Down to Specifics

'LA River and Washington Boulevard Looking East, Santa Fe Railroad,' by Michael Light

[Image: “LA River and Washington Boulevard Looking East, Santa Fe Railroad,” by Michael Light. (Larger, higher-resolution version here.) See the quotation from Rebecca Solnit, below.]

From whiskey river:

We pass the word around; we ponder how the case is put by different people, we read the poetry; we meditate over the literature; we play the music; we change our minds; we reach an understanding. Society evolves this way. Not by shouting each other down, but by the unique capacity of unique, individual human beings to comprehend each other.

(Lewis Thomas [source])

and:

The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity.

(Graham Greene [source])

and:

Mother Talking in the Porch Swing

Inside the river is there a river?—
it could follow slow water the way
the real current follows a stiller
shore. And in your life the life that
hurries could pass, and pass its
open neighbor the earth, and its shore
the sky. To be here, and always to find
places in the current, the dreams
the river has—surely we bubbles
ought to tell about it?

Listen: One of the rooms the river has
after its bridge and its bend in the mountains
is a place waiting for the sun every
afternoon, when the sun dwells
at a slant under a log and finds
that little yellow room and a waterbug
trying to learn circles but never making
one its shadow approves. Miles later
the river tries to recall that dream,
turning with all of its twisting self
that found gravel and found it good.

Just before the ocean that river
turns on its back and side and slowly
invites the world and the air and the sky,
trying to give away everything, everything.

(William Stafford [source])

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What Comes First

'What a Chick Feels Before Hatching,' by Becca Peterson on Flickr

[Image: “What a Chick Feels Before Hatching,” by Becca Peterson. Found it on Flickr; used here under a Creative Commons license.]

From whiskey river (but just excerpted here):

Your original, fundamental position is prior to consciousness. This “prior to consciousness” identity that you are cannot be named at all. From this unnameable, non-conceptual source, which is your original, innate nature, arises the sense of conscious presence. This is also the sense of being, the experience that “I am,” or the bare fact of knowing that you are. This is the first appearance or experience upon your original state. Within this consciousness state emerges the mind, the body and the entire world of appearances. Little can be said about your original state because it is clearly beyond all concepts and even prior to consciousness. Some pointers that have been used are: non-conceptual awareness, awareness unaware of itself, pure being (beyond being and non-being), the absolute, the unmanifest, noumenon, cognizing emptiness, no thing — to name only a few.

This non-conceptual awareness or being is what you are. It is pure non-duality or unicity in which both subject and object are merged. Just as the sun does not know light because it is light, so you do not know your original nature (as an object) because you are that. It is forever beyond the grasp of concepts and subject-object knowledge. Yet it is entirely evident and inescapable as that in you (which is you) that allows you to say with utter certitude “I am” and “I know that I am.” Even when those words subside, you are. Even when the consciousness that knows those words subsides, you are. Consciousness is the light of creation. But you, as the unnameable source, are the primordial awareness, being or no thing (call it what you will) in which consciousness comes and goes.

(John Wheeler [source (in somewhat different words)])

and:

The present rearranges the past. We never tell the story whole because a life isn’t a story; it’s a whole Milky Way of events and we are forever picking out constellations from it to fit who and where we are.

(Rebecca Solnit [source])

Like the quotations above? All credit, then, to the anonymous (and unknown to me) whiskey river blogger — who shared them this past week, and who has been inspiring me for over ten years. Below, some relevant (?) discoveries of my own, along the same lines. (More info here.)

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Present But Unaccounted For

'Absence,' by Derrick Tyson on Flickr

[Image: “Absence,” by Derrick Tyson on Flickr. (Used here under a Creative Commons license.)]

From whiskey river:

Sometimes I get mail for people who lived in my home before I did, and sometimes my own body seems like a home through which successive people have passed like tenants, leaving behind memories, habits, scars, skills, and other souvenirs.

(Rebecca Solnit [source])

and:

We are not idealized wild things.

We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.

(Joan Didion [source])

and:

Standing Alone

Empty skies. And beyond, one hawk.
Between river banks, two white gulls
Drift and flutter. Fit for an easy kill,
To and fro, they follow contentment.

Dew shrouds grasses. Spiderwebs are still
Not gathered in. The purpose driving
Heaven become human now, I stand where
Uncounted sorrows begin beginning alone.

(Tu Fu [source])

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The Familiar, the New

'Hiraethm,' by Stewart Black on Flickr

[Image: “Hiraeth,” by Stewart Black. Found it at Flickr.com, and used here under a Creative Commons license. For more on the idea of hiraeth, see the passage below by Paula Petro.]

From whiskey river:

Theories of Time and Space

You can get there from here, though
there’s no going home.

Everywhere you go will be somewhere
you’ve never been. Try this:

head south on Mississippi 49, one-
by-one mile markers ticking off

another minute of your life. Follow this
to its natural conclusion — dead end

at the coast, the pier at Gulfport where
riggings of shrimp boats are loose stitches

in a sky threatening rain. Cross over
the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand

dumped on a mangrove swamp — buried
terrain of the past. Bring only

what you must carry — tome of memory
its random blank pages. On the dock

where you board the boat for Ship Island,
someone will take your picture:

the photograph — who you were —
will be waiting when you return

(Natasha Trethewey [source])

and:

The desire to go home that is a desire to be whole, to know where you are, to be the point of intersection of all the lines drawn through all the stars, to be the constellation-maker and the center of the world, that center called love. To awaken from sleep, to rest from awakening, to tame the animal, to let the soul go wild, to shelter in darkness and blaze with light, to cease to speak and be perfectly understood.

(Rebecca Solnit [source])

and:

The Destination

I wanted something, I wanted. I could not have it.
Irremediable rock of refusal, this world thick with bird song,
tender with starfish and apples.
How calming it is to say, “Turn right at the second corner,”
and be understood,
and see things arrive as they should at their own destination.
Yet we speak in riddles —
“Turn back at the silence.” “Pass me the mountain.”
To the end we each nod, pretending to understand.

(Jane Hirshfield [source])

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At the Edge of Enough

'All I See Is Gold,' by Billy Wilson on Flickr

[Image: “All I See Is Gold,” by Billy Wilson on Flickr.com. (Used here under a Creative Commons license.) Says the photographer: “I took this this evening — the windchill was unbelievable. This is the edge of the ice at the end of a pier in the Saint Mary’s River. There is enough current at the end on the pier that the water doesn’t freeze there in the winter.”]

From whiskey river:

Eighty-three problems

There is a story of a man who came to see the Buddha because he had heard that the Buddha was a great teacher. He had some problems in his life, and he thought the Buddha might be able to help him straighten them out.

The Buddha listened patiently to the man as he laid out all his difficulties and worries, and then waited for the Buddha to say the words that would put everything right for him.

The Buddha said, “I can’t help you.””What do you mean?” said the man.

“Everybody’s got problems,” said the Buddha. “In fact, we’ve all got eighty-three problems, each one of us. Eighty-three problems, and there’s nothing you can do about it. If you work really hard on one of them, maybe you can fix it — but if you do, another one will pop right into its place.”

The man was furious. “I thought you were a great teacher! I thought you could help me!”

The Buddha said, “Well, maybe it will help you with the eighty-fourth problem.”

“The eighty-fourth problem?” said the man. “What’s the eighty-fourth problem?”

The Buddha said, “You want to not have any problems.”

(Steve Hagen [source (in slightly different words)])

and:

If the boundaries of the self are defined by what we feel, then those who cannot feel even for themselves shrink within their own boundaries, while those who feel for others are enlarged, and those who feel compassion for all beings must be boundless. They are not separate, not alone, not lonely, not vulnerable in the same way as those of us stranded in the islands of ourselves, but they are vulnerable in other ways. Still, that sense of the dangers of feeling for others is so compelling that many withdraw, and develop elaborate stories to justify withdrawal, and then forget that they have shrunk. Most of us do, one way or another.

(Rebecca Solnit [source])

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Forever Beginning

'Âmes entrelacés par la lumière,' by user viewminder on Flickr.com

[Image: “Âmes entrelacés par la lumière,” by user Viewminder on Flickr.com. (Used here under a Creative Commons license.) Translation, per Google Translate: Souls intertwined by light.]

From whiskey river:

I wish that I could put up yesterday’s evening sky for all posterity, could preserve a night of love, the sound of a mountain stream, a realization as it sets my mind afire, a dance, a day of harmony, ten thousand glorious days of clouds that will instead vanish and never be seen again, line them up in jars where they might be admired in the interim and tasted again as needed.

(Rebecca Solnit [source])

and (italicized portion*):

We like to think that we are finely evolved creatures, in suit-and-tie or pantyhose-and-chemise, who live many millennia and mental detours away from the cave, but that’s not something our bodies are convinced of. We may have the luxury of being at the top of the food chain, but our adrenaline still rushes when we encounter real or imaginary predators. We even restage that primal fright by going to monster movies. We still stake out or mark our territories, though sometimes now it is with the sound of radios. We still jockey for position and power. We still create works of art to enhance our senses and add even more sensations to the brimming world, so that we can utterly luxuriate in the spectacles of life. We still ache fiercely with love, lust, loyalty, and passion. And we still perceive the world, in all its gushing beauty and terror, right on our pulses. There is no other way.  To begin to understand the gorgeous fever that is consciousness, we must try to understand the senses — how they evolved, how they can be extended, what their limits are, to which ones we have attached taboos, and what they can teach us about the ravishing world we have the privilege to inhabit.

(Diane Ackerman [source])

and:

Begin

Begin again to the summoning birds
to the sight of the light at the window,
begin to the roar of morning traffic
all along Pembroke Road.
Every beginning is a promise
born in light and dying in dark
determination and exaltation of springtime
flowering the way to work.
Begin to the pageant of queuing girls
the arrogant loneliness of swans in the canal
bridges linking the past and future
old friends passing though with us still.
Begin to the loneliness that cannot end
since it perhaps is what makes us begin,
begin to wonder at unknown faces
at crying birds in the sudden rain
at branches stark in the willing sunlight
at seagulls foraging for bread
at couples sharing a sunny secret
alone together while making good.
Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.

(Brendan Kennelly [source])

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Caminante, No Hay Camino

'Those footsteps, deep into the silence,' by Aurelio Aslain (user 'ionushi') on Flickr

[Image: “Those footsteps, deep into the silence,” by Aurelio Aslain (user “ionushi”) on Flickr. (Used under a Creative Commons license.) Aslain exhibited this photo with a poem reproduced below.]

From whiskey river:

Where does it start? Muscles tense. One leg a pillar, holding the body upright between the earth and sky. The other a pendulum, swinging from behind. Heel touches down. The whole weight of the body rolls forward onto the ball of the foot. The big toe pushes off, and the delicately balanced weight of the body shifts again. The legs reverse position. It starts with a step and then another step and then another that add up like taps on a drum to a rhythm, the rhythm of walking. The most obvious and the most obscure thing in the world, this walking that wanders so readily into religion, philosophy, landscape, urban policy, anatomy, allegory, and heartbreak.

Thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking. Walking itself is the intentional act closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart. It strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing. It is a bodily labor that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals.

Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.

The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts. This creates an odd consonance between internal and external passage, one that suggests that the mind is also a landscape of sorts and that walking is one way to traverse it. A new thought often seems like a feature of the landscape that was there all along, as though thinking were traveling rather than making. And so one aspect of the history of walking is the history of thinking made concrete — for the motions of the mind cannot be traced, but those of the feet can.

(Rebecca Solnit [source])

…and:

Until Even the Angels

What the heart wants
is to follow its true passion,
to lie down with it
near the reeds beside
the river,
to devour it in the caves
between the desert dunes,
to sing its notes
into the morning sky
until even the angels
wake up
and take notice
and look around
for their beloved.

(Dorothy Walters [source])

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Getting There and Finding Here

'From Here to There,' by user 'allaboutgeorge' on Flickr

[Photo: “From Here to There,” by user “allaboutgeorge” on Flickr. (Used under a Creative Commons license.) The installation (called “HERETHERE” for obvious reasons) straddles the boundary between Berkeley and Oakland, California; some believe that it’s a sculptural joke based on Gertrude Stein’s “There is no there there” quip, which referred to Oakland. You can read about the original project proposal here.]

From whiskey river:

A labyrinth is an ancient device that compresses a journey into a small space, winds up a path like thread on a spool. It contains beginning, confusion, perseverance, arrival, and return. There at last the metaphysical journey of your life and your actual movements are one and the same. You may wander, may learn that in order to get to your destination you must turn away from it, become lost, spin about, and then only after the way has become overwhelming and absorbing, arrive, having gone the great journey without having gone far on the ground.

(Rebecca Solnit [source])

and:

I don’t mean it’s easy or assured, there are the stubborn stumps of shame, grief that remains unsolvable after all the years, a bag of stones that goes with one wherever one goes and however the hour may call for dancing and for light feet. But there is, also, the summoning world, the admirable energies of the world, better than anger, better than bitterness and, because more interesting, more alleviating. And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe—that is to say, having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life.

(Mary Oliver [source]) [Read more…]

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A Day of Small Things

'Invasion of Nature,' by user AndreasS on Flickr

[Image: “Invasion of Nature,” by user AndreasS on Flickr. (Used under a Creative Commons license.)]

From whiskey river:

The contemplation of nature has two correlative aspects. First, it means appreciating the “thusness” or “thisness” of particular things, persons and moments. We are to see each stone, each leaf, each blade of grass, each frog, each human face, for what it truly is, in all the distinctness and intensity of its specific being. As the prophet Zechariah warns us, we are not to “despise the day of small things.” “True mysticism”, says Olivier Clément, “is to discover the extraordinary in the ordinary.”

(Kallistos Ware [source])

and (italicized portion):

The things that make our lives are so tenuous, so unlikely, that we barely come into being, barely meet the people we’re meant to love, barely find our way in the woods, barely survive catastrophe every day

Everyone has stories of the small coincidence by which their parents met or their grandmother was saved from fire or their grandfather from the grenade, of the choice made by the most whimsical means that led to everything else, whether you’re blessed or cursed or both. Trace it back far enough and this very moment in your life becomes a rare species, the result of a strange evolution, a butterfly that should already be extinct and survives by the inexplicabilities we call coincidence. The word is often used to mean the accidental but literally means to fall together. The patterns of our lives come from those things that do not drift apart but move together for a little while, like dancers.

(Rebecca Solnit [source])

and:

A Blessing for Wedding

Today when persimmons ripen
Today when fox-kits come out of their den into snow
Today when the spotted egg releases its wren song
Today when the maple sets down its red leaves
Today when windows keep their promise to open
Today when fire keeps its promise to warm
Today when someone you love has died
or someone you never met has died
Today when someone you love has been born
or someone you will not meet has been born
Today when rain leaps to the waiting of roots in their dryness
Today when starlight bends to the roofs of the hungry and tired
Today when someone sits long inside his last sorrow
Today when someone steps into the heat of her first embrace
Today, let this light bless you
With these friends let it bless you
With snow-scent and lavender bless you
Let the vow of this day keep itself wildly and wholly
Spoken and silent, surprise you inside your ears
Sleeping and waking, unfold itself inside your eyes
Let its fierceness and tenderness hold you
Let its vastness be undisguised in all your days

(Jane Hirshfield [source])

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Perspectives, Inside-Out

Thangka painted with OM, AH, and HUNG characters (reversed)

[Image: the caption at Flickr says only: “Reversed (original): OM AH HUNG, Mind Speech Body, blessing letters on the reverse of a Tibetan Buddhist Thankga, red ink, Seattle, Washington, USA: written in reverse so they are correct from the deities (sic) point of view.”]

From whiskey river:

But the real difficulties, the real arts of survival, seem to lie in more subtle realms. There, what’s called for is a kind of resilience of the psyche, a readiness to deal with what comes next. These captives lay out in a stark and dramatic way what goes on in every life: the transitions whereby you cease to be who you were. Seldom is it as dramatic, but nevertheless, something of this journey between the near and the far goes on in every life. Sometimes an old photograph, an old friend, an old letter will remind you that you are not who you once were, for the person who dwelt among them, valued this, chose that, wrote thus, no longer exists. Without noticing it you have traversed a great distance; the strange has become familiar and the familiar if not strange at least awkward or uncomfortable, an outgrown garment. And some people travel far more than others. There are those who receive as birthright an adequate or at least unquestioned sense of self and those who set out to reinvent themselves, for survival or for satisfaction, and travel far. Some people inherit values and practices as a house they inhabit; some of us have to burn down that house, find our own ground, build from scratch, even as a psychological metamorphosis.

(Rebecca Solnit [source])

and:

Empty me of the bitterness and disappointment
of being nothing but myself
Immerse me in the mystery of reality
Fill me with love for the truly afflicted
that hopeless love, if need be
make me one of them again —
Awaken me to the reality of this place
and from the longed-for or remembered place
And more than this, behind each face
induct, oh introduce me in-
to the halting disturbed ungrammatical soundless
words of others’ thoughts
not the drivel coming out of our mouths
Blot me out, fill me with nothing but consciousness
of the holiness, the meaning
of these unseeable, all
these unvisitable worlds which surround me:
others’ actual thoughts — everything
I can’t perceive yet
know

know it is there.

(Franz Wright [source])

and:

We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.

(G. K. Chesterton [source])

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