Archive | January, 2016

Nighttime Revery

20 Jan

It is the dead of winter and the moon is waxing gibbous. Not a cloud that I can see. On nights such as this, it is good to walk, so I set out onto the trails to the west in search of nothing. I needed the emptiness, and my dog needed her dose of the primordial. I began cautiously, allowing my eyes to adjust to the nighttime until the moon’s reflection on the snow appeared bright, like part of some ancient dawn. A bit of timeless chill worked into me for a moment. And like the beginning of any walk, my mind was focused on the wonder of what was to come. After several dozen steps through the snow, I stopped to collect the intelligence of the night. And my dog, like her owner, paused for reconnaissance – hers of the olfactory variety. To our flanks were sparse trees and deeper forest beyond. Ahead, open meadows of luminous snowdrift interspersed with fallen trees lit our path forward.

Where will this take me? Why walk in the night in the heart of winter? Because, my heart says, it is where you need to be. The days are full of chatter and quickness, and your mind is tired. The falling snow is softer and slower, and the warmth you find will come in due time as you walk your way into emptiness.

There is no one here. I look up to the sky and a single bright cloud is drifting its way east. I stop and listen. There is nothing more silent, more settled than the insulated night of snow and woods. Even the sounds we do hear, though clear and real, are somehow dampened, like in a small, padded room. Somewhere below these mountains is a city; I can see the glow on the lone cloud that found the eastern horizon. I feel safe here because even death out here would be more secure than the heightened state of the world below. And…there is no one here. So we continue up an open hill toward the woods.

Several minutes later I am breathing deeply.  And I am warm. We come to an overlook where the river valley below yields to forested slopes and then a winter tundra above. One last look, and then down the other side of the hill.  We find ourselves in a broad, wooded basin. I sense something different in these lowlands, and I stop again to listen. My dog is a good scout; she stops with me and puts her nose in the air. Her ears perk, and she freezes, pinning her eyes on something through the woods. All my senses are engaged, and I am ready to protect her from whatever is out there.

But I couldn’t see it. At least not for a few seconds. I worked hard with my eyes, squeezing them shut and then opening them again – a trick I learned to pass military vision tests. Finally, movement. My mind then worked to finish the puzzle, and an image of an enormous moose came into focus. There, in the snowy woods, she looked toward us, her head turning as slowly as my vision became clear. What she was thinking, I can’t know. What I was thinking, I can know. “I am the only human experiencing this moment, this particular moment.” And I am no one, just a figure in the emptiness looking at some other being.

The world was quiet, but in some subconscious nostalgia for survival, I was ready to defend my dog with my life.  The moment, lucid and serene despite my heartbeat, turned into minutes.  In those silent minutes, where all tension of primal minds and bodies stood ready, something gave way. As in, I got out of the way of these matters. And then, like Rumi’s love with God, my body and mind were clear and bright and part of the crisp emptiness. After letting the expansion move through me, we continued on stealthily through the night, my senses more open than before. I had a settled and restful feeling – the kind of feeling that comes after making long and beautiful love. Only, if that is the case, I had just made love with the divine.
some death

Finding Love In Solitude

12 Jan

“Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.”  – bell hooks

This evening I built another fire. A fire with wood that I split alone, stacked alone, and carried inside alone. I found childlike delight in the process, choosing each log individually, brushing off the snow, and positioning it for ideal splitting. Every movement, every motion, was different from the last. No swing of the mull was like another, and yet there was a beautiful repetition and form that I repeated over and over again. The process, which began months ago with a dead tree in the woods, ended in this fire that warms my house and my heart.

My heart, like all hearts, needs warming. And the heart of this winter has brought many challenges: the anniversary of my father’s departure from this world, the end of a long relationship, and my sister’s close call with death just days ago. Behind the simple joy of cutting wood and building fires looms a shadow that I cannot shake. From all outward appearances, the shadow is an utterly frightening place, an abode of deep loss, desolation, loneliness, and immense vulnerability.

When I encounter this place, I want to run. The primitives in my mind – the lone animal in me that sees a predator or stumbles to the edge of a chasm – tell me to move as far away from this place as possible. “Find people, find love, find companionship,” it shouts. “If you stay alone, you will be eaten.” And while this is true in the natural world of packs, clans, herds, and flocks, the spiritual world may demand something else.  So I think about how “Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.”

When a friend shared the above quote by bell hooks, she had no idea just how pertinent it would be for me in the weeks to come. I had been struggling for months with a decision to end my relationship. It was a decision that I knew would send me into a familiar place of existential fear and grief. And when I finally made that decision, the initial relief and newfound hope gave way to intense memories of companionship and love, which left me feeling deeply empty.

But as another comrade reminded me quite recently, a current loss opens the door to all the losses of our lifetime. As I was working the wood tonight, there was an anomaly. Just as I landed the mull perfectly on the round, some fibrous shrapnel slammed into my forehead, just above my right eye. I involuntarily fell to my knees, and after taking a moment to regain my composure, a flood of sadness followed. The sadness was about my father, whom I lost five years ago. It was about the days that we spent cutting wood together and stoking our wood stove. And it was about my sister, who just a few days ago was rushed to the hospital with a life-threatening emergency. It was about the time she and I spent playing outside, riding horses, and fortifying our beaches on the little creek below the house. When I lean into these memories and the grief surrounding them, I find abundance, warmth, and love.

Without having moments of solitude, I could not know this experience. I would have someone to distract me, to talk away the pain before I find the gold. While friends and companions are important for the soul, I know that I must be aware of when I am using them to escape the grief that is, in fact, my friend. Grief is like the sickly puppy I rescued years ago. She is now a beautiful dog who gives back every ounce of love I gave her. Grief appears empty – feels empty – on the outset. But when you are able to discover its tender underbelly, it transforms into love and light.

My plea to you, the reader: Spend time with friends and loved ones, but also take that long pause. Build a fire, all by yourself.  In lieu of a fire, light a candle and sit with yourself.  To be alone for long periods of time can give you the chance to be comfortable in your own skin, tend to the grief of a lifetime, and emerge with immense love and courage.


Tibet, 2005: Max sending wind horses into the sky. Photo: Kristin Brudevold

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