Pull the cord, ignite the spark, betray the dark and feed the dream…
Stare away into the night and check your sight, head for the stars.
~ Michael Kang
I step onto the back deck and slip elegantly into my mud caked rubber boots. “Elegantly” you say? I put that in there just to see if you were paying attention or perhaps you are already distracted by the allure of another screen? I mean who the hell slips into rubber boots elegantly? Grace Kelly perhaps but certainly not yours truly.
Let’s begin again.
I step onto the back deck, cram (yes that’s more like it) my feet into my cold rubber boots. As I hasten off the deck in the darkness, I nearly fall on my ass on the frosty boards. Whew that was close. I continue on, as my heart thumps inside my chest, following a well-known path, feeling the wood chips beneath my feet. A metallic clink of the gate later and I am into the inky black darkness of the orchard. I turn towards the moveable chicken coop and see the silhouette of hens against the dark southern night sky. It’s a seeming world away from our light polluted back yard. As my eyes adjust, pupils enlarging to allow in more light, stars and planets emerge from the black night sky high overhead. Before I continue on with my task – putting the chickens in for the night – I stare up, amazed at all the twinkling light. “Twinkle twinkles” is what one young Kenyan kid called them. There is no more endearing or truthful name for stars in my book. It slowly dawns (perhaps “dusks” on me would be a more appropriate phrase) on me that most of what I see is dark and darkness. There is so much of it, in fact, that one can easily conclude that it is the foundation of everything.
And we have betrayed it by illuminating everything, perhaps in overcompensation for our fears. And now we have too much light and not enough dark. We have so much light that many of us find it difficult to sleep, to turn off, to unplug, and to rest. As Clark Strand says in his forthcoming book “Waking Up to the Dark: Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age”:
There’s no getting away from the light. There are fluorescent lights and halogen lights, stadium lights, streetlights, stoplights, headlights and billboard lights. There are night lights to stand sentinel in hallways, and the lit screens of cellphones to feed our addiction to information, even in the middle of the night. No wonder we have trouble sleeping. The lights are always on.
And so while I love the symbology of light during our darkest time of the year (winter solstice), it may be best to turn off the lights and honor the dark. Let’s celebrate a time of year when we can slow down, be quiet and be still. Let’s simply stare up into the dark night sky and wonder at all there is, all there isn’t and all that we cannot see. And perhaps we will then realize that the universe is really, fundamentally and truly made up of stuff that we cannot see. This doesn’t mean “being in the dark” (i.e., ignorant); rather being delightfully and deliciously in the darkness.
“Silent and serene…
Inner illumination restores wonder.”
Crunch went our boots on the thin layer of snow as we searched for the right tree. Saying it was a thin layer of snow is stretching it. It had clearly snowed a bit the previous night but what remained late the following morning were small patches: thin in depth and crystalline in form. It was just enough to add some excitement and danger (due to slipping) to our purpose, finding a Christmas tree. Now I say “Christmas” but I don’t necessarily mean that in any sort of Christian or consumeristic way. I could easily, and perhaps more truthfully, call it a winter solstice tree. While words are an important indicator of our current thinking and influence our future outlook they are also just words and never the thing itself. They are approximations just as thoughts are. And so I call it a Christmas tree because of where and how I was raised and we will just leave it at that. We bring this potent symbol of life into our house to remind us of all that lives during this season of darkness and the slowing down of our life cycles.
We meandered along the ridge, weaving our way through a diverse assemblage of trees and shrubs: Douglas-fir, Shasta red fir, Jeffrey/ponderosa pine, western white/sugar pine, incense cedar and manzanita. Maddie giggled as a manzanita shrub grabbed ahold of her and wouldn’t let go, which became a running joke for us throughout the morning. With crispness to the air and the snow-capped Trinity Alps in the distance, it felt like winter and the right time to be out in the mountains picking out a tree. With Juniper crying in the background and our patience waning, we left the choice up to Maddie. She looked around and didn’t hesitate when she pointed and said, “That one”. It was a western white/sugar pine (the reason for the dash is because without cones or mature bark I can’t say with certainty which of these two species it is), the right size and a beautiful tree. I quickly sawed it down and we were soon on our way singing merrily until the two girls fell contentedly asleep.
Back home we got the tree up and were soon trimming the tree. This is a special time for us as we unwrap our eclectic family of ornaments, remembering who or where we got them from. An icecream cone that I made as a kid, the star that was on my parent’s tree and their parent’s tree before them, a sheep made in 1988, the gaudy fluffy pink ball from Kristin’s now deceased granny, and the Cazenovia ornaments that my (now deceased) mom gave me seemingly each year in my stocking (or was it Santa that did that?). We think about and remember those that are gone, those that are still with us but far away and those that are close at hand. We recollect the places we have lived and the people who shaped our lives during those times. We chatter, we laugh, we cry and sometimes we are silent. The lights and the ornaments silently illuminate our tree and our living room. I am reminded of the power of light, both literally and symbolically, at this time of year when darkness reigns.
And especially at this time of year, but not exclusively, we are deeply grateful for the power of light to keep the darkness at bay and the strength and love of those that continue to illuminate our lives.
Early this morning just after the sun broke its way through the dark blue-gray storm clouds, releasing its light for a brief moment in radiant ray and partial rainbow, I spoke with raven again. “Was it the same raven as yesterday”, I wondered. We called back and forth to each other, he saying hello in his language and me responding in raven-language, as skeins of wild geese flew high overhead, going north (from Humboldt Bay to foraging grounds?). Beautiful and moving scene – rather than attempt to express my feelings and thoughts in vain, I turn to the words of another, far more poetic.
I hope you enjoy this poem as much as I always do:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
One evening, in a discussion of his personal problems, Raven asked Brown Bear, ” What is the role of character in Zen practice?”
Brown Bear said, “I try to keep my promises.”
Raven said, “I try to keep my promises too, but I’m easily distracted.”
Brown Bear said, “The cold wind reminds me.”
~ Robert Aitken
“Brronk, brronk! Brronk, brronk!” I heard the sound, a deep baritone voice, and even before I could think that much about it, I was outside looking skyward. High atop a Monterey cypress, I saw the dark figure. I called back to it, doing my best to imitate a voice not my own and not my peoples. “Brronk, brronk”, I called back masking my humanness with an avian tone. It responded with a similar tone and cadence. I responded with my best corvid croakiness. “Brronk brronk”. And then I switched things up to illustrate to my older daughter the difference between a raven’s voice and that of a crow. “Aawww aawww”, I said. And as if to prove me wrong, the raven came back with a crow-like “kaaw kaaw”. A practitioner of imitation, a master of language and a right intelligent bird!
A northwest Native American tale from the Haida talks about raven’s voice:
“As you know the raven has two voices, one harsh and strident, and the other one….a seductive, bell-like croon which seems to come from the depth of the sea, or out of the cave where the winds are born. It is an irresistible sound, one of the loveliest in the world.”
I know the sound that is “harsh and strident” and I find it irresistible as well. Upon hearing it, if I am outside, I immediately fall into conversation with raven as well call back and forth, saying much talking of nothing.
Today this is just what I needed; to be drawn outside, both physically and mentally and both outside of the house and outside of myself. Yesterday I sat all day in a square room with no windows, no skylights (no natural light at all), no fresh air and no connection to the outdoors except for the occasional escapee from our conference. The conference was actually quite good but the way I felt after spending an entire day inside the inside (a completely interior room) was strange. I felt disconnected and not me. I felt off-balanced and off-center.
There are numerous stories involving raven throughout the Pacific northwest of North America but certain characteristics of raven remain the same. Raven is often a magical creature who is able to take the form of human, animal and inanimate object, and is seen as a trickster focused on satisfying his own gluttony (a trickster much like coyote as told in other parts of North America). Stories with raven often tell of how worldly things came to be, including first humans, and highlight his creativity and cunning.
One has to be careful with raven for his cunning and intelligence are usually used to satisfy his own desires (recently we have found ravens inside our chicken coop stealing eggs). Perhaps raven uses language and conversation to bring you in and to gain your confidence in order to deceive you in some way. This is what the northwest Native America stories would lead me to believe. But just as raven has two distinct voices, perhaps he has two distinct roles to play: one of trickster and one of weaver. Through language, we all weave a carpet of truth and fiction, one of past, present and future. And a conversation is really the use of language to connect and reconnect with one another and with the world around us. I don’t know what raven was saying to me today; perhaps he was trying to trick me in some way, but I know what I felt. I felt back in balance and centered again and reconnected with myself and the world. And after a bizarre day stuck way inside, that was the right trick for me.
You don’t have to run anywhere to become someone else. You are wonderful just the way you are.
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
The angled rays of the late afternoon, winter sun give a diffused glow to the forest as I run past sitka spruce, grand fir and redwood. My footfalls, softened by the thick needle cast of the redwood, pound a gentle rhythm as I speed along the trail. Mud oozes in between my toes as I cross bare spots, wet with the recent rains. I turn off trail number 2 and start my ascent up the steep incline of trial number 3. My breathing changes from in and out through my nose to heavier mouth breathing. I am panting and my increased breathing adds to the sounds all around: the soft tinkling of water flowing, a light wind through the trees, a varied thrush, my footfalls and my breathing. My aim is to get some exercise, feel good (whatever that means; “good” being perhaps the most vague adjective in the English language), and be outside in a beautiful place. What I really want to be doing is just running, aimlessly. By aimless I don’t mean that I am running haphazardly through the forest which would be hazardous; rather I mean without a wish, aim or goal. Just running, like when we were kids.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen master, poet and peace activist once wrote:
It is our tendency in daily life to become goal oriented. We know where we want to go, and we are very focused on getting there. At times, this may be useful, but often we forget to enjoy ourselves along the way. Apranihita is a Sanskrit word meaning “wishlessness” or “aimlessness.” We don’t need to keep running after something, because everything is already here, within. Often we tell ourselves, “Don’t just sit there, do something!” But when we practice awareness, we discover that the opposite may be more helpful: “Don’t just do something, sit there!” We can train ourselves to stop from time to time throughout the day, to come back to the present and let go of our worries and preoccupations. When our minds and bodies are calm, we can see our situations more clearly and we know better what to do and what not to do.
Maddie calls to me from up the street, “run with me papa!” I hesitate, as any self-respecting adult would. Why would I run, I think, unless perhaps it will get me home quicker. Why would I run for no purpose at all? And geeze what if Maddie trips and falls? She would get hurt for sure and I don’t want to see that happen. All of this is going rapidly through my mind as I hear her beckon to me again, “come on papa, run with me!” Another brief moment of hesitation and then I can resist her joyful request no longer. I run, starting off slowly and with trepidation. It is not cool for an adult to run or dare I skip down the street. Someone might think I am nuts but I do so anywhere. I finally let go of myself and we run, skip, hop and laugh our way down the street. I have nowhere to go and no aim. I am simply running and giggling as I go along. We stop and catch our breath, looking back at Kristin and Juniper. They are a ways back; so with a sparkle of delight in our eyes, we yell to them, “RUN!”