Doug Bruns

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A Morning Visit

In Death, Family on May 3, 2013 at 6:00 am

I visit my father every morning. Two weeks ago I found him sitting in his desk chair, back to me, upright, but listing. I called, Good morning. I got no response. I approached and looked at his face. His eyes were open, though his lids heavy. He did not respond to my voice. I thought, fighting panic: This is how it should be. Dressed, at his desk, no effort, no struggle. Gone. But he was not gone. I detected his chest moving. I rested my hands on his shoulders. I called to him, softly. Still no response. I stroked his back, the bones now protruding, symbols of only hard things remaining. I activated the sensor he wears around his neck and as I waited I talked to him, telling him it was going to be okay, that I was with him. No response. Help arrived and as the four of us lifted him into his bed his eyes focused and he said, “To what do I owe this attention?” We laughed.

I spent the day with him, at his bedside, and a measure of me hoped that he would be spared further suffering. But as the day wore on, he recovered. I fed him. I read to him. I held his hand.  Late in the day, I left him sleeping. I told the receptionist that I was leaving. She said they would check on him. When I returned a few hours later, he was in his chair, dressed, and trying to figure out his TV remote. We watched a bit of Deadliest Catch together.

The body fails us when we most desire otherwise. And, conversely, it stubbornly marches on when we have perhaps arrived at exhaustion and long for rest. The final act of existence is the release of breath–just as the first act was the gasp for it. There is nothing within our control, but for the thoughts in our head and even those, most precious and of our own design, run wild through the caverns of consciousness.  We carry on together.

Morning thoughts on morning.

In Life, Nature, Writing on April 15, 2012 at 10:33 am

It is the idyllic impoverishment of morning that most appeals. Morning is a vacuum and I prefer to let it stay that way. Day will soon enough suck up the hours.

If I could extend the morning all day long, I would. Early light slants low and stretches like a path to full day. I prefer to linger and step off if the path grows too steep too rapidly. It is best when climbing into day to do so gradually.

Morning begins alone, with a walk. Usually with a dog. Always alone with a dog only. I do not particularly tolerate people well in the morning. It takes me a while to get back to tolerating myself in the early hours and people around only inhibit that process. Some mornings, like this one, I just keep walking, warming up to the day, warming up to myself. I do not rush this business and have learned over the years the penalty of not taking the process seriously.

My daughter once dated a young man who slept until noon. I was angered by this. Not so much because my daughter longed for company in those hours, as angered that the young man was squandering such a precious thing as morning. I know I sound old and like a fuddy-duddy saying that. There are not all that many things I’ve figured out, but I have figured out the worth of morning.

My life goal is simple. I just want all the parts to fit together. In the morning that seems the closest to possible.

Life Studies

In Death, Dogs, Literature, Philosophy on October 27, 2019 at 9:00 am

I study lives. My text book is the biography. The first grown-up book I read was a biography of Mark Twain. I was, I think, in 6th grade. The most recent book read, finished a couple days ago, is Robert D. Richardson Jr.’s biography of Emerson, subtitled The Mind on Fire. Before that, earlier this summer, I re-read Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Montaigne, How to Live. I read Bakewell as a set up to my summer reading of Montaigne’s long essay, An Apology of Raymond Sebond. That essay consumed much of my summer Colorado reading. Though I’ve been reading Montaigne for thirty years I’d not tackled Sebond and wanted to devote my time and energy to it uninterrupted, pencil and notepad in hand. But let’s return to studying lives.

Richardson’s Emerson is wonderfully written and ranks in my reading life as a high point. Half-way through I said to Carole, book in lap, “This book is changing my life.” Last year’s reading of Sue Prideaux’s I am Dynamite!, A Life of Nietzsche, had a similar effect. Richardson’s Emerson, however, reached deeper for a reason I’ve yet to comprehend. Interestingly, Nietzsche described Emerson as “a glorious, great nature, rich in soul and spirit…the author who has been the richest in ideas in this century.” Uncharacteristically, Nietzsche never turned against Emerson. I was so enthused by Richardson’s Emerson I found a used copy of his Thoreau, A Life of the Mind. I am excited to start that book.

Plutarch’s Lives

I study lives. An enduring life, rich and deep, is a wonderful thing and the shape and nature of such a thing has forever been of serious interest to me. Early on I recognized that some lives are, frankly, better lived and better expressed than others. Plutarch’s Lives, a study of lives in parallel, one virtuous, one lacking in virtue is the best ancient example of this notion. The rare exemplary life is unique–unique in its creativity, or perhaps in its impact on humanity. Or maybe, in the best case, in its goodness. Such a life is defined by character and intention; it is purposeful and directed; instructive and inspiring. How better to devote my reading life? I do not seek distraction. I do not seek entertainment. I seek to understand how this most important and precious thing, life itself, is to be best exercised, best experienced, best designed. How to live is the essence of creativity.

* * *

There is something I’ve noticed shared by many of these lives, something important.

Toward the end of Richardson’s biography he summarizes some of the lessons Emerson learned in later life. He writes: “At the core of Emerson’s life and work is a core of these impressions, bound together. They are not arguments or hypotheses….these are the perceptions that Emerson retains.” He continues with a list, starting…:

“The days are gods. That is, everything is divine. Creation is continuous. There is no other world; this is all there is. Everyday is the day of judgement.” [My italics.]

The list continues however I want to focus on these particular lessons as they are often shared by other lives I’ve studied. Nietzsche, for instance, had his “Theory of Eternal Return.” “Da Capo!—Once more! Once more! Back to the beginning.” In perfect health, one should “crave nothing more fervently” than the “eternal return of one’s life,” the same life down to the very last detail. With this Groundhog Day idea at the forefront of thought one will live moment by moment with the expectation that should the moment be repeated it would be agreeable by design. In this fashion, to be Emersonian about it, everyday is the day of judgement. I cannot imagine a way of being more present in the world.

H.D. Thoreau

Or consider the last days of Thoreau. Friend and neighbor Parker Phillsbury visited Henry David a few days before his death. “You seem so near the brink of the dark river,” Pillsbury said, “that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you.” Thoreau summed up his life and philosophy in response: “One world at a time.”

One world at a time, indeed. No concern about future reward or punishment. No effort wasted on what cannot be known. Just a focus on this world, here and now. A major theme of the important and creative lives I’ve studied is the theme of a cultivated and nurtured life devoted to living in the present. These are nerve-end lives, sparking and full of energy, thirsty for experience and immediacy.

I come to these ruminations from a place of sorry and darkness. I lost my beloved Lucy girl recently. This is not a thing I am prepared to talk about here, except for the following. My days with Lucy over the last few years were marked by a deep and conscious appreciation of our lives together. Many a morning walk I watched her and acknowledged that this was not lasting, that someday our lives, like all lives, would end in separation. I was, with painful awareness, searing moments into my consciousness, thereby stamping them with all the more value and potency. In her death I turn with gratitude for these moments of present awareness. Gratitude cannot assuage fresh grief but it is a degree of balm.

The days are gods and we are best obliged to honor them with an awareness and a presence. Do not take them for granted. Embrace each moment, turning from nothing. Such is divinity in the making.

In The Mountains, Again.

In Camping, Memoir on August 11, 2019 at 8:00 am
Dillon

The view of Peak One Campground from uptop mountainside.

We’ve been in the mountains only two weeks. My lungs are trying to figure out what’s going on. The morning run-walk up the mountainside is a bit more run than walk recently, but the difference is hardly discernable.  Lucy too is lagging, but occasionally gets a surge and charges ahead during our morning outing. A couple of days ago she streamed past me and disappeared down the trail. That’s what we do, leap frog one another on our morning runs. But on this morning, with her out of sight, I heard barking off in the woods where the trail empties out into a clearing. The bark was not Lucy’s. I know her voice. Then I heard that distinct whine of a coyote. Then the barking again, raspy and hoarse, but from a different direction. My heart raced. Lucy had either been loured into or stumbled upon a coyote den. Last year I encountered coyotes in the same area but had forgotten about it until this moment. I picked up my pace, calling for her. She’s a good dog and always returns to my call, though sometimes it takes a while. I reached the clearing.  She wasn’t there. I called again and moved toward where I thought I heard commotion. Then she appeared. Her tongue was bloodied, but she was intact and seemed relieved to see me. I checked her, ran my hands over her little body–no wound, no puncture. The bloodied tongue was–and remains–a mystery.

The next day I put her on leash just before entering the clearing. I surveyed the area and we continued. Suddenly she stopped and sniffed the air. I looked to the edge of the woods. The coyote was watching us, perched behind some scrub brush. It was big, as coyotes go, and looked well fed. I was taken aback, frankly, at how healthy she appeared. Coyote life must be good in the mountains. We continued on, Lucy none the wiser.

The Morning Run_edited

The morning run starts and stops at the lake.

* * *

We are back in Colorado, hosting a campground in the White River National Forest. We will be here until the beginning of October, unless weather drives us out earlier. Last year three feet of snow dropped the day after we pulled out. Nights are already dropping into the low 40s. There is snow still holding on the peaks and ridges around us. (We’re a little over 9000 el.) People are already looking into the mountains to see if the aspens are changing. Unlike the drought of last year, we get rain almost every day. It is welcome, as it keeps the dust down and nourishes the wild flowers.

Our trailer is simple and comfortable. We don’t need much and this style of living underscores our commitment to simple living. Minimalism is the word of common currency and we are minimalists, though I tend to avoid labels that are suspiciously popular. My personal goal of simplicity has most recently included my online life as well as my analogue life. It is one thing to get rid of clothes that are too much in abundance; something else altogether when you attempt to exercise the same philosophy in your online life. I’ve been off Facebook for over two years. I have not missed it one day, even one hour, especially now knowing that it is a data mine for marketers and scammers and Russians. I quit Twitter a year ago. I found it of interest, but burdensome. It started to feel like a puppy, always crying for attention. My Instagram account is still up, but stagnant. It’s there simply as a visual record of the last several years. I work to resist surfing the net and keep a book or two at my elbow to counter the urge to open my laptop. You have to work at important things that are contrary.  We exist in a time that is noisy, foggy, and traffic-bound. Compliance is the motivation of the herd and if you lean in that direction eventually you’ll be grazing mindlessly on consumption, waste, and time squandered. Then you die. I can’t avoid dying but the rest of it is something I can work with.

 

On Making Bread

In Life, The Examined Life on June 5, 2019 at 7:01 pm

A recent loaf.

I’ve been making bread, off and on, all my life. I distinctly remember making bread for my grandmother over five decades ago. I can even recall that it was a dark bread and it didn’t rise and she was kind in accepting it, this woman who really knew what baking bread was about. I made bread two days ago. It was a better bread than that I made for my grandmother.

The night before I make bread, I take my sourdough starter out of the refrigerator and feed it. I leave it on the counter overnight and I wake up excited that it is a baking day. Every baking day is a day that holds the opportunity for improvement. Will today’s bread rise better? Will it have a good chewy crust? I’m always experimenting. As with everything in my life, I’m always wondering if it can be better.

I took bread to a dinner recently. I was asked what kind of bread maker I had. I raised my hands, my bread makers. That is the way I like things. Simple.

Recently I’ve taken to folding the dough after kneading. You stretch out the dough and fold it, turn it, fold it again, give it a push or two, then let it rest.

I’m at a place in life recently where it seems I’m sort of folding and pushing, folding and resting. Seeing what happens. Always an experiment. In his great poem, September 1, 1939, Auden has the line: “All I have is a voice / To undo the folded lie,” I like to think that I am folding truth. I like to think that my life is rich and full–which it is–and that a simple fold, a little tug here and a little stretch there, then a rest, and the fabric of life, its true essence, will rise a bit, be a bit stronger, a bit richer, and a bit tastier. Always experimenting.

When I get up in the morning, I can sometimes taste the excitement of a new day. Will it rise better? Be tastier? Will life’s true essence be revealed today?

Recent Contemplations

In Family, Wisdom on December 8, 2018 at 8:00 am

Questions I’ve been contemplating recently * : 

  • What’s ultimately the most important thing in life to you?
  • What do you want your life to “stand for” or “be about”?
  • What would you most like your life to be remembered for after you’ve died?
  • What sort of thing do you most want to spend your life doing?
  • What sort of person do you most want to be in your various relationships and roles in life, e.g., as a parent, a friend, at work, and in life generally?

And this one, which really got me thinking:

  • If you had one opportunity to give advice to your child about life, what would you tell them is most important?

 I was discussing this last question with my daughter. She is a nurse, mother of two, wife–in other words a person who is very busy. She got up early this particular morning, went to the gym, then home to write in her journal before the kids got up. She had a good start on the day and her mood reflected it. Then it occurred to me, the advice I would share with my children: Get up early. To get up early is to exercise self-discipline. With self-discipline a life, like a day, begins to take shape and everything follows accordingly from there.

*Thanks to Donald Robertson and the Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training program for these questions and many other thought-provoking notions.