six men in this ridiculously little boat, whose responsibility now was to prove that all the laws of chance were wrong – and return with help. It was a staggering trust.

As the darkness deepened, ten thousand stars pricked through the blue-black sky, and the little whisp of a pennant that fluttered from the Caird’s mainmast described an irregular ice circle across the sparkling heavens as the boat rolled before the quartering sea…

At midnight, after a drink of hot milk, Shackleton’s watch took over, and Shackleton himself assumed the helm while Crean and McNeish stayed below to pump. His eyes were just growing accustomed to the dark when he turned and saw a rift of brightness in the sky astern. He called to the others to tell them the good news that the weather was clearing to the southwest. 

A moment later he heard a hiss, accompanied by a low, muddled roar, and he turned to look again. The rift in the clouds, actually the crest of an enormous wave, was advancing rapidly toward them. He spun around and instinctively pulled his head down.

‘For God’s sake, hold on!’ he shouted. ‘It’s got us!’

For a long instant nothing happened. The Caird simply rose higher and higher, and the dull thunder of this enormous breaking wave filled the air. And then it hit – and she was caught in a mountain of seething water and catapulted bodily forward and sideways at the same time. She seemed actually to be thrown into the air, and Shackleton was nearly torn from his seat by the deluge of water that swept over him. The lines to the rudder went slack, then suddenly seized up again as the boat was viciously swung around like some contemptible plaything.

For an instant, nothing existed but water. They couldn’t even tell whether she was upright. But then the instant was over; the wave had rolled on, and the Caird, though stunned and half dead under a load of water that rose nearly to the seats, was miraculously still afloat. Crean and McNeish seized the first implements that came to hand and began to bail furiously. A moment later, Worsley’s watch fought their way out of the sleeping bags and joined the struggle, throwing water over the side with a wild urgency, knowing that the next wave would surely be the finish unless they could lighten her before it struck. 

Shackleton at the helm kept looking astern for another tell-tale streak of brightness. But none appeared, and ever so slowly, as they frantically pumped and bailed and ladled the water over-board, the Caird lifted to the seas again.

The ballast had shifted and the glass on the compass was broken – but they apparently had won. It took more than two hours to get her emptied out, and much of the time they were working in icy water up to their knees.

The dawn or May 6 revealed an ugly scene. The wind was blowing nearly 50 knots from the northwest, and the Cairdwas straining into it, trying to hold to a northerly course. As every wave passed, some portion of it poured on board the boat. But it seemed really not to matter too much. They had been pounded and bruised and drenched almost to the point of insensibility. Furthermore, the wave during the night had somehow changed their attitude. For thirteen days they had suffered through almost ceaseless gales, then finally a huge rogue sea. They had been the underdog, fit only to endure the punishment inflicted upon them.

But sufficiently provoked, there is hardly a creature on God’s earth that ultimately won’t turn and attempt to fight, regardless of the odds. In an unspoken sense, that was much the way they felt now. They were possessed by an angry determination to see the journey through – no matter what. They felt that they had earned it. For thirteen days they had absorbed everything that the Drake Passage could throw at them – and now, by God, they deserved to make it.

The inevitable question then became – would they hit South Georgia? They knew that except for one or two tiny islands, the Atlantic Ocean eastward beyond South Georgia is a void all the way to South Africa, nearly 3000 miles away. If, through a mis-calculation or because of a southerly gale, they missed the island, there would be no second chance. The land would then lie to windward of them, and they could never beat back toward it. They dared not miss…

The darkness was now complete, and the Caird pounded forward on an ENE course with the wind on her port beam. The men peered ahead into the night with salt-rimmed eyes for the shadowy image of a headland; and they strained their eyes for any unusual noise, perhaps the sound of the surf pounding on the reef. But visibility could not have been worse – an overcast blotted out the stars, and the foggy mist still swept across the surface of the water. The only sounds that could be heard were the moaning of the wind through the stays and the surge of the heavy confused sea that was running.

It was a strange time, a time of eagerness and expectation – underscored by grave, unspoken doubts. It was all so nearly over. An occasion for excitement, even jubilation. And yet, in the back of their minds was a nagging voice which refused to be silent – they might very well be looking in vain. If the island was there, they should have sighted it hours before.

Then, at just after ten-thirty, Vincent spotted a clump of seaweed, and a few minutes later a cormorant was sighted over-head. Hope flared anew. Cormorants rarely ventured farther than 15 miles from land.

Soon the foggy mists began to break up, though ever so slowly. Ragged clouds still scudded along close to the surface of the water. But visibility was better. At noon the fog was almost gone. But the interminably heaving sea stretched in every direction.

‘Land!’ 

It was McCarthy’s voice, strong and confident. He was pointing dead ahead. And there it was. A black, frowning cliff with patches of snow clinging to its sides. It was just visible between the clouds, possibly 10 miles away. A moment later the clouds moved like a curtain across the water, shutting off the view. But no matter. It was there, and they had all seen it. 

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“Over and over again I sail towards joy, which is never in the room with me, but always near me, across the way, like those rooms full of gayety one sees from the street, or the gayety in the street one sees from a window. Will I ever reach joy? It hides behind the turning merry-go-round of the traveling circus. As soon as I approach it, it is no longer joy. Joy is a foam, an illumination. I am poorer and hungrier for the want of it. When I am in the dance, joy is outside in the elusive garden. When I am in the garden, I hear it exploding from the house. When I am traveling, joy settles like an aurora borealis over the land I leave. When I stand on the shore I see it bloom on the flag of a departing ship. What joy? Have I not possessed it? I want the joy of simple colors, street organs, ribbons, flags, not a joy that takes my breath away and throws me into space alone where no one else can breathe with me, not the joy that comes from a lonely drunkenness. There are so many joys, but I have only known the ones that come like a miracle, 

touching everything with light.”

Anais Nin

The Poetic: Mary Oliver and Jane Hirschfield 

DON’T HESITATE

By Mary Oliver

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, 

don’t hesitate. Give in to it. 

There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed 

or about to be. 

We are not wise, and not very often kind. 

And much can never be redeemed. 

Still life has some possibility left. 

Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, 

that sometimes something happened better 

than all the riches or power in the world. 

It could be anything, but very likely you notice it 

in the instant when love begins. 

Anyway, that’s often the case. 

Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. 

Joy is not made to be a crumb.

THE WEIGHING
by Jane Hirshfield

The heart’s reasons
seen clearly,
even the hardest
will carry
its whip-marks and sadness
and must be forgiven.

As the drought-starved
eland forgives
the drought-starved lion
who finally takes her,
enters willingly then
the life she cannot refuse,
and is lion, is fed,
and does not remember the other.

So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.

The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.IMG-9319-2.jpg

The Writing: Annie Dillard from An American Childhood

“What can we make of the inexpressible joy of children? It is a kind of gratitude, I think – the gratitude of the ten-year-old who wakes to her own energy and the brisk challenge of the world. You thought you knew the place and all its routines, but you see you hadn’t known. Whole stacks at the library held books devoted to things you knew nothing about…

There was joy in concentration, and the world afforded an inexhaustible wealth of projects to concentrate on. There was joy in effort, and the world resisted effort to just the right degree, and yielded to it at last… Effort alone I loved.

I was running down Penn Avenue sidewalk, revving up for an act of faith. I was conscious and self-conscious. I knew well that people could not fly – as well as anyone knows it – but I also knew the kicker: that as the books put it, with faith all things are possible.

Just once I wanted a task that required all the joy I had. Day after day I had noticed that if I waited long enough, my strong unexpressed joy would dwindle and dissipate inside me, over many hours, like a fire subsiding, and I would at last calm down. Just this once I wanted to let it rip. Flying rather famously required the extra energy of belief, and this, too, I had in super-abundance.

I ran the sidewalk full tilt. I waved my arms ever higher and faster; blood balled in my fingertips. I knew I was foolish. I knew I was too old really to believe in this as a child would, out of ignorance; instead I was experimenting as a scientist would, testing both the thing itself and the limits of my own courage in trying it miserably self-conscious in full view of the whole world. You can’t test courage cautiously, so I ran hard and waved my arms hard, happy.

Up ahead I saw a business-suited pedestrian. He was coming stiffly toward me down the walk. Who could ever forget this first test, this stranger, this thin young man appalled? I banished the temptation to straighten up and walk right. He flattened himself against a brick wall as I passed flailing – although I had left him plenty of room. He had refused to meet my exultant eye. He looked away, evidently embarrassed. How surprisingly easy it was to ignore him! What I was letting rip, in fact, was my willingness to look foolish, in his eyes and my own. Having chosen this foolishness, I was a free being. How could the world ever stop me, how could I betray myself, if I was not afraid?

“I was flying. My shoulders loosened, my stride opened, my heart banged the base of my throat. I crossed Carnegie and ran up the block waving my arms. I crossed Lexington and ran up the block waving my arms.


A linen-suited woman in her fifties did meet my exultant eye. She looked exultant herself, seeing me from far up the block. Her face was thin and tanned. We converged. Her warm, intelligent glance said she knew what I was doing- not because she herself had been a child but because she herself took a few loose aerial turns around her apartment every night for the hell of it, and by day played along with the rest of the world and took the streetcar. So Teresa of Avila checked her unseemly joy and hung on to the altar rail to hold herself down. The woman’s smiling, deep glance seemed to read my own awareness from my face, so we passed on the sidewalk- a beautifully upright woman walking in her tan linen suit, a kid running and flapping her arms- we passed on the sidewalk with a look of accomplices who share a humor just beyond irony. What’s a heart for?” 

I crossed Homewood and ran up the block. The joy multiplied as I ran–I ran never actually quite leaving the ground–and multiplied still as I felt my stride begin to fumble and my knees begin to quiver and stall. The joy multiplied even as I slowed bumping to a walk. I was all but splitting, all but shooting sparks. Blood coursed freely inside my lungs and bones, a light-shot stream like air. I couldn’t feel the pavement at all.

I was too aware to do this, and had done it anyway. What could touch me now? For what were the people on Penn Avenue to me, or what was I to myself, really, but a witness to any boldness I could muster, or any cowardice if it came to that, any giving up on heaven for the sake of dignity on earth? I had not seen a great deal accomplished in the name of dignity ever.”

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“Fear not, for behold, I bring you news of great joy that will be for all the people.”

~ Luke 2: 10

The Spiritual: C.S. Lewis from Surprised By Joy

In this excerpt, C.S. Lewis is describing the moments when the feeling of Joy first came upon him, an experience far greater than happiness and certainly spiritual:

“I call it Joy… The first is itself the memory of a memory. As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery. It is difficult or find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s ‘enormous bliss’ of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to ‘enormous’) comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what?…Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse… withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased… In a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else… The quality common to the three experiences… is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again… I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.

The second glimpse came through Squirrel Nutkin; through it only, though I loved all the Beatrix Potter books. But the rest of them were merely entertaining; it administered the shock, it was a trouble. It troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn. It sounds fantastic to say that one can be enamored of a season, but that is something like what happened; and, as before, the experience was one of intense desire. And one went back to the book, not to gratify the desire (that was impossible—how can one possess Autumn?) but to reawake it. And in this experience also there was the same surprise and the same sense of incalculable importance. It was something quite different from ordinary life and even from ordinary pleasure; something, as they would now say, “in another dimension.

I was still young and the whole world of beauty was opening before me, my own officious obstructions were often swept aside and, startled into self-forgetfulness, I again tasted Joy. … One thing, however, I learned, which has since saved me from many popular confusions of mind. I came to know by experience that it is not a disguise of sexual desire. … I repeatedly followed that path – to the end. And at the end one found pleasure; which immediately resulted in the discovery that pleasure (whether that pleasure or any other) was not what you had been looking for. No moral question was involved; I was at this time as nearly nonmoral on that subject as a human creature can be. The frustration did not consist in finding a “lower” pleasure instead of a “higher.” It was the irrelevance of the conclusion that marred it. … You might as well offer a mutton chop to a man who is dying of thirst as offer sexual pleasure to the desire I am speaking of. … Joy is not a substitute for sex; sex is very often a substitute for Joy. I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy.

For the first time, there burst upon me the idea that there might be real marvels all about us, that the visible world might be only a curtain to conceal huge realms uncharted by my very simple theology. And that started in me something with which, on and off, I have had plenty of trouble since—the desire for the preternatural, simply as such, the passion for the Occult. Not everyone has this disease; those who have will know what I mean. I once tried to describe it in a novel. It is a spiritual lust; and like the lust of the body it has the fatal power of making everything else in the world seem uninteresting while it lasts. It is probably this passion, more even than the desire for power, which makes magicians.

The reader who finds these three episodes of no interest need read this book no further, for in a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else. For those who are still disposed to proceed I will only underline the quality common to the three experiences; it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”

The Musical: A Few Christmas Favorites

Love is Christmas by Sara Barielles

Old City Bar by the Trans Siberian Orchestra

I wish you all a warm and joyful Christmas.

Sincerely,

Shannon

Risk

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“If we listened to our intellect, we’d never have a love affair. We’d never have a friendship. We’d never go into business, because we’d be too cynical. Well, that’s nonsense. You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.”

~Annie Dillard

Good evening friends,

It’s Christmas Eve. Our theme today is risk. How does risk relate to Christmas Eve? You might ask. Well, let me explain. Two stories come to my mind when I think of Christmas Eve. The first is the story of what Christmas is about, the birth of Jesus in the Christian faith. The version I know involves a poor couple traveling a vast distance and eventually settling in a barn to deliver their first child (who is reputed to be the son of God and the savior to all humankind). Sounds risky to me! Now if that one doesn’t get you consider my second story, that of Santa Claus, who according to legend is currently (probably currently in NZ) flying through the air in a sled pulled by eight reindeer, and depositing gifts under the tree of all English speaking children above a certain socio-economic status! So you see, there is no day more fitting during which to speak of risk than Christmas Eve.

In our email today you will find the next chapter from The Endurance. Next you will find two illustrations of risk by Annie Dillard, the first excerpted from her masterpiece, Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, and the second from An American Childhood (which is told in a spirit especially fitting for Christmas). Next, Mary Oliver will share her poem, When Death Comes, which speaks to the risk of full engagement with the world. Tara Brach will then speak to the same in a message intended to help us take the personal risk of openness (please note that the Tara Brach section is presented both as an audio file and as a transcript of the same audio file, so enjoy that as you choose). Finally, Charles Bukowski’s short film, The Man With The Beautiful Eyes touches on numerous types of risk (authenticity, thought, seclusion, judgement), and Flying by Cody Fry will offer an encouraging, spiritual conclusion.

The Endurance:

For the twenty-two men who turned their faces inland, the excitement was past and the trial by patience had begun. Their helplessness was almost total, and they knew it. The Caird had sailed, taking with her the best of everything they had.

After awhile they pulled the Wills farther up onto the beach, then turned her over and crawled underneath. ‘As we sat there, cramped, crowded and wet,’ wrote Macklin, ‘we wondered how we were going to face the month ahead of us, which was the very least we could hope for without relief.’ And this, he admitted, was a ‘most optimistic’ expectation, based upon a half-dozen assumptions – the first among them being that the Caird would actually get through.

On this score, their general feeling, at least outwardly, was confident. But how else might they have felt? Any other attitude would have been the equivalent of admitting that they were doomed. No matter what the odds, a man does not pin his last hope for survival on something and then expect that it will fail.

Supper was served early, and the men turned in almost immediately. They awoke the following morning to a bleak, forbidding day of half mist, half snow. The bad weather only made it the most imperative that some sort of shelter be devised, so all able hands returned to the work of excavating the ice cave in the face of the glacier. They kept at it all that day, and the next, and the next, and the next. But by morning of the twenty-eighth, four days after the Caird sailed, it was obvious that the idea would have to be abandoned. Whenever they were inside the cave, which was now large enough for several men to enter, the heat given off by their bodies would melt the interior so that streams of water ran down the walls and along the bottom.

Only one possibility remained – the boats. Greenstreet and Marston suggested that they might be inverted to form the roof of a hut, and Wild agreed. They began to collect rocks to build a foundation. It was exhausting toil. ‘We are all ridiculously weak,’ Orde-Lees wrote. ‘Stones that we could easily have lifted at other times we found quite beyond our capacity, and it needed two or three of us to carry some that would otherwise have been one man’s load… Our weakness is best compared with that which one experiences on getting up from a long illness…

But if they were to survive there was work to be done. In spite of the cold and the wind, which was sometimes so furious that they had to duck inside until the gusts eased off, they set about making the shelter more secure. Some men rearranged the tent over the roof and lashed down the guy roped more solidly. Others tucked in bits of blankets around the foundation and packed wet grit from the beach against the whole affair to seal it up.

But again that night the blizzard raged on. Snow once more found its way inside, though not nearly so much as the night before. On the morning of April 30, James, Hudson, and Hurley, who had been trying to sleep in their tent, gave up and moved into the shelter with everybody else. Hurley wrote: ‘Life here without a hut and equipment is almost beyond endurance.’ But little by little, as the wind revealed their vulnerable spots, they sealed them up, and each day the shelter became just a little more livable.

There were lengthy debates about how long it would take the Caird to reach South Georgia, and how long after that it would before a rescue ship arrived. The most optimistic figured that by May 12, a week hence, they might expect to see a ship. More conservative guesses said that it would be June 1 before there could be any thought of rescue. But again it was a matter of fighting back hope. Even as early as May 8, long before they could expect anything to have happened, all of them were already worrying about whether the ice conditions around the island might prevent a relief ship from approaching.

The anxiety had a solid basis in fact. The month of May – the equivalent to November in the Northern Hemisphere – was already one quarter over. Winter was only a matter of weeks, possibly days, away. When it did arrive, there was a strong possibility that ice might form completely around the island and thwart any attempts to bring a ship in. On May 12, Macklin wrote: ‘Wind from E. Expect we will get the pack into the bay again – we do not want this just now, with daily hope of the relief ship.’

Macklin wrote on May 22: ‘There is a big change in the scenery about here – everything is now covered in snow, and there is a considerable ice foot to both sides of the spit. For the last few days ice has been coming in, and dense pack extends in all directions as far as the eye can reach, making the chances of a near rescue seem very remote. No ship but a properly constructed ice-ship would be safe in this pack; an iron steamer would be smashed up very soon. Besides this there is very little daylight now…’

Indeed, the realization was spreading that, logically at least, a rescue before winter was becoming increasingly improbable, if not impossible. On May 25, one month and one day after the Caird had sailed, Hurley wrote: ‘Weather drifting snow and wind from east. Our wintry environment embodies the most inhospitable and desolate prospect imaginable. All are resigned now and fully anticipate wintering.’

“Mary, when she was surprised by Gabriel… she saw a form that could give her new life. 

Like the sun coming up or a rose opens. She leapt as her habit was, out of herself 

into the divine presence.

There was fire in the smoke of her breath… I am smoke from that fire.”

~ Rumi

The Writing: Annie Dillard from Pilgrim At Tinker Creek

“Thomas Merton wrote, “there is always a temptation to diddle around in the contemplative life, making itsy-bitsy statues.” There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage. 

I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.

“The gaps are the thing. The gaps are the spirit’s one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself for the first time like a once blind man unbound. The gaps are the clifts of the rock where you cower to see the back parts of God; they are the fissures between mountains and cells the wind lances through, the icy narrowing fiords splitting the cliffs of mystery. Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn and unlock – more than a maple – a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.”

Also by Annie Dillard, From An American Childhood

Some boys taught me to play football. This was fine sport. You thought up a new strategy for every play and whispered it to the others. You went out for a pass, fooling everyone. Best, you got to throw yourself mightily at someone’s running legs. Either you brought him down or you hit the ground flat out on your chin, with your arms empty before you. It was all or nothing. If you hesitated in fear, you would miss and get hurt: you would take a hard fall while the kid got away, or you would get kicked in the face while the kid got away. But if you flung yourself wholeheartedly at the back of his knees—if you gathered and joined body and soul and pointed them diving fearlessly—then you likely wouldn’t get hurt, and you’d stop the ball. Your fate, and your team’s score, depended on your concentration and courage. Nothing girls did could compare with it. 

Boys welcomed me at baseball, too, for I had, through enthusiastic practice, what was weirdly known as a boy’s arm. In winter, in the snow, there was neither baseball nor football, so the boys and I threw snowballs at passing cars. I got in trouble throwing snowballs and have seldom been happier since. 

On one weekday morning after Christmas, six inches of new snow had just fallen. We were standing up to our boot tops in snow on a front yard on trafficked Reynolds Street, waiting for cars. The cars traveled Reynolds Street slowly and evenly; they were targets all but wrapped in red ribbons, cream puffs. We couldn’t miss. 

I was seven; the boys were eight, nine, and ten. The oldest two Fahey boys were there—Mikey and Peter—polite blond boys who lived near me on Lloyd Street, and who already had four brothers and sisters. My parents approved Mikey and Peter Fahey. Chickie McBride was there, a tough kid, and Billy Paul and Mackie Kean too, from across Reynolds, where the boys grew up dark and furious, grew up skinny, knowing, and skilled. We had all drifted from our houses that morning looking for action and had found it here on Reynolds Street. 

It was cloudy but cold. The cars’ tires laid behind them on the snowy street a complex trail of beige chunks like crenellated castle walls. I had stepped on some earlier; they squeaked. We could have wished for more traffic. When a car came, we all popped it one. In the intervals between cars we reverted to the natural solitude of children. 

I started making an ice ball—a perfect ice ball, from perfectly white snow, perfectly spherical, and squeezed perfectly translucent so no snow remained all the way through. (The Fahey boys and I considered it unfair actually to throw an ice ball at somebody, but it had been known to happen.) 

I had just embarked on the ice-ball project when we heard tire chains come clanking from afar. A black Buick was moving toward us down the street. We all spread out, banged together some regular snowballs, took aim, and, when the Buick drew nigh, fired. 

A soft snowball hit the driver’s windshield right before the driver’s face. It made a smashed star with a hump in the middle. 

Often, of course, we hit our target, but this time, the only time in all of life, the car pulled over and stopped. Its wide black door opened; a man got out of it, running. He didn’t even close the car door. 

He ran after us, and we ran away from him, up the snowy Reynolds sidewalk. At the corner, I looked back; incredibly, he was still after us. He was in city clothes: a suit and tie, street shoes. Any normal adult would have quit, having sprung us into flight and made his point. This man was gaining on us. He was a thin man, all action. All of a sudden, we were running for our lives. 

Wordless, we split up. We were on our turf; we could lose ourselves in the neighborhood backyards, everyone for himself. I paused and considered. Everyone had vanished except Mikey Fahey, who was just rounding the corner of a yellow brick house. Poor Mikey, I trailed him. The driver of the Buick sensibly picked the two of us to follow. The man apparently had all day. 

He chased Mikey and me around the yellow house and up a backyard path we knew by heart: under a low tree, up a bank, through a hedge, down some snowy steps, and across the grocery store’s delivery driveway. We smashed through a gap in another hedge, entered a scruffy backyard and ran around its back porch and tight between houses to Edgerton Avenue; we ran across Edgerton to an alley and up our own sliding woodpile to the Halls’ front yard; he kept coming. We ran up Lloyd Street and wound through mazy backyards toward the steep hilltop at Willard and Lang. 

He chased us silently, block after block. He chased us silently over picket fences, through thorny hedges, between houses, around garbage cans, and across streets. Every time I glanced back, choking for breath, I expected he would have quit. He must have been as breathless as we were. His jacket strained over his body. It was an immense discovery, pounding into my hot head with every sliding, joyous step, that this ordinary adult evidently knew what I thought only children who trained at football knew: that you have to fling yourself at what you’re doing, you have to point yourself, forget yourself, aim, dive. 

Mikey and I had nowhere to go, in our own neighborhood or out of it, but away from this man who was chasing us. He impelled us forward; we compelled him to follow our route. The air was cold; every breath tore my throat. We kept running, block after block; we kept improvising, backyard after backyard, running a frantic course and choosing it simultaneously, failing always to find small places or hard places to slow him down, and discovering always, exhilarated, dismayed, that only bare speed could save us—for he would never give up, this man—and we were losing speed. 

He chased us through the backyard labyrinths of ten blocks before he caught us by our jackets. He caught us, and we all stopped. 

We three stood staggering, half blinded, coughing, in an obscure hilltop backyard: a man in his twenties, a boy, a girl. He had released our jackets, our pursuer, our captor, our hero: he knew we weren’t going anywhere. We all played by the rules. Mikey and I unzipped our jackets. I pulled off my sopping mittens. Our tracks multiplied in the backyard’s new snow. We had been breaking new snow all morning. We didn’t look at each other. I was cherishing my excitement. The man’s lower pants legs were wet; his cuffs were full of snow, and there was a prow of snow beneath them on his shoes and socks. Some trees bordered the little flat backyard, some messy winter trees. There was no one around: a clearing in a grove, and we the only players. 

It was a long time before he could speak. I had some difficulty at first recalling why we were there. My lips felt swollen; I couldn’t see out of the sides of my eyes; I kept coughing.

“You stupid kids,” he began perfunctorily. 

We listened perfunctorily indeed, if we listened at all, for the chewing out was redundant, a mere formality, and beside the point. The point was that he had chased us passionately without giving up, and so he had caught us. Now he came down to earth. I wanted the glory to last forever. 

But how could the glory have lasted forever? We could have run through every backyard in North America until we got to Panama. But when he trapped us at the lip of the Panama Canal, what precisely could he have done to prolong the drama of the chase and cap its glory? I brooded about this for the next few years. He could only have fried Mikey Fahey and me in boiling oil, say, or dismembered us piecemeal, or staked us to anthills. None of which I really wanted, and none of which any adult was likely to do, even in the spirit of fun. He could only chew us out there in the Panamanian jungle, after months or years of exalting pursuit. He could only begin, “You stupid kids,” and continue in his ordinary Pittsburgh accent with his normal righteous anger and the usual common sense. 

If in that snowy backyard the driver of the black Buick had cut off our heads, Mikey’s and mine, I would have died happy, for nothing has required so much of me since as being chased all over Pittsburgh in the middle of winter—running terrified, exhausted—by this sainted, skinny, furious redheaded man who wished to have a word with us. I don’t know how he found his way back to his car. 

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“Above all take a chance. Sing like the blood going down the vein.”

~ Mary Oliver

The Poetic: Mary Oliver

WHEN DEATH COMES

By Mary Oliver

When death comes
like a hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse 

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut; when death comes
like the measle-pox; 

when death comes
like an iceberg between shoulder blades, 

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: What is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness? 

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood
and I look upon time as no more than an idea, and I consider eternity as another possibility, 

and I think of each life as a flower, as common as a field daisy, and as singular, 

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth, tending, as all music does, toward silence, 

and each body a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth, 

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. 

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument. 

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world. 

“Do not be afraid, Mary”

~ Luke 1:30

A Strategy: Tara Brach, from The Exquisite Risk (To listen to this talk, including the meditations included, follow this link: https://www.tarabrach.com/undefended-heart/)

One of the metaphors for spiritual transformation that we hear a lot is that we are like a caterpillar in a cocoon, and that awakening comes as we feel the sense of the cocoon and realize that it is time to go beyond; and then we transform into a butterfly and fly into freedom. It is a very useful metaphor. Individually and as a species, we live in this familiar cocoon of our egoic thoughts and behaviors and so on, and they serve us—the cocoon serves us in earlier stages of development—and then the time comes to go beyond. And if we don’t, the cocoon creates a pressure and we start getting more and more squeezed because we are living in too small a space for our growing spirit. So that pressure is a reminder to take the chance and break open. And it is damaging if we don’t. It is arrested development. 

It is even more useful to remember that, for humans, this is not a one-shot and we are continually waking up out of our cocoons— cocoons of illusion, cocoons of limiting beliefs, cocoons of behaviors keep us small. It is an ongoing process of coming into contact with a wider reality. It is like shedding a skin, and each time that we shed our skin, we feel more exposed because the new skin is more porous, than the old skin, so there is more contact, more flow through, and more of a sense of vulnerability.

So, I would like to take a phrase that I heard recently from the poet Mark Nepo, who I love. He describes this shedding of the skin as, “taking the exquisite risk.” Every time we open up out of our familiar cocoon to contact a wider reality, to really touch aliveness more fully, we are taking the exquisite risk. I love it because exquisite connotes a kind of beauty and excellence and sensitivity and responsiveness. Exquisite. And then risk—it is exposure to danger and loss. We are willing to let go of an old experience that gave us some measure of comfort, security or certainty and exchange it for what is unfamiliar and way more alive. The exquisite risk

So one flavor of the exquisite risk comes from Andre Gregory. Many of you saw My Dinner with Andre. In it, a man asks Andre about writing and he responds with a story about his wife. She was going into surgery and after she had anesthesia, he realized he hadn’t said what he needed to. He said that from then on, he dedicated himself to speaking his heart as if for the last time, not taking the risk of not being real. And then he told the man: “Write like that, Write like it is the last time, like this is it. And live your life like that, from that wholeheartedness.” 

The exquisite risk

Basically, this path of exquisite risk arises in the moments that we are willing to be fully present. It is full unconditional presence—meeting the moment, wide open. One Buddhist nun from the fifteen-hundreds said, “I meet this life with my whole body.” You can kind of feel that, this undefended presence. 

Frederik Nietzsche writes: “The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die.”  So, again, we are talking about what happens when we are not willing. This coincides with a belief that indigenous people had that humans originally had the power to rejuvenate and live fully by shedding their skin. That’s what gave them the power. There is a story from the Polynesian culture about the mother of a tribe that went regularly to the river to shed her skin. But one such time, she shed her skin and the old skin got caught in a bit of driftwood. So she goes back to the village and her teenage daughter sees her and is frightened you know, because she doesn’t look like her old self. And the mother tries to reassure her, but the daughter was repulsed by seeing this raw-skinned new person that didn’t look like her mother. She was so distressed and angry that the mother decided that, to soothe her fear, she would go back to the river. And so, she found the old skin and put it back on, and from that day on humans lost their ability to be immortal. Arrested development. 

Of course, shedding our skin doesn’t mean to be without skin. It means that we are opening to a level where there is more transparency and more porousness and more of a natural exchange—a belonging to our world. 

What I would like to do in our reflection here is to look at the challenges and the blessings of taking the exquisite risk and what it really means—not in some big super-human way that we are going to plan for down the road—but right in any moment, right this moment, as much as any moment in your life, you can take the exquisite risk of really arriving, putting down ideas and certainties and orientations . . . that quality of openness. 

So the challenge, for all of us, is that we are very habituated and attached to and identified with our particular familiar skin—our cocoon. Every one of us. It is part of our evolution. We develop our cocoon and we are attached to it, and we have to deal with that. The ego-self is organized around controlling life. Most of the time, we are trying to get what we want and avoid what we don’t want and trying to hold on to security and comfort and push away fear or pain. 

You can see with meditation instruction: Oh just relax, just come into the present moment. That little word just. Do you know what I mean? We are rigged to be vigilant, to not come into the present moment, to constantly be darting off. In fact, our brain is designed with a default network in it and, when we don’t have a task . . . when we are told, “Oh, just be” . . . that default-network gets activated and has us scurrying around to re-affirm our selfness by looking into the future and the past just to reorient ourselves. It is part of our evolutionary potential to keep awakening out of our cocoon, but there are pulls to stay inside. In the Buddhist tradition, the pulls are described as our reactions to the eight worldly winds. We are constantly trying to control and to have praise but not blame, success but not failure, pleasure but not pain, fame but not disrepute. Those are the eight winds. That is the way we are maintaining our cocoon—we are busy trying to organize around having what we want and not, in some way, losing what we really want to keep with us. 

It is hard to overestimate the power of the eight winds and how many moments we are holding on to our skin, so to speak—trying to thicken it up . . . trying to hang on to that cocoon so that we can protect ourselves and get what we want. And so, the big question is: What enables us to keep evolving to eventually let go? What we find is, that it hurts more to hang on than to let go. It is suffering to stay in that small container. After a brush with cancer, Mary Oliver wrote: 

“Do you need a prod? Do you need a little darkness to get you going?” 


So, the inquiry is: Where in our life right now are we sensing that prod? Where 

is the cocoon squeezing? Where are we suffering? What is our growing edge? 

For many of us, the hook is looking good and getting approval, right? And that is where we get small. It is interesting. Don’t take my word for it. Just notice when you are in an interaction, check and sense: How much of the way I am expressing myself is, in some way, designed to get a certain response from another person? 

We get rewards for good presentation. We get rewards for being clever. We get rewards for having the right answer or for looking a certain way or acting a certain way. But we can also see how much the seeking of approval stops us from being spontaneous and it stops us from being, you know, really authentic. And in a deep way, as long as we think we need to act a certain way to be okay, we can’t trust in our innate lovability. It keeps us trapped in insecurity. 

So we need the prod of the cocoon—the squeeze—because we get so habituated. Whatever we practice regularly—whatever we are regularly thinking and the regular ways we behave—that is what we strengthen. If you are practicing worry, you strengthen the pathways that have to do with biological and psychological fear. If you are practicing blaming, that gets strengthened. We need that prod so that we begin to practice in a different way—so we start turning towards presence. 

We usually need a while to get in touch with our bodies and our heart so, if you just have a short time available now, you might sense your intention—your intention to explore letting go of the old skin, of just practicing those same thoughts and beliefs, and coming into this tender connectedness with what is really here, breathing with it, feeling it, offering a kindness. This is the foundation of being able to take the exquisite risk with others. If we are willing to bravely be with the vulnerability inside us, then we can begin to engage with others without a mask. We can begin to be more real. 

So often we are with each other and to others, it might seem we are being real— we are being who we are. We might be in a lively place, a fun-place, a sweet place, but only we can know for sure whether we are actually engaging from a groundless presence, where we are not playing out our routines, but we are really there. And to be taking the exquisite risk requires dropping a lot of our certainty and really listening inwardly and outwardly—being truly interested in what it’s like for another person. So, there is an internal awareness of what it is like and what is going on inside of your own being, but it also extends to a real curiosity that is attending to the other. And there is a willingness to be changed by the shared experience. This means really putting down our habits, it is a radical kind of presence. So, I want to name a few guidelines and then practice again and explore into it. 

If you want to, more consciously, dare to be present in this way, the most basic attitude is to be very forgiving of how hard it is and how quickly you lapse back into the old familiar cocoon behaviors—like truly forgiving—because the conditioning is there, and it is not our fault. All we can do is intend to be real, so we need to know we are going to open sometimes and we are going to close sometimes. We need to encourage ourselves. 

We have so much pain and so many wounds from our early connections with each other or lack thereof, that we are afraid of each other. It is in our bodies. So, just like we do with meditation, it is important to be able to recognize that, sometimes, taking the exquisite risk is not the most compassionate and wise thing to do in a moment because we might re-traumatize ourselves in some way. It is not like, in every single moment, “thou shalt take a risk.” There is a wisdom to it and we start where it seems like there is enough safety. It is never a hundred percent—it is not supposed to be—but we start coming out of the cocoon where it feels safe enough

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The Cinematic: The Man With The Beautiful Eyes

The Musical (and the spiritual): “Flying” by Cody Fry

I wish you all a magical Christmas Eve.

Sincerely,

Shannon

Silence

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~ Lake Powell

“As happens sometimes, a moment settled and hovered and remained for much more than a moment. And sound stopped and movement stopped for much, much more than a moment.” 

― John Steinbeck

Good morning friends,

I wish I could tell you that my email silence last week was intentional – to prepare you for this week’s theme, silence, but that wouldn’t be true. My commitments have changed (and increased) since the start of the school year. Overall this is greatly positive, and I am still figuring out the balance. For some time I have anticipated that the format of these emails would change at some point. In four or five weeks I’ll likely shift from daily emails to a new weekly format. In the meantime I have four or five more themes I’d like to cover. 

It’s possible that over the next month or so I won’t cover every category that I have in the past (i.e. I may not cover the scientific aspect of silence tomorrow), and I may not stick strictly to the M-F schedule. But, I’ll continue to send you the best and most beautiful I know on the theme of the week, and I’ll make sure that I’m clear when this format is ending and the next one is beginning.

It’s been a long time since we began connecting over these emails. We have all been through a lot. Thanks for being out there 😉

We’ll begin today by re-joining the crew of The Endurance. Now, they have been lost in the Antarctic for 15 months. The decision has been made to send a small group in search of rescue while the remainder of the crew wait on an island. The small crew is about to set off on the small boat, the Caird, with Shackleton at her helm.

We’ll finish with Paul Goodman’s brief taxonomy on the nine kinds of silence.

The Endurance

Throughout the night the successive watchmen kept a close watch for a break in the weather; it came during the very early morning hours. The wind moderated considerably. Shackleton was immediately notified and he ordered that all hands be called at the first streak of light. The men were turned out just before 6am…

The Caird party was to take six weeks’ supply of food…A farewell breakfast was prepared… Shortly after breakfast the sun came out. Worsley grabbed his sextant and quickly obtained a sight, which, when he had worked it out, proved his chronometer to be fairly accurate. It seemed like a lucky omen.

Toward nine o’clock, Shackleton went with Worsley up the lookout point to survey the ice conditions offshore. They saw a band of floes parallel to the coast about 6 miles out, but there was an opening through which the Caird could pass easily. They returned to camp and found that McNeish was finished and the boat was ready…

The Caird was then paddled out past the reef, and she waited at the end of her bowline while the Wills was launched and loaded with about half a ton of ballast. The cargo was rowed out and transferred to the Caird;… Shackleton was now ready to go. He had spoken to Wild for the last time and the two had shaken hands. The provisions were placed on board the Wills, and Shackleton and Vincent climbed aboard and she pulled away from the beach.

‘Good luck, Boss,’ the shore party called after him. Shackleton swung around and waved briefly… For a few minutes, the two boats lay alongside one another, bumping heavily. Shackleton was anxious to get away, and he was urgently directing the stowage of ballast and equipment. Finally the two crews leaned across and shook hands. Again there were several nervous jokes. Then the Wills let go and headed for the beach.

It was just twelve-thirty. The three little sails on the Caird were up when the men ashore saw McCarthy in the bow signaling to cast off the bow line. Wild let go of it, and McCarthy hauled it in. The party on shore gave three cheers, and across the surging breakers they heard three small shouts in reply. The Caird caught the wind, and Worsley at the helm swung her bow toward the north.

‘They made surprising speed for such a small craft,’ Orde-Lees recorded. ‘We watched them until they were out of sight, which was not long, for such a tiny boat was soon lost to sight on the great heaving ocean; as she dipped into the trough of each wave, she disappeared completely, sail and all.’

9 Types of Silence and How You Use Them 

Novelist, poet, playwright, and psychotherapist Paul Goodman identified 9 kinds of silence in his classic book, Speaking and Language. Here is his list with my interpretation of how the silence might impact your conversations.

Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each. There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy; the sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face; the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts; the alive silence of alert perception, ready to say, “This… this…”; the musical silence that accompanies absorbed activity; the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear; the noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination, loud and subvocal speech but sullen to say it; baffled silence; the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos.– 

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~ SP Crater, Flagstaff, AZ

“Listen closely… the eternal hush of silence goes on and on throughout all this, and has been going on, and will go on and on.”

~Jack Kerouac

Last week you received no poems, so this week I am sending you three (one for last week, one for this week, and interest of course 😉

I ASK FOR SILENCE

By Pablo Neruda

Now they can leave me in peace.

Now they grow used to my absence.

I am going to close my eyes.

I want only five things,

five chosen roots.

One is an endless love.

Two is to see the autumn.

I cannot exist without leaves

flying and falling to the earth.

The third is the solemn winter,

the rain I loved, the caress

of fire in the rough cold.

Fourth, the summer,

plump as a watermelon.

And fifthly, your eyes,

Matilde, my dear love,

I won’t sleep without your eyes,

I won’t exist without your gaze,

I adjust the spring

for you to follow me with your eyes.

That, friends, is all I want.

Next to nothing, close to everything.

Now they can go if they wish.

I have lived so much that some day

they will have to forget me forcibly,

rubbing me off the blackboard.

My heart was inexhaustible.

But because I ask for silence,

don’t think I’m going to die.

The opposite is true;

it happens I am going to live.

To be, and to go on being.

I will not be, however, if inside me,

the crop does not keep sprouting,

the shoots first, breaking through the earth

to reach the light;

but the mothering earth is dark,

and, deep inside me, I am dark.

I am a well in the water of which

the night leaves behind stars

and goes on alone across fields.

It’s a question of having lived so much

that I want to live a bit more.

I never felt my voice so clear,

never have been so rich in kisses.

Now, as always, it is early.

The light is a swarm of bees.

Let me alone with the day.

I ask leave to be born.

KEEPING QUIET

By Pablo Neruda

Now we will count to twelve

and we will all keep still

for once on the face of the earth,

let’s not speak in any language;

let’s stop for a second,

and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment

without rush, without engines;

we would all be together

in a sudden strangeness.

Fishermen in the cold sea

would not harm whales

and the man gathering salt

would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,

wars with gas, wars with fire,

victories with no survivors,

would put on clean clothes

and walk about with their brothers

in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused

with total inactivity.

Life is what it is about…

If we were not so single-minded

about keeping our lives moving,

and for once could do nothing,

perhaps a huge silence

might interrupt this sadness

of never understanding ourselves

and of threatening ourselves with

death.

Now I’ll count up to twelve

and you keep quiet and I will go.

QUIETNESS

By Rumi

Inside this new love, die.

Your way begins on the other side.

Become the sky.

Take an axe to the prison wall.

Escape.

Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.

Do it now.

You are covered with thick cloud.

Slide out the side. Die,

and be quiet. Quietness is the surest sign

that you have died.

Your old life was a frantic running

from silence.

The speechless full moon

comes out now. 

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“I didn’t like having to explain to them, so I just shut up, smoked a cigarette, 

and looked at the sea.”

~ Albert Camus

I wish to mention, I have a new neighbor with a barking dog, and have had road construction happening in front of my home for 2 months… Thank goodness for the forest.

The Science: How Prolonged Exposure to Sweet, Blessed Silence Benefits the Brain

By Melissa Dahl

     I write this to the soundtrack of a literal chainsaw; there are men at work outside my window attempting to – well, I’m not exactly sure what they’re attempting to do. Cut down a tree? Cut down branches of a tree? Whatever it is they’re doing, they are making an awful lot of noise as they do it.

     Much has been written about “noise pollution,” a phrase coined in the 1960s, when scientists discovered that everyday exposure to the loudness of highways and airports was linked with a variety of health concerns: heart disease, sleep problems, high blood pressure, and, least surprisingly, hearing loss. And, sounds can become so intense that they can even cause much more immediate damage, strong enough to tear a hole in your eardrums or even bowl you right over.

     So: Excessive noisiness is bad. Its opposite — silence — has largely been understood for what it is not; it is not noise. It is the absence of sound. If too much exposure to loud sounds is bad for us, lack of sound means a lack of that physical harm caused by noise pollution. Silence is neutral. But as science writer Daniel A. Gross writes in a featureincluded in a recent Nautilus series on noise, some recent research is suggesting that prolonged and repeated exposure to silence may result in improved health, just like prolonged and repeated exposure to noisiness can result in poorer health.

     What’s especially fascinating about the scientific study of silence is how much of it came about by accident. For many of the researchers Gross interviews for his piece (which, by the way, was republished by Nautilus this week, but originally posted in 2014), findings about the benefits of quiet came as a surprise — several of them initially set out to study the neuroscience of sound, or of music in particular. One mouse study led by Imke Kirste, a biologist at Duke University, found that “even though all the sounds had short-term neurological effects, not one of them had a lasting impact,” Gross writes. “Yet to her great surprise, Kirste found that two hours of silence per day prompted cell development in the hippocampus, the brain region related to the formation of memory involving the senses.”

     This was, of course, a study in mice; mice, in case you haven’t heard, are not people. It’s early days in this line of research, in other words, but some scientists are hopeful that these findings may lead the way to some potential treatments for people with disorders associated with a slowing of cell growth in the hippocampus, like dementia or depression. But so far, at least, the neuroscience of silence seems to be suggesting this: To the brain, quiet is much more than what it isn’t.

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Where shall the word be found, where shall the word

Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence” 

― T.S. Eliot

The Spiritual: Thomas Merton and myself

The way I see it, “silence” can be taken a few different ways. Silence can mean the absence of sound, and it can also describe particularly still, quiet, times in life. By these I mean times when you’re going from one day to the next, attending to what calls, yet feeling unsure how you’re really doing, or where in the grand scheme of things you’re going. Since the pandemic began I’ve sensed that more of us than ever are experiencing this kind of silence. The feeling can be due to covid caused cancellations and constraints, or other life events that are occurring in parallel. I’ve felt this way. To be honest I do today. Sometimes still and silent days are blissful. Sometimes they are uncomfortable.

Today I am sharing a spiritual perspective on silence. I know there is much beautiful literature on the value of the absence of sound when it comes to connection with God, but to be honest, I can’t recall where I’ve read it! So, instead I’m going to share perspectives on those still, silent days – uncomfortably so.

We’ll begin with the thoughts of Thomas Merton, who will speak to the presence of God in the now, regardless of how now feels. I hope for many of you this is a comforting thought. He will also speak to the ephemeral nature of each moment, which hopefully gives hope to anyone who is feeling that now is far too still. Then, I’ll share my own essay from May of 2015, written on a bus in transit from Philadelphia to Flagstaff. Although obviously there was much movement in my life at the time, what the future held was so utterly silent. The ideas within that essay helped me then, and have helped me now as I re-read it. I hope they do the same for you.

Thomas Merton (From The Seven Story Mountain)

“The focal point of reality is now – this present moment. This elusive image of eternity, so small that is has no temporal length and yet so long that we can never escape from it. Here in this present moment life is most lively; here alone do we really exist. The past is dead, the future as yet is not. The moment assumes a hundred different forms – moments of pleasure, moments of pain, moments of elation, moments of depression, moments of quiet, moments of agitation, but it will not stay, it cannot be grasped, in any of its forms. This moment is our life, but the more we try to hold it, the faster it slips away. We look for it and cannot find it because it is too small to see, too slippery to hold, and yet this is where we’re given union with God.

But while we cannot grasp the moment, arresting that flow of life which we call time, there remains the fact that we cannot get away from it. It seems, as we cling to it, to slip away, but what slips away is only its outward form. In reality it stays with us. However hard we may fight to retain the past or hurry into the future, we cannot get out of the present moment. The more we try to hold it the more we fail to perceive that it holds us. The moment always carries us in its embrace, and wherever we go and whatever we do, it cannot be escaped. To understand this is simplicity itself.

And here is the perfect analogy of our union with God – a reality which possesses and holds us surely and as presently as the moment, a reality which in some sense is this moment. For the moment is not its forms; it is not space; it is not time; it is infinitesimal and thus infinite; it is Reality, Being, the eternal presence of God. In this moment we live and have our being and nowhere else. What we have to realize, therefore, is not the getting of union with God, but the not being able to get away from it. It is in, it is in this Eternal Now, where God so lovingly holds us.

Seeking Tension: Thoughts on Fear

By Shannon Thompson (May 2015)

 The last of the Friday light sunk beneath the Schuylkill River, but I was not there to watch it disappear.  During my final evening in Philadelphia I was deep in data and a soft leather chair at the Positive Psychology Center. I was the last one left in this place that is normally quietly, and contentedly, occupied by a group of people who have been so kind to me.

    I’ve begun writing this blog late at night on a Megabus, which is now passing boathouse row. The historic buildings illuminate the river shoreline. In the past 9 months I’ve left countless tracks here. I saw sticky September become downy winter. I was sometimes accompanied by classmates, and always by my own daydreams. Life has transformed since my first humid introduction to this city. I’m lingering because I don’t really know where to begin to describe this experience. There is a part of my spirit that will always embrace this gritty, grounded place.

     With the exception of my capstone project I’ve completed my Masters of Applied Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. I expected a lot from this program. It turned out to be one of those incredibly rare circumstances where my high hopes were surpassed exponentially. It’s not possible to do MAPP justice in this short piece. My key take away is that the outstanding is out there, and that you and I have the power to create it in our niche of the world. Not a bad conviction with which to leave grad school.

     Throughout this year I’ve constantly been uncomfortable. Intellectually, logistically, socially, emotionally, physically, and certainly financially! My early suspicion that perhaps I wasn’t bright enough to be in this company of scholars, was slowly replaced with an awareness that equality was not what was hoped of us. Rather, we were expected to contribute and create an energy that would drive each of us to pursue our callings. I resolutely chose an attitude of curiosity over inadequacy, and that is where I remain. 

     I’m taking up this piece again, this time in Flagstaff, Arizona. On the subject of callings, I’ve certainly felt drawn to this place. There’s a whole-hearted energy about this town, a certain richness in the sunshine, and sweetness to the rain. Flagstaff is home to students, artists, hand-on workers, and a disproportionately high number of athletes. At 7000ft the air is thinner than most places. The people are too, but I don’t mean thin in body. You need to be who you are here, thin in pretense, transparent. It’s refreshing. 

    It’s with a thin, curious spirit that I move on now. My Masters capstone project is a research study of runners and gymnasts. My hypothesis is that athletes who approach the toughest parts of training with eagerness and relish will progress more quickly than athletes who carry out the same workouts with anxiety or reticence. I suspect that our bodies respond differently depending on the mindset we bring to training, perhaps even at a minute physiological level. I wonder if an eager mindset allows better quality work, and if frequent practice in this mindset cumulatively results in significantly greater progress over time. All of these are musings right now. I’m in the process of entering the data in preparation for analysis.

      Nevertheless, science and literature robustly encourage seeking the difficult, the unknown, and the tension of our boundaries. In his famous study of Berlin violinists, Ericsson (1993) found that the best violinists practiced intensely and alone significantly more than those considered simply “good.” Chambliss (1989) noticed qualitative differences in the way elite swimmers practice, versus club swimmers. The elite swimmers spent more time training intensely, and “enjoy hard practices” (p. 74), which is an attitude inverse to that of the club swimmers. Clearly, difficult activities focused on skill development are of value. The question that interests me is this: is it the intensity of an action that is of greatest value to growth?  Or, is the value moderated by the attitude one takes toward the intensity of the action? Simply, are all forms of tension equal?

      One of the other hypotheses of my study states that athletes with a low fear of failure will be more likely to approach intense training with eagerness. Following reading almost one hundred measures, engaging in some casual conversations with athletes, and reflections on my own life, I’m no longer convinced that this hypotheses will be supported. After all, fear is tension, and tension has the power to create pressure for change.  Perhaps the value of fear is determined by how we choose to release the tension it creates.

That is if we decide to release the tension. Some people seek it…

     During my time at the University of Pennsylvania I was fortunate enough to attend a talk by Malcolm Gladwell. Known for being controversial, and despised by numerous scholars for his radical claims, Mr. Gladwell drew an enormous audience. He stood behind a podium before a theatre of students and faculty, and proceeded to explain why Penn (and other Ivy League institutions) hold illegitimate power. He called upon the student body to question Penn’s economical practices in particular. The room was shocked, awkward and incredulous. Many got up and left. Following Mr. Gladwell’s speech he sat down to be questioned by Penn’s young, renowned professor, Adam Grant. Mr. Grant challenged Mr. Gladwell’s points. What ensued was a fascinating duel of morality, rationality, and wit. Later, I found out that Mr. Gladwell had asked Mr. Grant to come prepared to challenge him on his subject matter. Mr. Gladwell had reclined comfortably, relaxed, thin legs crossed nonchalantly, curly hair excessive and alive. He  responded to each of Mr. Grant’s blows in a calm, contented tone. The content of the conversation wasn’t what interested me, it was the fact that Mr. Gladwell had sought this environment by choice. 

     Seth Godin, internet entrepreneur and social visionary is a passionate advocate of creating “art” and putting it out into the world. To Mr. Godin, art is whatever you consider your craft. It could be law, or carpentry, or athletics, or sport psychology! The point is to pour your best into your art and hand it over to someone else. “Here, I made this, I hope it changes you (for the better),” he says as he models the hand-over of one’s creation to another. If your art touches no one Mr. Godin urges us to “make better art.” Mr Godin insists that we must seek this tension, live in it, and learn to love it. We must be the athlete who hungers for the tough workout, or the author who craves controversy. Mr Godin claims that “nowhere to hide is the only place to be.” 

     This is really relevant in my life right now as I try to gain footing in my new town. Due to the fact that I am Canadian, I am only allowed to work in accordance with my education. Thus, sport and positive psychology are my only options. Part of this thrills me because I am forced to cultivate my craft, and I loathe having to spend time on other tasks in order to make a living. Yet, there are significant risks. The richness in the sunshine here does not a bank account fill. Yet, I’m living in tension that requires my best art, now. So, much of me is grateful for these circumstances.

     Fear carries a charge. Often its current cannot be eased. However, I suggest that we can change its color, texture, perhaps its story, and certainly its direction. That is my task tonight. Earlier this year, I was told by a friend that the Hebrew bible identifies two types of fear: the first is the sort you get when you’re about to be eaten by a lion (the bodily harm type); the other is the fear you feel when you are on the path toward your destiny. 

     I’ve heard fear likened to “awe” in literature and prose. Are they so different?

     I also recall reading of an exchange between two human rights advocates: “I’m afraid,” said one advocate to another, as he prepared to protest his cause. “That’s not fear,” assured the other advocate, “it’s your first taste of freedom.” 

     So, to all of you venturing to your edges or simply staring into a blind, silent future where the pathway is drowned in cloud and your step forward has yet to find ground, me too. Perhaps though, this is the place we should hang out for awhile. It’s a dynamic mystery from which I suspect our best art will arise. Let’s find the awe and freedom in our fear, and meet our moments opportunities with openness. Perhaps one day in the calm, more certain future, we’ll miss this place in time, and seek it out by choice once again.

Play

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“It comes, then to this: that to be ‘viable,’ livable, or merely practical, life must be lived as a game – and the ‘must’ here expresses a condition, not a commandment. It must be lived in the spirit of play rather than work, and the conflicts which it involves must be carried on in the realization that no species, or party to a game, can survive without its natural antagonists, its beloved enemies,

 it’s indispensable opponents.”

~ Alan Watts

Good morning friends, 

I hope you found some space to play this weekend. I hope our theme this week will help you bring a playful spirit for its duration.

The Endurance

It was April 20, a day notable for one reason: Shackleton finally made official what everyone had expected for a long time. He would take a party of five men and set sail in the Caird for South Georgia to bring relief. They would leave as soon as the Caird could be made ready and provisioned for the trip.

The news came as no surprise to anyone. In fact a formal announcement was unnecessary. The subject had been discussed openly even long before the party had left Patience Camp. They knew that what island they might ultimately reach, a boat journey of some sort would be necessary to bring rescue to the party as a whole. Even the destination, illogical as it might look on a map, had been settled to everyone’s satisfaction.

There were three possible objectives. The nearest of these was Cape Horn, the island of Tierra del Fuego – ‘Land of Fire,’ which lay about 550 miles very nearly due north. Finally there was South Georgia, slightly more than 800 miles to the northeast. Though the distance to South Georgia was more than half again as far as the journey to Cape Horn, weather conditions made South Georgia the most sensible choice.

An easterly current, said to travel 60 miles a day, prevails in the Drake Passage, and almost incessant gales blow in the same direction. To reach either Cape Horn or the Falkland Islands would mean beating to windward against both of these colossal forces; it was enough to dare a 22-foot boat on these storm-wracked waters without trying to drive her to windward. En route to South Georgia, on the other hand, the prevailing winds would be generally astern – at least in theory.

All this had been discussed and discussed again. And though the Caird’s chances of actually reaching South Georgia were remote, a great many men genuinely wanted to be taken along. The prospect of staying behind, of waiting and not knowing, of possibly wintering on this hateful island was far from attractive.

The Writing: Diane Ackerman

“Deep play: Any high stakes activity engaging in which might be deemed irrational because ‘the marginal utility of what you stand to win is grossly outweighed by the disutility of what you have to lose… We long for its heights, which some people often visit and others must learn to find, but everyone experiences as replenishing. Opportunities for deep play abound. In its thrall we become ideal versions of ourselves… its many moods and varieties help to define who we are and all we wish to be…

Above all play requires freedom. One chooses to play… To play is to risk: to risk is to play… The word ‘flight’ derives from the word, ‘play”… In Indo-European, Plegan meant to risk, chance, expose oneself to hazard. A pledge was integral to the act of play, as was danger (cognate words are peril and plight). Play’s original purpose was to make a pledge to someone or something by risking one’s life…

Deep play always involves the sacred and holy, sometimes hidden in the most unlikely or humble places – amid towering shelves of rock in Nepal; crouched over print in a dimly lit room; slipping on Astro-turf… We spend our lives in pursuit of moments that allow these altered states to happen…

Rapture literally means ‘being seized by force,’ as if one is a prey animal being carried away… Birds of prey that plunge from the skies to gore their victims are known as raptors. Seized by a jagged and violent force, the enraptured are carried aloft to their violent ultimate doom…

Ecstasy also means to be gripped by passion, but from a slightly different perspective: rapture is vertical; ecstasy horizontal. Rapture is high-flying, ecstasy occurs on the ground… To the Greeks ecstasy meant to stand outside oneself…

Deep play is a fascinating hallmark of being human; it reveals our need to seek a special brand of transcendence, with a passion that makes thrill-seeking explicable, creativity possible, and religion inevitable… The word ‘prayer’ derives from the Latin, ‘precarious,’ and contains the idea of uncertainty and risk. Will the entreaty be answered? Life or death may depend on the outcome.”

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“Emotional excess is essential for creativity.” 

~ Anais Nin

The Poetry: Mary Oliver

THE DOG HAS RUN OFF AGAIN

By Mary Oliver

and should I start shouting his name

and clapping my hands,

but it has been raining all night

and the narrow creek has risen

is a tawny turbulence is rushing along

over the mossy stones

is surging forward

with a sweet loopy music

and therefore I don’t want to entangle it

with my own voice

calling summoning

my little dog to hurry back

look the sunlight and the shadows are chasing each other

listen how the wind swirls and leaps and dives up and down

who am I to summon his hard and happy body

his four white feet that love to wheel and pedal

through the dark leaves

to come back to walk by my side, obedient.

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“A little nonsense now and then, is cherished by the wisest men.” 

― Anonymous

The Science: What Playfulness Can Do for Your Relationship

By Kira M. Newman

I live with a hip-wiggler. When we’re in an elevator, Fred shakes to the muzak. If we’re pushing a cart though the grocery store and B. B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone” comes through the speakers, Fred starts shimmying—and watching for my reaction. My role in this bit is to survey the scene in mock disapproval, one eyebrow raised, trying not to giggle.

My partner is playful and I try to join in, in my introverted way. And that’s good because research suggests that couples who are playful together have closer and more satisfying relationships.

Unfortunately, we humans tend to become less playful as we get older. After all, play requires a bit of freedom and space; by definition, it’s not a productive activity. The schedules and stresses of life can impinge on our relationship and suck the playfulness out of it. There may come a day when Fred bops less to the beat.

That’s a bigger loss than we might realize. Scientists are investigating all the different psychological functions that play serves in romantic relationships, and they’re finding that it gives us more than just the occasional laugh. Play can bring us a sense of security, offer a way to communicate, and even help us resolve conflicts. If we’re serious about cultivating a close and lasting relationship, we might just have to find our own ways to dance through life.

Why bother being playful?

Why are humans playful? That might not be a question you’ve ever asked yourself, but it’s one that occupies the minds of evolutionary theorists, because (at least on its surface) play doesn’t seem to contribute to our survival. Rather than spending the time hunting for food or sleeping to save up energy, why would it be useful for our ancestors to hang around the fire doing funny imitations of each other? Wouldn’t that distract them from potential threats that might be creeping out of the bushes?

Playfulness, some researchers speculate, could serve as a signal to potential mates. Men who engage in friendly, reciprocal play with others might be demonstrating their lack of aggression—an appealing trait when violent males are a threat to their wives and children—and women who have the energy for play might be demonstrating their youthfulness, a proxy for their reproductive abilities. At least that’s the way certain researchers interpret the finding that, according to surveys, people seem to look for playfulness, humor, and a fun-loving attitude in potential partners. 

When a 2014 study by the University of Halle’s René Proyer asked real people to reflect on how play served their relationship, they came up with a variety of answers.

First of all, people said, playfulness simply feels good; it makes us laugh. It also supports the relationship itself, in a variety of ways, they added. People talked about using playfulness to seduce their partner and make sex enjoyable, and to communicate things more effectively. For example, sometimes teasing our partner about their faults and oddities can be a way of quietly pointing them out, without the sting of criticism.

The very fact that play is unserious can make it a safe way to raise issues that are, in fact, quite serious. You can bring something up playfully and gauge the response. Or it can work the opposite way: Serious relationship issues might crop up in your jokes and sarcasm, a signal that something needs to be dealt with. (Take, for example, the partner in one studywho realized the repressed hostility embedded in her new nickname for her better half: “Moldy Oldy”).

A playful remark or gesture can also loosen up a tense situation, reminding your significant other that despite whatever stresses you’re under, you’re still in a safe and loving relationship. It takes a great deal of social intelligence to know when a gentle joke in the middle of a fight might make your partner crack a smile—but the research suggests that’s a skill well worth developing.

What does romantic play look like?

Of course, there are many playful paths we can take toward intimacy—and there’s something we can learn from the way researchers have enumerated, categorized, and catalogued all the different ways partners play.

One of the most common forms of play seems to be the secret language that develops between couples, from nicknames to private jokes. In my relationship, for example, Fred invented a word that’s an amalgamation of a Korean expression and our cat’s nickname—which makes absolutely zero sense—to communicate exasperation. I have to remember not to utter this word in the presence of others, lest it provoke strange looks. 

Role play is also common. In the comfort of the romantic bubble, one might feel safe enough to pretend to be a puppy, do their best Elvis impression, or imitate the neighbor’s oddly high-pitched laugh.

Some play, of course, requires no words at all—my partner’s dancing being one example. We can playfully pilfer a cookie from our beloved, turning a normally selfish act into an affectionate exchange. Teasing is another behavior that walks the line between positive and negative, which is why play is a delicate negotiation: Our partner has to perceive our playful intent and join in the game, lest they be annoyed by our frivolity or put off by our kindly jabs.

Some play is more structured, like the rules and games that couples invent. When I’m debating Fred over a Googleable point of fact, we often bet three kisses on the answer before looking it up—and the loser has to immediately pay their debt. 

In these ways, play seems to spontaneously arise. But then those one-off comments or behaviors turn into habits, morphing and evolving over time but always expressing an underlying affection and understanding. 

So, it probably comes as no surprise that playful couples are often happy couples. In studies that survey people about their behaviors and feelings, those who are more playful in their relationships tend to experience more positive emotions, be more satisfied with their union, and feel closer to each other. They report that they communicate better, resolve conflicts better, and see their relationships in a more positive light.

As a participant in one study said: “Feel[ing] free to be silly together . . . reaffirms a closeness and sensibility to one another that would be hard to express in any other way—it makes me aware of how relaxed I feel with him and he with me.”

What kind of play will work for you?

However, achieving those warm, fuzzy benefits of play might depend on what kinds of play we engage in.

In a 2019 study, Proyer and his colleagues surveyed over 200 heterosexual couples about their styles of play and how satisfied they were with their relationships. Some play is considered “other-directed”—the kind that truly draws others in to silliness and good cheer. Other play is “intellectual,” where we enjoy word play and creatively solving problems. And play can also be “whimsical,” an amusement with life and a slightly oddball attitude.

One of those styles stood out in good relationships: other-directed play. People who tended to clown around in this manner were happier with their relationships overall. In particular, they were more likely to admire their partner, experience feelings of tenderness and togetherness, feel pleased with their sex life, be invested in the relationship, and believe it would last. Only some of these patterns held up for the intellectually playful, and still fewer were found in whimsically playful mates.

When we reflect on our own relationships, those playful moments are things to cherish. In the routine of the everyday, two people playfully construct a secret language and culture, and it is solely their own. Play involves showing our partner parts of ourselves that others rarely see, the childlike, silly side that might not be socially acceptable at work or in other settings.

“Playing is a reconnoitering of the unknown borders of two psyches, whose contours can become reassuringly familiar only through the experience of mutual vulnerability and nonjudgmental responsiveness,” writes marital therapist R. William Betcher. “It is through playing that we learn how to approach someone’s more intimate self.”

For this reason, there’s no one-size-fits-all way to play with your partner. Every couple’s play will look a little different, and that’s the point. If there were any prescription, it would be something like this: Let your silly self come out, appreciate the goofiness of your loved one, and do what makes you both smile.

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“It is interesting that Hindus, when they speak of the creation of the universe do not call it the work of God, they call it the play of God, the Vishnu lila, lila meaning play. And they look upon the whole manifestation of all the universes as a play, as a sport, as a kind of dance — lila perhaps being somewhat related to our word lilt” 

~ Alan Watts

The Spiritual: Thomas Merton (From New Seeds of Contemplation)

** Thomas Merton was a Trappist Monk (Catholic) who is known for his effusive religious writing. The following, about God’s intention to delight in the world, is a prime example. I can’t claim to understand every point, but I love his energy. 

     “The Lord made His world not in order to judge it, not in order merely to dominate it… The Lord made the world and made man in order that He Himself might descend into the world, that He Himself might become Man. When he regarded the world He was about to make He saw His wisdom, as a man-child, ‘playing in the world before him at all times.’ And he reflected, ‘my delights are to be with the children of men.’

     The world was not made as a prison for fallen spirits who were rejected by God: this is the gnostic error. The world was made as a temple, a paradise, into which God Himself would descend to dwell familiarly with the spirits He had placed there to tend it for Him.

The early chapters of Genesis (far from being a pseudo-scientific account of the way the world was supposed to have come into being) are precisely a poetic and symbolic revelation, a completely true, though not literal, revelation of God’s view of the universe and of His intentions for man. The point of these beautiful chapters is that God made the world as a garden in which He himself took delight. He made man and gave to man the task of sharing in His own divine care for created things. He made man in His own image and likeness, as an artist, a worker, homo faber, as the gardener of paradise. He let man decide for himself how created things were to be interpreted, understood and used: for Adam gave the animals their names (God gave them no names at all) and what names Adam gave them, that they were. Thus in his intelligence man, by the act of knowing, imitated something of the creative love of God for creatures. While the love of God, looking upon things, reproduced the divine idea, the divine truth, in man’s own spirit.

     As God creates things by seeing them in His own Logos, man brings truth to life in his mind by the marriage of the divine light, in the being of the object, with the divine light in his own reason. The meeting of these two lights in one mind is truth…

     The presence of God in His world as its Creator depends on no one but Him. His presence in the world as Man depends, in some measure, upon men. Not that we can do anything to change the mystery of the Incarnation in itself: but we are able to decide whether we ourselves, and that portion of the world which is ours, shall become aware of His presence, consecrated by it, and transfigured in its light.

     We have the choice of two identities: the external mask which seems to be real and which lives by a shadowy autonomy for the brief moment of earthly existence, and the hidden, inner person who seems to us to be nothing, but who can give himself eternally to the truth in whom he subsists. It is this inner self that is taken up into the mystery of Christ, by His love, by the Holy Spirit, so that in secret we live “in Christ.”

     Yet we must not deal in too negative a fashion even with the ‘external self.’ This self is not by nature evil, and the fact that it is unsubstantial is not to be imputed to it as some kind of crime. It is afflicted with metaphysical poverty: but all that is poor deserves mercy. So too our outward self: as long as it does not isolate itself in a lie, it is blessed by the mercy and the love of Christ. Appearances are to be accepted for what they are. The accidents of a poor and transient existence have, nevertheless, an ineffable value. They can be transparent media in which we apprehend the presence of God in the world. It is possible to speak of the exterior self as a mask: to do so is not necessarily to reprove it. The mask that each man wears may well be a disguise not only for the man’s inner self but for God, wandering as a pilgrim and an exile in His own creation.

     And indeed, if Christ became Man, it is because He wanted to be any man and every man. If we believe in the Incarnation of the Son of God, there should be no one on earth in whom we are not prepared to see, in mystery, the presence of Christ.

     What is serious to men is often very trivial in the sight of God. What in God might appear to us as ‘play’ is perhaps what He Himself takes most seriously. At any rate the Lord plays and diverts Himself in the garden of His creation, and if we would let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear His call and follow Him in His mysterious, cosmic dance. We do not have to go very far to catch echoes of that game, and that of dancing. When we are alone on a starlit night; when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our own hearts; or when, like the Japanese poet Basho we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash – at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the ‘newness,’ the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.

     For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The silence of the spheres is the music of the wedding feast. The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the very midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.

     Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.”

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“I simply do not distinguish between work and play.”

~ Mary Oliver

The Endurance

Shackleton spent the day supervising the various activities. He saw that the Caird was very nearly finished, and announced that she would sail as soon as the weather permitted. As evening came on and the weather looked more promising, Shackleton ordered Ordes-Lees and Vincent to melt ice to fill the two water casks to be carried aboard the Caird. They made every effort to find fresh-water ice from the glacier, but all of them had been tainted slightly by salt water spray that had frozen against the face of the glacier. When it was ready, Orde-Lees took a sample of the melted water to Shackleton, who tasted it. He noted the trace of salt, but he said it would do alright.

Shackleton spent the whole night talking with Wild about a hundred different subjects, ranging from what should be done in the event that a rescue party failed to arrive within a reasonable length of time to the distribution of tobacco. When there was nothing more to discuss, Shackleton wrote a letter in his log, which he left with Wild:

April 23rd, 1916 Elephant Island

Dear Sir

In the event of my not surviving the boat journey to South Georgia you will do your best for the rescue of the party. You are in full command from the time the boat leaves this island, and all hands are under your orders. On your return to England you are to communicate with the Committee. I wish you, Lees & Hurley to write the book. You watch my interests… I have every confidence in you and always have had. May God prosper your work and your life. You can convey my love to my people and say I tried my best.

Yours sincerely

E.H. Shackleton

The Cinematic: You may say that I am grasping to include a YouTube dog video in this email. However, I laughed so hard when I first watched this. I hope you enjoy it too. Click here.

The Musical: Throw Your Arms Around Me by Eddie Vedder

Remember the days of crowds like this?…

I wish you a playful weekend.

Sincerely,

Shannon