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
Had a real Midwestern breakfast this morning at IHOP. Gotta say that place really feels like home. Even the waitresses look like they’ve come from some Indiana smalltown not far from Alexandria.
Talk about pilgrimages. I think any of us who began life in a small town or rural community and have made our way to a large metropolitan area—and that’s a whole lot of us by the way—always feel a little sense of awe at living in the big city, or, at least, near it. Sometimes a big sense.
As I drive in from Andover on 252 headed to I-94, it still thrills me to see the skyline, doubly so at night or, best of all, at twilight with the sun headed for the horizon and throwing light for one last illuminating moment, reflected off all those modernist towers of glass, the only time of day I like them. Nights are another matter.
In 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt created a commission that recognized, for the first time, that more Americans lived in cities than lived in the country and small towns (towns under 2,500). This is almost a hundred years ago, and certainly last millennium type news.
The pace of urbanism started slow, with trickles headed from the Tigris and Euphrates, along the Yangtze and the Mekong and the Chao Praya. The Don and the Volga, the Danube, the Thames, the Seine. The Mississippi had Cahokia long before it had New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, St. Paul, and Minneapolis. The Amazon, too. The Missouri and the Colorado. The Columbia. At ports like Cartagena, Los Angeles, New York City, Barcelona, Le Havre, Alexandria, Cairo, Istanbul, Piraeus. Places where merchants worked: Singapore, Bangkok, Jakarta, Calcutta, Mombai, New Delhi, Nairobi, Durban, Rangoon. Names you’ve at least heard. Names now writ large on population maps.
Big circles. Millions. and more millions. in Cities.
Lots of small town and rural folks wondering how they ended up here. What happened to the folks who knew my name? Who knew my mother’s name? Who knew what kind of kid I was? What happened to the familiar places where I rode my bike, got beat up by a bully, enjoyed the small triumphs available in elementary and secondary schools of numerous small communities?
This is a pilgrimage of the geographic sort, for sure. We chase something and it leaves us behind here, in the city. Education. A woman. A man. A job. Freedom for all those prying eyes who know my name, my parent’s names, what kind of kid I was.
Yet it is also the kind of pilgrimage which lacks the return. There is no going back for most of us. No return save for weddings, funerals, reunions, occasional visits with friends or family. In fact, we often go back for those things that made home, home. The people and the events in their lives. Events important to us because of their importance to them.
Yet, we are only from there now. No longer wholly part.
Many funerals and weddings and birthday parties, mornings spent over coffee at the bakery, nights at the high school football or basketball games have gone on without us. We are no longer there. We come now as a guest, a visitor. Not quite a tourist. We still have our papers, our citizenship is still good, but we have a permanent visa in another place. The City.
I have lived here over thirty years, almost thirty-five. I came here to go to seminary, chasing education and a way off the factory floor, and to get away from Judy and our dissipated life of drugs and sex. Hey, seminary seemed a like a good idea given the starting point.
My very first day at seminary, and, my very first day in the Twin Cities, I went to the Walker Art Center and, later that evening, to the Guthrie Theater. As I look back now, those two visits cemented me to the city much more than the twenty years or so I spent in education, then in ministry.
The ministry, back then, allowed me a long slow move away from the small town scene. The city political scene seemed to open up around me; early on there was the anti-war movement: Clergy and Laity Concerned About the War, The Wild Goose Collective, PUKE, marches, and protest services. Then, the neighborhood in which I lived and worked with developmentally disabled adults came under the steady eye of corporate beneficence and I got involved in neighborhood politics.
Later, I parlayed this experience into the West Bank Ministry, then a position as Director of Urban Ministry for the Presbytery (all of the Twin Cities), then, Associate Executive Presbyter for Congregational Development and Mission. My roots grew stronger here; so strong in fact that they would help lead me to conclude the church was no longer the place for me.
I became a city guy, entwined with the political infrastructure of Minneapolis and Hennepin County, and, to a lesser extent, the state. In the process of grappling with social justice issues, I became a Minnesotan and a Twin Citian.
In one sense you could say I found the path, got to Jerusalem, took up residence, and never left. I got on the trail to San Juan de Compostela, arrived, got a job in town and never went back home. And, in that sense, too, you might say my pilgrimage is unfinished. I have not taken the changed pilgrim home.
Again, I am not alone. So many of us here, a high percentage of Twin Citians, are immigrants. Some of us have come from states in the Midwest, some from states further away. Some have come from other nations in North America, Central and South America. Some from Africa, some from Asia, some from Europe, and, I suppose there are a few from Australia, too.
Each of us, in our different ways, struggle to find a place here, to find meaning in this place of dreams. We had some dream that brought us here. Some vision of a brighter future. So it is for immigrants to cities all over the world. You could say cities per se are the most common sites for pilgrims.
And so many find no room at the inn. So many.
As now my life revolves around writing, study, art, and the garden, it used to revolve around cities. I studied cities census data, historical data. I read historical and sociological studies of cities. When stories about urban growth showed up in magazines or newspapers, I read them.
I went to conferences on cities and in cities: Boston, New York City, Washington, Baltimore, Atlanta, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles, San Francisco. Books like Theodore Dreiser’s The Titan and the Financier, and, Sister Carrie, as well as Babbit and the Great Gatsby also helped me understand US cities.
When marriage to Kate made foreign travel possible, I chose to go to cities: Rome, Florence, Venice, Vienna, Paris, London. I have also been to Bogota, Cartagena, Singapore, Bangkok, and Beijing. Mexico City. Istanbul.
I love cities, even though now my life has devolved to that of a Chinese literati at his country estate. And happily so.
The energy and diversity of Bangkok made my heart race. The history and differences, i.e. soi’s, temple architecture, the influence of Buddhism and Hinduism and Taoism, water taxis and long boats, Royalty, the Grand Palace, even the glass towers of central Bangkok. They offended my aesthetic, yes, but the confidence and pulse of commerce is part of what makes a city great.
Still, as I had thirty-six years ago, in the summer of 1968, during the brief time I lived in New York City, I began to yearn for trees, grass, clean rivers, air I could breathe without coughing.
That long ago I knew city life, in the heart of the city, was not for me. I need the lakes, rivers, woods, gardens, and wildlife. The Twin Cities have just enough to make them livable for me, but, since I have grown to love this place where I live now, I could not go back. If anything, I would move deeper into the forest.
Still, cities. The arts. Education. Power. Money. People of all kinds. An ordered frenzy, chaos in pursuit of structure, yet not ever quite finding it. Cities are like young children and puppies, all stumbling and crashing into things, yet eager, wide-eyed, open to new adventures.
Yes, I know. Cities can also crush you. Put you on the street in short skirts, or lurking in alley ways, sleeping under bridges, breaking into places for money to buy drugs, or, perhaps, food. Cities have an enormous dark side. Legions of the poor congregate in them; their dreams and hopes...
This knowledge is part of what makes me take up the pilgrim’s staff again and continue my small town to city journey. Writing The Liberal Way will allow me to continue the trek, this time drawing on my own political experience, political theorists and historical examples, the reality of urban life in the world now, and, in what I hope makes for an interesting under girding, the liberal faith tradition and how it can sustain both the political pilgrim and the seeker of truth and love and the sacred.
Last night a party for Collection in Focus guides at Ming-Jen Chen’s fortress in Edina. Why a fortress? Because, she said, “...I have a security system. And it talks to me.”
Missed the bigger CIF party sponsored by Scott and Yin. This was a smaller affair, with arts and crafts made by CIF guides or (in my case and Gail Wong’s) spouses. Kate showed cloth boxes and bowls she’s begun making and three varieties of chutney. She made several sales and left pleased. I was happy for her.
Ming-Jen invited me to show the photographs I took in Southeast Asia and I gave my first trip presentation using the slides as primary data. Fun. A pilgrimage is a rock thrown in various ponds; it has ripple effects, it spreads gently among several groups. Who knows the result?
Shiva, perhaps. Kali. Vishnu. Not me.
The journey continues. Today at the Japanese art cart more conversation with Gail Wong about the trip. Realized the ripple analogy only works one way, and that’s not the way the pilgrimage material works. Each rock I throw out from my interior creates ripples in the several ponds of the world, yes, or, few, as the case may be. But, each rock thrown out causes ripples in my own pond, deep down in the cave with the gentle candle light.
What people want to know, of course, reveals their own priorities, but it also challenges or expands my own to include theirs. Gail asks about the people I met, were there differences? Others want to know what meant the most to me, what impressed me the most, what was the highlight? Were the temples still used? Which is oldest?
These are questions each returning traveler gets asked, I recognize that, but each one casts a different light, a slightly different perspective on what I considered a pilgrimage first to family, then, to the remains of ancient cultures.
Let me give you a clear example of what I’m trying to say by using today’s art cart as an example. A young Asian woman came up to the art cart and asked about the tea ceremony. At first, I thought she was Japanese, but as she asked questions, sought more information, I recognized her accent as Chinese. I found it fascinating to help an Asian discover the culture of another Asian culture.
It is the seeking, the question coming from the particular person that causes the ripple in me, not necessarily its content.
Decorations at minimal here. Several flowering plants, a few Christmas globes, later, two pillar candles and the Norfolk Pine with popcorn and cranberries strung on thread—Solstice through New Year’s Day. Shopping done. Gift money saved through a holiday plan all last year, so no financial hangover. Music playlists (2) set up on the computer, one playing right now: Carol of the Bells from “Winter Solstice” music.
Surprise. Little anxiety. We’re able to enjoy the season, attend the occasional party—well, ok, 1—which is one more than I like as a general rule. Feels quiet, meditative here. As if the solar change and the birth of the god-within and the coming of a new year, were the big events. Strange. Not sure how we’ve pulled this off, but I want to savor it, hope we can do it again.
I find the winter solstice has grown, for me, into a central holiday, even bigger than Samain. Easter and Christmas have receded, Hannukah has come forward, as have July 4th and Labor Day and Michaelmas. There are others, too, of course, the equinoxes, Lent, Epiphany, Beltane, Imbolc, Lugnasa. I also find the dates of the first frost and the last frost important, too. Joseph and I celebrate December 15th as arrival day, the day, now 23 years ago, when Joseph landed around midnight after a long journey from Calcutta.
Birthdays and our anniversary are also key events in the year, too.
I liked Singapore in this regard; Deepavali and Ramadan, both observed while I was there, were not abstract events celebrated by exotic peoples in far-off lands, but living moments of sacred time, and I could enter them just by going to Arab Street or Serangoon Road.
This could be a form of religious voyeurism, I suppose, but I try to enter the events as a participant, to feel the moment as, say the firewalker does, or the small child milling around in a temple filled with excited adults, or the Ramadan fast-breakers sitting on their rugs, smoking the hookah with friends.
But of them all, the winter solstice now speaks most to this northerner’s soul. It is the paradigmatic northern holiday, only possible to experience in its fullest in the northern latitudes. Here the nights grow long and longer, the days wane, and often the earth has a white covering; the air is arctic.
Its darkness and light speaks directly to the theme of Parker Palmer’s book, a Hidden Wholeness: The Undivided Self. The Winter Solstice can teach the value of the night, the necessity of the dark places. It is a lesson our Yellow Brick Road culture has to learn. We follow the light, worship the light, see it as the exclusive path to wisdom, when, in reality, many of the most important things happen in the dark. The growth of babies in the womb. Sleep, the cure all of the soul. Dreams. Quiet. Peace. Rest. Hibernation. The movement of the heavens. Earth’s silent voyage around our star.
We need the emphasis on the dark because we are too often on the road to Emerald City. It never occurs to us to go visit the wicked witch and her monkeys. They may have things we need to know.
I agree with Palmer’s observation that it does not matter what we call the atma, the soul, the self, but I do have a preference. I like Jung’s notion of the Self, the never fully known (by the ego) uniqueness that is you, moving through time and space. Your Buddha nature, the you that is undivided, the you others may see more clearly than you do.
This Self is what the Winter Solstice teaches us to be: beings of light and dark, faint trails in the cosmic fluctuation between conscious and unconscious, good and evil, and, yes, even life and death. When we know our Winter Solstice Self, it is the whole Self, one adapted to the dark and the cold, but able to function in the light, one full of conscious energy and drive, yet able to tap the hidden and occulted powers of our most expansive Self.
The route to Winter Solstice wisdom is not straight, the road has crooks and bends, nasty surprises and joyous moments. Sometimes, if we open ourselves enough, we can kneel to the sacred babe within, lying in the manger of our heart, ready to fill us with divinity, or, better ready to let us in on the secret, we are all god intoxicated, god infused creatures—always ready to walk the rainbow and dance in the moonlight.
My garden level study, where the computer lives and the files, too, faces south and east. I can see right now, at 1:30 pm, the sun already sunk below the treeline on its way west. To see the harbinger of twilight so early in the afternoon gives me a good feeling. I feel at home in the lands where the sun sets early in the winter, where winter barrels down out of the north with serious intent, and every once in a while buries us.
This variation in the sun’s angle is one of the things that separates us from the tropics where the sun’s angle of declination changes very little and never in a noticeable way. Spoken this way it seems like nothing, changes in the angle of the sun’s declination. Yet, it means so much. The difference between hot Decembers and cold Decembers; the difference between a winter solstice with eight hours of light versus a winter solstice with the usual 12. But most important to me, the difference in mood when, at a given point in the year, the sun’s relationship alters, and alters enough that the rays of the sun pass through the basswoods and ash on the southern horizon of Seven Oaks.
This not so subtle change effects my mood and my affect changes; I become more contemplative, more festive, quieter, centered. This link, nature to Self, goes back to the conversation about the undivided Self, for the true Self is distinct from, yet wholly part of, the natural world. Events like the solstice and the seasonal changes trigger awareness in us; as they do in the migrating bird, the hibernating bear, the dormant plant, and even the waters of lakes and ponds.
We filter them out, shrug them off. Turn on the light as the darkness grows. Go to the refrigerator or grocery store if we need food. Turn the thermostat up a notch or grab a sweater off the shelf.
Yet...what if we left the lights off? Let the sun go down so early and accept the darkness. What if we thought about the food we went to get, how different it would be if this was dried meat in a larder, the only food we had and food we ate today could not be replaced in the lean months of March and April? What if we left the thermostat set low, let the dropping temperature outside chill us, make us cold? Let us know how vulnerable we are. How much we need the clothes we have, the central heating.
Might be worth it. At least once in a while. Say, on December 21st, maybe, the day of the Solstice, that short day and long night.
4:30 PM same day. The sky has that gray light now, the sun now sunk below the horizon, only a few remaining rays give witness to it. The garden, in this light, has a brown to tan tone, this place formerly filled with iris and hosta, mums and calla lillies, hemerocallis and Siberian iris, sweet Kate and asiatic lilies. Nature’s bright flags, flown with pride. All gone.
Except. One lone cardinal. He sits like a lonely prelate now on the fence, there on the bare amur maple branch, then, at the feeder. His spot of color is like an artist’s trick, mother nature draws my eye to fence-line, stripped branch, then fore-ground, the feeder near the door. There he sits, carefully plucking out nuts and black oilers.
These hardy birds, along with the chickadee, blue-jays, crows, and gold-finches, the occasional pine siskin and junco, remain behind with the sparrows. Nature can’t have a dull brown hat on all winter. The white snow, a red cardinal, a black crow, a blue-jay add accent colors to the more somber palate prevalent around the Solstice.
Saw the opening sequence of The Legend of Earthsea, Ursula LeGuin’s novel now taught often at the high school level. It is a work of imaginative literature, a term that spans science fiction and fantasy, from Asimov to Zelazny, with Tolkien hovering slightly above it all, like ETA Hoffman or Lovecraft.
These kinds of stories inspire me, call out of me desire, not to better them, or match them, but to create worlds as compelling and as metaphoric. I’m not sure why the medieval setting has so strong a hold on the genre, the sword and sorcery milieu of dragons, wizards, evil kings and jolly sidekicks; so, there is one place I will try a difference: a setting in the world of America as a young nation, then in America as an imaginative and inventive wonderland, and, at the end, an America not far distant in time from our own, yet an America beset with the troubles it has wrought, and stripped of the guardians who have kept it strong.
Writing is a pilgrimage on its own. Each time a blank screen comes up, or a page in a notebook free of words a writer heads off into terra incognita. I heard this familiar latin phrase only last night as I drove home from the pharmacy; I’m listening to Undaunted Courage, Stephen Ambrose’s account of the Lewis and Clark expedition. In this case terra incognita referred to the large expanse west of the Missouri/Mississippi, across the Rocky Mountains, and onto the Pacific Ocean, specifically the mouth of the Columbia River, whose precise location was less than five years old.
On old maps, favorite artifacts for fantasy writers, there is the also familiar, “Here there be dragons.” Terra incognita is, then, unexplored territory, or, at least, territory no person has visited, then returned to write a report. Or, territory which may well have inhabitants, but these folk are unaware of terra cognita (by definition not their own and therefore, for them, terra incognita) or who, aware, want nothing to do with those who explore.
Each blank page is all of these for the writer. A page is a place like the American West, expansive, unknown, holding great promise. It is also a place where there be dragons. Unknown beasts can raise their heads; the writing can go down a corridor left undisturbed, perhaps for good reason. A writer can expose his sensibilities and worries, about, say, his sister’s visit, as I did back in July, then, later, the same sister, through the magic of the web can find the piece, read it in far off Singapore, and write of her devastation.
A blank page terrifies some writers, causes them to turn, trembling, away and head back upstairs to the comfort of the kitchen table. With unsteady hands they pick up coffee and read the newspaper, finding solace in the familiar travails of our fellow space-travelers.
What do they fear?
The way that land might rip back the veil from their gift and show it for the tawdry, shop-worn piece of cloth it is. The way their journey might cause them or others, ones they know, and love, pain. The human heart does not reveal its agonies, its doubts, its hesitations, its worries, its vulnerabilities with any ease. Alain de Botton’s book, Status Anxiety, shows us why.
Still, sometimes, when crossing the terra incognita of the blank page a pilgrimage happens, perhaps one unintended at the start and the writer finds himself alone, wandering through a desert of feeling, or surrounded by a thicket of intimate mistakes, small but prickly shrubs grown up, blocking his path. And the only way through them, the only way to the chapel of tranquility, or, at least, the chapel of pilgrim’s rest, is to slay them with the sword of revelation.
Here’s another thing that happens, too, across the page. The thought starts out, makes sense for a while, then the connection becomes vague, and, later, thin, finally, gossamer. Until. Nothing. But the words keep coming, the traveler is on his way, there’s no turning back because there is a swamp behind and the only possible route to finish the journey lies in forging ahead, write on.
Often, there is a place in the writing where the well no longer splashes when the bucket is let down. Instead the bucket thuds against the hard, packed soil at the bottom, or breaks on rocks, or disappears without a sound. In any case the bucket will, at this time, at this point on the journey, bring up no water.
With nothing to drink the writer soon finds the page too vast, the territory too draining. Stops.
Grabs the coffee.
Hits the treadmill.
Plants a new perennial in the garden.
These are concrete acts which require no desert trek and their performance is well within the writer’s capacity. He has sufficient provisions for these short steps.
Like a pilgrim at rest, though, the journey will beckon again. After a rest, or a distraction, or a night sleeping with other pilgrim’s, ones on different journeys to the heart of darkness, he may lower the bucket again.
It hits with a satisfying splash, sinks below the surface, gets its fill of liquid unconscious, and up it comes. The journey then continues.
I have this ball, lead or filled with air, in the lower left of my abdomen. Kate and I head out in a few minutes to negotiate the buyout of the Tundra Lease. This is fraught with anxiety for me because we have to deal with ---- MONEY. I’ve learned some, but not enough yet, not even enough to catch up to my own son, Joseph, who is much better at this than I am.
Well, I hit the car dealership ready to negotiate—trained for a month in Southeast Asian bazaars.
However, the complex that takes control of me when I get in these situations took over and I began with distrust.
Doesn’t help much, distrust. Even though warranted. Doesn’t help to start off with it, lead with it.
This same problem afflicted me in the political arena, too. In essence, I didn’t trust the good will of the persons across the table—bankers, city councilpersons, legislators, landlords, developers, contractors. A fine red mist would settle over my logic and my personality; I would become a raging bull, to use Scorcese’s term.
Now, as I write this, it feels as if Ares takes possession of me. Instead of a politician or diplomat I come out a warrior. Now...in certain situations this made perfect sense. Say, when facing down reluctant politicians or debating board members of the university in public, or challenging police conduct on the street. And, most of all, when organizing a group of folks for political action. There, Ares provides the energy, the belligerence, the fire, the power to move against insuperable odds, or against fear.
In most situations I encounter these days, however; you know, the middle class situation involving loans and obligations, Ares comes across as just belligerent and unpleasant.
Yet, so long have I let loose the dogs of war, I can no longer find the way of peace in these situations. A pilgrim can get waylaid by demands of the violent gods. Of course, sometimes the pilgrim needs the martial spirit, only this pilgrim does not need it so often these days.
Perhaps if I made my offering to Ares before these events, assured him I have not given up my willingness to fight, but require now more Odysseus than Achilles, perhaps also offer laurel leaves and incense to Athena, seek her counsel...
Ah. Growing up is never done. Never. Where is our Buddha nature when we need it?
Hillman says we meet the gods in our pathologies and I suppose my example above illustrates his point, but I’d like to say it another way. In the gods we meet pathologies...but not only pathology. Yes, when gripped by an impulse we can’t ignore a god’s possession seems very real; as if the loa of the Voudoun rode us. The ontological point is this; if the distinction can’t be made between god and complex, then, is there truly one? I would even go further with the metaphysical point—if a god manifests through my psyche and takes control of my body and my spirit, changes my actions and steers me in a particular direction, then that god exists, prima facie.
No fair playing reductionist either. It’s not “only” in my mind, if the sacred manifests in this world, it manifests in this world. Not some other, and not not at all. But in a real—I mean ontologically real—way with real world consequences. What more evidence do we need?
Isn’t it also fair to say that Aphrodite grips us, too, in the madness and lustfulness of love? Zeus when we exhibit a will to power, even the will to power of that famous atheist, Friedrich Nietschze, or the psychologist Alfred Adler. Who has seen a thought? Heard an emotion while it bubbles up from its source?
Hera when we scheme and betray. Athena as we sit down to ponder, to plan, to strategize. Hephasteus when we allow our hands free reign to create. Apollo when we sing, play, dance. Even the mortal Orpheus manifests in us when we give up our gifts to go after one we love, even if the journey takes us into darkness. And perhaps, in that darkness, we also rediscover our talents and use them to liberate our loved one.
Is this, it is fair to ask, polytheism? That is, does this view, with an ontological claim for the existence of the gods constitute a theology of many divinities?
No. It does not.
This is a perspective learned from devotees of Hindu deities. It is the Vishnu, or Shiva, or Brahama energy...or the Parvati, or Durgi, or Kali, or Sarasavati or Lakshmi avatar of the one god that is the lens through which we choose to view the sacred, and, it is a lens which may shift from life event to life event.
Faced with the beginning of college, the first days of a marriage, the start of a book, or the first visit with a new patient or client we might slip into our private altar and place a garland of flowers around the neck of Ganesh, light a cone of incense to him, give him a gift of fruit or candy.
In a period of life when events careen out of control, relationships falter, work does not go well, even the car doesn’t work, we might go to our home altar, to our image of Vishnu and pray for stability, for some order and clarity in our life.
Thus, Orpheus descending in us tells us of certain god-like powers of the Self, the avatar of the one Self to which we belong and from which we draw our own unique location and distinction. Ares possession, while not helpful in certain situations, say dealing with termination of vehicle leases, may be something to cultivate when faced with oppression, or when struggling with a force threatening to overwhelm you.
I know this has the possibility of sounding strange, sort of divinity ghoulash, or ghoulish divinity but I mean it anyhow. I believe there are sources of power both available to us and capable of possessing us that stretch beyond what you might have learned in Psych 101 or Catechism.
In one sense I go back to Botton and his statement that it doesn’t matter what we call these things, only that we recognize their existence, yet I feel it matters a good deal what we call them. In the scriptures of ancient Middle Eastern religions to know a true name is to control the thing. This is why the true name of God has been so jealously guarded and respected—the Tetragrammeton.
Control seems quite a claim, but that to name something is to be able to invoke, or, alternatively to recognize its grip on you, the red mist of Ares, the fuzzy lust of Aphrodite, the will to power of Zeus, the creative power of Shiva Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, seems clear to me.
To give what may seem a mundane example, until we knew the mosquito carried malaria, we could not begin to cope with a disease that crippled millions. If we named swamp gas as the culprit, well, you could drain a swamp, or avoid the swamp, but if the mosquito came, so did malaria.
Yes, mosquitoes are a thing seen, but until the vector between mosquitoes and humans was known, it, too, was invisible.
There is, too, the question—Have you ever seen a justice? A love? A rage? A yearning? Yes, you’ve seen the physical manifestations; yes, you’ve seen the long-term or short-term impacts of these real phenomena, but, have you ever seen one?
No. There is a realm invisible, a realm not penetrable by the direct intervention of the human senses, yet a realm so powerful that it does in fact move mountains, raise rockets to the stars, free slaves, and preserve forests.
Why can there not be all-powerful gods, avatars of the one, the Self whose whole is the Whole, whose uniqueness is our universe, and, if you can imagine that, then why not a true pantheon of Selves, multiverses, or a council of Gods, what would be the difference?
I’m not trying to nail down proofs for the existence of God, a futile effort in the end; I am trying to say that thinking people can take available evidence, sift it with clear thought, and conclude that the gods have power, and that their power comes from an invisible world, or, even, perhaps not, but in fact, a hidden world where live the gods, who then might visit from time to time...on Christmas, at Samain, Easter, Passover, or in secret, dressed as insurance salesmen, or prostitutes, or the guy down the block.
Must be the season, a sacred time. Or, too much Tibetan incense. The air in the study today has the scent of roses.
Who is that guy out in the garden? The one in the red suit with the silly hat and big shiny boots? The dogs barked, I looked up and he sailed in over the seven oaks outside my window, landed his sleigh in the backyard, and unhooked his reindeer for a twilight snack.
He has a great smile. Cheery guy. Waves.
“Ho, ho, ho.
Out for a shakedown cruise before the big night. Reindeer got hungry and needed a little grass.
Hope you don’t mind!”
He laid a finger alongside of his nose, and then, I’ll be damned, up from the grass they all rose.
He rode off toward the north, the sky has gone gray; but, he said, “I’ll be back Christmas day.”
These aren’t common events here in the exurbs, but when you lie as far north as we do here in Andover, well, almost anything’s possible.
The trip has come to an end, in one way: I’ve managed to clear up and organize all the things I’d set aside during the getting ready, being gone, and just getting back phases. I like the feeling of having everything in a place ready for action, even if my action entails only brisk page turning and hearty key thumping.
In another way the trip will begin again soon. On the day before the Solstice, the last Woolly meeting of the year, I start my end of the year retreat focused on Southeast Asia. One part of that retreat will include exploration of Southeast Asia in Minnesota—visiting grocery stores, shops, restaurants, art galleries, and art exhibits. I plan to head over to University Avenue in St. Paul, then to Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis. I’ll review the material at the Art Institute, looking not only at exhibits, but at prints and drawings, library materials, and artifact files.
As I wrote this, I realized I’ll need to look at the genealogical society and the Minnesota State Historical Society, too. I’ll visit Asian art galleries like the Three Pagodas and perhaps make a stop at some organizations focused on Southeast Asians, though I’m not including the Hmong since I didn’t make it to Laos or northern Thailand.
This will be the stateside supplement to review of my photographs, journal notes, e-mails, books, art, and other materials I brought back. I’ll see if there’s enough material for a book, if not, as I now suspect, I’ll use this material as a section of the Pilgrim’s Year.
Had lunch with Paul Strickland today. We have a place—the Origami, great if you like sushi and sashimi, which both of us do.
Good to catch up with Paul and find out about the work at The Center for Spiritual Healing. ‘Bout time the farmhand seminarian got to work for the Church. Now he and his brother, the monsignor, will have much more in common.
Even though I am happy out of the literally hallowed halls, I felt a squeeze of nostalgia as Paul said he had to go because of a meeting with Michael O’Connel, a priest I knew and worked with long ago.
Paul and I talked a little about the eternal now; he comes at it from Eckhart Tolle, though I come at it more from Whitehead and the Buddha, still, this is an idea with a lot of appeal to me. Paul sees it as opening us up to constant rebirth (resurrection?); I tend to see it as making things of the past—and, in some folks thinking, of the future, too—available in the right here and right now. So, for instance, the resurrection happens each moment, as, of course, so does the crucifixion. The slaughter of the innocents happens at the same time as the holocaust which happens at the same time as Joan of Arc which happens as Gandhi frees India and the slaves cut loose from the plantations in the American south.
Paul also told me of a spat that occurred while I was gone, over an e-mail he sent out featuring material from the Women Who Run with Wolves author, Estes. This brings up a subject I’ve not touched often here, but since it’s happening during this pilgrimage year, it deserves notice.
Fights among pilgrims were, I’m sure, frequent. The road was often hard, the spiritual way fraught with religious peril, and traveling with some folks can get downright tiresome.
Political disagreements tend to get nasty and stay nasty, especially these days, when a spirit of meanness is abroad in the land. Part of that nasty spirit comes from right wing shock jocks like Limbaugh and O’Reilley taking their cues from the ideologues of the New Left (among whom I name myself) and their take no prisoners style of public debate that delighted in trashing opponents, doubting their veracity, their integrity, and their intelligence.
To even use the word debate here is suspect, though in the beginning that was what these events were. I remember a day at Ball State when those of us on the left had finally hollered the board of trustees of the university out in the open and we faced them down on television.
I stood up and made a point in a very rude way to a board member, a woman of some 60 years. She looked shocked. I felt only anger. As I look back now, I was way out of line, though that was the style then, to be as far out of line as the moment could sustain.
Here’s the hard part, the real hard part though. My point was about economic class and university governance, how the moneyed few called the shots for students from working class families. We wanted student representation on the board of trustees. This was 1968.
The hard part is this. I was right. The university system then, and now, has the fragrance of nobless oblige’. Corporate governance is even more so, as is philanthropic governance. Now, it seems ok because private property is the true king in America, a monarchy of the monied; but, in fact, its simply a feudal arrangement dressed up in the emperor’s new clothes, democratic capitalism.
So, why was I out of line? Because in the heat, the white hot flare, of that moment, my person and my anger spoke eloquently against my otherwise accurate point. The New Left never recovered from this sin against public debate. Though the New Left’s political analysis was then, and is now, clear, and I believe, compelling, it drove away the very people it hoped to embrace: the working classes and the middle classes.
Why? Because we were not debating, we were shouting. We were not reasoning together, we were emoting at our opponents.
Politics is, by its nature, passionate. That’s why it’s so damned much fun. Still, in a democratic society, the only way forward is through debate. It need not always be reasoned, because political animals seem almost always in rut, running at each other, snorting, heads lowered, thinking cap turned off, eyes blurry from rage, yet, if it is never reasoned, if we never step back and acknowledge the essential humanity of those we oppose, then we can never find a way forward, especially not in a country as evenly divided as this one is.
I missed the particulars of this running of the bulls, but I’m ready to have an open conversation about political differences. It would be interesting to me to discover where each of us stands—what are your politics? Why? What does the world need that only politics can provide? What does the world need that politics can never provide?
What is politics? What is its province? What isn’t?
What are your experiences of being political? How did it feel? How does it feel today?
What do you find worth dying for? Or, even harder, what do you find worth living for?
Cold weather at least. No snow. Bummer. Still waiting. Four years ago it felt like the year of the long October, this year it feels like the year of the Long November; since I’ve been back from Asia, it’s always felt like the week of Thanksgiving...the day I came back.
Moved more books around last night. I like moving books around, it’s the proto-librarian in me I guess. Set up a couple of shelves for Southeast Asia work over the next few months and thought...geez, really outta have my India material here since it’s the mother culture; then, hmmm, China, too, because it’s the most powerful. So, I moved all those onto the Southeast Asia shelves creating, really, an Asia shelf or two.
Now, I’ve got space where those books came from! Always great news because it means I can unstack books piled in front of other books. So, I began to move books on my ancient religions and magic bookcase, all the time hunting for my copy of John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice. In the search I almost cleared off the stacked in front books on this bookcase, the key to my trilogy research.
I have almost all of my pilgrimage books and files already in place, as well as most of my books on political philosophy and liberal religion. There’s a movement stirring here that I haven’t felt for a couple of years, a sort of, time to go back to work feeling.
What that means for me is holding my morning’s sacred for writing—with the exception of Wednesday's if I get in the next docent class, and, this time, most of my evenings for research. This leaves afternoons for errands, appointments, naps, and workouts. I can sustain this pattern for months at a time, but I haven’t done so in the recent past. I look forward to getting back in the saddle, or chair, as the case may be.
Well, this has gone on a long while, the longest of all I think. Maybe it’s the longer nights. More shadow leaks out in the dark.