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Birth

Near my home, in the woods where I walk, there is a place along the trail marked by a large boulder. The boulder is taller than me and for a long time I had intended on climbing it. Finally, one day, after the first snowfall, I left the trail, approached the boulder for a closer look, and discovered that near it, and behind it, the deer and the rabbits had made a lesser path leading deeper into the woods. I immediately abandoned the boulder and followed the path instead, bowing my head and my body to pass beneath the lower branches, turning first one way and then the other to weave between the trees, climbing carefully over a fallen pine. The deer, as path makers, are far simpler than men. Their paths, as a result, are arguably less efficient. They are narrow and crooked, weaving wastefully and covering more ground than is necessary. They form slowly by gentle steps and their course is determined not by an ultimate destination, which may not exist at all, but by the spaces between the trees that present the least resistance. They meander over uneven ground, where roots and rocks lie hidden and where the next step must always be taken carefully.

It’s impossible to follow the path of a deer without remaining intimately aware of the forest through which you are walking. Trees reach out to grace your shoulders with their touch. The earth rises and falls beneath you. You are conscious of where your foot will fall, but only for your next step. To follow the path requires presence of mind. Ignoring this requirement can result in unexpected scrapes and twisted ankles. You might find yourself altogether lost.

I followed the path with a sense of wonder. The trees here were no different than those surrounding the broad ATV trail, from which I’d digressed. On that trail the forest truly is wonderful, but along the deer path I felt much closer to the trees. I was closer. I brushed by them and stooped beneath them. I felt I was somewhere outside of the touch of man. I felt a part of something wild.

Eventually, I reached what became my destination. Looking up from my careful steps I saw, between the trees, a much larger boulder than the one beside the trail. It reaches half the height of the trees surrounding it and is broad enough to span at least twenty strides. On one side, the boulder is quite steep, but at the place where I approached it, it rises gradually. With moderately careful steps, even with the ice and the snow, it can easily be summited.

That first day was mild, and at the top of the boulder, along its steeper edge, I removed my coat and spread it as best I could over the snow, and then lay there, staring up at the sky. This is medicine, more than anything else I know: to breathe next to the wild trees and be in stillness beneath a sky unmarked by progress. Lying there, I begin to plot how to disentangle myself even further. Lying there, I romanticize reclusion and isolation. Lying there, I feel at home.

I lay, carefully, within the edge of what I know, pressing without pressing into the invisible, amniotic wall that omits me from the place beyond it. The confines of life, tenuous and impermanent, hold me close, but I cannot deny that as much as I exist in this life, I remain unborn. The trees rise around me like so many manifestations of longing, and I, longing to be like them, lay, unborn, atop a rock, yearning to pass through that thin, unyielding membrane, and enter something more like home than this.

I am here. And though my heart longs for something beyond this place I suspect that all boundaries are, in truth, imagined. Which isn’t to say that they do not exist, but that they exist only in the realm of our perceptions. We cast them out from that place and project them onto our understanding of things because we are desperate to make sense of it all. But our perceptions cannot actually separate life from death, or ourselves from God, or our cities from the woods. They influence our experiences, but the truth remains untouched. The truth remains the truth whether we know it or not.

When I awoke, the forest was very still. The clouds had fallen from their higher places and seemed now suspended by the branches. I stood and looked around. I noticed how the sadness, which had led me into the woods in the first place, had lessened, but was still there. I descended, with some resignation, and still with the same gratitude I always feel toward the trees when I walk mindfully among them. There is something about them that alleviates woes. It may not lift them altogether but it does something to remind us of one of the most profound and beautiful miracles, which is simply this: we exist. Rather than there being nothing, there is something. And no matter how exhaustively we attempt to prove, or validate, or protect our existence, it ultimately just is.

Weeks later, I was driving along the highway, nearly home. On either side of me, were the woods. More immediately around me was the machine that carries me from place to place. And beneath me was a very even and straight, manmade path that cuts through the forest so profoundly that it’s possible, even necessary, to ignore the trees entirely. Again, I had to recognize that there was very little, if anything, that actually separates me from it all. We’ve narrowed our perceptions so severely that we often only see the paved road in front of us, and think only of the place it is designed to take us. But these are only our perceptions, and the truth pays little attention to our narrow views.

Moments later I saw a wolf approach the edge of the highway in front of me. I slowed immediately and immediately after passing him, the wolf crossed to the other side. I turned around and pulled onto the shoulder where I drove along side him as he trotted behind the thin veil of trees. I had never seen a wolf before. We watched each other move in tandem, his eyes alight, and his body graceful. He seemed both unthreatened and unthreatening, but I wondered if our encounter would have been the same in a place where boundaries, even manufactured or imagined ones, did not exist. Could we ever regard one another with mutual respect, or have I, with all my machines, and buildings, and vain pursuits, become too foreign to one who has remained so natural?

I wander among the trees when the night brings darkness between the branches and little can be seen of the distance between us. I wander along the edge of the woods, my hand tracing a gentle line along the boundary wall, which bars me from all that I do not know. I hear the wind move, and feel it joining the space between us. I remember to forget all that I have learned about where I end and all else begins. I remember that I belong to life and that my existence is beautiful.

– C

Image from my recent series of portraits exploring masculinity

I am (a man)

I recently had the privilege of sharing the following words at the Exchange Community Church in Winnipeg where I have been showing a series of portraits of men expressing their understandings of masculinity. The following are some of my own reflections.

This past year I began revisiting an old question. It’s one that I have been asking myself throughout my adult life, sometimes earnestly and at other times with tired uncertainty. It expands with elaborations and complications until it’s completely out of my grasp and then contracts to become so simple that there’s almost nothing left of it. More expansively the question is this:

“What does it mean to be a good man, and how do my own understandings of masculinity and goodness differ from the stories told to me by my society, my culture, and the people directly around me?”

This question has remained like a recurring spark in my mind, perpetually inciting dialogue, both internally and with the men and women around me. In the past year I’ve had more intentional conversations about being a man than ever before and this has resulted not in a solution or a final answer that would lay it all to rest, but in a living, breathing interaction between individuals who are willing to express parts of themselves that might otherwise remain unspoken. I’m having a conversation that is challenging and crucial, and also long-desired.

The sense I have is that the vulnerability in men, which is stereotypically regarded as something deeply buried and often completely inaccessible, actually rests much closer to the surface and that men, when given the permission to do so, express this vulnerability readily and often with some relief. When I am vulnerable, and willing to drop the guardedness that is generally expected of men, I allow others to be vulnerable also. I offer my vulnerability to the space between us and say, “Here, it is safe.”

In speaking with and photographing the men in my recent series of portraits, I witnessed both diversity in the expressions of their experiences and also a very relatable singularity. In each case, I spoke with men who were grateful to be given an opportunity to share things that didn’t necessarily align with the notion of masculinity that had been insisted upon them throughout their lives. A real man, we are taught from a very young age, is powerful. And this power is relative and therefor sought after with some desperation. To be powerful is to be “more powerful than” – as in, “more powerful than women,” or, “more powerful than nature,” or, “more powerful than the man standing next to him”. A real man, we are taught, is physically strong. He does not cry. He does not express fear, pain, sadness, or weakness. He can express anger because it can make him appear more powerful but other uncomfortable emotions are considered unmanly. A real man, we are taught, is sexually driven and the nature of this drive is dominating and potent and not ever to be questioned or subdued. A real man amasses enough wealth to possess anything that he wants and then continues to amass more. A real man is in charge. He has power, and this power takes the form of physical strength, emotional fortitude, sexual prowess, economic success, and political leverage.

We’ve all been subjected to these ideas at some level. Regardless of our gender, sexual orientation, age, ethnicity, or economic status we have all faced these notions of masculinity and we have all had them imposed upon us. Some of us are unaware. Some of us are apathetic. Some of us know that we find them offensive and we resist them with active protest. Some of us feel victimized and powerless, as if there’s nothing we can do about it. Some of us celebrate these standards and embrace them. Some of us feel ashamed. And some of us have a strong, conscious desire to see through them, to understand them as deeply wounded perceptions in need of healing. We believe that behind these wounds there remains something beautiful, something that has become lost to us, something that is inherently ours.

This “something”, I believe, exists in every man, regardless of how unabashedly he has embraced the pursuit of masculine power, or how pathetically he has been trodden under it. This “something” has been with us since before our birth. It is not exclusive to the strongest, or the wealthiest, or the most attractive, or the most powerful. It is not exclusive to anyone and nor does it preclude anyone. Rather it equalizes all of us. In the moments when we realize this equality we have an opportunity to lay aside our power, and even become aware of the ultimate futility of that power. We can begin to live from the awareness that at the center of our being, stripped of all the signifiers of masculinity we have carefully built up around us, we are no more or less than anyone else, and though this place can feel like the most vulnerable place in the world, it is also the truest and by being courageous enough to be that exposed, we are able to express something of our essence.

As with my understanding of masculinity, my understanding of the divine is one that alternately expands with endless elaborations and then contracts into a deep and profound simplicity. In an attempt to live a life that is aligned with God I often return to a single question, which, in its most reduced form, is this:

“Am I being guided by fear, or by love?”

I apply this question to my pursuit of a masculine identity and my answer is inconsistent and at times seems contradictory. I don’t consider myself a stereotypical man, and I don’t ascribe to many of the popular notions of masculinity, but when I carefully assess my thoughts and my behavior, I can’t deny that lacing its way through many of my intentions there is a thread of fear, which has, in ways, persuaded me to take up the “masculine identity” that society has been pedaling – even when in my heart it doesn’t feel quite right. This thread of fear is a whisper and it tells me that I am not manly enough, that I am not powerful enough, that I am not valuable enough, and, ultimately, that I do not deserve love. Its promise is that if I manage to achieve a certain expression of masculinity, that if I manage to gain enough power through social status, or appearance, or by a carefully honed persona, I might then be able to attain love.

I’ve experienced love throughout my life. I’ve known it expressed through friendship, through family, and even through strangers when an unexpected act of kindness suddenly dissolves the barriers we imagine exist between us. And in all of these things I feel affirmed. I feel recognized and known. But none of these contexts for love confirms my masculine identity as clearly as does romantic love. And in no other context for love does my identity as it relates to my gender, becomes so obviously important. For some, a masculine identity might be sought more fervently in their relationship with their father, or their son, or in a group of male peers, but for myself it has always been romantic love that I have turned to as the ultimate source of love, signifier of love, and context for love – so that this question, “Am I a good man?” is easily usurped by the question, “Am I the kind of man that will be loved romantically?” For another it might be usurped by, “Am I the kind of man that will be loved by my father, or my son?”

These contexts for love aren’t wrong, they’ll just never be enough to affirm our value as men, and when we mistake these experiences of love with the source that inspires them, we make idols of one another and then seek ways to worship those idols by making the offerings we believe will be valued; offerings of our bodies, of our doctrines, our thoughts, or our power.

When I look at the magazine rack at the store it seems that the importance of a specific body type is becoming arguably as prevalent for men as it is for women. My mind tells me that it’s all a farce and that I will not become more valuable as a man if my body reflects this ideal, but I still walk away with a desire at the back of my mind to exercise more, to eat a specific way, to strive to become that ideal. I know that having a healthy body is good and important but what that looks like is not the same for everyone and even if I am able to achieve that ideal, my pursuit of it as a form of power to attract romantic love will not bring me peace. Still, the gym fills up with men and women trying to fashion their bodies into the form that we are taught is perfect, the one that will make us worthy of love, or powerful enough to attract it, the one that will finally lead us to the place of peace and love in which we long to rest.

But instead of peace, we are asked to be restless. We are asked by these depictions of a physical ideal to be restless about our own bodies and the bodies of our partners. We are asked by our materialistic and power-hungry culture to be restless in our careers. We are asked to be restless in the way we relate to others, to be restless as husbands, as fathers, as sons, and as brothers, wondering always if we have yet achieved what is being asked of us, so that surrounding our minds, in a constant buzz, in a crowd of changing voices, is this steady insistence that it is not enough to simply be. We must achieve more, distinguish ourselves further, and leave a legacy, if not in the world at large, at least among our peers and our family. As men, we must establish our own immortality.

Five years ago I sat alone with a woman who was then my wife. We had spent the week apart and had met to discuss our struggling relationship. After an hour of challenging dialogue, she was no longer my wife. She explained to me the ways that I had failed to be the example of a man that she desired and deserved. And I listened feeling unable to offer her anything other than the man I believed myself to be. In that moment I was not a victim, and nor was she. There was a lot of pain for us both and I cannot fully know what her experience of that moment was, but I know that for myself, among many emotions, there was a strong sense of loss. I had lost her, and I had lost the context in which I experienced what I understood to be love, but, perhaps more impactful was the sense that I had lost a significant part of my identity. This woman, who had until that moment been my wife, was leaving me, and in doing so I was no longer a husband. I felt my identity as a man slip away. Everything came into question and my entire life suddenly shifted.

In questioning my identity as a man, I often find that my real question is simply one of identity. It’s easy for me to say, “I am a man.” But what happens in the moments when I feel unmanned; when I lose the relationship, or the career, or the status that had confirmed my identity as a man? Can I detach myself enough from my experience as a man to recognize that my masculinity is only a condition that I exist under? Am I comfortable shedding the word man from my statement of identity and leaving it just at, “I am?”

In the wake of an experience in which our sense of masculinity has been taken from us, it’s easy to feel lost. And in that feeling of nakedness it’s not surprising that we would want to quickly take up some new signifier of masculinity to protect our exposed vulnerability. But rather than trying to create a new sense of identity as a man to replace the old one, I want to fully realize that my identity is not that I am a man. I am having a male experience in this life, and that is not to be ignored, but nor is it to be confused with who I am. The “I” is a complete mystery. The “I” is not gender specific. Nor is it limited to a specific ethnicity, rank, age, or tax bracket. It is for everyone, equally.

Imagine me thirty-one years ago. My body and my mind do not yet exist. I am without description. I am neutral. I am a complete mystery. Now we are here. Your perceptions of me suddenly begin to flood in. You understand that I am a man. I am white. I am thirty. I am a photographer. I am able-bodied. I am Colin. I am a friend. I am a son. I am a brother. I am good. I am bad. I am weak. I am honest. I am a nice guy. I am unkind. I am thoughtful… The list can be endless. It can be full of contradictions and it can shift because none of these things are really who I am. They are conditions in which I exist but none of them are constant. All of them can change and all of them can be taken from me.

Milan Kundera, in his novel “Immortality”, asks us to “imagine living in a world without mirrors. You’d dream about your face and imagine it as an outer reflection of what’s inside you. And then, when you reached forty, someone put a mirror before you for the first time in your life. Imagine your fright! You’d see the face of a stranger. And you’d know quite clearly what you are unable to grasp: your face is not you.”

The awareness that we are none of the things in which we have so feverously invested our sense of identity can be terrifying. But it can also be liberating. The question of courage in my life comes up when I ask, “What am I willing to surrender? Would I still be me if I lost my job? Would I still be me if I lost the use of my body? Am I still me, when I say something unkind? Am I still me when my thoughts are hurtful? Would I still be me if I fell out of favor with all the people in my life? Would I still be me if I were no longer a male? Would I still be me if I lost my mind?”

Taking away all these things, there must remain something, and that something must be more important than all these shifting conditions. The conditions are important, because they shape our experience, but they are not who we are. I cannot say that I am a man, but only that I am having a masculine experience of life. And nor can I say that I am Colin. That is just a name. I am not this body, I am not my reputation, I am not my mind, and I am not my emotion because none of these conditions are absolutely constant. The ones that seem most constant, such as our mind or our gender, are as impermanent as our aging bodies, our shifting emotions, and our changing thoughts. But my deep sense is that beneath all these things there exists something that cannot be changed, something that exists identically in every one of us. When we are able to see through all of the conditions we have born around us like so many layers of skin we can then surrender ourselves fully to an identity that is not changing, whose value need not be quantified or proven. We can then release ourselves from the fear that we are not deserving of love and fully embrace the reality that we are love, and that this identity is inherent and unchanging, that even when everything else is taken away from us, it still remains. We just need to be willing to express it.

“What does it mean to be a good man?” I’ll probably ask myself this question throughout my entire life. At this point in my journey I’m learning to recognize that though I am experiencing life as a man, it is not ultimately who I am. And the importance of this is that I don’t need to feel ruled by my gender. I don’t need to ascribe to notions of masculinity that tell me I must always be powerful, that I must be hyper-sexual, that I must be ambitious, that I must be assertive, and that I must be in control. I am experiencing life as a man, and I don’t hate my gender, but nor do I need to identify unquestioningly with it. I am free to be vulnerable. I am free to cry. I am free to fail. I am free to honor the strength in others before my own. I am free to love without the fear that love is some finite resource that I must strive to achieve. I am free to embrace the endlessness of love and surrender wholly to it.

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A Continued Intention

colinvandenberg:

For those who have been following my blog, I have every intention of resuming in the near future. For now, my focus remains on my Dollar A Day Diet and my intention to raise money and awareness for The New Life Center with whom I worked in Malawi.
Thanks for reading,
Colin

Originally posted on Food for a Day:

It’s been a few weeks now since I finished my 30 days of hunger solidarity. Near the end of the 30 days I shared here that although I would no longer be restricting my diet to a dollar of food per day, I had every intention of continuing to work towards supporting the New Life Center in Malawi and raising awareness of hunger issues in the world. Over the last two months I have raised $1408 for the New Life Center and hope to raise the remaining $1592 of my $3000 goal within the next three weeks. 

During the 30 Days I spent eating only a $1 of food per day, I learned this:

- Without being intentional about the food I eat, it is very easy to use food primarily as a source of pleasure, to eat more than I need, to eat food that is taxing on my…

View original 353 more words

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Day 24 – Decision Fatigue

A few months ago my friend shared an article with me from The New York Times about Decision Fatigue. Essentially, as a person goes through his or her day, making decisions as they go along, their ability to make sound decisions eventually begins to diminish. This isn’t because of a lack of character. The brain just gets tired, like any muscle would. At one point, the article cites the grocery store checkout aisle, where stressed out individuals stand in line waiting to pay for the dozens of decisions they just made. Available to them in that moment of exhaustion is a special arrangement of chocolate bars and candy, just when their sense of judgement is at its weakest. The brain is ready to resign to cravings and escape. It wants relief. It wants to be reckless after so much careful scrutiny.

I’ve had a stressful few days, wrestling with challenging decisions, and trying to discern the next step in my life. Stress and hunger make poor companions and I’ll admit that I was tempted to abandon my Dollar a Day Diet in order to cope with the accumulative stress. Knowing that hunger – a temporary and merely physical affliction – was contributing to my levels of stress, did nothing to alleviate that stress. The decisions felt more difficult. The stress felt more unbearable. I did not abandon my intention but it did give me something to think about.

We all experience stress at various points in our lives, and I wouldn’t claim that one situation is more stressful than another. There are many factors, and there are many different methods of coping available to many different people. A person in my city earning $300,000 every year might experience more daily stress than a person in Malawi earning only $300 every year. They might experience stress for different reasons, but it’s a hard thing to quantify.

What I’ve noticed, however, is that stress is a lot harder to deal with when your stomach is empty and you don’t know if you’ll have enough to eat for the rest of the day. Maybe Malawians are used to these physical sensations and it has less of an impact on their feelings of stress, but maybe not. I know that I am not used to it. I get a little grumpy when I’m hungry. Sometimes I feel stressed out and then I realize after eating that I wasn’t actually that stressed out but just hungry. 

I don’t mean to diminish the stress that is experienced in the midst of affluence. Certainly there’s a lot of stress buzzing around between all of our heads. I don’t know that it gives much perspective to say that there are some who are stressed by much more morbid decisions, like whether or not they are able to feed all of their children. This doesn’t make me feel any less stressed out about my own life, but it does remind me that affluence or poverty do not determine peace of mind. Peace does not come from having more than I need. But in knowing that I have enough I can experience peace. And in sharing with others I can have peace.

I would ask this of you: if you are able, spend a day eating only a dollar of food. And, if you are able, take the money you would have spent on a meal out, and give it to an organization addressing hunger issues. Donations to The New Life Center, where I spent time in Malawi, can be made through Groundwork Opportunities, where every dollar donated goes directly to empowering Malawians to experience the life of abundance we all deserve.

 

 

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Day 14

As I reach the end of my second week I remain cognizant of my unavoidably privileged position. I’ve been eating less than a dollar’s worth of food for the last fourteen days and still I haven’t come close to the experience of hunger that the majority of people in this world experience every day. I know I will eat again today, I know I will eat tomorrow, and the next day and the next day and the next. In 16 days I could go back to eating whatever I want, whenever I want. I’m not starving.

On one hand, I think, maybe a dollar a day isn’t so bad. But then I note that my weight has dropped a few pounds. My energy has been low. I’m less able to focus. And I imagine what it would be like to survive like this if I had to spend ten hours in the fields each day, if I had a family depending on me, or if I was sick. A dollar a day might be survivable for a time, but is it sustainable? The truth is, I don’t want to return to eating in excess. I don’t want to return to eating more than my fair share of what this earth can provide for our current population and the generations to come. I want to eat what makes sense on a global scale, not what I’m privy to merely because I live where I live and was born to the family I was born to. I don’t know what this will look like, but I want to imagine what it might look like.

I will continue now as I am, eating less than I’m accustomed to, with the intention of standing in solidarity with the majority world poor, but I will not know what it truly means to be hungry. Even if I continued living like this month after month I would still not truly know how hunger, for many, is not experienced as a mere nuisance, but as a deepening fear, and a gnawing pain.

There are many reasons to understand why some are given their choice of food in excess and why others are struggling just to survive. But none of these reasons offer an excuse. None of them justify such a gross imbalance. Hunger is not some mysterious disease that we are unable to cure. It is not an enigma waiting to be solved. The problems around hunger on a global scale are interminably complicated, but when we have the power to offer a meal to someone who would otherwise starve, or, better yet, the power to enable that person to provide themselves with continual meals, we possess a simple solution to a simple problem and we have little excuse not to act. 

As I continue this experiment in hunger solidarity, intending to play my small part in improving the lives of other by living more responsibly with the excesses of wealth available to me, my hope is that others will also set their own similar intentions. To become involved with what I’m doing, send me a message at colin@colinvandenberg.com, or donate directly to The New Life Center in Malawi through Groundwork Opportunities, where every dollar goes directly to successfully improving the lives of Malawians who struggle with hunger daily.

Thanks for reading,

Colin 

 

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An Experiment in Hunger Solidarity

I’m taking a brief hiatus from my writing at Sons of Ash. I’m in the middle of a thirty day Dollar a Day Diet and I want to focus my attention there. I’ve been posting at www.foodforaday.wordpress.com and hope to raise funds for The New Life Center in Malawi.

I’ve written a little about my time in Malawi and my relationship with humanitarian work on my post Our Kin, published here at Sons of Ash.

Thanks for your interest.

Colin

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Without Conflict

I walked today, in the rain, and peered through the trees to lock my gaze with an apprehensive doe. I knelt for her in the wet earth and she stepped toward me, and then paused, and stepped again. She stepped through the grass between the oak and the piled anthills that littered the ground and I wanted only for her to know the calmness of my presence and my intention of peace. I wanted her to be at ease in the clearing between us. For several moments we remained like this, and the other doe, the one standing guardedly nearby, watched us both. I slowed my breath, and focused my awareness on my own inner stillness before seeking it also in her. She stepped toward me. And I must have turned only slightly where I knelt but it was enough that her own slow movement was apprehended and then ignited as she turned and leaped away, silently. Airplanes flew overhead and the steady drone of traffic passed behind me. The trees trembled and their leaves spilled water down my neck.

 

In the city I become a different person. I come here every week and every week I feel an inevitable shift as I drive along the highway and the traffic becomes dense and buildings appear with increasing frequency. The shift occurs in an instant or in a gradual pull that leads to an eventual release. Colin by the Lakeside becomes Colin the urbanite and something inside of me sinks low and goes to sleep in a moment that gives rise to restless responsibility, manic productivity, and the absence of stillness. Again, as in so many aspects of my life, I experience a polarity in my perception and become lost to the gravitational pull of a world in which I feel estranged from myself, and oddly compelled by things that I am told should motivate me, though in truth they do not.

 

When I lived here permanently I was apt to forget myself. After months in the city I would find a rare chance to leave and I would feel something awaken in myself that I had, until then, forgotten. It was then Colin the urbanite that would go to sleep and someone different, someone distantly familiar that would come to life. He would breathe in the air made fresh by the exhalation of trees. He would feel around him the energy of natural forms and forget those contorted by the hands of industry and progress. He would return to himself and wonder how he could have forgotten this true and holy sense of being.

 

I am disheartened to admit that among the few reasons I come to the city, the most pressing is the need to make money. There are the more valuable incentives of connecting with loved ones and occasionally taking necessary steps toward the actualization of brewing dreams, but these are things I could, with lesser convenience, do apart from this place. The truth is, if not for my need to earn money, I would come here only rarely. I know that for many the adherence to urban norms is not born of necessity. For some people it is a joy and a pleasure to spend life indoors amidst the amenities to which we have all become accustomed. For some the thought of a forest is an inhospitable milieu rife with discomfort, fear, and isolation that they would rather not entertain. And I will admit that the conveniences and the comforts of the city do continue to have pull on me. But even the most urban-bound citizen must take some pleasure in the form of a tree, the sound of a creek, or the smell of a meadow in the coolness of a summer’s night. Everyone must recall some moment in their life when nature called to something deep within their hearts.

 

I have been bound to the city for the past several days, sleeping in a basement surrounded by brick walls that fail to omit the sound of traffic steadily rolling by. My spirit sinks, and if I am not careful it continues to descend until it seems to escape my reach. How did I survive this feeling in the past? How did I endure this absent-minded noise? The answer is there. I feel it creeping in and my recollection of it induces fear in my heart. I have lived here before. I can survive this place – but at a cost. I must simply go to sleep. Let Colin the urbanite awake and perform as Colin of the Lakeside becomes silent and forgotten. Let them both admit their elements and submit to polarity and the nights will pass without effort and the days will disappear in time. Let the city define me, and the rest will fall away.

 

The clouds came in and the air became cool and the day was mine and the walls around me were made of brick, and I did not wish to be contained. My heart was not hardened and my spirit was not silent and I clung to both with love and desperation, believing that although my past experiences had often been defined in these moments by a resignation to the dullness that pressed against my mind, I need not be defined by it any longer. I listened to my spirit with a pliant will. I quieted the voice of fear. I obeyed my heart and heard the weighted door close behind me as I walked into the air made softly damp by a cool mist.  

 

We live in cities where once the meadows filled the spaces between the wooded dells. We covered the rivers with concrete passageways and filled the earth with veins of electric current and raw sewage. We built our homes and our factories and our retail outlet malls. We took over and said yes, we will dominate this place. We left the thought of wilderness behind and made comfort our primary goal. We were happy to be rid of the nuisance creatures, and the nuisance weather, and the arduous tasks our ancestors once endured. We created a place in which to prosper under the protection of our civility. We came into a new era.

 

We tried to leave discomfort behind, but what we could not leave behind was our sense of belonging. Nature was full of harshness and pain. But the urban myth did not negate our connection to the fields and the trees that lay beyond our borders. We longed for them and found solace, in rare moments of celestial perception, in the sky that moved slowly overhead. We remembered, in fleeting moments, the origins of our birth and were then drawn to come to life. We stepped out from our shelters, from their comfortable distractions, and pressed our soles to the earth. We wandered to the river’s bend were the city became invisible and surrounded ourselves with the patience of sedentary trees.

 

Lest I be caught in the shadow of my own idealism, I must remember: in this city, the trees outnumber the people ten to one. Pure wilderness may not surround me but there is a way to survive in this place without silencing my inner voice, which calls to the wild with a yearning I cannot ignore. I stepped out from behind brick walls, and the city was all around me, but in the air the rain was wild, and the trees were no less themselves than they would have been in any other place. I walked along the sidewalks and even rode a bus. I returned to the forest I had frequented in my youth, nestled quietly between subdivisions. I filled my mouth with berries and my hair grew damp in the rain and the sounds of the city were silenced in my mind and all that remained were the trees, and the furtive creatures, and the tall grasses. Colin the urbanite held his tongue and had no qualm as Colin by the Lakeside began to speak. There was no conflict.

- C

Fine Art-9660

By Lack of Stillness

In the absence of certainty, the steps I have not yet taken become to me a potential curse. The words I have not yet spoken rest beside fear at the back of my tongue, anxiously awaiting their delivery. I speak, at times, without knowing. I step, at times, blindly. I am, at times, lost.

When the lake appeared I was at first relieved to have a bearing. I had awoken at dawn after hiking 35 kilometers the day before. I passed through several flooded sections of trail, ate little in an effort to cover as much ground as possible, and spent the night waking periodically to remove ticks from my body and listen to the sounds of beasts outside my tent. When the lake appeared the following day I was relieved to have a bearing but in the same moment my relief gave way to the realization that I was on the wrong side of it. I had already hiked five kilometers outside of my way along an old trail that was overgrown and in some places no longer visible. I stood on the rocks high above the lake and the feeling of exhaustion became emotional. I looked across to the place I was supposed to be. I looked ahead, wondering if I should stay my course, or double back, or cut a new path. I was seventeen and alone and I did not know what to do.

Knowing that I am on a path is not the same as knowing that I am where I belong. There are many days when my steps are uncertain and many days when my uncertainty prevents me from taking any steps at all. Too often I have held my tongue or held my step, worrying that to chose one path, or one perspective, is to forsake another. In high school a teacher once told me that each path precludes all other paths available in that moment. I remember resisting this when he said it. I may have even openly disagreed with him. I was then preparing for infinite possibilities. I was then of the perspective that I could make any choice, and that every path could lead me back to any other path. I was then certain that following any choice, there would always be the opportunity to choose differently.

Time passes and I cannot say whether it passes slowly or quickly. It moves like lightening and yet is static in its infiniteness. A nanosecond is of minimal difference to an eon when considering the infinite breadth of time. Time is infinitely expandable and infinitely divisible. We experience a moment of it, but if every moment is infinite, do we not then experience it all? Are we not then a part of eternity? And being a part of eternity, are we not then ourselves eternal?

Our understanding of the decisions we make is bound to our understanding of time. There is something restrictive about both. Time passes and the past immediately becomes lost to us. We have only the present into which we can reach our hands to touch and to mold our experiences. It is only in the present that we can speak and act. It is only now that we can choose. The decisions we have already made are lost to us. They are no longer a part of the present, though the outcomes of those decisions may be. And it is because of this that I am so often arrested by my uncertainty. It is because of this that I so often hold my tongue.

There comes a moment when a decision must be made. Something must be said, or a step must be taken, and when that moment arrives it may not always arrive in the hands of certainty. There is a difference between belief and knowing. There is a difference between doubt and denial. When I pass the threshold of uncertainty, I do not necessarily leave doubt behind. When I speak, I do not necessarily speak with absolute conviction. In these moments, I believe in my words and my actions but I do not always know that they are right. Were I to allow this unknowing, or this doubt, to rule me, I would remain silent and still. I would do nothing.

Like Frost, contemplating the two roads in the yellow wood, I have often remained still not for fear that the path I was about to follow would lead to some great peril, but knowing that there would always be the other path, the one I did not take. In his poem, Frost approaches the final, familiar words by first saying, “I shall be telling this with a sigh…” He projects into the future his anticipation of regret and by doing so imbues his decision with doubt. He scribes a whisper in the air to haunt his steps with the illusion of greener grass and thereby limits his experience of the present.

There is value in stillness and silence. There is something deeply good about it. When we remain in quiet contemplation, when we meditate on a possible action or word, we are able to bolster our resolve while simultaneously releasing our expectations. In this posture our stillness is paradoxically dynamic as our interiority moves and shifts in response to the mutterings of our will. When we have taken the time to make a decision, we can release ourselves from the haunting whispers of regret. We can experience the path we are on as the only path. We can speak and act with a deep knowing that dismisses all doubt.

There is a shadow to stillness and silence, and I have often sat waiting beneath it. Time passes and the decision goes unmade, or the intention goes unfulfilled. When fear, rather than contemplation, holds us, our stillness becomes one of inactivity. We are no longer being contemplative. We are being idle. In idleness, we are afraid to speak, not because we are afraid that we might say something stupid, or say something wrong, but that we might say something so deeply true that we will demand something profound of ourselves, and those around us. We are afraid of stepping forward into the truth we deeply believe in. We are afraid to take that step or say that word.

There are days when I wonder about the paths I have chosen, and the words I have said. None can be retracted, and neither can the moments of their conception be returned to and altered. I sit down to write and there is at times a reluctance knowing that once offered my words are free from me. They become their own beings, for a moment, and are then relinquished to those willing to read them. They are claimed and taken. They become so far from me that I can do nothing to change them. Our decisions are like this. We offer them to those around us, to the universe, to God, and they are no longer ours. In that moment they become lost to us.

I followed the path a short ways through the woods before reaching an impassable river. I was on the wrong side of the lake and the only way to correct my course was to go to the place I wanted to be. I followed the unworn path and veered toward the lake. I stepped into the water. For two hours I walked through along the shoreline, feeling the peace of the lake and forgetting the moment of my indecision. I took my slow steps and felt both relief and certainty in the water that had, by then, filled my boots. The discomfort was irrelevant. The importance and the acceptance resided in my resolve.

Arrested by our fears we find ourselves in unnatural stillness and silence, which, touched by our passivity, can then endure for years. We stand upon the rocks, peering across the lake to the place we want to be, and the distance and our feelings of separation overwhelm us, but our steps are taken one at a time. No distance is beyond our reach. We need not feel overwhelmed by the gravity of our decisions, nor by the myriad alternatives we must release. There is only the place where our feet rest and, in our immediacy, the place where our feet will rest next. Decide and see then the place where you stand. Listen then to the words you have spoken. They are now.

-C

Permit me Love

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In the corner of a crowded bar I sat down with a friend I hadn’t seen in several months. It wasn’t the first time we had met there and as usual we shook hands upon meeting and then gripped the tall glasses of dark beer that stood between us. The weather was cold that night. The winter had barely begun and the beer immediately chilled me. At first, our dialogue closely mirrored the conversations we had had the year before, and the year before that. We revisited past events – contemporizing our understandings – and introduced one another to the details of our new relationships, jobs, and homes. It was a good dialogue, and it interested us both, but there came a point when I broke away from our usual anthology of themes. There came a point when I chose to deviate from what I knew to be safe and introduce our friendship to a new level of vulnerability.

We did not know each other very well. Our meetings were infrequent and though our experiences of life had often been eerily similar we had experienced them quite separately. There was a sense of innate understanding, but it had only been communicated at an exterior level. We sat across from one another, gripping our tall beers, and I chose to share with him the happenings, and the thoughts, and the questions of my interior life. I chose to be markedly more vulnerable with him than I had been before and in doing so I not only allowed him to see me more clearly but I gave him permission to respond to my vulnerability with his own. By my own decision to be vulnerable I introduced the possibility of vulnerability to our relationship and permitted him to participate in it.

Last week, I sat beside a stretch of rapids along the Bird River and absent-mindedly lifted a piece of deadwood from the water’s edge. At first I saw the chrysalis, which was perfectly intact so that it appeared to be its own fragile creature. A few centimeters away the dragonfly clung to the upheaved wood and slowly unfurled his wings, which were then barely visible, pinched and gathered as they were against his shoulders. He had no choice but to remain where he was, patient in the light of his own becoming. And I – fascinated and apart from him – watched in wonder until it was time to move on and I returned him to his place by the water. I continued to paddle along the river, and all along its edge; on the rocks and the limbs of fallen trees, I saw them in tremulous repose, waiting for their wings to unfold, and I wondered what bell had rung to signal this chorus of revolution. Who had permitted them to change?

In the early spring I watched the crows arrive and then the gulls. Later the leaves emerged and the grass turned green. The mosquitoes came in what seemed a single wave and the dragonflies followed. Last night our windows swarmed with a breed of flies I had never seen before. They seemed to come all at once, but in each case there must have been a first. Even if only by the slightest of moments, one blade of grass began to turn before all the rest. One mosquito hatched before any other. We are listening, all of us, all the time, for the moment when we are allowed to begin. We are listening for permission to act, to speak, and to think. We are listening for permission to live the life that we want to live and be the people we want to be. We are listening even when we do not know it.

I stood across from a man who I perceived to be my enemy. I stood in silence at a distance and I saw him do the same. At his approach, I built a wall to defend myself and the presence of that wall permitted him to build his own. When I raised my voice against him I permitted him to shout back. When I reached forward to strike him I initiated the possibility of violence and gave him permission to strike me in return. The more harm I did to him, the more harm I permitted him to do to me. My attacks carried intrinsically with them the words “you may now attack me.” And after years of hatred, and distance, and fear, I finally fell, exhausted and defeated. I let the walls around my heart fall. I unfurled my fists, forgot my hateful words and chose instead to be utterly vulnerable in front of him, without fear. In that moment, I gave him permission to do the same. I introduced the possibility that we are not enemies at all, but dear friends. I opened my arms, and he opened his. We embraced. We were redeemed.

When we are gracious, we permit those around us to be gracious. When we are malicious, we permit others to be malicious. When we smile, we permit others to smile. When we cry, we permit others to cry. When we curse, we permit others to curse. When we hate, we permit others to hate. When we fear we permit others to fear. When we attack, we permit others to attack. When we are vulnerable, we permit others to be vulnerable. When we forgive, we permit others to forgive. When we love, we permit others to love.

I awoke in the dead of winter, when the lake was a frozen plain and my heart was laid bare on its bed of ice. I listened, through the din of voices permitting my escape, for the single whisper offering me something more. I listened for the voice that gave me permission to exist not in fear, but in love. I listen even now, and though against this love my ego offers its continual consent to escape reality and enter the delusion of self-hatred and the fear of inadequacy, my true essence, my divine nature, continually permits me to live the life that I deserve. Fear says, “I permit you to escape, to abandon love, to disregard truth, to hide, to despair, and to slowly die.” Love says, “I permit you to embrace your life, to love freely and generously, to speak your truth, to follow your dreams, and to experience the fullness of life.” In everything we do, we have the choice to be the voice of love in the lives of others, or the voice of fear. By our words we can grant others the permission to experience life, or to experience death.

We live amidst a myriad voices, each with its tone, its volume, and its frequency. There are those whose permissions we seek and obey with unwavering readiness, and there are those whose permissions we consistently resist. There are the people to whom we are closest. There are those on the periphery of our lives. There are the strangers with whom many of us spend much of our time. We sit and we stare and we listen to the steady stream of permissions embedded in the movies and television we watch. We permit one another to do so by the normalcy of our indulgence in it. We are given permission to be materialistic, to strip sex of meaning, to do violence to one another, to abandon our purpose in life, to destroy our bodies, and to mock truth. We are given permission to waste the hours of our lives as if we had nothing better to do with them.

I want to stand beside the people in my life and speak truth, that they would also be permitted to speak truth. I want to abandon fear in my relationships, that my companions would also abandon their fear. I want to love and permit those around me to love. I want to be vulnerable, that I would permit others to also be vulnerable. And when I am permitted to hate, I want to respond not with willingness, nor merely with silent passivity, but with reactive conviction.

I know that it can be easy to remain in patterns that do not serve me. It is easier still when I enable those around me to do so, or when they enable me. We permit one another to live out our patterns of fear. However, we are permitted by love to abandon all patterns that do not serve us. We are permitted to learn new patterns. In moments, I must have the courage to defy the permissions of my egos and my fears and choose instead to permit love. In moments, a radical voice must cry out within our own hearts that we would have the courage to be the first, that as we act in love, in defiance of fear, we would grant permission to others to do the same. Life is brief, and it is eternal. We exist as mere children in the midst of children, forever listening to the voices that surround us, forever waiting for permission to be the love that exists in all of us. We need only listen, and in turn speak its voice.

-C