Disclaimer: This unedited, rough draft material is a year-long project in response to our 2004 theme: pilgrimage. It is meant to be a dialogue between myself and my fellow Mammoths and any of you who happen along. It is intentionally not polished, nor is it finished. Charlie Buchman Ellis
Each item Iíve purchased or collected for the trip lies on the pool table, to one side of them is the teal bag into which they all have to fit. One of these days soon I plan to make a trial run at it, to fit in one not too heavy bag, all the things I have a whole house in which to store.
Become a turtle, grasshopper. Carry only those things necessary and that you can carry. This is the way.
Iím as excited about this new packing venture as I am about the trip. Of course, the packing is the part closest to me right now, so it contains most of my enthusiasm, readiness; as the trip unfolds the packing will become routine, even irksome and the bag will have a weight and givenness Iíll wish it didnít.
I spoke with Kwo, my Art Institute travel partner. She wants more decisions made up front, I want to make very few decisions until I get to Southeast Asia. We have, however, settled on the New Empire Hotel in Chinatown as our first nights stop. The New Empire is in the middle of Chinatown and a short walk from the Huampholang train station where my train from Singapore will arrive.
The most expensive room is 640 baht, or, $16.00 US. It is near the top of the budget category. The New Empire may not be adequate for a week, but for a night it should work just fine. All Iíve read suggests accommodations in this price range are often clean, neat, and have basic services.
Over the last few years traveling the US I have taken to staying in family run motels, often for $30 to $40 a night. Clean beds, a phone, shower, and place to hang my jacket. Iím not entertaining, nor am I plotting my business conquest du jour; I donít need more. Also, the owners are usually interesting.
Near the Shiloh battlefield I found a small motel outside a large TVA project. It had a sign, ďNo residents allowed.Ē
I had to know.
ďWhatís that about?Ē I asked.
ďOh. Too many damn people around here cheatiní and usiní our place. We decided, no more.Ē
This same motel was one I may have mentioned earlier. It was set back from a large barbecue joint. In the morning when the barbecue place fired up its grill for the day, the smoke drifted into my room and set off the smoke alarm. Scared the bejesus out of me.
Iíve become accustomed to, even a connoisseur of the budget place to stay. Their idiosyncrasies, like their owners, appeal to me, and I hope to find a similar reality, in different cultural dress, of course, in Thailand.
Part of any pilgrimage is interaction with the innkeepers and the innkeepers at franchise joints are often minimum wage employees who care as much about their work as their employers care about them. I have found some interesting items about homestays in Thailand, and, Kwo has contacts in the Buddhist community who know a monastery or two where we might stay.
You will get reports from the road, so youíll know when I know about the success of this budget plan. My sister said, ďOh. Youíre not going budget?Ē
Yes, indeed, I said. I am. She looked at me like I was crazy. My sister, like my brother, is a seasoned world traveler, so I donít treat her scorn lightly, but, as usual, Iím going to go my own way and see what happens.
Thereís always the Hilton or The Oriental if things get bad. A hot bath, thick towels and room service should resolve most insults.
On my hands and knees, clippers at work, the sun high in a clear, cool sky...putting to bed plants I placed, then planted last fall or early this spring. They have grown, become mature; a few have fallen by the way, victims of gophers, deer, rabbits or an unhappy location, but not many, less than in years past.
The hemerocallis can spread virus if not clipped and cleared, I have not always done this (really, Iíve rarely done it.), but this fall I am cleaning each plant, cutting its leaves, taking care to pluck out the yellowed and brown spotted ones and the dried up. Mums, asters, a few others with winter interest will stay, but most will get cut down, both to clean the garden for next spring and to forestall fungal and viral diseases.
Here is the harvest, the Samain time, for me. I have cared for these plants and they have thrived, provided a pleasant world for Kate and me, and, this year, our friends. The full circle from preparation of the soil, plant selection, planting, fertilizing and weeding, to insect and pest management, then to enjoyment and the gradual decline is another of the spirals within spirals, the Great Wheel writ small, turning here, under my thumb.
As Bill Holm suggests, the heart can be filled anywhere on earth and in October, on these golden afternoons, mine fills up here, at home.
A paradox. Even as I work in the garden, harvesting a sense of fulfillment and joint effort with the plants and soil and Kate, Joseph has descended far into the underworld. It is scary there, both for him and for me. I love him so much and it makes my heart ache to see him unhappy.
The Great Wheel turns, spirals within spirals. I so want him to know the spring, but the way to renewal, as Iíve repeated here, often goes through the darkness, a journey into the cave of shadows, where the bad things are. The vale of fears.
May it be so for Joseph. And, for you, too.
Woollyís traveling. May mother earth grant you the mercies of good food, shelter, and health no matter where you find yourself. I ask the same for my journey, too.
The body and the mind and the soul (the Self) come apart only because we have the words, without the words we would know ourSelves, rather than our body, our mind, and our soul.
It was the early ones, the ones who wondered about life and what happened to it after death. Where did it go? Did it disappear? Did it go to another place?
If you have ever experienced a death in person, say, a family member or a friend or even a pet, you may have seen how this question is not simple, rather how it expresses a profound moment for each living being.
The question of vitality and its transition from one state to the next, if such a transition exists, is one of the central questions imprinted on every human heart. Do we continue after death, and, if so, what continues, and, if so, what is the continuation like?
This question and its possible answers gave rise to the possibility the body housed something incorporeal, that is, bodiless, and a something that might contain the vitality so inexplicably vanished.
Also, by extension, we can see how the question of who wonders begins to open the door to the question of consciousness. While alive, before the mystery of death, a something seems to watch and consider and assess our existence, a something inside us, yet, seemingly detached from the neurons, capillaries, kidneys, legs, and feet. We do not know this as a fact, rather, we infer it from the way we feel.
Aging itself raises this question. Over time the body becomes infirm, parts of it may die, or may cease to function, important parts like eyes, ears, a kidney, legs, yet the something, the who of us can remain, in spite of these physical insults, clear and unique, untouched by the bodyís infirmities.
What are we to make of this? It feels as if there is a part of us independent of the body, in fact, a part of us so special that it is, us. It is not difficult to put these two together: What happens to life after death? We seem to have an incorporeal Self, and come up with, ďThis incorporeal Self (psyche/soul) does not die with the body, but goes on beyond death to a new existence.Ē
Possible title for this when finished: A Mammoth Adventure: Men on Pilgrimage.
I have gone outside, as I do often at night, and looked up at the stars. They hang up there, small points of light spread out on black jewelerís cloth, visible through a glorified loupe, yet even then still small and faint. The night envelopes us; one of the gifts of the early feminist movement to my consciousness was the embrace of night and the metaphors of darkness. Hecate, goddess of the night and, of late, of witchcraft, a triple goddess, like Brigid among the Celts. Hecate is often seen as the mother goddess: child, mother, and crone over the sweep of the Great Wheelís year.
Since the gift of shadows came to me, I have come to understand, in increments, the healing power of darkness, the night, even melancholy. In so doing, Iíve become less and less afraid of the dark, and, of the ultimate impenetrable, death.
I preach this morning. Iím always a bit nervous before hand, but this sermon has higher stakes than usual for me. It feels important, as if Iíve gathered in here much of what I know, distilled it, and given it shape for the spoken word. Butterflies.
Back home after stopping to eat at a Taste of Africa on Central Avenue. An Ethiopian place with the sensible spongy sourdough bread served in place of silverware or chopsticks. Handy. And tasty food.
The sermon went well; I felt on, I had an important thing to say and I said it, mostly. I could tell some things didnít flow as logically out loud as they did on paper, not an unusual reality for me.
This topic is central to a major project Iíve had underway for a long time, one which Iíve not focused on much in my writing, more in reading and thinking. After the Woolly book gets edited and the SE Asia book written and I return to the magic research, Iím going to pick up Liberalism full time until I finish it, religion and politics together. After that, perhaps something on aesthetics, or more work on Lake Superior. Here's the link to the sermon as posted last week.
You guys have meant so much to me over the years, possibly in ways I havenít articulated well, if at all. John Desteian and I have talked off and on about visibility, my need for it and my frustrations at not getting it, especially over the last decade or so.
I told him last session that these pilgrimage pieces and the interaction I get with you over them, modest though it is, combines with the preaching Iím doing at Groveland to fill my cup. I donít need much to keep me going, a little recognition, not even praise, just acknowledgement, and Iíll keep on moving, keep writing, stay at it.
Now, to be honest, Iíd keep at it anyway, but my sense of self would suffer. I would feel diminished, perhaps even a little demented for this ceaseless stroking of the keyboard with no apparent commercial or academic intent. Yet, I canít stop and it helps so much with my balance to have at least a few folks who know Iím at it, who comment on it once in a while.
This may seem like thin gruel, but to a guy who, as John said, learned to trust himself at the age of 2 when he walked again after polio, itís plenty. I realized when Iím in crisis, I go inward and draw on my resources, look after myself. I think of it as standing upright in the world. A very physical image to me. And connected to the little guy struggling along, just wanting things to get back to where they were before they got bad.
Though it is true, as John also said, that this has led to a lonely life for meóthatís accurate, though much less so of late with Joseph and Kate and you guysóIíve come to cherish the alone time, and the writing comes from there. I come back to Yeats, ďCreativity is the social act of a solitary person.Ē Feels like me.
What Iím saying here is this: Each of you who reads this affirms me; and, yes, I need affirmation, not much, but some. This is not the same as saying you read and like it, or, that you read it and praise it; no, the simple act of knowing some of you bother to read it at all satisfies me, in a deep way.
Any journey, at least for me, requires two opposite moves: the first, tidying up things around home focuses me on the left behind and the goal is to leave as little undone as I can; second, I have to leave home. So, there is this dialectic of home/leave home involved in the journey, followed, of course, by, leave the road/return home.
Today and tomorrow my emphasis is on the things not yet done, last of the gardening for the year, cleaning out closets, lists for things I canít do, write one more sermon, prepare the service, get ready for Josephís birthday.
The darkness comes earlier now; every time my sister comes here from the tropics she remarks on the changeable length of the days, a phenomenon she no longer experiences. Iím interested in seeing the effect, if I can in a month, of even hours of day and night.
Iíve been reading a book called Culture Shock: Thailand. Itís sort of anthropology lite, but helpful anyhow. Already some themes I want to explore: jai yen (cool heart), celebrations for all the life cycle events plus some, spirits of the wind, the land, the rain, the rice, waióa physical show of respect, a culture based on conflict-avoidance and virtually no criticism (which may explain to some degree my brotherís reaction to my e-mail, which amounted to criticism).
The original in this series Culture Shock: Singapore is next on my reading list.
I will miss these evening chats, though I plan to transmit my diary via cyber world. This is my writing space and a crowded internet cafť will not be the same. I suppose it could be better, or stimulating in a different way. Weíll see.
Joseph. Continues to grieve. Sad, stunned, listless. Only time and therapy will heal this wound.
One hundred and twenty daffodils, 9 Negrita tulips, 50 crocii, and a few garlands of the snow now lie underneath the soil. Funny, they need to experience the cold; itís part of their life-cycle, not unlike Josephís situation. Part of the life cycle. I donít know whether the Thai have a celebration for loss of a relationship, but they might. In matters of the heart they seem to be a practical people.
Typical gardening move for me. About a quarter of the way through cutting down the hemerocallis, I decided to consult my favorite book on perennial care. Hmmm... Should wait until several killing frosts before cutting them back. Oh. Well. I can wait until next week, then they have to come down.
Another first for me, in addition to packing light, will be rubber bands of various resistance for maintaining muscle tone and strength. Our trainer, Kari Larson, found these for me at SPRI, though my sister had recommended them to me. Three bands, in a small travel bag, cover medium, heavy, and difficult resistance levels.
Kari has showed me several exercises: push-ups, leg lifts (inner and outer thighs), quad lifts that I can do without any equipment at all. With the rubber bands I can add triceps, biceps, back, and shoulders. Hiking and these exercises should keep me fit.
Iím counting on the lighter Asian fare and dogged touristing to reduce my weight down to my ideal. Weíll see; if it works, I will write, ďThe Foreign Travel Route to Weight-Loss and Perfect Happiness in Four Easy Countries.Ē
I leave two weeks from tomorrow and Iím getting that pre-big journey antsyness. Ready to go. Getting things done. Loose ends tied up. Imagining myself in strange locales. Making sure I have everything. It felt much the same when Mom put me on the Greyhound Bus for Oklahoma or Texas, a fruit bowl in colorful cellophane, bought the day before at Coxís Supermarket, on my lap.
A lot of my traveling has been solo. It has advantages and disadvantages. Advantage: no one to negotiate with for activities, rooms are cheaper, meal times happen on my stomachís needs, I can switch directions with little forethought, leave something out, follow a whim. Disadvantages: no one to share the day with the ups and the downs, the sudden insights, the ahaís, the quirky situations, no one to help watch the luggage, figure out signs, help with communications. I like both solo and partnered travel, this trip will have a little of both.
Iím eager on two fronts right now. The first is the trip and its possibilities. The second is the post-trip time and my return to writing in the morning. That will have a brief interruption in January for Guatemala travel, to see Kateís world down there and to see Tikal and Guatemala City, but I will be back in the swing of getting up, feed the dogs, eat breakfast and read the newspaper, write until noon or 1, nap, feed dogs, exercise, watch TV and read, sleep, get up, repeat.
This rhythm is much easier to establish and maintain in the winter, when the garden sleeps and mother natureís demands on me tend to consist of clear the snow and stay warm.
The picture below comes from this website: http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/Millau%20Viaduct
This may look like a big bridge, so what. However, I saw a Discovery Channel program on its construction tonight. What I learned amazed me, made me say, ďNo way!Ē
The bridge is two miles long and at its tallest point from the Millau valley floor is 800 feet high. This made conventional bridge building techniques, which involve cranes and lots of heavy lifting impractical. Not only was the distance a problem, the winds at that height gust to 100 mph.
What to do? (Now, I admit, a little ethnocentrism crept in here. The French built this fast road from Paris to the Mediterranean, but it had this problem...the Millau valley. Now, they knew this beforehand, but they built the road anyway. Without the bridge you drive through narrow village streets and it adds hours to the trip. Geez, guys, didnít you see this coming?)
After some time a bridge building engineer who had worked in rags had an idea. Make it just like sewing cloth. ďThe same,Ē he said.
What it amounts to is this. They built the road bed on hollow steel girders trucked in from the foundry. Then, the engineer placed it all on the piers he had in place, several permanent ones and a few temporary ones. On the top of each pier is a clever hydraulic system that lifts the entire road bed, then moves in forward, like cloth under a sewing machine needle. In effect, they pushed the road bed out over the mile distance from either end, then joined it in the middle using the same process.
I donít know about you, but I thought, ďWhoa.Ē
See, you can learn stuff watching television. I love this kind of thinking, I hope the bridge lasts.
Ah, rainy and gloomy, chill. Russet rhus radicans, yellow birch leaves swirl down, across the street a lawn reflects a red sugar maple, its leaves spread out beneath as an image on a pond. The hand of Boreas has begun to tickle our land, snow is in the forecast. This is a Minnesota time of year, a time that defines us much as the monsoons define India, and hurricanes the southern and eastern part of the US and the Atlantic nearby.
It is not our only defining moment either, no; the cold crack of a limb frozen in well below zero weather, breath from mouths and exhalations from streams crystallizing in the air and dropping to the ground; this bitter cold is also Minnesota.
I revel in it, perhaps because it conforms to my own interior weather, at least much of the time, and congruence between inner and outer can provide a sense of solidity, of belonging; if, that is, it doesnít reinforce a slide into the darkness.
This is a time of revelation, a time of unveiling. Paths hidden by leaf and vine become clear, vision can probe deep into the woods, the structure of trees and woody perennials becomes clear, their clothes dropped, often at their feet, an unashamed disrobing to embrace the coming cold.
Here at Seven Oaks I can see beyond the dogwoods and the Amur maples into the trees. I wish, just once, I could see the great horned owl who lives part of the year there. This apex predator, so strong and silent, a real night hunter, makes a sound that combines with distant train whistles as the Burlington-Northern carries coal from Montana, electricity for the masses. These two sounds together, the bass whooo of this owl and the wavery wale of the whistle, blend, seem to carry the same note as a lone saxophone, played low, into the corner of a smoky, whisky filled club, its notes vibrating with the loneliness of the deep night.
There is, in this soul, an aloneness, a stand in the woods at night sense of isolation, but I find in it food for my heart, for my pen. I am not lonely. Though I am, often, alone.
No matter what the sun crossing celestial axis says, autumn arrived today, carried in on the breath of a northern God, one who knows his season, and his dark, cold charge. I welcome him and celebrate his coming.
No problem about clipping the hemerocallis after the next two nights or so. Cold weather. Or, at least, what would pass for unbelievably cold weather near the equator, but cold weather that presages, here, the beginning of the true descent into lower temperatures. The cold weather, in and of itself, does not give the same introverted, interior life boost that wet, chilly, stormy weather does, but, the sense of enclosure, of hunkering down in the cave, does work toward the same end.
Last night the wind howled here at Seven Oaks, rattling dogwood branches against the study window and clanging the Arcosanti bell back and forth. Inside, in a comfortable chair, reading about the many Watís of Thailand and Cambodia, considering a side trip to Vientiane, Laos, a frisson of wonder struck.
Quite a while back the miracle of hands in the soil, local as local gets, juxtaposed to the internet, available just inside the house that borders the garden, and linked directly to the world, last night, a miracle of our age, too, no longer will reading alone conjure up visions of spiky temples with sinuous Nagaís wrapped round and stone busts with enigmatic smiles, now the wonder of jet engines attached to cigar shaped cylindrical tubes will offer up direct access, make it possible to stand in the very shadows of the temples, to breathe the same air and walk the same ground as Khmer kings and Thai warriors. Who says there is no magic anymore?
Finished the Samhain Great Wheel. This is the fourth of the Samhain pieces and, since this is the new year for us Celts, the fifth year involved in writing them.
Over the time of their writing I have learned several things.
My primary loyalty, or, perhaps I should say, prime loyalty, is to mother earth and her cycles. We all came from her and will return to her, only to come out of her again. This, in itself, is not so much a religious position as a recognition of the profound and permanent relationship we have with her.
This is our nature as animals and as animals we are part of nature.
The metaphorical power of the Great Wheel covers the range of human concerns from birth to sustenance, from love to death, from fear to hope. It offers a scripture writ in the rhythms of the temperate zones. Those of us fortunate enough to live in the climate of four seasons have sacred, ritual theatre presented to us, outside our dwellingís door, each and every day...and night.
While loyalty, even fealty, to mother earth is a prime loyalty, it is, nonetheless, a loyalty among others, though primus impartes our literal pagan roots do not prevent, nor obscure our loyalty to other divinities. We may even count a storm or mountain or warrior god like Yahweh among our loyalties, and, even though he is a jealous god, perhaps he needs to know that others are more generous and can embrace him, in spite of his irascibility. The Great Wheel has taught me not only the necessity of polytheism, but its inevitability.
It has highlighted, or cthonically, underlined, the danger in monotheism. The jealousy and exclusivity and wrath of the Middle Eastern patriarchal deity brings not the fruits of peacefulness, love, and a sense of human kinship; rather, it has rained warheads, beheadings, refuges, partition, and grief. We can, as a species, no longer afford the suppression of the gods and goddesses who run through and in our lives. Suppressed they play havoc with us. (See much of Jim Hillmanís work.)
As with these diary entries, the writing and distribution of the Great Wheel work has given me visibility and affirmation. And I need it. Strangely, too, it has confirmed my sense of vocation. When I began to move away from the Christian faith, long before I met Kate, my then spiritual director, John Ackerman, said, ďMaybe your calling is to be a Druid.Ē The Great Wheel has given me a chance to express the Druidic aspect of my vocation.
(Without Kate, of course, none of this would be possible, and I am grateful to her in so many ways.)
Two weeks from today I will be in Singapore, writing to you from over 9,000 miles away from home. You will each be in my heart as I travel, along with my family and all the animals here in Andover.
With the exception of a few last minute details like topping off certain medications, getting cash from the bank ($200 in $1 bills plus $1,300 in $50s and $20s), printing out my boarding pass, and packing my things in their final arrangement, Iím ready.
Who knows what that month will bring? If past trips serve as barometers, I will gain whole worldsóBuddhist and Taoist and Muslim worlds, Singaporean and Thai and Cambodian worlds, places like Singapore, Bangkok, and Angkor Wat will go from fantasy to reality, a tropical climate will no longer exist in my imagination, I will have a bodily memory of it. People will come into my life, new people.
There will be much time for contemplation, drawing, meditation, writing. New foods, new smells, waterways and mountains and plains and islands and jungles. All new to me.
You will hear from me. Your e-mail addresses are in my Comcast address book and you can reach me through my regular e-mail address if you need.