Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

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?

Yesterday

In Camping, Dogs, Life on August 7, 2018 at 11:29 am

Peak One Campground, Frisco, Colorado

Yesterday while working in the campground I rounded a corner and came upon an elderly gentleman being pulled by three small leashed dogs. I’d met him the day before. His wife had eventually tugged at his elbow, saying, “Enough already, let the man go do his work.” He seemed lonely, though I only thought it because he liked to talk. This morning his wife was not present, only the man and his dogs. I said hello and we talked about dogs for a few minutes. One dog, a white terrier, feisty and keen, was the focus of his comments. As he talked the three leashes became intertwined but the man didn’t seem to notice. The terrier had been his daughter’s dog, he said. She got him when she learned she had breast cancer. She wanted the companionship. The man talked without emotion, in that way people from Kansas do. The flatness of his voice settled on me in emotional way. I began to tear up.  “She told me she wanted me to raise him if she didn’t make it.” We’d had a rain the night before and the tacky aroma of pine was suddenly apparent. I was wearing a jacket, it being cold. I took off my glasses and wiped my tears. The little white terrier was busy sniffing the edge of my boot, likely picking up Lucy’s scent–Lucy, waiting patiently for my return down the hill and across the campground.

How to Think

In Life, Memoir, Nature, The Examined Life, Wisdom on May 9, 2018 at 8:00 am

Moleskine notes

Three weeks ago I left southern Virginia, west-bound. Today I entered Mountain Time. And I saw a Western Kingbird. I must be heading in the right direction.

* * *

I’ve spent a lot of time, years even, contemplating how to best live. But the real question is not How to Live, but How to Think. Everything follows our thinking, including our happiness.

“A man is as miserable as he things he is.” ~ Seneca.

Conversely, is a person as happy as he or she thinks they are?

* * *

“At the break of day, when you are reluctant to get up, have this thought ready to mind: ‘I am getting up for a human being’s work…I am going out to do what I was born for…plants, birds, ants, spiders, bees all doing their own work, each helping in their own work, each helping in their own way to order the world…do you not want to do the work of a human being…to follow the demands of your own nature?” ~ Marcus Aureluis

* * *

Man in restaurant behind me just returned his water because it had a lemon in it. “Oh my god,” said the waitress. “I’m so sorry. And I totally brag about our water too,” she said.

I must be in California.

* * *

It is late in the afternoon and the sun is low. Lucy is asleep beside the river. I am thinking about something Seneca said: plunging oneself into the totality of the world. What does that mean, I wonder? I don’t know precisely, but it must have something to do with the flight of the terns over the lake this evening. It must have something to do with the way the bark of the willow over there is gnarled. And yes, it must have something to do with that fish who just pierced the surface and the rings that are radiating toward me. Yes, that must be it. The totality of the world.

 

Harmony

In Happiness, Life, Wisdom on March 23, 2018 at 8:04 am

I don’t do New Year resolutions, but this year I did something similar. I selected a word I wanted to focus on for 2018. It’s a touchstone* of sorts, something one turns to for guidance and direction. My word is Harmony.

I can’t directly say how harmony presented itself. I suspect it was the result of current social conditions. I cannot recall a time of such discord previously. I was born in 1955 so I was a young person in the sixties and seventies. I remember the cultural upheavals of those times. Indeed, I vividly recall my frustration at not being old enough to truly participate in what was going on, the war protests, the “Summer of Love,” and such. Those were tumultuous times certainly. But they didn’t seem to carry the personal import these heavy days do. Regardless, I wanted to do something to counter discord as best I could, in my own little personal way. Consequently, Harmony.

We’re only a third of the way into the year. Is it proper to take an assessment of my personal contribution to harmony? That itself is a big assumption. Have I, in some fashion, contributed to world/personal/social harmony?

Well yes, I think so.

In my world an action can take three forms, or a combination of: body, speech, or mind.

Body. Speech. Mind.

Actions of the body, related to harmony, might be manifested by a hug, a handshake, a smile. Hold the door for someone, wave to a neighbor, let the car merge in front of you.

Actions of speech–that gets a little trickier. We all know words can hurt. Don’t use hurtful words. It sounds simple enough. Hello. You’re welcome. Good morning. These are words we like hearing. But how many times do we make a snide comment, use a rude description, say something disparaging under our breath? For me, in my attempt to train in harmony, I am daily growing more aware of such usage. Being aware of it, I can better modify my actions of speech. But that’s the trick–awareness, which takes me to actions of mind.

Actions of Mind–thoughts, essentially. If you truly want to make a positive contribution you want to get a handle on what’s going on between your ears. A teacher said to me once, “What’s your practice? We all practice something.” We might meditate, go for a run, read poetry, write, pray, clean the house, make the bed, change a diaper. What is your practice and do you understand that it first manifests as a thought? Your practice, do you pay attention to it? I wrote here once about seeing runners having a phone conversation while they ran. I wanted to stop them and say, Be a runner. Be just that one thing right now, be that one thing truly. Be that thing with all your heart and concentration. Pay attention.

My personal assessment, a quarter way into the year, is that my teeny-tiny contribution to harmony has taken root, albeit ever so modestly, close to home. I realized early into this project that there is little I can do about world politics, about discord between countries, about hatred in the world at large. Instead, I decided to be more thoughtful toward my neighbors. I decided to do the dishes when they stacked up. I will make the bed. I will pick up litter in the dog field. I said they were teeny-tiny things–but harmony spreads beyond family. Courtesy gets passed around. A smile is contagious. Civility counts. These are things I can think about, I can talk about, I can do. Mind, body, speech.

I hope I have not sounded too high-handed here. I don’t want to be preachy, nor do I have any reason to call myself out as being better than anyone else. I’m just a guy trying to be a better person, a better citizen of the world, a better father, husband, friend. Harmony, yep, a good focus word for me this year. I encourage you to find your own personal project at making the world a better place. We need it. Pass it on.

————————————-

*The origin of touchstone is interesting. The first known use of the word takes us back to 1530. A physical touchstone was a stone related to flint. By rubbing it on gold or silver one could determine the purity of the ore by the streaks left behind. Metaphorically speaking, a touchstone might be used to point us toward authenticity and genuineness.

 

Did you hear the one about Jesus Christ, Moses, and the Zen Master?

In Life, Memoir, Wisdom on November 24, 2017 at 7:56 am

Red Feather Lakes, CO., el 8800

Did you hear the one about Jesus Christ, Moses, and the Zen Master?

Jesus Christ, Moses, and a Zen Master were out on pilgrimage. They were trekking through a remote valley when they came to a river. The bridge they hoped to cross had been washed away in a storm. They stood looking. Jesus shrugged his shoulders and stepped onto the river and walked across. On the other side, he turned and waited. Moses then moved to the river’s edge. He raised and spread his arms wide. The water parted. He walked across and stood next to Jesus, the two of them looking across the river at the Zen Master. The Zen Master shrugged his shoulders, hiked up his robe, took a firm grasp on his staff and waded into the current. He struggled across and eventually joined his friends, Jesus and Moses. They continued on their way.

You have to do the work.

I was recently reminded of this little parable while noticing the warmth of a rising sun on my face. The meditation hall had expansive windows and as the sun crested the mountain ridge to the east, the morning rays poured in. My mind was not particularly stable on this morning, despite seven straight days of meditation. I guess I was too excited to return home. But I took a moment to be satisfied. Like the Zen Master I have no special powers. I simply have to do the work. On this occasion I did what I set out to do. I did the work, for now. There can be great joy in work well done. At least there should be. No work, no eat, they say.

I’d not been to an extended meditation retreat before. As you might expect, at times my joints hurt and many times my mind wandered. But just as often I was disappointed when the bell rang and we had to rise from our cushions. Doing work with great concentration can be extremely satisfying. We too often exist in a state of digression and discursive thinking. We are encouraged to do many things at the same time, applauded for our ability to multitask. But the mind can only do one thing at a time truly. Sure, it can flit about, go here and there, touch this and that, but such a rapid-fire process is many breaths short of concentration, of pure focus. Such a thing takes work. It takes practice. Watch a concert musician, a world-class athlete. It is writ large on their face. They’ve gone to that place. They’ve done the work.

I began meditating in 2004. I’ve gone through periods of consistency, day after day, week after week. I’ve also had many spans of not practicing.  I’m now enjoying in a long run of daily sittings, months strung together, such that the work is becoming the life and vice versa. At some point the musician stops being a student and becomes a pianist. It is then, in that turning, that you become the work you were previously practicing. That itself seems an awakening.

 

 

A Ballet of Photons

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.