A Journal of Life Pursued

Archive for the ‘The Examined Life’ Category

1.31.2016

In Adventure, Memoir, Nature, The Examined Life on January 31, 2016 at 9:30 am

I used to live in a house deep in the woods. Our bedroom had a vaulted ceiling and there were no blinds or curtains on the windows. We had no neighbors, there was no need. They were tall beautiful windows that spanned from almost floor to ceiling peak. Our bedroom was situated such that from my morning pillow I could, without twisting my head, look out the windows and see trees. I used to lie there and think that seeing my trees from my deathbed would be a perfect finish to a life well lived. I’ve since sold the house and moved on and my deathbed scene will have to be revised accordingly.

Last night, after taking Lucy on her last-of-day walk, I passed through our bedroom here in Maine and noticed the dappling of the night lights reflecting off the water and onto our bedroom ceiling. This too, like the trees, is something I can see from my morning pillow without effort. I notice it most every morning and it always makes me happy, like waking up on a boat in nice weather must make one.

I saw the movie The Revenant this week and in it there is a scene  where Leonardo DiCaprio‘s character is befriended by a native, an Indian who has lost his family to a renegade tribe. At one point the two of them sit under the night sky, leaning against a small tree, and stare into space. The scene goes on a long while, long enough for me to ask myself: When was the last time you pondered the night sky without distraction?

Last year, you may recall, I traveled to Nepal to trek to Everest Base Camp. Our adventure came to a halt, high in the mountains, ten miles from Everest, due to the earthquake. A week or so before that event we stopped for the night in Tengboche, deep in the Khumbu Valley. From there we had a view of Everest. That night I went to bed in a corner room of the hostel. There was a window over my head, through which I could see Everest with the light of the moon reflecting off of it. It was a terribly cold night and I burrowed deep into my sleeping bag. Then I heard voices and, propped on my elbow, looked out the window where I observed a couple of fellow trekkers. They were standing in the field below my window, wearing puffy coats, and moving back and forth like those who are really cold will do. They were staring at the illumined mountain. Immediately, I was ashamed, ashamed that I was in my bag and not outside in the high Himalayas appreciating the night sky and the great mountains. But try as I might, I could not muster the discipline to get my sorry backside out of my warm sleeping bag. Eventually I drifted off to sleep. To this day and for all days to come, I will regret that. I will regret that I rolled over and ignored the call of that night. We returned through Tengboche after the earthquake. The corner room was gone, collapsed in the quake.

So it is, that I pay special attention to what I see before I fall off to sleep, and what I notice when I first wake up.

12.17.2015

In Death, The Examined Life, Wisdom on December 17, 2015 at 7:45 pm

Consider the task at hand: purging…again. We moved to Maine six years ago, and in doing so left a 4500 square foot house and seventeen acres in Maryland, south of the Mason-Dixon. In Maine we gathered no acreage and settled into a condo weighing-in at around 1400 square feet. That was major purging, and it felt good. And now, as we prepare for a nomadic next year, we purge, again. And it feels good again. Come Spring (target date: May 1, 2016) we move into a two hundred (or so) square feet trailer and a truck. But that is not what I want to focus on right now. What I am involved in at this moment is, well, my legacy. You see, I am combing through every item I own, clothing, books, gear, and so forth, and asking: recycle, donate, shred, landfill, or keep? It is this business of “keep” that I want to talk about.

I recycle everything possible. I donate the other stuff, or sell stuff on Craig’s List, and so on. Papers out of date I shred. Leave no trace! But what do I keep, and why do I keep it? That is what I am thinking about. I am thinking about what will be left behind after I die. DIE. Yes, I am thinking about death tonight. Is there any other subject, really?

Consider the box on the floor I filled today. It is a Time Capsule, nothing less. It will go into storage and, probably, sit there for years, then perhaps get moved, unopened, to someplace else, until finally, after I’ve died, one of my children will remark, “Hey, what about that box dad left in storage? What’s in it?” And that, friends, is the state of my mind this evening. Do you ever go there? You will.

I turned sixty years old a couple of months ago and it is just now starting to settle on me. But let’s not get depressed. The fact is, the stuff in this box I’m not purging is good stuff, wonderful stuff. There you will find letters and cards from my children. Years of them! And notes from my bride, who calls me “lovey.” There you will find a few awards and medals from my youth. And pictures of my dogs, our dogs! You know how we love our dogs, Maggie, Lucy-Girl, and the rest.

You’ll also find a box of money. Don’t get excited, not MONEY!, just money. I got into the habit, during all those years of traveling, of bringing home foreign currency and collecting it in a cigar box. There you’ll find my travel resume, as is represented by country and continent. Yuan from China. Sterling from Britain, Pesos from Argentina. Whatever. It is nothing now, nothing but play money for my grandchildren, or perhaps great-grandchildren, the family historians.

I think the most pure existence is to be found in the most simple existence. There is elegance to that, like a beautiful equation, or a line perfectly drawn on rice paper. The alms bowl begging monk has his own challenging complexities: where will I find my next meal? And, conversely, the corporate CEO abruptly wakes one morning to realize that the things she has accumulated, the things she thought she owned, now own her, including the shareholders. Somewhere in the middle one finds the sweet spot.

And where is that, exactly, that sweet middle way? This box I’m filling, the one to be left behind, will it provide a clue? Perhaps, but for me alone. Everyone must find a personal balance, an individual middle way. Nature will bring us to a center, if we allow it, but that release is not easy. Now, I train for it, the middle way, the release–that longing clarity, Camus pined for. I am confident in this journey, a simple pilgrim.

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. “What I wish for now,” wrote Camus, late in life, “is no longer happiness but simply awareness.” 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.”

Restlessness is a god of liberation.

In Adventure, Life, The Examined Life on November 4, 2015 at 6:31 am

I have no notion where I will be this time next year. This is not a statement of philosophy. I’m not suggesting one of those squishy notions like, We have no inkling what the future holds, or, Embrace today, for tomorrow may never arrive. Nothing like that. It is a simple fact, I have no idea where I will be this time next year. Next spring, Carole and I are moving into our Airstream trailer and will become nomads.

I do not trust most things to be as they appear on the surface. I am not a skeptic nor a cynic, necessarily. I simply know that things are most often more than they appear. On its surface, this is a trip to explore North America. I’ve seen a good bit of the world, but not as much of home as I’d like. We plan to rectify that. It’s not an original idea, the road trip in search of America. The majesty of the purple mountains and all that. Too, I am a traveler. I have been a traveler all of my adult life. This pending road-trip makes sense in that respect. But these seem surface explanations.

I started thinking along these lines when it occurred to me that in 37 years of marriage we have owned and lived in six houses. The longest stay in a single dwelling was not quite ten years, when the kids were little. I have never served in the military, never moved from base to base. Nor did I work for a corporation that sent me hither and yon. Six houses, six moves, all of our own choosing. Spring will be six years in our little place here on the water in Maine. And now we are picking up and going. Again. Packing up our few belongings, renting out our home, and heading out for parts unknown, as Twain referred to such adventures.

Restlessness is a god of liberation. Tucked deep into the twists and turns of our deoxyribonucleic acid is the urge to get up and get going. That is what kept our ancestors on the move, out of Africa to all points north, south, east, and west. Most of us have grown adept at suppressing this urge, myself included. Yet there are tell-tail signs that I’m not completely successful at this suppression business. There is boredom, for instance. Boredom is the road sign you notice on your journey to a quiet ending. If you notice it at all. Liberation, on the other hand, creates a ruckus. Say no to quiet endings.

And then there is repetition. Repetition is the agent that removes what I call our innate peripheral vision. That is, as a young person the world is broad and the horizon expansive. We are born with full peripheral vision. But the very repetition of existence triggers the lessening of that world, the shortening of the horizon. Day-in and day-out becomes the sum view of things. My shit detector begins to beep when this starts to happen, when the edges move in. It appears that it takes six or seven years for me to hear it.

* * *

 I haven’t posted here in over a year. For those of you paying attention, I apologize. I am sorry to have just walked off like that. But as you now know, I have a basic aversion to repetition and I was beginning to repeat myself. And, yes, occasionally I grew bored too. Stay tuned. There is adventure ahead.

Tuesday, 9.2.2014

In Life, The Examined Life on September 2, 2014 at 6:08 am

I live for this time of year, the beginning of fall, the end of summer, my least favorite season. Fall, and behind it, winter, give me permission to be my real self, the self that likes the dark, the cold, and the comfort of the hearth. A few years ago I swiped my inner cheek and sent the sample to a lab. They reported that my DNA concentration rested somewhere in Northern Europe, thirty degrees north longitude or so in Sweden or Norway or some such place. It is highly likely that nationalistic geography wasn’t a factor when my dark ancestors were mixing the blood and semen and sparking the gray matter that would eventually become the stuff of me. That might explain the draw to places dark and cool, if not cold–hence my happiness at the season’s homecoming.

A boat passed under my kitchen window while I prepared dinner last evening. I looked up from my cutting board. According to the stern, the boat’s name was Carpe Diem. Seize the Day–a common admonition among those given to easy motivation. I am by nature suspect of simple perspectives. Of course, seizing the day is better than letting it crash over you mindlessly. But it is more my nature to simply be ready, to be prepared for the day’s presentations as best I am able. That seems the better nature of things. One does not seize the fragile butterfly. 

Aside from my comments above, it has been a good summer. There was time spent in wilderness, not enough perhaps, but sufficient to take the edge off. Too, significant advances were made toward matters of importance: reading, thinking, time spent with people I love, dogs on the run, and breathtaking sunrises. That’s the stuff of the last breath, the stuff I hope will rest with me when all the other stuff turns to ash.