Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘The Examined Life’ Category

8.7.2016

In Memoir, The Examined Life, Wisdom on August 7, 2016 at 8:18 pm

It is commonly accepted that one should strive to “live in the now,” to “be present.” I don’t dispute this wisdom. There is a great deal of distraction in life and given enough rein, distraction will eventually snuff out the vibrancy that is life itself. Memories, it seems to me, are often put into the category of distraction. “Oh, she’s living the in past.” Or, “All he has left are his memories.” I am probably universally wrong on this, but it seems to me that we have been trained to keep our memories at arm’s length, that in some fashion memories are guilty pleasures that we are wrong to enjoy. The Proustian in me says, that is bull shit.

I sit this evening in the mountains of Colorado. The air is chill, even though it is August. Indeed, it is growing cold. I am outside and remembering summers past. I look through old notes and read old blog posts to jog my memory. Sometimes I feed memory like sometimes I pour myself a second bourbon. I know I shouldn’t–there’s that guilty pleasure–but I do because I want to. Tonight I am thinking of Maine on a summer evening and I miss it, even though this afternoon I photographed an elk with a five foot antler span.

I dreamt of my father last night and that is a form of memory, I think. I suspect experts know better, but I’ll not be dissuaded. Regardless, I have dreamt of my parents more often than not these days, certainly more than when they were alive. I have no idea what that means. But again, if that is a fashion of memory, then I embrace it. Is part of growing old the breaking down of resistance to reflect on the past with nostalgia? Nostalgia comes from the Greek nostos, for return home. That seems at the core of many things.

No doubt these thoughts are sparked by four months on the road with no prospect of returning home any time soon. My father used to say that a certain place felt like home. He never said, as best as I can recall, that such and such a place was home. He desired to return to his roots, though he did not have a complete understanding as to what such a place was. He was eternally restless in such matters and I am restless too. To use a word my mother used, He was discombobulated. I am somewhat discombobulated too.

I was reading Seneca today. “The fool with all his other faults is always getting ready to live.” A bit further on he continues: “…you will think of old men who are preparing themselves at that very hour for a political career, or for travel, or for business. And what is baser than getting ready to live when you are already old?” What is baser than getting ready to live when you are already old? I’ve read through this section repeatedly and cannot fully parse where he’s coming from. Yet, it seems to address this business of growing older and the attendant restlessness that I’ve noted. The wisdom of Seneca has withstood the ages so I’m going to give him the nod on this one. Yet it seems contrary, don’t you think? I suspect the old stoic would accept the fact in the mirror: You’re old. Face it. You’re not going to start getting ready to live.

It seems a curse of modern times that we are prompted to embrace eternal youth. Surgery, drugs, yoga, trophy spouses, fast cars, money, whatever–all seem to be evidence toward this notion. You’re not old, sixty is the new forty. I am sixty. I am not young, yet, with deference to Seneca,  I still occasionally throw out a scheme or plan to do something new. Today, in fact, Carole and I discussed living in a foreign country and learning its language. We went down to Boulder, a college town, and I talked about getting more education, or perhaps teaching something or other. What is baser than getting ready to live when you are already old? Tomorrow I am going to spend the morning fishing the Big Thompson, here in the high Rockies. That is not getting ready to live; that is living. Seneca would give me a wink, I think. Maybe I get it after all.

3.10.2016

In Books, Memoir, The Examined Life on March 10, 2016 at 7:02 pm

It is raining this evening. And the cold has returned. I sit with a scarf wrapped around my neck. The oven is heating up, and with Carole out of town I am left, again, to my own devices. The pelting rain against the window is comforting. In Finland, where the winter nights are long and punishing, they have a word for such coziness, “hygge” (pronounced ‘hooga’). There is an aspect of hygge-ness to a night like this.

I packed up books today. I am no longer attached to my library as I once was. In a previous house, I had a carpenter build floor to ceiling shelves, end to end, maybe twenty linear feet by ten feet high. Once we had a party at the house and a guest, looking at the shelves, said, “You’ve read all these books?” It was the question by which the shelves came to justification. They were trophy shelves.  It was nothing less than ego exercised. A few books remain, but we don’t have room now. Nor does ego require them any longer, being the lesser thing than it once was.

We all have our trophies, no? They are, really, nothing but excess exemplified. And I don’t have time, patience, nor, most importantly, room for excess any longer.

I put Montaigne into a box with the other books, but opened him randomly first:  “I wish to be remembered as the man who accumulated nothing.” It was the perfect send off. I have always been able to count on my French friend for support. It could have been Thoreau, “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” The best teachers speak the same language.

As the rain falls, and the books get packed away, as my literary friends go to a place of dark resting, I contemplate, as is my nature, the meaning of all this. I have no sufficient answer. And I am comfortable with that. I know this at least, that sufficient answers are rare and hard to come by. It is the question that is most important. As another significant teacher recently put to me: What is the most important thing? And what is most important about the most important thing?

 

 

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.”