Sunday, May 16, 2010

That's Not What I Meant

I remember telling my children, back in home-school days, that life is like a big bowl of Silly Putty--stretch it, bend it, shape it into whatever you want. My artist-self knows that life is a blank canvas or a clean page. My "scientific" self might conceive of life as a sterile growing medium. Introduce an idea, and watch it expand.

It is especially easy to see the original "blankness" and "meaninglessness" of life when a structure of personal significance collapses. The kind of structure I am speaking of is nothing more than a mental/emotional relationship to a person, place, thing or idea; there is some kind of cessation, and then a gap, a void, an emptiness. Depending upon the degree of attachment to the situation (there is always some, or there would be no meaning), reactions can range from mild surprise to intense grief. If identification is strong, it seems to take a fair amount of time and effort to find equilibrium again, to frame the string of events in memory as somehow beneficial in the long investigate where and how the dynamics changed, and to apply any insight to the workings of our lives. We figure out how to move on, how to perhaps do things differently in the future. 

(A brother of mine used to cynically refer to the above process as a "YAFLE"--Yet Another F***ing Learning Experience.)

Having been around the block a time or two, I believe that I'm well-acquainted with various kinds of pain and suffering associated with structure-collapse. I am happy to report that, although pain is what it is and hurts by nature, the amount of suffering has greatly diminished, simply because I have learned not to beat Maria up for too long. The fact that I seem to be determined to live thoroughly and authentically in spite/because of it all probably has something to do with the fine art of pulling myself out of the muck, as well.

In all my emotional tripping, I have acquired another skill, hard to articulate, but as relevant to easier living (in my mind) as the "invention" of the wheel must have been to those folks sick and tired of dragging large burdens over rough territory. This ability involves taking the time to be very aware of the emotional storm surges as they arise, and to look through them, even while feeling the full impact of whatever they are (not necessarily negative). This ruthless honesty is akin to watching a very convincing movie playing out on a huge screen--a screen which must be empty in order to allow the technicolor images to exist--all the while knowing that, at the end of the show, reality again takes the form of a blank, white field; such a field is even now the hidden understanding of the energy pouring across my perception.

In other words, it is the very meaninglessness of life which grants me the supreme privilege of making meaning, for entertainment, for learning, for further understanding...maybe just because I love to.

Over time, I have grown to dread that void less and less, and make friends with its purity and selflessness more and more. I see myself within it (and vice-versa) as a meaning-making being by nature, learning by trial and error to be a life-artist, using the true extent of my own freedom. I don't rush to fill it with another play to prevent boredom, or to escape the brain-boggling fact that its massive spaciousness also fits into every form I encounter, including myself. It is very user-friendly, and much more stable than the temporal stories it becomes. It seems that its qualities as a medium expand along with the understanding and acceptance of its true neutrality.

I am aware that to label Being "meaningless" is itself a meaningless statement; I can only call it "neutral" by contrasting it with the positive and negative currents we tend to get so caught up in--the flows which are not truly separate from such absolute potential. However, I'm not interested in debating semantics or philosophy, here--I have nothing but this experience to use, to relate and to share, and its value seems to lie in how it feels. The feeling is not necessarily "problem" or anxiety-free, although there is always an element of bliss. What I feel while pressed up unabashedly to the naked universe is anything but neutral or meaningless.

What I feel allows me to recognize the difference between real intimacy and ego-stroking, between love and self-serving fear, between courage and defensive posturing. The curious Void is a meaning-before-meaning, an original quality that is most truly apparent in that which can be nothing but Itself. The scripts, roles, and costumes are shed; even the body is dropped like the concept it is, and all that's left is Nothing Most Full.

Perhaps the most profound effect of this willingness to admit such open, boundary-less Reality into thinking and feeling is the respect I have for my ability to choose my meanings, as well as the choices themselves. Yes, it's all on my head and heart, and I know it. Sometimes I feel like a hapless fool, an old blind woman talking to her deaf dog, a hopelessly clumsy little girl in school. But there is an innate love here that holds these characters in great affection, allows them their frustrations and mistakes, and always knows what strength lies yet within. My meanings carry increased responsibility and are far from what I used to think of as "perfect"...but oh, the colors, the songs, the texture! I fall down, my knee hurts, and I'm face-to-face with a whole new world to embrace--one which, in my more "balanced" state, I didn't see...

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Hard Truth

A cherished relationship died last week, after a long period of illness. The actual cause of death remains unknown; I suspect, though, that it was just another casualty of the wars that soldiers often bring home with them if they finish a tour of duty.

It seems a cancer of the spirit exists in our human story, created or exacerbated by exposure to ruthless conflict and unyielding, heartless structure. Ignored or denied, it feeds on personal shadows and doubts until it occupies the soul of its host, where it strangles optimism, tenderness, respect and love. The natural flow of nourishment is cut off. Trust gives way to anger, fear and apathy. The illness affects everyone in the family as connections that were thriving and flexible become dry and brittle. Eventually, if left unchecked, it consumes the host--perhaps metaphorically, often physically. Premature death is the result.

All forms change and death is inevitable, I understand. Still, there are certain kinds of pain and brutality that I instinctively view as unnecessary and contrary to the natural order of unclean and complex suffering that spreads like wildfire. The grief left in its wake is compounded by the utter senselessness of the disease. Wildfires, at least, make some logical sense.

Honestly, I can't claim to know what is necessary and what is not. Much as I long to blame something--anything--for this kind of event, I know that it does nothing to resolve the factual pain. It is something that must be embraced and felt through and through, so I don't pass on the crippling sickness of spirit which engendered it in the first place, and so that healing can occur. It is what It Is, and it is never, ever what I think it is.


I drive until I find myself at my favorite liminal place--the shoreline--where brine and freshness meet and merge in perfect accord. An eagle's nest overlooks the shifting, hidden depths of the sea. There is a minus tide, and the wet bones of the beach are exposed to the sunlight. I am drawn like a piece of steel to the magnetic mystery of the rock faces normally veiled in white, lacy this place, it is possible to be stricken with grief, deep in love and swimming in curiosity, all at the same time. Logic, thank God, doesn't live here. There is no pressure to explain anything, not even to myself. Tears fog up my glasses, so I take them off and let the sand and pebbles make good places for my slow steps.

At the very edge of the water, I almost stumble over the roots of an ancient tree, a marker for the forest that once existed on this spot before the land dropped into the sea during the last great quake, maybe three hundred years ago. I put my glasses back on and look at the pebbles cradled in the wooden hollows near my feet. The waves are small and wash gently over and around them; I see a golden, banded agate the size of a pigeon's egg nestled in the mix of colors and froth, and wait for the water to recede again before picking it up. I hold it to the light, and the sun bounces off the milky lines within.

Attention thus captured, a more boisterous wave sneaks up to splash my shoes; I jump back, along with an old man who has materialized to my left. "Whoa! That almost got us," he laughs, grinning at me. 

I smile back, and we have a short chat about the remains of the old tree sprawled before us. I ask him if he is collecting agates, and he shows me a pocket half-full of small ones--gold, orange, gray and almost white. Impulsively, I give him the banded one in my hand, and he exclaims at its beauty. "My wife will be so tickled," he says in thanks. 

My heart lurches and expands in love at the image of this man going home to his wife and presenting her with such treasure. There is some kind of blessing...

I continue on, past the edge of the cove, on a shallow beach made safe by the subdued tide. There is a woman there, combing the rocky depressions, lost in her task. I almost pass her by, but decide to ask the same question I had asked the old man just a few minutes before. "Are you collecting agates?"

Immediately, she crosses the short distance between us and shows me a sack full of all kinds of stones--not just agates, but green, red, black and composite pebbles. "I have a rock tumbler at home," she says, as if relieved to speak her passion. "You would not believe how beautifully they come out!"

"Like jewels," I reply. "My grandfather was a rock collector, down in the Southern California desert. He used to cut, polish...he had a tumbler, when I was a very small child."

She lights up. "Ah! So you takes a month, and the tumbler can only do around a pound at a time...but it's so worth the wait!" I nod, and she continues, "I decided to take a 'me' day and just come down here to look. I can't help it. It feels good and brings me peace...kind of like..."

"...Like a meditation?"

"Yes," she sighs, and her shoulders relax. "Exactly. My husband thinks I'm crazy..." and suddenly, she is looking down, as if slightly ashamed. I take a deep, slow breath.

"It's ok," I tell her, wishing I could reach out and hug her, instead. "He just doesn't understand."

"No, he doesn't." The woman shakes her head, and smiles with a distant sadness. I look at her beautiful face, and tell her that I am glad to have met her, and that perhaps I would see her around...and we move on in our own perfect understanding.

I walk to a big rock spill, where seagulls keep watch. I am now wide awake and alerted to strange beauty and synchronous things. I see pieces of the blue sky sunning themselves on stones.

The bare cliff faces loom over me, casting shadows and reflecting the sea where water seeps down to the coarse sand. I am lost in the strange folds and ridges of this cold, volcanic skin, of frozen ripples and eroded explosions. I touch it, lean against it, look up where grassy fringes grow. I am where the waves normally crash, where the water is over my head and roiling, looking at another truth...hard, uncompromising, happily beaten by the tides, slowly formed, polished and occasionally shown to soft, fragile animals like myself.

I am humbled, enjoyed, amazed.

Hugging the flows of silver, turquoise, jade and rust on my way back, words fail to form. Everywhere I turn with my camera, some stunning dreamscape looks directly into me. I read it silently like a love letter, like a missive full of tough wisdom and reassuring solidity and proof that, hard as being is, the variety of beauty is endless, is there underneath, is there with or without my attention.

The message, as usual, is signed:

By the time I return to my car, I am open and washed as the stones I spent the morning--and my mourning--with. I look up to find that someone has sent flowers...not to wilt upon the grave, but to dance alive, with me.