4,148 miles from home. Blue Spirit Retreat Center in Costa Rica. The sun is coming up as I sit on the balcony in t-shirt and shorts, in a rocking chair, with my morning cup of coffee. Warm in the morning breeze, I am grateful for this ease of time and space. The view and sound of Pacific waves in the distance.
Yesterday I went by myself to the beach while everyone was doing something else. Down the gravel road – between the palms – out into the open brightness of blue and white. Late morning. I go into the water with no one around. Strong waves and currents with no particular allegiance to tourists encourage awareness. So I float deliciously yet carefully in the warm salt water of this momentary paradise.
Safely out of the water, I air drying off in tropical heat. I unfold my blue camp chair in the shade of the bank, hidden from the harshness of the sun. I break open the book of William Stafford’s poetry that I have brought mainly on the merits of its thinness. I mean to enjoy each poem here. Page one: ‘A Story That Could Be True.’ I read it out loud to myself, alone with the beauty of the beach, the water and the sky. It’s not an amazing poem, but I read it several more times, hoping to find a way inside.
After a few recitations, I find a few lines that might be about me: ‘Then no one knows your name, / and your father is lost and needs you / but you are far away.’ That no one might know my name, I can imagine, but that the consequence of this is that my father (not me) is lost? This is a possibility I hadn’t considered. Certainly my father is lost – lost in so many ways now that he is dead. Maybe he was lost before he was dead. Lost to me – lost to himself.
‘Your father is lost and needs you’
You can take a line from someone else’s poem and learn something you didn’t know. It doesn’t matter what the poet meant, now it is yours and speaks uniquely of your life. Play with it, let it play with you. Roll the words around on your tongue to taste its sound and allow it to mean new things.
So I spend the morning with this one poem, uncovering precious shells of meaning on the beach of these uneven lines. I put it them all in a side-pocket of my mind to nourish me on the journey ahead. Each sounding of the poem, a prayer to life.
Lifted in the irrational
levitation of this silver
the brilliant hubris of
us dreaming and determined
bipeds. Only the children
and the simple-minded
remember to be astonished.
And I always want
a window seat
to view my kingdom
from above. I marvel
at the exquisite handiwork
of the pattern-maker—
visible once again
as my earnest reality
drops away and
wonder is restored.
I missed Groundhog Day again. February 2nd came and went while I was busy doing something else. Did the little fellow see his shadow? Will we be trapped like Bill Murray (in the eponymous movie) in the same day over and over again until we learn our lesson? Hard to know what is coming next. Impossible to know what is coming next.
Our world changes through incremental events, until it changes through radical and seemingly unexpected events. Like how the meteor caught the dinosaur party by surprise. Or how the Berlin Wall of my childhood one day was reduced to rubble. Or how Donald Trump got elected President of this disturbed country.
We can always look back and find the unnoticed patterns that seemingly led to the dramatically shifted tectonic plates of the moment. But we humans also have the capacity of creating a reasonable explanations of how two unrelated things are actually related. My computer and the giant turtles that lay their eggs on the Pacific beaches of Costa Rica.
My sociology professor in college, Phil Ennis, used to say that the universal correlation is 20%–the degree to which any two random objects determine each other is somewhat. Phil Ennis also used to write good ideas he had onto the white kitchen cabinets of his apartment with magic marker and to always watch TV without sound to better understand what was going on. He was very curious about the world. He once said to me in a tone of great urgency “The world is an interesting place and you can think.” In terms of advice from teachers, this ranks right up there with my high school band teacher, Mr. Sam Cifonelli, who once stopped the whole rehearsal to exhort to me and my alto saxophone: “Rynick, stop sucking that horn and blow it!” And Mary Risley, my Masters ceramics teacher who said: “Better to be bold and wrong, than timid and right.”
But back to this unpredictable world that may repeat itself indefinitely for the benefit of our education until we learn whatever it is we are supposed to learn. Or may veer off course in a heartbeat into a future we never could have imagined. We can’t ever know for certain. We can’t really comprehend where it all comes from and how it all fits together. We can only know what we know up to this moment. After this, the new will come with imperceptible slowness and in overwhelming landslides that change the geography even as we walk on it.
We are advised to keep updating our maps of this changing external and internal terrain. It behooves us to keep our eyes open, make lots of mistakes and to learn as we go.
For most human healthy beings, there is a fundamental distinction that organizes the world: me and you. Me and the world I live in. I experience myself from the inside while everyone else lives outside of me. I may imagine what they are feeling and thinking, what their intentions are, but I can never really know.
This is a helpful observation and gives rise to such nuggets of wisdom as ‘Don’t compare your insides to someone else’s outsides.’ Whatever your fantasy of someone else’s life that looks so much more together or happy or easeful than yours, it’s not true. It also means that we can never experience ourselves as other do and no one can ever fully understand or judge our life. Each one of us is a singularity—a never-before-happening being. These are indeed helpful things to keep in mind as we make the choices that shape our lives.
But it is also true that this fundamental division of the world is a fiction. Though it appears that I am separate from the world in which I live, I am actually seamlessly woven into the fabric of this vast network of being. The world that appears so clearly to be ‘out there,’ is actually part of me and lives inside me.
Shunryu Suzuki, a twentieth century Zen teacher, put it this way:
. You may say something exists outside of yourself, you may feel that it does, but it isn’t true. When you say, “There is the river,” the river is already in your mind. A hasty person may say, “The river is over there,” but if you think more about it your will find that the river is in your mind as a kind of thought.”
The Buddhist teaching is that the world we live in arises in the interaction between ‘us’ and everything that is ‘not us’. The world, that is so vivid and causes us so much trouble is actually partially created by us – by our thoughts, our words, and our actions. We might say that whatever we encounter is ourselves.
This is not to be confused with the nihilistic position that posits the world as a projection of the mind that can be controlled with appropriate thoughts. Though the river may be in your mind, you can still drown quite completely if you try to cross where the current is too strong.
What might this mean in a world seemingly dominated by the disturbance of a fast-talking man with orange hair? Turning away and pretending it’s all fine is not a responsible option. But finding the commonalities, the similar impulses and inner disturbers is also work we should be doing. Though we must each stand up to do our part to stop injustice and ease suffering, it all happens in the context of the intertwinkling of self and other—in the midst of this mysterious, interdependent and dynamic world in which we find ourselves.
Many people I talk to are wondering about how to live in these times of change and disturbance. For many of us, the world feels fundamentally different than it did last year at this time. Our new President, instead of embodying values that are important to us, seems intent on undercutting the fundamental institutions and processes of our democracy—moving away from a spirit of respect and mutuality to a world of competing self-interest and power politics.
But the world is always all of the above. The inclusiveness and welcoming of difference that is one of the unique features of our country has never been experienced equally by all. And paradoxically, the movements to increase inclusivity and fairness have led sizable portions of our country to feel attacked and not included. Our focus on identity politics, appreciating the unique challenges and contributions of each group of Americans, has gone hand in hand with a virulent polarization of interests and positions.
For many of us liberal intellectuals who live in the cities or near the coasts, life has been reasonably comfortable. Certainly there have been economic and social challenges, administrations we agree with or find objectionable. But for the most part our children have gotten reasonable educations and had the opportunity to find decent jobs and begin their own independent lives. We have been able to rest with some uneasy confidence that the arc of history is bending toward justice.
Perhaps the harsh benefit of these times is that some bit of our comfort and certainty has been snatched away. No longer feeling in the majority, we are experiencing some portion of what many others are quite familiar with – a feeling of alienation, uncertainty and pessimism about the arc of our country.
Though in my personal life, I still have the option of not reading the news and pretending that my life is still normal, this is less and less a tenable option. I feel the increasing pressure of discomfort as arbitrary decisions are made by Steve Bannon and the President that are in direct conflict with due process and the values of our society. (Though I can’t write this without thinking of the Republican’s reactions to some of Obama’s executive orders protecting immigrants and the environment – a mirror image of my outrage.)
Each of us is going to have to find a unique way to balance integrity, engagement and sanity. Spending four years being outraged 24/7 makes no sense. But hiding and pretending makes no sense either. How do we hold our hearts open to this suffering world (including the suffering from fear and having to build walls to keep others out) and realize the limitations of our time and energies? How to still find time for what we love in the midst of making time for participating in our democracy as active and effective agents of peace and mutuality? This is our challenge.