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My oldest is twenty-five. He recently quit his job to travel around the country- a trick he could have learned from me, though he really doesn’t need any help expressing his individuality.
He recently dropped by for a few days and we chatted. He sounded as if he’s having a good time, but he’s also learning the basics. Traveling in the summer can be a drag (“I have underestimated the value of air-conditioning.”)
He’s also found out that combining travel with a desire to write and/or photograph is damn hard work.
There is simply never enough time. So he wants to find a small town within commuter train distance of DC (his base), catch his breath and think through his next moves.
All of which simply confirms what I already know- that he’s a bright inquisitive kid with a lot of common sense.
His actions also demonstrate a certain bravery. Actions involving change are almost always a demonstration of bravery, of grit, as change is hard- it’s not natural- which is why most people are satisfied with running the same rut day after day….
Most people fail to appreciate that change, all too often, feels just like failure. For this reason I agree with those who say that grit is the most most important quality for an artist to possess.
Chasing one’s dream, all too often, feels like walking uphill, day after day, with no discernible signs of progress. When making a real change in life, nothing seems to come easy, grace is too often is a memory.
Beyond seeing the country, I also suspect my eldest is looking for his his home. Not his childhood home nor even the home of his future, but the place in which he belongs.
Anyone born with open eyes knows that all places are not equal. If you are fortunate there is one; perhaps several places, you might call home. Your people live in these places and to live a truly meaningful life, you need to be with them.
And by people I don’t mean the people you were born to, but the people who understand and accept you. They may or may not be the same. Long ago I coined my own vision of this universal truth. I call it the three percent rule.
This rule says that, at most, 3% of the people in this world will see the world as you do. Your happiness in this life depends upon finding the 3% who match your lifetime philosophy, your lifetime vision, and making a home with those people.
I recently spent time in a place that probably would have been called a commune ten or thirty years ago. This place was a collection of homes-most on a common property, on the banks of the Chama River in Northern New Mexico. These people were tied together by their love and commitment to the Sufi belief system. There is a small mosque on the property where they now live.
From the smallest grain of sand to the highest heavens
All are enraptured by love.
These Sufis, during my time time along the Chama, treated me to tea and invited me to attend a remembrance ceremony in their own private dusty graveyard. I also attended philosophical discussions over dinner and tea in their home, and was privileged to pray in their mosque where I found many similarities between their services and the Zen Buddhist Services I frequently attend.
I did not leave a Sufi, but did leave a far wiser man. We can’t ask for more than that.
Such places today, such communes, are sometimes called intentional living communities. That is, a nontraditional place where people have come together to share their lives around some specific common philosophy or some fundamental thread.
Such intentional living communities span a wide variety of groups, including (but not limited to) communes, student cooperatives, land co-ops, co-housing groups, monasteries and ashrams, and farming collectives. Although quite diverse in philosophy and lifestyle, each of these groups places a high priority on fostering a sense of community–a feeling of belonging and mutual support that is increasingly hard to find in mainstream Western society.
Unfortunately, knowledge of such communities is sparse given the intentional disconnect between the mainstream and those who wish to live outside mainstream society. Thus, too few hear of such places.
In my world, as a youngster, no one ever told me about such places, about such people. No one told me how to find my place, my purpose, my people- largely because they could not as these journeys are, almost always, a journey of the self.
Such knowledge is inevitably gained through the journey of one’s life. Such knowledge involves a sojourn of truth seeking; a journey one can only take for oneself.
Fortunately, there are guides along the way.
In my youth, I searched blindly. Invariably; however, I found, here and there, persons occasionally willing to illuminate the dark, if only briefly; kind people willing to point the way to the next stop, the next place I might be accepted.
Granted some few do hear a calling from an early age. They know where they belong, they are the lucky few; they’re born teachers, or fireman. They know themselves, throughout their lives, to be teachers, or fireman. They die contended for having been teachers or firemen.
The rest of us have no idea why we are on this earth. We subsist for years, decades, on blind faith. If we are lucky one day, we find our home.
My son’s journey reminds me of my own, though mine was more tentative, shattered, interrupted by trauma and a decided lack of self confidence, which he seems to enjoy in spades. Thank God.
This is not to say that my past is a cloud of regret. Quite the opposite.
I met many great people in my fractured youth. Together we spent decades doing what we had to do- going to school- working jobs we hated; and when we were set free, we spent our days hiking over mountains,
along rivers and through forests. Slowly, we slowly came to know life’s truths.
To the degree that we had any real direction, it came primarily from writers. Writers such as Jim Harrison, Peter Matthiessen, Barry Lopez and others. We tried our damndest to emulate their adventures.
Crossing Open Ground was a favorite as was Field Notes.
We read Harrison’s fiction and non-fiction alike and followed literally in his tracks fishing the rivers of Northwest Michigan. We ate and drank in the roadhouses outside Irons, Muskegon, and Beaverton.
Later we headed south and haunted the southern Appalachians- a strange, new (for us) primitive world covered with wild azaleas, copperheads, wilder rivers and rhododendrons.
We learned the mountains and valleys of North Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee.
We took long weekends to Georgia’s coastal islands and backpacked on Cumberland Island, a place once owned and ruled by the 1%, (various members of the Rockefeller family to be exact) but now owned by the NPS.
Feral animals run wild there- bobcats and wild ponies. There are no cars, one must take a ferry from St Mary’s to the Cumberland Island Boat dock and, from there, and backpack to a campsite.
In hiking to one’s campsite it’s sometimes necessary to walk over alligator beds. The beaches are empty and the Island is unprotected from seasonal storms.
On a trip, in the early years, my beloved and I went backpacking with another couple. One day we took a long hike down the length of the island to see some of the mansions which have- over the last 100 years- fallen into ruin. On the way back we were caught in a tremendous thunderstorm. Lighting flashed about us accompanied by the instant crack of thunder. Rain came down at a seemingly impossible pace, huge winds blew in a hard surf.
There was nothing to but stand in the treeline by the beach and drink quickly from the flask of vodka which had been providently packed for the hike. If one is going to die, after all, one may as well die happy. We drank, burning inside and out, waiting to die. The storm went on for a long time but gradually spent itself. We found ourselves- to our surprise- alive.
On the ferry back to Cumberland the next day, a Ranger said they had counted lightning strikes upon the island at the rate of one per second.
A couple of years later I spent the weekend on Cumberland with a friend recently met through work as insurance adjusters. This was something akin to Mother Teresa playing piano in a whorehouse. Yet, we did our work, and on the weekends, we loaded our company cars and headed out. Sometimes we’d fish and hike along the Chatooga River. Other times, as on this weekend, we’d head for the coast.
We loaded my company car with a cooler of beer, a bucket of fried chicken, aiming southeast via back roads. During this trip a true southern storm arose early on as we drove through watermelon country . I put Mozart’s Requiem in the tape deck, dark tones narrating the jagged lightening outside.
Later than night, when we made the coast, we drank with sailors in a double-wide trailer which served as a local salon. Having nowhere to sleep before the morning ferry, we laid our bags out under sodium lights in the ferry parking lot and caught a few hours of broken sleep.
On that trip, while hiking to our campsites, we came upon a man on the empty beach.
A large rod and reel lay in the surf along a gray thick-skinned and large toothed shark. It was three to four feet long. The shark lie at the man’s feet. He was trying to club it to death with the long wooden handle of some indiscernible tool.
Later, we slept in a tent under a great oak. After a while we fell off to sleep only to be awakened in the middle of the night by blood curdling, inhuman sounds. There was a crashing and thundering by the tent: mating horses.
It took a long time to get back to sleep that night. I could not stop contemplating the question of what it would feel like to have one’s skull smashed by a wild horse hoof. Could one, I wondered, consider such a demise a noble death?
In addition to our favorite prolific writers, we also loved those who wrote seldom, but could still tell an honest tale, could convey the passion of art and the great outdoors. I still greatly value my copy of Russell Chatham’s Dark Waters and marvel to this day over Norman MaClean’s A River Runs Through It- all the more amazing in that this novella, his debut, was written at seventy-four.
“Then he asked, “After you have finished your true stories sometime, why don’t you make up a story and the people to go with it? “Only then will you understand what happened and why.”
These people, through their works, inspired us to write. We wrote for years, without any real success, attempting to learn that brutal, ornate and endless craft.
In time I did publish, published many times in fact, but in local newspapers, alternative magazines and, later, in digital formats and self published books; never landing on the shelf with my heros….not that it matters. Does it?
And so we walked and fished, rented deep wood cabins with wives and girlfriends. We read to one and another by firelight, deep into the night. Sometimes when we tried to write, tried to describe the life we were leading at that time. We tried to define what was happening, what had happened, tried to envision where we were going.
But we were young and it all had to fall apart many more times before we would, could understand. There was much to be lost and gained before we could claim to own any real understanding of our lives. At this point we only knew the inner command to seek, to ramble, to create.
And so we made it up as we went along. We continued to search, to look for those who knew the truth so that we might gain some wisdom by walking a short ways in their tattered boots. We worried those who loved us, annoyed and infuriated those who hired us and pissed off others, though not intentionally.
We learned, in time, that there is no surer way to piss off some people than by living a life worthwhile. For such a path, all too often, serves only to remind some angry folk that they have abdicated or traded their chance for adventure in exchange for something smaller and infinitely less valuable.
We didn’t wish to anger anyone, we only wanted to know the secrets of the universe, only wanted to live a life worth living. Learning such lessons, however, did keep me going in the face of responsibility and common sense. I learned that few things in this life were worth fearing, but that middle age and end of life regrets are far more dangerous than grizzly bears.
So we read and continued to drive the crooked back- roads.
Few taught us life’s lessons like Peter Matthiessen; no book was a better guide than The Snow Leopard.
In that beautiful tale of heartbreak and adventure, Matthiessen writes: “In the longing that starts one on the path is a kind of homesickness, and some way, on this journey, I have started home. Homegoing is the purpose of my practice.”
It’s clear in retrospect that homegoing was not, in those years, our conscience practice; but homegoing, finding our place in this ragged world, was never-theless our magnetic rough guide, our north star. In Matthiessen, and to a lesser degree through the others, we found a practice which provided some small degree of peace, of wisdom, of direction.
In time we consciously learned what we needed, what we were searching for, where we were headed; the way home, the place where we belonged.
Some of us learned more quickly than others. I take no pride in the fact that I was slowest of all. Our beloveds, our wives and girlfriends, it turned out, had pretty much known the way home all along. But then you never could tell us anything.
It didn’t matter. We had no choice but to learn our own truths, to walk our own paths literally and figuratively. I try to remember this now that my three sons are pinballing through life, sometimes displaying a complete, and appalling, lack of discretion and/or common sense.
I digress, to return to the past:
Ultimately, the countless hangovers, lost jobs, wrecked cars and squandered relationships did lead to home and varying degrees of peace. We began, inexplicably to listen to the Beloved’s in our lives -as they continued to wait at home, feeding and raising our dogs and children.
And we also, as I said, found some degree of insight in the writings of our literary elders.
Matthiessen’s practice was Zen, as was, to a lesser degree, Harrison’s. Gary Snyder was a learned Buddhist as was Kerouac, to a much smaller degree. We followed them down this path as well.
We also read those who offered any form of insight- direct or oblique. We read Emerson’s Transcendentalism and the writings of Mark Twain (his spot on descriptions of the Mississippi at daybreak, for instance) until we found Matthiessen.
I read TheNine Headed Dragon River and a fuse was lit inside though I had no idea of what was burning.
I began then- over the next twenty years to sit with- to meditate- with Buddhist groups near and far.
First came half hour sittings, with aching knees and monkey mind; while all the while trying to find a connection between the mental and the spiritual; trying to comprehend the inspirational words of those who had led me to this place.
It did not seem to help that I began meditating at a dismal time in my life.
I had recently moved back to the city, was married with three small children and utterly lost.
Life was hard and a teacher would later tell me that, in those years, she saw me “as a seething cauldron of anger.” She certainly was not the only person to hold such an opinion in those days.
Because interest in Zen was limited in the Midwest, at this time, the Center where I first sat- like so many Centers in that time- featured not only Zen teachers and teachings, but also a broad array of other Buddhist teachings- such as Vispassana, Tibetan, etc.
So I heard not only from the readings of Hui Neng, but also from Tony Packer, Jack Cornfield and Pema Chodron. The students, at this center, were a mixed bunch. We were long time meditators, new age types and granola chicks who came and went. There were also-like me- those who were simply confused, or lost- or simply not so far down the path to enlightenment.
Teachers from outside the region would flutter through the area, invariably also bringing a patchwork mixture of philosophies. There was a Zen teacher who had grown up in India and been taught by the Jesuits. who was ordained as both a Jesuit and Zen Priest.
The Yellow Springs Zen Center- some eighty miles north of Cincinnati- offered a revolving calendar of retreats at a local nature preserve. I began sitting weekend retreats with this group. These retreats- normally from 5 pm Friday to Sunday afternoon seemed to last an eternity. In addition to the constant pain of early meditation practice- aching back and knees- came confusion arising from conflicting scriptures and practice forms.
In time, I came in contact with a Zen Sangha located in California. The teacher was ordained in Zen and made periodic sorties into the Midwest in an attempt to build a legitimate Zen Sangha (practice group) in the Midwest.
I sat with this group for something to five to seven years and learned the beauty of Zen practice. There were weekend retreats in unexpectedly beautiful places throughout Ohio. We did Koan practice and walking meditation, in addition to formal Zen retreats.
Several weekend retreats were held at a nature preserve, in Southern Ohio, at the foot of the Appalachians,
Here we sat, practiced, slept and cooked our own meals in a hundred year old hunting lodge perched on a sandstone cliff above a small murmuring river.
We awoke early and sat in the dark, as the world stirred to life about us.
Meals were taken in the basement of the lodge, on a patio just outside the kitchen, in the early morning dark. We ate granola in silence with yogurt and fresh fruit. In the afternoon were hikes through the fall colored woods . During the rest of the day we sat and read from the wisdom of the patriarchs as well as the teachings of the Buddha. We learned from the teachings of those great masters who stood between our practice and the teachings of the Tagagatha.
In time, for a few moments at a time, to live in the present. I tried to learn from those who walked the trail before me “To practice Zen means to realize one’s existence moment after moment, rather than letting life unravel in regret of the past and daydreaming of the future. To “rest in the present” is a state of magical simplicity…out of the emptiness can come a true insight into our natural harmony all creation.” Matthiessen- Nine Headed Dragon River.
I learned to listen and watch, and, on rare days, I found myself living in the present.
I learned about Dogen- the 13th century teacher, born a Japanese orphan. Dogen traveled to China and brought the true teachings of the Buddha back to Japan. It was Dogen’s brilliant teachings and riddles which burrowed their way into my heart.
His wisdom paradoxically kept me anchored and sent me searching as I fell in and out of numerous Buddhist groups, never quite able to find my place. “No matter how bad a state of mind you may get into, if you keep strong and hold out, eventually the floating clouds must vanish and the withering wind must cease.”
Years passed as I sat with any number of Sanghas and teachers. Some teachers were laissez faire, others had a more severe and sometimes militaristic approach towards sitting.
Of those early years I have mostly a patchwork of memories. Nights sleeping like the dead in candlelit Zendos (prayer or practice halls) after long days of meditation. Walking meditation inside and outside our temporary weekend Zendos.
Some memorable afternoons were spent sitting (meditating) outside.
One day we sat at the foot of a large waterfall. The sound of water breaking atop rock provided a nice blanket of white noise smothering out the sounds of the outside world.
We sat for perhaps a half hour, the sun creating a natural stained glass effect falling through the fall maples, ash and oak.
The slightest of noises drew my attention to the foot of my sitting cushion where I noted a very large black snake peacefully, quietly, crawling along the row of our Zafus.
To our credit, no one panicked, as the snake went on his way.
Another weekend we sat in a large home in the heart of Columbus- in the center of Ohio State University to be exact. We sat inside listening to the calls of the urban neighborhood. Blaring car stereos and squealing tires, the mating calls of young undergrads and the screams of late night drunks.
That weekend, the Rhoshi decided that our walking meditation would consist of a slow measured three block walk through the heart of campus, We walked in Gasho- with our palms pressed together at chest height- at half speed, through the slums of campus. We wound through neighborhoods of frats and sororities who took great delight in our holy stroll. Frat boys taunted and called out to the women in our Sangha, sorority girls in summer clothes held open the doors to their houses while offering unsubtle enticements to come indoors.
I drifted from group to group. Traditionally Zen is a stern practice. Invariably, there is only one alpha dog in any such group. I consistently found myself being the extra alpha dog and so I wandered on.
I left because I could not let go. I could- did not know how to cede authority nor control. I fought and or butted heads with most every teacher. I fought everyone in those days.
To my credit, in time, I learned that such conflict was contrary to my practice. I could at least understand, if only intuitively, that I was young and green and very poor at taking orders and or having my beliefs challenged.
Thus, for decades, I inexorably moved on.
And yet and yet. In time my hair began to turn gray and my knees to ache almost daily. I began to live most days with some degree of clarity. I learned that the simplest of teachings were often the most profound. I learned to choose my battles wisely. Today, now that my hair has turned mostly gray, I rarely fight at all.
If nothing else, I have learned that there is far too much to be appreciated in far too little time. “Your body is like a dew-drop on the morning grass, your life is as brief as a flash of lightning. Momentary and vain, it is lost in a moment.” Dōgen, (‘Fukan zazengi’).
And if I have the wisdom not to (physically) butt heads. I continue to wander and the road continues to teach. I frequently, as I wander, think of others who, through time, have also wandered for decades on end.
A wise monk- a venerable traveler, once wrote, “The moon and sun are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” Basho, The Narrow Road To The Interior.
And in the end I am glad that I was not blessed with the early knowledge of what I should do, of what my life should be. I am grateful for the opportunity to wander, sometimes in pain, some days in delusion and many days in sunshine. There appears no other way to wisdom, nor beauty.
I have, of late, found a Zendo in the high desert of New Mexico. When I am there I rarely ever butt heads with anyone. Many days I laugh. This spring I spent three weeks being a part of that community. I cleaned, meditated, dug many garden beds.
Occasionally during my gardening, I’d take a break and contemplate the blue skies and clouds scuttling around and over the adjacent mountains. I looked back- a rare indulgence in my part. How I wondered, was the calculus of my life adding up?
The mountains did not answer, the spring winds continued to turn the windmill above my head.
One night there was a late spring snow.
Mostly it is quiet there. I feel decidedly peaceful when I am there and at home riding the tiger which is my life- even though I lack any concept or clarity of how I came to be a middle age man digging vegetable gardens in the New Mexican desert.
In The Snow Leopard, Matthiessen along with Naturalist George Schaller, walks over 250 miles through the Himalayas to a remote valley. Matthiessen has decided a to take this trip, partially, in the hopes of seeing the rare- and possibly soon to be extinct- snow leopard in the wild.
In the end Matthiessen does not find the leopard which is, he ultimately realizes, just fine. He writes “The great stillness in these landscapes that once made me restless seeps into me day by day, and with it the unreasonable feeling that I have found what I was searching for without ever having discovered what it was.”