A Journal of Life Pursued

11.26.2015, Thanksgiving

In Dogs, Life, The Examined Life on November 26, 2015 at 3:49 pm
Sunrise Pano

Sunrise, Casco Bay

The pummeling started at sunrise. I was in my chair, sipping my coffee. I didn’t see it coming, but who would? At 186,000 miles per second, it’s easy to miss. Then it began, rushing across the frozen vacuum of space, at the speed at light, across the Atlantic, caressing the turning curve of earth, dodging the coastal islands of Maine, zipping across Casco Bay, then–bam!–photons of light crashing against the resistance of my cheek, first a trickle, then a cascade. It does not take long, the earth turning to the warmth like a hungry animal chasing prey. Within minutes the room is filled with light, dancing and spinning, a photon ballet for an audience of one. And the day begins.

If language is the bridge between reality and thought, as Wittgenstein claimed, I was rendered mute on this particular morning. This state of attention without the intrusion of cognition is actually quite pleasant, and one I welcome into meditation practice. It is also a state of presence I experience on occasion while working hard, like hiking in the mountains. I’ve been known to study my dogs to try and discern if this is their natural state. It seems to be the case, dogs being pure beings of presence, at least to my mind.

Why is the firing squad mustered at dawn? Why does the raiding party prepare in darkness to raid the enemy at first light? Of the handful of mountains I’ve climbed, the summit was always saved for sunrise. There is magic in the sound of snow crunched below boot in the twilight before dawn. And of course, vampires must return to the coffin before the sun comes up, or they die. Or so goes the legend. There is something extraordinary about the dawn of a new day no matter how you look at it.

My daughter dated a young man for a while who often slept until noon. I found this an affront on nature and my attitude toward him reflected it. He was a decent guy otherwise, though too often he helped himself to too much of my whisky, a lesser offense.

I’ve written often here about my love of morning, so I apologize if I’ve spent too much time on this subject. But here’s the thing: This ballet of photons has been going on for billions of years. It will continue on in this fashion for, presumably, billions more. That I occasionally participate in this cosmic dance never ceases to amaze me. It is Thanksgiving, and this is one of the things I am grateful for.

Repost: “Elliott, God is my Lord.”

In Photography, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas on November 21, 2015 at 10:43 am

I’ve been combing through old postings, looking for a few themes, maybe something worthy of expansion. I came across this post from April, 2010. It grabbed me and I thought I’d share it.

* * *

I gave a talk this evening, a talk about photography, to a group of about seventy-five. The talk went well enough, with slides, travel, ideas and stories. The audience was attentive and the presentation seemed well received. Afterward, a man approached me. “Elliott,” he said, extending his hand. “It means, God is my Lord in Hebrew.” I shook his hand. “Doug, dweller by the dark river. Gaelic.” His eyes bugged out. “Man, that’s why you’re a photographer.” I wasn’t sure what he meant by that.

Elliott and I talked for quite a while. He was, what I would call, a natural seer. That is, as he said, he can walk around Back Bay where he lives, “five hundred times and always see something different.” He continued: “I needed a shim, a piece of wood for something I was working on in the house. I went down to the water and picked up a piece of wood, nicely worn down. I held it to the sun a certain way and I could see the ridges in it, all worn smooth.” He was animated. “I took it and scraped it across my face.” He got excited. “It was just a shim, just a piece of wood, but it wasn’t.” I told him that Picasso said that he spent his whole life trying to draw like a child. I continued: “You, Elliott, God is my Lord, have a child’s gift. You see the world as we all want to see it. Fresh.”

Elliott said that my talk made him think about how he viewed the world and that he was excited to put into practice some of the principles and ideas I had talked about. “No, Elliott,” I said to him. “Forget everything I said. Forget it. Don’t think about how you see. It will ruin everything.” He said he was afraid of that, but that he could do it without it being “artificial.” I admonished him. “You walk around the Back Bay five hundred times and every time is new. That is a gift. That is the universe in a grain of sand.” With this he got very excited. “The universe!” he said. “Yes. It’s all about bringing everything together and seeing it whole, as a universe.” I felt as if I was in the presence of a prophet, a seer, a Zen Master. In fact, he had been a teacher. Fifth grade. Retired. “I was a great teacher,” Elliott told me. “Yes,” I said. “I am certain you were.”

“…not of the world of me.”

In Adventure, Philosophy, Religion on November 10, 2015 at 6:11 pm

I had coffee with a friend last week, a novelist. I’d just read a draft of a new book he is working on. It’s a historical novel, set in the middle east in the fourth century. It deals with, among other things, the rise of the early Christian church. Although my friend was not aware of it, I know a thing or two about that place and time. I liked the book and was expressing my enthusiasm.

“You know,” I said, “the major world religions, those that were founded, came out of either the hot desert or the frozen mountains.” He looked at me intently. “And we know,” I opined, “that the desert breeds madness, and the mountains, isolation.” He said he’d never thought of it that way. But I had. “Nobody,” said Mohammed, “becomes a prophet who was not a shepherd first.”

There is that old adage that one is either a beach person or a mountain person. (I guess it’s like being either a dog or cat person.) In this context, perhaps one is either a desert believer or a mountain believer. I know my generalization is not entirely correct. The Buddha came out of the Gangetic plain, but his philosophy got the most lasting purchase at altitude. There’s no such thing as beach believers as far as I can tell, other than golden surfers, but that is a different strain of worship.

If pushed, I’d have to declare myself a mountain believer. That will come as no surprise. That is not to say, however, that I discount desert madness as a practice in insight. Not that one would want a steady diet of it–it didn’t turn out so well for John, the Baptist. It is no surprise that William James’s great work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, is subtitled, A Study in Human Nature. Give me the mountains and what comes out of them, that is my nature. This is not to say that the desert doesn’t hold appeal. My first trip abroad as a young man found me eating with a family of Bedouins in the Sinai. If the desert was in the offing, I wanted to be on the move like those people.

Three years ago while hiking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal I came across a holy man living in a cave, attended to by his sister. I paid homage and received a blessing after making a small donation. His cave was filled with iconography and statues. Outside the wind roared; prayer flags flapped. I showed a picture to a friend. “That’s not what I expected,” he said. I think he was expecting something more like a cartoon in the New Yorker.

The isolation of the mountain believer can be dangerous. The Dalai Lama claims that his nation fell to the Chinese because the remoteness of the Tibetan Plateau had made them a backward country, to use his words. Perhaps. It is more likely the Chinese would have invaded regardless of the degree of modernity Tibet had achieved. But dangers persist, regardless, national and human.

Belief without empirical evidence is fundamentally an effort in delusion. I suspect the mystic would not argue with this, the madman wandering the desert with the wild beasts, the recluse scraping by in the mountain enclave. I am envious of such commitment. Go up Cold Mountain and find the great Taoist sage, Li Po: “You asked me what is my reason for lodging in the grey hills: I smiled but made no reply for my thoughts are idling on their own; like the flowers of the peach tree, they had sauntered off to other climes, to other lands that are not of the world of me.” Flowers of the peach tree, indeed.