“A new day yesterday.”

Well here we are facing a “new” year. The whole business with the Mayan calendar ending and the misdirected interpretation that it foretold the apocalypse (the fact that our own calendar runs out this time every year not withstanding) did not play out. Yes folks a whole, shiny, brand-spanking-baby-ass new year all full of hope and promise, fiscal cliffs and ludicrous arguments over gun laws, agonizing overseas wars with no obvious direction, violent armed squabbles over who owns this land or that and who has the right to do what to whom and how and when. Seems like the same old crap to me.

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But hey that is the world we live in; does not mean we have to dwell on it though.

This time of year is good for reflection I suppose. All attempts at arbitrary temporal measurements aside, in my little corner of the world it is the deepest part of winter and the oncoming new “year”, if nothing else, means the return of the sun. But of course the various traditions with which we are steeped in this time of year suggest something more. Whether one chooses to focus on the astronomical phenomena, the somewhat arcane business of the birth of wee “Baby J”, or attempting to assess whether or not old friends should be forgot, the air is full of reflection. Then there is the odd idea that with the promise of a whole new year we need to resolve ourselves into doing something different than what we have been doing. Hogwash.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am all for self improvement… and plenty of personal reflection for that matter. That said, deciding that one must do these things now because it is this particular time of year is nonsense. If you want to remember and/or reconnect with old friends and family do it whenever the feeling comes over you. If you want to be kind to strangers or give to charities do it all year long. If you want to change the way you are living don’t resolve to do it…just frakin’ do it. You know you won’t stick to those silly new years “resolutions” anyway.

Yet, there is something inspiring about this time of year…perhaps. I went for a glorious ski yesterday. The conditions were near perfect; the trails were mostly clean and solid, the snow was great, the temperature was warm but not too much so, and just moments after I started out I rounded a bend and the mid-afternoon light (high noon here remember) was near-literally glowing in the tops of the birch trees. For a moment I felt as if I could fly. I skied hard for the next hour or so, exalting in the remarkable conditions and was in wont of nothing more than that experience in that moment. I realize that those conditions could have come together on nearly any winter day, but perhaps my mind would not have been in the right space to marvel quite so much had I not been spending time reflecting on life as much as I have of late. Who knows.

Similarly, I accompanied my girlfriend to a party on solstice just over a week ago now. I have been to solstice parties before; all mulled wine and bonfires where various food and sweets abounded. Yet none quite like this one. In part it was the unique particulars of the people, the food and drink, the place…or perhaps –like my ski yesterday- it was the coalescence of the particular uniqueness of all of the various elements and how they melded together in that moment. It was a -40 degree night, or very nearly so and the party was being held in one of the colder parts of town. There was no bonfire planned and admittedly I was thankful for that. Certainly I am a great fan of bonfires, but in that kind of severe temperature they offer a somewhat false sense of security. You stand too close trying to stay warm and keep your drink from freezing all the while singeing your eyebrows, melting your fleece jacket, and subsequently freezing your arse.

Anyways, there was a hand drawn map that had directions (written only) on how to get to the property. The map itself was a quaint sketch of the property on which the party would take place. It involved trails and cabins and a large clearing. Well, “cabin” is not really the right term here. There were four domiciles involved, each one unique in its own right. We happened to be the first to arrive and thus had the somewhat dubious (but ultimately enjoyable) pleasure of assisting in lighting and dispersing the luminaries. For those of you unfamiliar these are hollow vessels made of ice within which is placed a candle, thus creating an outdoor lantern. Fabulous things really, but lighting nearly a hundred of them not much bigger than softballs at -40 got to be a bit trying…but it was worth it.

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Similar to, but not the actual, luminaries described…

Once lit, the luminaries were placed along a series of rabbit warren-esque trails winding through the woods up, down, and across the face of a generally south-facing slope upon which (and in certain cases dug into) were strewn said domiciles. The map, in point of fact, not only illuminated the lay of the land and the course along which the evening and consequently the party-goers were to follow, but also certain intriguing highlights of the property. For instance, the first destination was “Hobbit –hole #1”. This was followed by the “Ski-hut”, Hobbit-hole #2”, the “Festival of lights”, and finally the “Big House”. Even had I not been invited I would have wanted to go to this party.

The hobbit holes were indeed dug into the side of the hill and in the immortal words were not “nasty, dirty, wet…nor dry, bare, sandy hole[s]” but rather quite comfortable, partially subterranean “cabins”. I will not go into the architectural particulars but there were two completed and occupied and a third under construction. The “ski-hut” was a fantastic three story building, tall and narrow and custom built in every aspect. As the evening progressed and more people began to arrive the party would amble from one unique structure to the next, crowding into the mostly tiny spaces, eating such elaborate and unusual dishes as caribou tartare, bacon wrapped dates, babaganoush –all fresh and home-made- only to be washed down with home-made beers and wines and/or local (or at least Alaskan) made beers, ciders, and meads.

We then went to the base of the ridge, down a somewhat treacherous, narrow, winding pathway from “Hobbit-hole #2” to the “Festival of Lights” where one of the hosts stood in knee deep snow at -40 reminding us all of the realities and benefits of reflection on -and reverence for- this time of year. We then lit and launched Chinese paper lanterns, either letting go of our past year’s troubles or releasing hopes and dreams for the coming year. Once all were aloft and drifting on the cold –bitter cold- air, we made our way up to the “Big House”. As seemed somewhat fitting for the whole affair, this house, also hand built and incredibly unique, was the abode of the penultimate hosts of the whole affair. You see, the other three buildings are rentals, inhabited by young, local folks…people with an alternative frame of mind; and these were the primary organizers. The main house was inhabited by the lords of the land, kindly lords that lived in their self-built manor. It was like an old historic farmstead built of local, likely hand hewn logs, local flag stones for the floor, a great hall with a flagstone fireplace in the corner and a table and benches that would likely seat a dozen or more, mulled wine and spiced cider in vats on the wood stove. All in all it was a rather remarkable experience and reminds me yet again why I have grown to love living here in the ‘banks.

Christmas eve I went to midnight mass. It was probably the only “traditional” event for me this season, but that is more than most for me. As elucidated in previous ramblings I have not many traditions upon which I might hang my hat. So to speak. I do not really long for family “get togethers” this time of year. Sure I miss my family but again, that is something that can -and does- happen any time of the year. I do not have reason to reserve it for mid-winter. Of late I am more inclined to be pining for warm climes…toes in the sand and that sort of thing. But I think that might be changing. A lot of my life seems to be changing of late, almost as if I have been picked up by the ankles and held upside down to shake out all of the nonsense. So to speak.

Should be interesting to see where this road leads…time to go exploring.

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“You’ll shoot your eye out kid.”

Well it is that time of year again. Holidays in my family have been a bit inconsistent, but that is just because my family is a bit inconsistent. Maybe that is not quite fair, or not quite the right descriptor. I have some herky-jerky childhood memories of winter holiday season; the fake, white plastic tree that my gram had that had to be assembled and always seemed strange to me, the somewhat awkward dual gift unwrapping events -one at home and one at my dad’s place, the wondering what sort of incomparably fantastic gift my best friend down the street may have gotten that year. Gifts in general are a bit weird in my family, many of us often neglect to send things to one another on time and I will be the first to admit that I am one of the worst offenders in this realm. That is except for my Mom, who is incomparable in her own right about sending stuff. She is always “Johnny-on-the-spot” with the sending of gifts and cards. She sends cards for all sorts of holidays and never misses a beat, and I can always tell when a package is from her; wrapped meticulously in plain brown paper (often re-used paper bags) and heavily taped. I should thank her more for all of that.

Of course we all have memories of past events; some good some ill. Habitually I have tended to dwell on the latter when it comes to holidays. Makes it easier to cultivate the Scrooge/Grinch image and attitude, and I am not the only one in the family to act thusly. Some might say I get it honest. Anyways, I would rather focus on the former this time around. Problem is, as I mentioned, some of those early memories are a bit herky-jerky, there are however some themes that I recall as more consistent than others and as such am rather fond of them.

SearsWishbook-1983-P160As a kid of course one is inclined to be overly focused on gifts… admit it. One of my favorite childhood holiday memories is lazing about on the floor poring over the Sears Wishbook, circling all of the cool toys I would hope to get.  I know now that gifts are really not the point, but perhaps neither are some of the more esoteric traditions that run amuck out there this time of year. Rather I think family and friends are what should be celebrated…that and the coming of a new year and especially in these parts, the promise of the sun’s return. But, still, I had a grand time dreaming of this sort of thing. Collecting Star Wars toys and the like was a pretty big deal back then… I still have a storm trooper action figure on my desk at work.

Then there is the traditional holiday film viewing. Some would watch “Miracle on 34th St.” or “White Christmas” or whatever, I preferred “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, “The Grinch who stole Christmas”, and of course who could forget “A Christmas Story”!

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On another note all together my Mom was born and raised in Germany and she brought one particular tradition with her that I have especially fond memories of; that is the use of candles as decoration during the holidays. There was always a small bronze candle fueled carousel chime that I remember being fascinated by, something on the order of that pictured here (in fact the more that I look at this picture the more I think this is the exact one I remember…). I used to love putting it together and lighting the candles and watching it pick up speed as the candle flames got going.

candle chimes

The other part of this memory is the candle holder ornaments that were used on the tree. The little electric lights are nice and all (not counting the inane, American, Griswold-esque desire to overwhelm the neighborhood with lights and decorations or the seizure inducing flickering- flashing lights so popular of late) but the effect of candles on the tree is something altogether different. The tradition part of this was that we would have a friendly get together some nights before Christmas eve and towards the end of the evening everyone would gather in the living room. The candles on the tree would be lit and all electric lights would be turned out. Gradually everyone would go to the tree and make a wish –or perhaps say a prayer- and in so doing extinguish a candle. As the evening wore on there would be less and less candles lit on the tree. Likewise, folks would be on their way and by the end of the evening, ideally it would be very few people, at times only my Mom and me, with only one candle left lit on the tree. I have many beautiful memories of this tradition… another thing I should thank my Mom for. On the other hand, there are the memories of waking in the middle of the night to caterwauling and a horrifying crash only to find that the cats had brought the tree down in attempting to climb it… thankfully these two memories never crossed paths; one can only imagine flaming cats, flaming carpet, flaming tree, etc.

Another tree related memory is that my Dad and Step-Mom would give my step-siblings and I a new ornament every year. A number of years ago I got a box in the mail that had all of my ornaments, each labeled with the year it was gifted, to be used on my own tree. Yet another is the tradition that my Step-Dad started of purchasing a small live, potted tree that would be planted in the yard rather than going out and buying a farm raised dead tree that would just get thrown out after the decorations got put away. I do not have a tree for myself these days. The house is a bit small and I do not really spend that much time there. I suppose I could just hang the ornaments wherever, but I figure they belong on a tree and that time will likely come again.

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Anyways, there you have it. Happy holidays to all of you out there, whichever holiday you choose to celebrate and in whatever manner. Whatever you do, take some time to ponder your own memories and traditions, your friends and family. Set aside the rigors of the past year and look forward to all the new days ahead! For me I will look for the ever lengthening days and light a few candles around the house.

“If they are illusion, then I also am illusion.”

*Potentially awkward content disclaimer*

While not nearly depression riddled like some recent posts, this one is long, and a bit wordy, and really quite personal. I am in many ways hesitant to post it, but well, there you have it.

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I used to fancy myself a poet, though I also knew that I was never particularly adept at it. I never wrote in rhyme…well perhaps some of the time. What I saw as poetry was for me just another means –another medium- with which I attempted to express myself. I started writing, I suppose, in essay form; rants, treatises, statements of thought and opinion. As I recall I would write about how I saw the world around me trying to make sense of it. I know that I wrote in school –in my youth- but those were assignments and I do not recall putting much thought, and certainly no heart or soul, into those… just did what I was told. As I recall.

I have been thinking a lot this morning about when the switch happened, when I started writing for myself…and why.

I went to a concert with a group of friends back in high school. Joe Satriani, 1980s era guitar virtuoso, played at the Chicago Theater in the heart of the city. This would be a completely different experience for me. I had been to a number of concerts by this time, mostly rock concerts, mostly in large –generally crowded, often frantic, frenzied, and mind-numbingly loud- arena type venues. A group of us went though I only really knew two of the group. Two particularly inspiring friends of mine; “identical” twins, though they were worlds apart. The concert is really a side note here. It was fun to be sure, but left no real lasting impression. No, I bring this up for one specific reason. As an aside – and this is both amusing and fascinating to me- I am, now that I think about it, uncertain if both of the brothers were there or just one and if just one, which one…

Either way, after the concert, the group of us spent the night at the home of one of the group whom I did not know very well so that we did not all have to make the long various journeys home in the wee hours of the night. I remember lying in a sleeping bag next to my friend –one of the brothers, I believe I know which one- attempting to wind down. I asked him if he ever thought about the nature of the universe and more specifically what it meant when it was described as –or how it could possibly be- endless. Remember it was probably two or three in the morning and we had just come from a rather loud three hours of listening to guitar rock. With an audible groan, he expressed his distaste at not only the question but the poor timing, citing that he would like to sleep. However, he left me with one statement… a statement that I have never forgotten; “Our bodies are made up of cells right? What if each of those cells is really a planet, and on each of those planets there are organisms, each of which is made up of cells.” This was a whole new way of thinking about the world for me.

That autumn I moved to Maine. I met a guy that I tried to befriend. He was different, quirky and funny and a sort of hyper-intelligent. He played guitar and sang songs and wrote poetry. He somewhat idolized Bob Dylan. I guess it was around then that I started trying to write poetry, but I wanted to write like him. Now that I think about it, I must have started writing poetry first as I have no recollection of writing in this style (essay format that is) back then. No, I think I know now when I started writing rant-style. I had left Maine and moved to California. Following a brief interlude on the Central Coast I moved south to live with my brother and his wife in North County San Diego. Many things happened while there, many things that would very likely help to define or at least guide the direction of my life… but I do not think I did much writing, if any.

At some point I chose to move back to the Central Coast. The details are kind of fuzzy. I lived with my sister for awhile, then she moved into her own place and at some point I moved in with this family that were friends of my sister. They had a sort of farm in the hills; it was a beautiful place. If I remember correctly this is where I started writing in earnest; this is where I started raving and ranting about the world I saw around me. Something had happened, something that made me angry and resentful. I remember writing about having a general distaste for society and describing the modern human race as I saw it; as “bovines” a herd of mindless beasts blindly following each other around with no purpose or reason. HA! who the hell did I think I was? Somehow I remember mostly that attitude… to learn more I would have to consult the archive of my writings from that time which is to this day in the keeping of one member of that family.

DSC_0030-001I read a lot during this time; books such as Blue Highways, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The Way of the Peaceful Warrior… clearly I was looking for something. Searching for something. I also remember experiencing a very specific break. I cast off any lingering ties to any sort of formal religion, belief, and/or faith. I have this rather visceral memory of being alone one night, outside, in the hills behind the farmhouse (it was actually a triple-wide trailer, but that is beside the point) crying and screaming at the sky, asking for guidance, for answers, and finally to just leave me alone. I was very angry with everything and most everyone… but for the life of me I cannot recall why. Again, I suppose I would have to consult the archive.

I grew up going to a Baptist Church. I was not, what you might call, a proper member of the church and when I look back on it I am not sure that my mother really was either, but she is why we went. She was in the choir and I know that she loved that, I also believe that she enjoyed the community but as for her belief in the doctrines… well I do not really remember ever talking with her about it. We would go early so that she could practice with the choir and I would go to “Sunday School”. For whatever reason I never took to it and as I got older I would skip out and explore the church building instead. The building itself is fabulous, though I have not been there in many, many years. It is a very old building and the streets for some distance around it were all the original cobblestone, although I would not be surprised if that has since changed. Anyway, I remember loving the experience of creeping around the church by myself; there were all sorts of what seemed to me, secret passages and rooms. I loved sneaking alone through the cathedral –if that is the right word- admiring the sheer vastness of it, the grand, stone construction and stained glass windows, the old wooden pews and the deep velvet carpets, the marble baptismal pool and the altar backed by the choir stands and an enormous pipe organ. It felt like another world. Yet, the doctrines, the belief, the structure…the faith, never made any sense to me. I did not understand it and did not really feel any need to.

I have been to Catholic churches, Lutheran churches, Unitarian churches. I have studied Taoism and Buddhism and investigated many other styles of belief. Nothing ever has clicked. None of it really made me feel welcome or gave me any solace. I have not found any answers. I tried science and even that leaves me with doubt. I tried philosophy and that just seemed silly. At some point I stopped thinking about it. Or at least I tried harder to ignore it. I could never call myself an atheist… actually, aside from “damn fool” I do not really call myself much of anything. I have never been much of a “joiner”.

~~~

I used to fancy myself a poet. I have not written any sort of poetry for a long time. I laid awake last night thinking…about many things. Scraps of one of my old poems kept coming to me, these lines in particular:

The river

Flowing on its course

At once the glacier

From which it comes

As well as the ocean

To which it goes

My girlfriend loaned me a book about the stages of faith shortly after we first started dating. She is a member of a local Episcopalian church. This reality has given me something to ponder… many things actually. So has that book. I have now gone to an Episcopalian church as well. It has been a very long time since I have attended any sort of church service. I have since been twice and I will freely admit both times have made me very uncomfortable. I feel out of place; awkward and foreign, even a bit jumpy. I went of my own accord because I want to understand. This is part of her life and I want her to be a part of mine, so I need to understand.

Science and philosophy may be ways to attempt to understand the world around us, likewise sociology and anthropology may be ways to attempt to understand human behavior…from a quasi-scientific viewpoint. We use science and politics and religion to attempt to manage the world around us, I guess. But what is belief and what is faith? And the big question that creeps around through much of this; What is love?

While looking through my old notebooks trying to find the lines of that poem I also found these:

I sat today and watched dust particles dance and spin on a beam of sunlight. I watched as they twirled, rotated, and orbited each other. It was as if I were watching the mechanics of a miniature universe. Each particle gleaming in the light as it twirled, casting shadows upon its neighbors. By watching the very small I was able to better grasp the possibilities of the very large.

Of course it made me think of my friend’s statement that I mentioned earlier and about the river and humanity and the world around me. I have not thought in this manner –have not wanted to- for a very long time. For many years now I have just wanted to live life. Trying to understand it just seemed like an endless series of unanswerable questions.

A few years earlier I was working in Death Valley over the winter of 1994/95. I was a baker working at the Furnace Creek Inn. It was an excellent time in many ways, but I was still in the throes of trying to understand the world around me. I spent a lot of time alone. I climbed a lot of mountains and spent a lot of time wandering aimlessly across the barren valley floor. One day at work a word literally appeared in my head; I could see it spelled out though I had no idea what it meant. I asked my boss whom I worked very closely with. It sounded familiar to her, but she could not place it. Something about it made me frantic. I asked around the kitchen and the most concrete answer I got was “I think it is the title of a book.”

The word was Siddhartha. I had no idea what to make of it and so I let it pass, but something left me unsettled.

I had been wrangling with the idea of morals and values; where do we get them, how do we define them, what do they mean? I decided to call my father and ask him. He told me I should read this book called…you guessed it, Siddhartha. I got a copy of it three days later and have read it many, many times since.

So this morning I have skimmed through a bunch of my old poems, read the last few chapters of Siddhartha (the same tattered old copy that has been with me ever since) and the first half of The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. Then I sat down to write and this is where it has all brought me.

Life, like the river, is made up of what is here and there, the very large and the very small, the past, the present, and the future. There is no right way, no wrong; no heaven or hell; no sin. There are mistakes and madness and cruelty. There is beauty and truth and freedom, fact and reality and imagination. There is misconception, understanding, knowledge, wisdom, happiness, mourning, light, and dark. I may never have any answers or I may have all of them but does that really matter?

I do not understand God; the idea, the truth, the fact, the phenomenon, the belief. I do think I am beginning to understand faith. I am trying to see through my girlfriend’s eyes because she is a better person than I. She is kind and giving and understanding and patient. She has wisdom and serenity and peace. Moreso she is inspiring and I believe that through her I will understand faith. With her I will understand Love.

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