Grandpa

Spotting Scope

Taking a gander

Dear Grandpa,

As you look off into the distance, into the faraway place, sunset-splashed orange above a familiar mountain range, I wonder what you see.  What memories do you visit as we investigate ancient land, searching for fragments of forgotten history?  How do you meet the half-buried arrowhead, the buffalo skull frozen along a rivers’ edge, the rot and ruin of forgotten ranch houses?

Since I’ve known you, which has been always, you’ve been without time.  At least to me.  For all you’ve seen and known, for all the joy and heartbreak in your life that could’ve kept you chained in the past, you’ve always been right here.  Grandpa.  For all the injuries and sick days, the football games I didn’t even play in, the band concerts where I hit the wrong notes and the others where I only pretended to sing, you’ve been right here.  For all the times I dropped out of school, and all the haircuts I didn’t get, and all the choices I made, and all the choices I didn’t, you’ve been here.  Grandpa.

And as we walk side by side, the wind washing through mountain grasses you surely know the name of, I think of all the questions I could ask you.  Somewhere in my head, buried, is time.  Time wants to memorize things, wants your facts to keep, wants to know what you’re seeing when the tears form at the edges of your eyes.  Time wonders if it was enough, if we’ll take one more walk or five, if you ever drank a beer, if you were scared as flak ripped through your paper-thin airplane on the other side of the world.  Time wonders if you allow yourself to acknowledge your heroism.  Somewhere back in time, I told a class of my peers that you were my hero and I had your pictures and stories to prove it.

When we reach the edge that looks down into a wide, silent valley, I follow your gaze.  After a while, you hand me the binoculars.

“Anything?” I ask.
“Nothing,” you say.

I lift them and stare, wondering what you see when you see nothing.  We’ve been staring at nothing–interspersed with a few chance elk sightings–for years, memories in a line that seem to explain how we got here.   Here, where time seems to have run out.  And in writing those words, I can hear you sigh…”Finally.”

The questions can drop, the trivia that never really mattered, and I can let you be here with me, where you always were and always will be, staring into nothing and everything, together.  When I try and fail to fix a tractor, you’ll be here.  When I’m hurt and scared, you’ll be here.  When I meet a troubled person, a wounded soul, a frightened child, you’ll be here.  When I am hurried and angry, rushing to the next moment in time, I will step back to be with you and your patience, and remember that whether in the woodshop or the passing lane, we are always and forever “doing fine work.”  As I carry on with the business of living, the parts in time and the parts that aren’t, you’ll be with me.  Always.  Grandpa.

Remember

 

Staring at the “M” through the generous North-facing windows of Bozeman’s public library on a cumulus-speckled, blue-sky day, a question washes through me:

“What am I doing here?”

Three times I left this town with no plans at returning.  And with each completed trip, something brings me back.  Somehow the best-laid escape plans never work out, and time and again, the Universe finds a way to convince my stubborn mind that my hometown may actually be the best place on the planet.

While none of my escape attempts have worked out, it wasn’t for lack of trying.  And it wasn’t for lack destinations.  It was an archetypal quarter-life bid at individuation that sent me wandering, searching for the mysterious something that can’t be found in the familiar. I’ve been fortunate enough to call New Zealand, Vietnam, Bali, South Korea, even a remote Greek island, “home” for multi-month and year-long stints.  I’ve surfed and skied in the same day, eaten bugs in jungle villages, wandered beaches at sunset, meditated with monks in pagodas…and it’s all been great.  Wonderful.  Life-changing and heart-opening.

It’s been a traveler’s life, full and empty simultaneously.  Full of new friends, experiences, opportunities, understandings–all the things I hoped to find when finally, with adrenaline ice in my veins, I bought the plane ticket I hoped and secretly knew would change everything.  And empty…empty in the biggest sense of the word.  Empty of anything lasting; an embodiment of life’s greatest truth.  All flows.  The people and places, the smiles and songs, the freedom to be with nothing to do, it’s all excruciatingly fleeting.  And when it’s over, when the money’s gone and the place–the place I thought I needed to land–hasn’t appeared, I remember.  I remember that my hometown, surrounded by looming, pine-covered mountains, filled with smiling, active people, tucked away and somehow hidden from the hoards, is better than any of the exotic places I just spent years exploring.

On the plane ride back, I sit with my face pressed up against the window watching the earth mutate at 600 mph.  Vast swaths of Canadian tundra give way to suburbs.  A frozen lake.  Suburbs, anonymous skyscrapers filled with unseen thousands, more suburbs, into fields–endless squares, human parcels imposed upon the flat and stretching expanse of middle America.  I pull my eyes from the scene to take some peanuts from the flight attendant, and then I return to the ground moving below.  More suburbs, more fields.  I fall asleep.  Eventually I wake up with a kinked neck and turn back to the window.  Finally, mercifully, we’re above the mountains.  Great mounded monsters rising up in rank as if commanded by an unseen general, fill the window.  My shoulders drop.  I breathe a bit deeper, feeling into the nervous, joyful rush that comes with descending from 30,000 feet into the home I’ve always known as a person I’ve only just discovered.

Returning is the scariest part.  It forces me to face the parts of myself that changed, and recognize that the person my friends and family expect at the airport died somewhere in Vietnam.  Scarier still, coming home requires that I face the parts of myself that didn’t change.  The same stubborn shadow, the bad habits, the illogical phobias and personal resentments, they all wait with sadistic patience for the return, and flare up before I’ve even lifted the tray table.  They remind me of just how human I am, and that no paradisiacal adventure, no matter how amazing, can change that.  But this edge opens my eyes.  It’s a barometer, a reminder to try to bring the wonder of travel into the familiar world of home.  And what a home Montana is.

We drop below the clouds and I see Yellowstone Park from a plane’s-eye view, and strangely, I’m brought back to earth.  Memories start flowing.  A symphony of Old Faithful’s eruptions; the numinous woooosh of water exploding from the bowels of the earth which always silences the crowd.  Strolling along the edge of Grand Prismatic Spring, wondering at rainbow snakes stretching across the valley floor. Direct eye contact with a grizzly bear at sunset.  Swirling vertigo at the top of Lower Yellowstone Falls, following the jagged scar of a water-carved canyon into the distance.  A captain’s announcement interrupts the revery and I’m back in my seat.  It’s incredible from this altitude too, the contours and folds and hulking hills that fill the world’s largest volcanic caldera.  And we keep moving, heading North.

I’m always amazed that it’s possible to fly from Hanoi, Vietnam to Bozeman, Montana in a 24 hour rotation of the planet.  Two worlds that couldn’t be further apart, separated by three flights and a layover.  As the plane begins a final spiral into Bozeman’s shiny new airport, I remember the teeming streets of my Vietnamese neighborhood.  Spitfire chicken roasting over coals, men perched around small plastic tables drinking beer at all hours, children–children everywhere. Women playing badminton, mounds of trash, the twangy drone of motorcycle horns, toothless elders watching it all; everything-at-once on the narrow, pulsing streets of the capital city.  It’s a beautiful cacophony.  Unregulated life.  The Vietnamese live with a bemused scurry, an understanding of the hilarity and tragedy that surround them in the chaotic push for economic development.  They are a beautiful and dignified people with a deep sense of community, and there were moments I considered staying, integrating myself into the flowing mayhem to participate in the sheer force of humanity.

And then I look down at Spring mountains still capped with winter residue, sprawling green fields intersected by twisting rivers, grain silos and railroad tracks, sidewalks uncluttered by motorcycles, and I remember.  I remember the quiet joy of waking up to a blanket of fresh snow outside the window at sunrise, and the louder joy of the first sunny day with enough heat to melt it, ushering in the changing season.  Thoughts of campfires and barbecues rise from the gut while a yearning for a gulp of fresh mountain air soothes my travel-weary mind.  The first trip will be a solo hike.  Into silence.  Into the understated stillness that lives in the valleys, the subtle invitation to finally rest.

I want to unclutter.  And as the plane meets the runway, I realize that’s what it was all about from the beginning.  Uncluttering.  Simplifying.  Relaxing.  The engines whine as they spin in reverse, slowing us down.  The past 18 months compress into that moment and I remember all the movement.  The flights, the taxi rides, the lice-infested motorcycle helmets, the restless pilgrimage from one hostel to the next.  Drunken conversations on the state of the world, the great humbling of colliding with the economic poverty of the developing world.  The food sickness, the homesickness, and the constant gnawing question, “what am I looking for?”  On the outside, travel is nothing but clutter.  A constant mess of sweat and confusion and ecstasy.  But internally, the place the journey really happens, it’s freedom.  Freedom to follow the impulses of the heart, to move when and how you want, or not move at all.  The broken-down busses, the scams, the bedbugs, they all lend to the joy that grows through embracing the unknown.  They point to the truth that peace is possible in any moment, regardless of external circumstances.  And so, eventually, with enough travel, the realization dawns that the happiness of the road has nothing to do with the road.

It’s the kind of happiness I remember as a kid.  Getting out of the car with my parents and my brother at the base of a meadow in the Bridger range, staring at a thin dirt trail winding up the side of a mountain and disappearing over the other side.  For a child, that trail could lead anywhere.  The other side of that mountain may as well be infinity.  The butterflies flitting from flower to flower mirror the gurgle in my belly.

“We’re going all the way up there?!” My brother asks, gawking.

My dad smiles.

“Yep.  Can you believe that?  We’re going all the way up there.  And you’ll get to see farther than you’ve ever seen before.”

And it’s true.  The vastness of Montana is unrivaled.  Still, after all that travel, nothing compares.  And it’s when all these pieces click, when all the questions about career and calling converge into a simple clarity, that I remember.  It’s all here.  Everything I could ever want is in the very place I always was.

The Art of Loving

The first step to take is to become aware that love is an art, just as living is an art; if we want to learn how to love we must proceed in the same way we have to proceed if we want to learn any other art, say music, painting, carpentry, or the art of medicine or engineering. What are the necessary steps in learning any art? The process of learning an art can be divided conveniently into two parts: one, the mastery of the theory; the other, the mastery of the practice. If I want to learn the art of medicine, I must first know the facts about the human body, and about various diseases. When I have all this theoretical knowledge, I am by no means competent in the art of medicine. I shall become a master in this art only after a great deal of practice, until eventually the results of my theoretical knowledge and the results of my practice are blended into one — my intuition, the essence of the mastery of any art. But, aside from learning the theory and practice, there is a third factor necessary to becoming a master in any art — the mastery of the art must be a matter of ultimate concern; there must be nothing else in the world more important than the art. This holds true for music, for medicine, for carpentry — and for love. And, maybe, here lies the answer to the question of why people in our culture try so rarely to learn this art, in spite of their obvious failures: in spite of the deep-seated craving for love, almost everything else is considered to be more important than love: success, prestige, money, power — almost all our energy is used for the learning of how to achieve these aims, and almost none to learn the art of loving.

Erich Fromm, from “The Art of Loving”

Reclaiming Sabbath

In America and the West in general, it’s in vogue to mock the idea of the sabbath, the day of rest in Judaism and Christianity.  Or at best, forget that it ever existed as a rich historical and spiritual tradition.  We seem to be a culture of sabbathphobes.  Why?

Because we have forgotten how to rest.  We have forgotten the importance of our being, of the shimmering something that pulses always and emerges only when we slow down enough to allow it.

We create a morality out of labor and live, on many levels, with the motto “more is better.”  More work equals more stuff.  Equals being more, better.

The day of rest doesn’t have to be Sunday.  It doesn’t even have to be a whole day.  It’s really about the simplicity of stopping.  Just stopping.  In just a single moment with nothing to do, life opens up.  The gates of awareness swing open and upward in an internal smile.  Life seems to appreciate it when we pay attention to the incredible detail of its harmony.  On every level, we exist in a universe of balance.  Symmetry.  Unimaginable complexity that can always be reduced to a principle of opposites in balance.  This magnificent, colorful, whirring existence, like computer code, operates on a binary code of light/dark, on/off, up/down.  And somehow, with only ones and zeros, here we are.

Working.  Ignoring.  Imposing hopelessly flawed ideals that have nothing whatsoever to do with the natural order of creation.  “The conquest of nature,” the great endeavor of the supposed “enlightenment,” has delivered us into a maze of madness; overpopulation, tasteless and nutrition-less food, an endless checklist of things that need doing.  A haunting alienation from everything that matters.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that life never stops offering its gifts.  Even when we turn away for decades (or lifetimes).  One moment of stopping is all it takes.  The spinning loop of doing loses its grip in the light of truth, loses all meaning as the depths of life are felt, as eternity is glimpsed and love, boundless love, is finally allowed in.

Over the past few months, in my own way, I have reclaimed the sabbath.  It happens to be Sunday.  But I do it my own way.  Meditation, reading, journaling, hiking.  And resting.  Really, actually, honestly, committing to stopping.  S.T.O.P.P.I.N.G.

It’s scary.  The mind flounders when asked to take a break, when it’s not fed by a compulsive mix of tasks to finish and problems to solve.  I get anxious…immanent doom churns in my stomach.  I clench my muscles, my jaw tightens, I feel the need to eat or internet.  All the jobs I could be doing move through my mind.  “Clean the kitchen, or my room…laundry…mowing the lawn…what about the bathroom, emails to send, write something, don’t be lazy–you’re lazy, look at how late you slept in…”

Breathe.  My shoulders drop.  All the meditation practice kicks in.  Breathe.  Notice.  Woah.  Look at that…look at that insanity in there.  Step back.  Watch.  Breathe.  It slows down.  Deep breaths, feeling the air wash over the upper lip.  I notice the perfectly lumpy clouds floating by.  Cotton in the air like a summer snowstorm.  Grass swaying in a breeze.  For the first time in a week, I ask myself how I’m actually feeling.

The swirl of the past seven days whips through my body, various sensations.  Icy cold in my lower back, warmth through the arms and hands, numbness around the heart.  I feel the ticklish gurgle of anticipation in my belly.  I go deeper into it…anticipation of feeling.  Excitement about the simple fact of actually feeling.  My body knows that I…”I”…the mysterious controller of this autonomous collection of independent bio organisms…am granting permission for feelings to be felt.  No longer obsessed with a cool demeanor, with “getting shit done,” my body relaxes into the rare experience of its own reality.

Sabbath is rest.  Stopping.  Noticing.  As a culture, we are tragically fixated on results, results which cost nothing less than our souls.  There’s no words on a screen that can prove the reality of this soul.  Only our attention, our one precious resource to spend, can open us to the reality of what life actually is.  Through looking, carefully observing, as if searching for a lost wedding ring in the tall grass, we will see–and feel–what really matters.

The earth does not withhold, it is generous

enough.

The truths of the earth continually wait,

they are not so conceal’d either,

They are calm, subtle, untransmissible by print,

They are imbued through all things,

conveying themselves willingly…

 

The earth does not argue,

Is not pathetic, has no arrangements,

Does not scream, haste, persuade, threaten,

promise,

Makes no discriminiations,

has no conceivable failures,

Closes nothing, refuses nothing, shuts none out.

Of all the powers, objects, states,

it notifies, shuts none out.

–Walt Whitman, The Song of the Rolling Earth

 

 

Away with checklists and knowing,

away with certainty, stoic insistence.

I’ve traveled the trail of logic, of sensibility, of all the things I

“should.”

Wandering the darkness of others’ ideals

leaves me parched, aching for something,

anything

untamed.

Give me matted hair and scars,

give me smiles,

no matter how broken.

Show me the place where you quiver, the purity of your dreams

No less.

Give me the life in your veins, the unknown mysterium,

Help me find my own

And together,

We dance.