The Unknowable Animal

Wendell Berry’s daughter Mary once said to her father, “I hope there is an animal somewhere that nobody has ever seen.  And I hope nobody ever sees it.”  He then wrote for her this poem, “To the Unseeable Animal.”

Being, whose flesh dissolves
at our glance, knower
of the secret sums and measures,
you are always here,
dwelling in the oldest sycamores,
visiting the faithful springs
when they are dark and the foxes
have crept to their edges.
I have come upon pools
in streams, places overgrown
with the woods’ shadow,
where I knew you had rested,
watching the little fish
hang still in the flow;
as I approached they seemed
particles of your clear mind
disappearing among the rocks.
I have waked deep in the woods
in the early morning, sure
that while I slept
your gaze passed over me.
That we do not know you
is your perfection
and our hope.  The darkness
keeps us near you.

Something about the idea of an unknowable animal reminds me of  Thoreau’s “bottomless ponds.”  He said, “While men believe in the infinite, some ponds will be thought to be bottomless.”  Elsewhere he wrote, the pond “is the earth’s eye: looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”

I suppose the connection here is that the invisible animal knows “the secret sums and measures.”  Of what?  They could be of anything.  Perhaps the measure of the forest, the land, the ponds, the universe itself.  But in Thoreau’s pond we measure the depths of our own nature.  I wonder if these ideas creep us out:  that an invisible animal has gazed over us, watched us, and knows us perhaps better than we know ourselves.  Or that the earth’s eye can hold our own depths or shallows.  How deep are we?  How shallow?  The earth knows, even if we do not.

As I write this it has been only two days since the Boston Marathon bombings and the news media is speculating (as we all are) over who the bomber was.  Some terrorist experts suggest they may never discover the bomber’s identity.  Like Mary Berry’s  animal, this “being” may never be known.  And how will we live with that? Does it creep us out to think that this event will ever contain a dark mystery?  Some people will undoubtedly be outraged that they cannot get revenge.  “An eye for an eye, etc.”  Except we have been told that revenge is the old law and we have moved beyond it. For those who desire to forgive their enemies, the bomber’s identity need not be known.  We could imagine this person (age, gender, looks, motives, pains, desires, faults, neuroses) and say, “We forgive.”

Like the animal, like the pond, the Boston tragedy calls for us to look into our own nature, the human nature we share with everyone, and find what dwells there.  Revenge? Forgiveness?  Understanding? Justice? Compassion?  Cruelty?  Whether we like it or not, there is an unseeable animal and a bottomless pond in each of us.  Perhaps our task in life is to understand that mystery to the fullest extent, to find out who we are.  And if we do not—at least not enough to satisfy us—then to live with and honor that mystery.  The mysterious unknowable in us and the mysterious unknowable in others.

We are still reeling from the Newtown massacre, still wondering what was in the depths of the young man who brought death that day to so many children and adults, including himself.   We will most likely never know.  It will remain a dark mystery.

And where are those who have died?  Walt Whitman would say, “They are alive and well somewhere.”  But where?  The unknowable animal and the bottomless pond remind me of the universe.  I’m not sure what astronomers and physicists are saying these days about the size of the universe, whether it has an edge, or an end, or goes on forever. But I find it hard to imagine that it is not infinite, that it, like those who have died, goes on “alive and well somewhere.”  If it is limited and has an edge, I cannot imagine that there is not something beyond that edge.  Even if that something is nothing.  To me that great nothing would have to dwell somewhere.  Or what I might label “Somewhere” with a capital “s.”  Can you imagine nothing existing nowhere?  In my imagination this “nowhere” is dark, or else so bright that I cannot see anything (and of course there is nothing there to see).

I recently came across an e.e. cummings poem in which he wrote “nowhere” with a capital “n” and so it was “Nowhere.” For some reason I kept reading it “Now here.”  I wonder if cummings hoped that would happen.  He had a penchant for scrambling letters and words so that you stumble over new perspectives as you read.  Like you might stumble over objects in the dark.  Or find the souls of the departed “alive and well somewhere”—where you thought there was nowhere and nothing. 

So getting back to the nothingness beyond the edge of the universe, I suppose if it is not blindingly bright, it would be dark.  Wendell Berry’s animal visits the “faithful springs when they are dark.” It rests “in the woods’ shadow.”  Its “gaze passed over” him while he slept in the woods at night.  Finally he admits,“The darkness keeps us near you.”

We look into our own ponds to see what depths or shallows lurk there, what darkness.  And if we too are bottomless, we will never know the sum or measure of what we are.  We may never really know what motivates us to bring death to others or ourselves.  We may never know the sources of revenge or forgiveness.  Somehow that darkness in which we cannot see may be, as Berry might say, humanity’s perfection and our personal hope.

Reflections on Michael Harner’s “Cave and Cosmos”

Reading Michael Harner’s new book, Cave and Cosmos: Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality, is like listening to a very old man (which is how he describes himself several times in the book) who has spent many years practicing and studying shamanism and listening to others’ shamanic experiences. You feel like you are sitting with a wise storyteller who has a wealth of wisdom tales to share with you. If you were trained by Michael, you will have heard some of these stories before, and hearing them again reminds you how they once energized your longing to know the mysteries of shamanism however many years ago. But the book is rich with new stories, some personal accounts from his own life, and many insights passed on to him by indigenous shamans and other anthropologists, as well as his own students who have shared their journeys and healing experiences with Michael over the last thirty-plus years. In fact, one of the values of this book is that Michael thoroughly honors the shamanic knowledge that his students have acquired in their own shamanic journeys, and demonstrates, as his own mission in life has demonstrated, that Westerners are fully capable of discovering the other realities that traditional shamans have known about for centuries.

I enjoyed the chapters in which Michael recounts his early experiences in South America and elsewhere as he learned first-hand about the various doorways into shamanism, and how he discovered and created core-shamanism out of his experiences and years of study. People trained either by him or teachers in his Foundation for Shamanic Studies will appreciate the account of how he was first awed by the power of the drum at a Zuni Pueblo in 1948, and then through the 1950s, 1960s, and into the 1970s “rediscovered” (as he says) what shamans the world over have long known: that the repetitive sonic driving of a steady drumbeat can bring the shaman into the altered state of consciousness that Michael eventually called the “shamanic state of consciousness.” This book reveals the truth of what the Sami people of northern Scandinavia say about the drum, and what Michael has encouraged thousands of people to discover for themselves: It is “a thing out of which pictures come.”

Cave and Cosmos demonstrates with many examples of shamanic journeys from Michael’s students that spirits really do exist and they want us to know that they exist. He reminds us how scientists have never disproved the existence of spirits and that Alfred Russel Wallace (who developed the theory of natural selection simultaneously with Darwin) actually noted that if the most scientific theory is that which explains a whole series of phenomena then, as Wallace stated, “the spirit-hypothesis is the most scientific, since even those who oppose it most strenuously often admit that it does explain all the facts, which cannot be said for any other hypothesis.” Shamanic practitioners will readily concur. The section in the book on the “bound shaman” is an example of how an almost impossible phenomenon can occur through the mediation of spirits. In ordinary reality the shaman is bound with tightly tied ropes and then set free by the intervention of spirits. Michael reminds those of us who have personally experienced this how there really seems to be no other explanation for it. When the knotted ropes and twisted bindings fall from our bodies and we are freed, it’s spirits—and nothing else—that have done it.

Readers will especially like reading reports of shamanic journeys that reaffirm their own discoveries in non-ordinary reality and show how they parallel the same landscapes, spirits, and adventures that indigenous shamans have been having in the other worlds for thousands of years. Journey accounts by Westerners are interspersed with Michael’s comments and teachings that point out how in remarkable and sometimes miraculous ways people in contemporary Western societies are exploring the same realms that have existed since time immemorial. Some of these reports include experiences that, as Michael says, cause us to “(remember) our union with the infinite, the ineffable, the total universe,” giving us knowledge that is “beyond the confines of language.” Like shamans of old, we are not “bound” by what he calls “a fractious and perilous world willing to quarrel interminably about spiritual matters on the basis of belief in old stories” left by the founders of the major religious traditions. The shaman’s way is to acquire spiritual truths first-hand, discover his or her own stories, and become what many cultures call “the one who knows.” Michael reassures us that we need not even accept his own stories if they interfere with finding our own.

For Michael, “the shaman’s drum is the ballot box of spiritual freedom.” He suggests that the unbound shaman is a lesson about how the spirits can set us free. If “spirits can miraculously unbind the shaman, so can they liberate humanity from its limiting bindings of belief and disbelief.” The heavenly, upper-world realms that are described in the many journey accounts in this book show that each of us can approach the divine through shamanism in our own authentic way. And if by chance we don’t see God, perhaps we will be like the Canadian Athapaskan people whom Michael quotes: Those who drum themselves up to heaven “don’t see God. They just see people who are working for God.” And that’s a good place to start. Or end up.

 

 

Winter Solstice 2012

We live in an unstable world.

Armies wreak havoc across many lands.
Someone somewhere is harmed
by religious and ethnic violence
every day, every night.
The economies we create
to support our lives
fail us.
Our elected government officials
refuse to govern.
Children are shot and killed
in their classroom.
The weather confounds us
and brings massive destruction.

But in spite of everything
the Dark and the Light continue their dance
with Sun and Earth
as they have for billions of years.

And tonight
l
ike our ancestors before us,
with rhythm, music, and song,
we join out heartbeats
to the hearts of all living things.

We watch for the Winter Sun
that grows dim and distant
to return.

No Problem

I’ve discovered lately that I’m not a problem.  This comes as a welcome confirmation since I’ve spent most of my life trying not to be a problem.  But the creepy part is that I’m being told this by people who hardly know me.

“I’d like an oil change, please.”  “No problem!”

“May I have another glass of wine?”  “No problem!”

“Just a roll of stamps, please.”  “No problem!”

What’s going on? It’s nice to know that my requests are “no problem,” but this reply is coming from people who are being paid to do these jobs.  My first suspicion, as I try to sort this out, is that people today must see their work as a problem, and as they go about their work, expecting problems to arise, someone like me comes along with a simple request and—to their delight—they find it’s no problem. But my requests are the simple tasks they are being paid to do!

Is it possible that people continually view their work through the lens of “problems-no problems”?  Have people always found work to be a problem?  You’d hope that some people really like what they do and very rarely see it as a problem.  Of course everyone’s job has its daily routines and problems do arise, but shouldn’t problems be relatively rare and hence there’s no need to mention all the other times when no problems arise? Or maybe I’m imagining some fool’s paradise where most of the time things go well, smoothly, easily—you know, no problems.

“Two tickets for Dark Shadows.”  “No problem.”

I hear this everywhere and it seems to be getting more prevalent with every passing day. In restaurants I eavesdrop on conversations between customers and servers at other tables, and I come to the conclusion that most people’s requests are not a problem.  But why point that out? (Could there possibly be items on the menu that are problems, but by some stroke of luck, no one ever requests them?)

Maybe my theory that people see their work as a problem is wrong.  Maybe they never see a problem.  But that sounds even more like a fool’s paradise.

Another possibility occurred to me.  Maybe life itself is so much of a problem today, or there are so many problems in life itself, that people are really pleased that the work they do is relatively devoid of problems.  This would be very nice if it were true. Perhaps it is.

Another take on this might be that people feel powerless with all the world’s problems and so they like to present themselves in their jobs as so imminently qualified and competent that nothing I can request would be a problem.  Still, I’d like to test this sometime.  Maybe I could try Jack Nicholson’s routine in Five Easy Pieces where he goes through about a dozen steps with a waitress, eliminating this and that and substituting one thing for another so that he can get his meal just the way he wants it even though it’s not on the menu.  I forget the exact string of exemptions he figured out for this, but I think I could come up with my own.  Of course I wouldn’t do this in any local restaurant where people know me.  I’d get a reputation for being a problem.

We had our chimneys cleaned this week, and our new “sweep” pointed out a crack in one of the flues and told me how he was going to seal it.  I thanked him for that, and he said, “No problem!”  But the crack was a problem.  Well maybe not for him.  Or at least the sealing of it was not a problem.  Anyway, he sealed it, and it’s not a problem.  But it evidently wasn’t a problem before either.  This can get confusing.

My shaman suspicions suggest yet another possibility of what’s going on.  Maybe people don’t feel qualified and competent today and the “no problem” refrain is a kind of chant or mantra or magic spell that is meant to bring power, competence, and success.  If I say it, it will come true—something like that.  I do believe in the power of the spoken word so I’m not putting this down.  I do enough of this myself to know that it can work.

Well, anyway, my ears are attuned to the many situations where people are not seeing problems.  I suppose I should be grateful for this.  There are plenty of doomsday predictions this year of 2012 so maybe everyone is just trying to enjoy the little problems that are “no problem” as they await the Big One.

 

Our Dendritical Lives

The sun is rolling into its spring and summer positions in the sky, climbing a bit higher each day toward the zenith, pouring its life-giving rays onto the Earth.  I recently read a description of this by Howard T. Odum, a systems ecologist, who says, “After the sun’s energy is captured by the green plants, it flows through chains of organisms dendritically, like blood spreading from the arteries into networks of microscopic capillaries.”  The word that caught my attention here is “dendritically.”

A dendrite is a branching figure like a tree.  It comes from the Greek word dendron that means tree. Our arteries, blood veins, and capillaries are dendritical because they branch out from our hearts.  At this time of year we can feel and almost see the sun’s energy behaving like a tree, as it spreads out from the sun and is captured by plants and grass that once again turn green.  Each day something else is green again, something else flowers, something shoots up out of the soil.  The Green Man, his head and face leafed out like a tree, is waking up from a long winter’s dream of becoming alive again, this sun-energy forcing its way through his own dendritical veins and arteries. We’ve long passed the feast of Brigid who “breathes new life into the mouth of dead winter,” and now we watch what that life brings forth.  This new breath, warm from the sun, flows through ancient energy-lines carrying that life into all the Earth’s species. The world turns green again, and colorful again.  The Green Man stretches his long body into shape.

As we watch the Earth revive from winter dormancy, we have a spontaneous urge to go outside and be part of it, much like a young toddler who can’t resist running on its little legs up to a dog or cat or even a wild animal and try to hug it.  Life wants to be part of life, to touch life in all its forms.  It wants to branch out.  So what role do we play in this season that literally “springs” upon us so quickly and surprisingly?  How do we fit into this tree-like system of life?

Ethnographer Deborah Bird Rose gives us four guidelines for this in her book Dingo Makes Us Human, her account of life among the Yarralin people in Australia.  First, we are partly responsible (“partly” because we are, after all, only a small part) for maintaining the Earth’s balance.  We can act so that the region we live in does not get out of kilter in a way that would impair its ability to give life.  Second, we must pay attention, observe, communicate with the world around us as it reveals to us its needs. Third, we are just one part of the whole, and like any one part, we cannot dominate our area or “win.” Rather we offer our activities to enhance whatever is needed to maintain balance.  Last, we are not the boss.  We are not in control because there is a life-force stronger and wiser than we are that cascades through myriad cells and organisms that branch out into areas we cannot even fathom.  So we need to work and play carefully, realizing that what we know is so small and yet what we do can spiral out of control and have such a great impact.

Whatever we do has repercussions beyond our knowing.  Earth’s biosphere, atmosphere, soils, oceans, and water courses have balanced themselves over eons of time to create a complex and delicate environment that can bring forth and sustain life.  We will never know all the interconnections and dendrites.  But it is a privilege that we are here.

An old prayer said by fishermen (some say it is from Brittany, others from Ireland) goes: “Oh God, be kind to me, your sea is so great and my boat is so small.”  The fishermen of ancient times knew this keenly in their small fragile boats.  But even present-day sailors, equipped with the latest technology, must also know this.  We are reminded of this fundamental truth about our life on this planet as we approach the night of April 14-15 this year, the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, a boat thought to be unsinkable when it was built.

However we meditate on this season of new life, we are reminded of a perennial truth found in this short prayer.  Our “boat,” our life itself, is afloat on a torrent of energy, branching out and coursing through realms of existence that we can barely know or understand.  The Earth may feel solid and eternal to us who are so small, but in many ways it is really a fragile place where the sun’s rays collect and create the cycles of life which are interconnected and inter-branched dendritically.

An Old Silence

An old silence waits beyond water, or road, or trail.

This line from “Up a Side Canyon,” a poem by William Stafford, has haunted me the last several days.  Specifically I’m wondering about the phrase “old silence” and the word “waits.”  I’ve been pondering the idea that some silence can be old, and that it is not the same silence as the current, new silence that I hear (!) around me right now.  Or maybe it is the same silence.  Perhaps all silence by its very nature is old, as ancient as a time before there were ears to hear sound.  Is there just one silence, or are there many silences?

I’ve been testing this out as I walk through the woods or sit by the river or take one last look at the sky before going to bed.   If I block out sound, I mean just not pay attention to it, I can hear the silence around me, feel it; and it appears that silence always does seem to wait.  Like it was there before me, and was waiting for me to tune out the sounds of the world and listen to it.  I haven’t felt silence dashing around, going or coming, like a siren getting louder as an ambulance approaches, although silence can disappear as the noise of the world drives it away somewhere.  But wherever it goes, I think it waits, waits for its time to return or re-appear, and sometimes waits for me to let it return.  As if it is always there, waiting. And when it does return, I wonder if it’s the same silence that was and has always been, or a new silence produced by the current lull in the sounds of the world.  Is it possible to tell one silence from another? Or is there in fact only one silence?

Psalm 46 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”  This statement too has intrigued me most of my life.  It conjures up the same questions and wonderments as Stafford’s poem.  Why is stillness necessary to know who or what God is?  Throughout human history people have found God or the Sacred in the voices of children, the calls of animals, the whispers of the wind, the murmurs of the waters, music, and all the sounds of the earth. The Great Song of Life need not be a hindrance to finding God.  For many people, it is God.  But for some reason silence seems to intensify the presence of the Sacred.  We seek silence in which to pray, we fall silent before we pray, or as we pray.  We feel some command to be still, stop talking, stop thinking, and just know.

Silence, like God, waits to be known.  The Sacred—God—is “ever ancient, ever new,” and so maybe the old silence and each new moment of silence are exactly the same thing—ever ancient, ever new.

We are told there is a great void out of which all things come, and the many things that come from it become our world—raucous, conflicting, confusing, disturbing—noisy.   I wonder if that great void, though, does not in fact accompany the many things as they come into existence, and that the void is actually a great silence hovering around them, embracing each thing, each individual sound or sight so that we can experience them all, hear them all, see them all.  In other words, silence is as important to creation as it is to music, where individual notes and chords are only discernible because of the moments of silence between them.

Stafford’s poem ends this way:

People go silent:
there isn’t any canyon deep enough to hide,
only a sky and a faith and a wilderness.

Not even the Grand Canyon is deep enough to hide from the silence because its own silence is just too big.  Down at the bottom, or along the rim, we feel the grand silence of the canyon, feel the Sacred.  So too the sky, which always seems to be there, is big, quiet, saying nothing, maintaining a lofty stillness even as thunder rumbles across it, undisturbed and as silent as it was before the storm.

I like to think that faith is also silent, even though “people of faith” can make some of the loudest noises shouting about their faith.  But the shouts are not the faith, nor are the songs about their faith the faith.  Real faith is that silence that we sit in alone—sit alone as in a wilderness—knowing that a greater silence embraces our inner silence.  And then we yearn for our faith to become that greater silence.  So we “go silent,” knowing that something exists quietly beyond and around water, road, trail, us.

Fire and Ice

Saturday was our town’s annual outdoor Fire and Ice Winter Fest at a pavilion on our rail trail. The “fire” refers to 25 pots of chili and the “ice” to sculptures carved during the event.  In addition, there are games for kids, roasted marshmallows and chestnuts, hot chocolate and coffee, recorded music that always seems a little bit too loud, a scavenger hunt, and either wagon or sleigh rides determined by how much snow there is.  Some years a local fellow brings his horses to pull folks around, in other years a tractor is used.  This year we used a tractor and a wagon. There is no snow.  But whatever the conditions, this is one of our best “Northern Exposure—Cecily, Alaska” events.  All the local characters show up, and people who normally feud seem to get along, and everyone has fun.

The chili comes from 25 restaurants in the area, delivered secretly in big pots and then numbered so you don’t know which restaurants they come from. Volunteers from the Rotary serve the chili in small paper cups, and for an $8-ticket, you can taste as many as you want.  Then you vote for your favorite.  The problem is that after about fifteen cups your taste buds are so blasted you can’t tell if the chili is any good or not, or better than another.  You also forget which ones you’ve tasted and which ones you haven’t.  Still at some point you stop eating and vote. The next day the Sunday newspaper announces the winning restaurant, and presumably hordes of people stampede to the winning restaurant to get “the best chili” in the area.

The frozen sculptures are carved by ice-artists wielding buzz saws and shaping blocks of ice into eagles, or leaping dolphins, or bears standing on their hind legs.  They stay on the rail trail until they melt.  Some years they are there for weeks. This year we had no ice sculptures at all.  At first we feared it was another budget cut that eliminated the sculptures, but then learned that the reason was that it was too warm.  The temperature has to be below freezing, and we were just hanging in there around 32 or 33 degrees.  It’s been like that most of the winter. Temperatures in the 40s or 50s by day, and often not much below freezing at night.

We’ve been going to the winter fest for about 15 years now.  Over the years we’ve volunteered to sell tickets, score chestnuts, and help the Rotary volunteers dish up chili.  Some years it’s been mind-numbingly cold, other years it’s been so mild that teenagers don’t think they need to wear coats. But it’s always fun and you’re glad you went even though you belch the rest of the afternoon and swear you won’t eat chili for at least a week.

Winter provides for these stark contrasts:  fire, ice.  It also brings home thoughts that are stark themselves, of death and the end of things. Even though different cultures have had different starting dates for the new year, there’s something fitting about our custom of having the old year end and the new one start in the winter, at the darkest time of the year, when we tend to think a lot about darkness and light.  And once the craziness of the holidays is over, you often experience a strange ambivalent feeling of both relief and let-down once the decorations are gone and the living room returns to normal, and you’re confronted by the long winter months ahead.  Spring can look so far away.  So there you are, waiting, wondering what the new year will bring, wondering what will begin, what will end, what will be born, what will die, where you yourself will be in twelve months.  Stark thoughts.  Stark contrasts of likes and dislikes, joys and sorrows, hopes and fears, fire and ice.  Restless wondering about what’s to come.

Thinking about stark contrasts in terms of desire and hate, Robert Frost put this human quandary into a short poem called “Fire and Ice.”

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.

Now with the holidays past and the winter fest over, I’m content to just wonder and watch winter’s fire and ice, how the season will go. Some say the winter will be long and cold, some say short and warm.   Since I’m never sure from year to year how to read the stripes on the furry caterpillars, I usually expect the winter to be whatever it wants, and last as long as it wants. And every year it does. In a few weeks it will be ground hog’s day and then we’ll know for sure, and our wondering will be over.

 

A Certain Kind of Mist

There are days when the mountain I see everyday is hidden in mist, and the squirrels seem to have multiplied in the gloom beneath the bird feeders, still a favorite feeding place for them even though the feeders themselves have insidious devices that close the holes to the seed when a squirrel’s weight is on them, but not a bird’s. They learn quickly it’s no use. They become ground feeders.

There are days when the mountain I see everyday is hidden in mist, and the top logs on the stack behind the house are wet, well wetter than the ones beneath them because rips in the plastic cover let the rain trickle down, but still I take them from the top row, not farther down, and hope their time by the stove will dry them out before they get put in. They always burn.

There are days when the mountain I see every day is hidden in mist, and the mail carrier seems later than usual and I wonder if I missed hearing the truck crunch the gravel as it pulls up to the mail box, or whether she really is later, and this being just three days before Christmas and cards and gifts are still coming. There is a lot of mail to deliver this time of year.

There are days when the mountain I see every day is hidden in mist, and I forget to restart my grandparents’ mantel clock in the morning so there are no quarterly chimes for several hours until the house seems odd, too quiet, and the day seems really long, and maybe it’s already noon or nearly noon when I remember to start it up again, pushing the hour hand slowly so the chimes don’t get out of sync with the numerals and then require a massive pushing of the hour hand quickly through twelve entire hours to stay ahead of the chimes or get ahead of the times, or with them, or whatever. Digital clocks are easier but they have no memories.

There are days when the mountain I see every day is hidden in mist, and I’m tempted in the morning not to check the weather channel for the “local on the eights” to see what the forecast is going to be for the rest of the day but just let it ride and not expect any color other than gray which isn’t a really bad color when you think about it because gray looks like it’s always about to turn into some other color. The meteorologists will have nothing to say about this because they are never thinking about magenta or indigo. So I don’t.

There are days when the mountain I see every day is hidden in mist, and I wonder if there are leftovers for dinner and whether we would really want to eat leftovers again on a day like this when something new and fresh would taste really good, but on the other hand a trip to the grocery store means going outside and even the cats are not too keen on it and have a great tolerance, actually enthusiasm, for eating the same food day after day, and they are good teachers. So maybe leftovers will be all right.

There are days when the mountain I see every day is hidden in mist, and I think today is the day I will not check my email, even once, because it’s just not the right kind of day for checking email or any other dismal activity that can suck you in and make you forget about what time it is and whether there might be more Christmas cards in the mail box—and gifts—if you went out and looked. You need bright things to do on a day like this, and besides emails may not have been able to find their way here in the mist.

There are days when the mountain I see every day is hidden in mist, and I just finished reading a really long book that wore me out, but it was good and I enjoyed it, and now the thought of starting a new book is overwhelming and so I browse around in books I’ve already read hoping to find some passage or other that inspired me once and might do so again, but eventually this begins to feel too much like doing research and the number of books lying open on the floor cluttered around my chair starts to look a bit neurotic. I think maybe I should just do a crossword puzzle.

There are days when the mountain I see every day is hidden in mist, so I don’t look out that window, and everything seems a bit better. Today is one of those days, and my holiday wish for you is that you never lose sight of the mountain.

I Sing the Life Electric

In our drumming circle last night we got into a discussion about gratitude, a topic that dominates the celebration of Thanksgiving this week. One of our members remarked that after a storm pulls down power lines, and days or even weeks go by with no electricity, the power suddenly comes back on and we feel spontaneously joyous and grateful. We’ve had plenty experience of this the last few months here in the Northeast with Hurricane Irene, and then a very windy tropical storm, and finally a freak, wet snowfall in October. We’ve suffered through those powerless days and then experienced that spontaneous surge of gratitude when the power comes back on.

Electricity is a kind of life force on which we depend for our way of life, similar to the life force that flows through trees, cats, rivers, and the whole of creation keeping everything alive. When electric current ceases, our lives stop, to some degree, more or less. One person in our drumming group manages to make it through days without electricity because he can still take hot showers, his water heated by gas. In our household we lose all water because the electric pump on the well stops. But life goes on because we heat with wood and so we never worry that we will freeze. So in different ways for different people, the life force of electricity, when it stops, turns off our lives—just as it can turn them on.

Most people agree I think that the “charm” of living like they did in colonial days quickly wears off. Reading by an oil lamp, a beautiful dark and starlit sky, a peaceful stillness in the neighborhood, going to bed earlier like you should—all the romantic nostalgia for by-gone days seems to last about 24 hours. And then it too is by-gone, and we want our normal rhythms of life back again—rhythms that depend on the flow of electric current.

Electricity is part of the natural world. Every school kid knows how Ben Franklin found it in the sky during his famous experiment with a kite and a key in an electrical storm. A lightning bolt is a giant discharge of electricity. It’s estimated that that there are over 16 million thunderstorms a year and over 100 bolts of lightning strike the earth every second. Yes, second! If we believe that everything serves a purpose, it’s hard not to believe that these surges of electric power hitting the earth are indispensible in maintaining life. Some scientists think that lightning strikes may have played an important role in the evolution of living organisms. So from those primeval centuries when early life was just beginning to stir to the present day, or moment, or second when a hundred-plus bolts of lightning are striking the earth all around us, we are literally alive because of this powerful life force.

Electricity is invisible, and so it boggles some of our minds trying to imagine it running along thin wires that worm their way through our walls. We don’t see electric current, only the results of it. We take it for granted, and we suffer and complain when it is not available. In many ways electricity is like a spirit—invisible, moving, empowering, shapeshifting, and maintaining life, like the life force itself. When our life force, or human spirit, is low or lost, we can feel as if we are barely alive. When the life force of electricity is lost, our accustomed way of life is quickly diminished.

Of course any power can also be deadly. About 400 people in the United States are hit by lightning each year, 10 percent die, and 70 percent are severely injured. Then there are those lucky individuals who are hit and become dowsers or exhibit other psychic powers. This is a lesson that indigenous people taught their children well, that nature’s powers must be treated with respect and gratitude for they can bring suffering along with blessings. It’s only we modern folk who need to be reminded of that every thunderstorm or so.

As we prepare our Thanksgiving dinners, there is much to be grateful for. Our lists are probably long. But even so, perhaps we should add to them the gratitude for electricity. For the role it plays in sustaining our modern way of life, and for whatever role it plays in sustaining the life of the earth itself. We should feel that jolt of gratitude when we flick a switch, and we know we have electric power coursing through our walls. So many people in the world do not.

October’s End

Now the dead
and dying
are all around.

The earth
grows colder,
darkness arrives
early and lasts late
into the dawn.
Dreams deepen.

Recently I have heard
of deaths—a friend
I knew for twenty years,
the fathers of two other friends,
a writer whose vision
stirred me once
and still does.

A high school buddy
I have not seen
in decades called me
saying we should have
a reunion of
a once special circle of friends -
get all of us together
who were together then,
who knew each other.

I would like that -
to see and laugh again
with those who knew each other
once and are still here.