Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Solace of Blank

Florence, Italy
Florence, Italy, taken in February 1987

Written in response to Sunday Scribblings prompt #121, "Solace."

Once in a great while I enter a state of mind where everything about me drops away. My goals, my identity, my name.

No pressure. No frustration. No worries.

The feeling doesn't last long.

It took me by surprise the first time. I sat stunned, stripped of all masks. I just was.

One might call it a state of psychological and spiritual free-fall. Or, in a way, a state of grace....(continued)

It wasn't frightening or uncomfortable. The first time it happened it was confusing, and then it was fascinating. It was like taking a mini-vacation from myself. After a moment or two, I was back to being "me."

Self-Portrait in the Tongass National Forest

I've always liked this photo of myself, taken back in August 1992 using my camera's auto-release feature. I was hiking alone in the Tongass National Forest in Juneau, Alaska. The Tongass is the largest national forest in the U.S. (almost 17 million acres). It is a temperate rainforest, with leaves the size of dinner plates.

I was in a meditative, serene state of mind when that shot was taken.

Some time afterwards I dreamt that I was looking at that photo and I had no idea who the woman in the picture was. She seemed nice enough. The dream wasn't troubling at all, but it left me with a curious sensation upon awakening.

Other instances in which I am stripped away occur when I am awake, and then only briefly. I can count those moments on the fingers of one hand.

Summit of Bartolome, Galapagos Islands
Galapagos Islands, taken from the summit of Bartolome, July 1984.

I've heard that some people have had trouble when visiting the Galapagos Islands, suffering from a sense of alienation, at least when I was there almost 25 years ago (one of 12 people living on a 40-foot fishing boat for a week. It was heaven). Back then there was a single human settlement, Pto. Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz. The rest of the archipelago belonged to the wildlife.

I didn't have that difficulty. Quite the opposite. In such places I am, for a time, not overly conscious of being human. My sense of self diffuses: I am mammal, animal, carbon-based life form, whatever. I am not separated or alienated from my surroundings but communing with them. Barriers drop away.

Climbing the Darwin Steps
(Bartolome, Galapagos Islands, July 1984)

As though we were
creatures submerged, who needed to get out
somewhere, surface
some way out of some fathomless
ocean, this is what it is like,
we knew, to evolve.
To pass some barrier to change
and thrive.
It is natural,
that we should have had to climb
as Darwin climbed.
To lift cameras and backpacks,
notebooks and vestigial preconceptions
up those torturous logs anchored by posts,
sunworn-white and designed for the footsteps
of giants.
To cover
what from a distance
looked like the bleached bones
of a snake's spine
coiling to the top of a volcanic cone.
So that once we reached the summit
we were, indeed, chemically altered,
unable to explain ourselves
as we gazed back through layers of time
under a sere, equatorial sun.

Published in Anthology Twenty-One, Florida State Poets Association, 2003.

A starry night will do the same thing. Sure, the heavens make me feel small, but in a comforting way. I greet constellations and planets the way I do old friends.

White Rock Overlook
White Rock Overlook in New Mexico, August 1990

I sat and meditated at this spot for a long time. Behind me lay a playing field and a subdivision of houses that looked transplanted straight out of the Northeast. White Rock is a suburb of Los Alamos, where in the Bradbury Museum I saw (but did not photograph) a little girl fast asleep on a bench in front of a wall-sized mural showing a crater blasted away by a nuclear bomb test.

Being nothing -- not in a derogatory way but in a transcendant one -- has its advantages.

Taku Glacier, Juneau, Alaska
Taken from a helicopter flying over the Taku Glacier in Juneau, Alaska, August 1992.

So does blind faith, when everything else is stripped away. When I am most troubled, I need to take what I call a "side step." It's a psycho-spiritual version of swimming perpendicular to an undertow. It's a way to keep from drowning. Sometimes getting to the side step takes a while, because finding it is hard when one is directionless.

"If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark." -- St. Juan de la Cruz, 1542-1591. Thanks to Paula C. ("magic fly paula") for making me aware of the quote here.

Kantju Gorge, Uluru
Kantju Gorge, Uluru (Ayers Rock), Australia, August 1991.

Over the decades I've been driven to share the visionary part of me -- mostly in writing, but also in music and art. Drives, when met, can be wonderful things. A sense of purpose can be an anchor in the world. My current convention-hopping, publicity-seeking, and networking kick all of that into full-throttle for me.

It can be scary sometimes.

Sometimes being "nothing" offers as much comfort as the adventure I'm on. It is a waystation. It is Being.

And sometimes just Being is enough.

The View From Fort Belvedere
(Florence, Italy, February 1987)

This fort belongs to the children now --
and the young, hands around each other's waists,
denim jackets, legs dangling over the top railings
too high for official safety,
over row after row of round, red-tiled roofs.
Sunlight glistens on gleaming terra cotta pools,
the pastel sides of buildings
bearing bleached outlines of gods and goddesses,
heroes and myth
once sharply etched and painted -- now
fading behind the bars of streaked rain.

Here on Ft. Belvedere there is grass,
benches, ramps interrupted by transverse rises --
as though someone had taken flights of stairs
and shaken them out,
and let the steps fall angled, dominoes tipped.

Down below, Via Santa Lorenzo twists
like a serpent. Scooters race
between ten-foot-tall walls crumbling
into a countryside of cypresses and rolling hills
mounded, like Firenze roads, one
upon the other,
layered, all things possible,
past, present and future

Even as Florence crumbles, it is gold,
gold leaf, gold dust, sacred swirls
raised by Dante Aligheri's feet, larger than life
by the Church of Santa Croce. Shaded mosaics
pieced together fine as tender brush strokes
meet with parallelograms of cobbled roads.
The Duomo rises like a sun off the horizon,
like a planet, a biosphere of Brunneleschi's labors
and inside -- angels...

The young, at the Fort
call to each other...
cluster on the sun-lit grass in a perpetual Spring.
Some will enter dark, plaster corners
to work with wood, with leather and swirled fumes
of varnish and preservative. Others
will step off the street and into sudden atria,
centered pools, birdsong lilted from the skies.
Will gather the sacred knowledge of restoration -- as
each Florentian generation learns
how to put the gold dust back.

Then, like ruby fish
hatched at the mouth of the Arno
each spirit, one by one will rise in blinding color
and form, texturing the city into new light and shadow.
Streaking the air, each incoming flight
traverses a mosaic of spirals, of Euclidean angles,
cypresses and cathedrals, the towers of palazzos.
Laughing in the sunlight, the children run
up and down the ramps of Ft. Belvedere,
the Arno a finger pointing beyond.
Sending them
to paint a new patina
of forever.

Covenant, the first volume in the Deviations Series, is available from Aisling Press, and from AbeBooks, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Book Territory, Borders,,,, DEAstore,,,,, Powell's Books, and Target. Deviations: Appetite is now available for pre-order at Barnes and Noble. The Deviations page has additional details.


Blogger Beth Camp said...

Your writing places me in the world, every word spinning connections between nature, history and the mystery of being. A wonderful, inspiring post. I shall return.

1:20 PM  

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