We all walk ancientrails. Welcome to the journey.

In the Beginning

Winter                                                              Moon of the Long Nights

AlKabbalah last night. The first session of Mystical Hebrew Letters. Rabbi Jamie began teaching kabbalah at the Kabbalah Experience with this class several years ago. It moves from the broader conceptual fields of Soul and Space, the first two classes this year, to the particular examination of the Hebrew alphabet.

As with all the kabbalistic material, the subject matter gets complicated fast. We began with an overview of this ancient language. According to recent scholarship Rabbi Jamie says, it is the oldest alphabet in the world. Like most early languages, Chinese for example, it began as pictographs.

alephAleph, the first letter, was an ox-head. The word aleph means ox-head, or head of ox, also learning and chieftain. Prior to the use of Arabic numerals each Hebrew letter stood in for numbers with the letter aleph as number one. The word aleph means 1,000. Thus, aleph symbolizes the philosophical notion of the one and the many.

It is silent. Not sure why, but aleph and ayin, though used in the written language, are always silent. As silent and first in the alphabet, it also symbolizes the silence out of which came everything.

(next day) Stopped writing this yesterday when my need for sleep overcame my ability to write a coherent sentence.

The big idea I took away from this class involved aleph and my reimagining/reconstructing emphasis on incarnation rather than transcendence. Jamie introduced the notion of the alphabet, the Hebrew alphabet, as a funnel flowing from aleph in the ein sof (unlimitedness), its silence standing for the space created when the ein sof contracted, the tzimtzum, and filled with ohr, the first light of creation which fractures and travels down through the tree of life with its 22 channels (connecting lines) to the tenth sephirot, or malchut/shekinah, which is this world. Its letter is tav, the 22nd and last letter.

At first I thought, oh this emphasizes transcendence, the physical world developing in a top down fashion from a realm unconnected to it save by the thinnest of conceptual threads. Then Jamie began to introduce the location of the letters on the tree of life and aleph did not appear above the keter (the crown at the top of the tree of life), but on the parallel line of connection between chesed and gevurah, essentially the middle of the tree of life. Huh? How could this be?

These two images represent the two different ways of understanding this idea:


This one shows the first representation of the funnel idea that came to me. It does in fact emphasize transcendence. But, when we remember (difficult to do when material is presented on paper) that the tree of life is three-dimensional and can be seen as a sphere, another possible image presents itself.


As the rabbi likes to say, Aha! The nub of creation, the contraction of the unlimited ein sof, the movement from the quantum world to the Einstenian/Newtonian this world, the shattering of the ur-ohr, the first light of creation, happens in the center of the sphere and radiates outward. Yes. The divine moves from within all to create, in an outward push, the shekinah, the divine manifested in created matter. This is big-bangy. The tzimtzum just proceeds the big bang which radiated outward from an unfathomably concentrated spot in the beforeness of whatever it was, the ein sof, to create literally everything we know.

This puts the sacred neither above nor below but within. In order to access sacred nature we do not need to cast a prayer upward toward the heavens or outward to a religious institution, but inward to the aleph in our own soul, to that silent spot in ourselves where resides our shard of the ohr, the first light.

Here is an image of the tree of life that shows the location of aleph between chesed and gevurah. Remember that the tree is three dimensional like the DNA helix.





Hey, Tom Byfield. Hi!

Samain                                                                     Bare Aspen Moon

Another shoutout to Tom Byfield. If you’re still reading Ancientrails, Tom, I want to say I’m glad for the report from Morry and Ginny. Sorry to hear about the pneumonia, glad to hear you’re on the mend from that. I was also heartened to hear that your trademark humor didn’t get submerged by the stroke. Laughing helps us all stay alive and by that metric you should live much longer.

I’ve not yet figured out how to have art in my life up here on Shadow Mountain. Maybe you’re having the same problem. Without regular visits to high quality museums like the MIA, Walker and the Russian Museum, with no regular responsibilities for tours, and no venue for continuing education art has shrunk to a much smaller spot in my life. And, I don’t like that. Three years in and counting. If you come up with any good ideas, let me know.

With the exception of art though living in the mountains has been revelatory for this Midwest born and raised boy. There is an altitude attitude and those of us who “go down the hill” to Denver or the burbs believe our life is much better up here than those flatlanders in the Mile High city. I’ve said it elsewhere, but it does feel like the Denver metro, right up to the first elevation of the foothills of the Front Range, is the end of the Midwest. The flat agriculture base of the U.S. washes up against the Rockies, right where the Laramide orogeny accordioned the earth’s mantle into mountains.

The wildlife, the seasonal changes, the bare rock and evergreen forested mountain sides, the variety of clouds and the clear, punishing skies create a place to live so different from the mile square quadrants of Iowa, Illinois, Indiana. Yes, I miss the tractors in the fields, the forests of deciduous trees, the humidity and the rich soil, the lakes and rivers, but here we have Mt. Evans, a fourteener nearby that controls our weather. We have Deer Creek and Turkey Creek canyons, Troublesome Gulch and Lair o’the Bear State Park. Rocky Mountain high. And glad.

Slowing Down

Samain                                                                   Bare Aspen Moon

thanksgiving-farm-harvest-postcardHoliseason busyness? End of term let down? Waiting for winter blues? Not sure, but my intellectual energy has been down over the last week plus. It’s a celebratory time for us with Jon’s 49th followed quickly by Hanukkah. Thanksgiving is not very far in the past with visions of barded capons still dancing in our heads. Joseph and SeoAh will be here on Christmas Eve. Gifts to buy, lights to string, wreathes and that white light deer with the moving head to put out. All good stuff, important and joyful. Still requires energy and attention.

sephirothshiningonesWith my kabbalah presentation finished last week and Adult Hebrew about to take a turn toward the more rudimentary (where I am), with Mussar coming close to the end of the Messilat Yesharim and the MVP group meeting on anavah, humility, over, I do have that end of the quarter, end of the semester feeling. A big sigh, relief, then something of a let down. When in college or seminary or studying for my D.Min., the end of term let down always involved a time of sinking away from the intellectual and into relaxation, distraction. That’s what this time feels most like.

We’re also near mid-December and have had no snow to speak of. The snow pack is below average, in the southern part of the state dangerously so (25% of normal), and the little remaining snow is on the north side of houses or in the forest’s shade. Though some Coloradans think the cold of winter has set in, these two Minnesota hardened souls can’t help feeling like fall’s hanging on. Too long. So, seasonal dislocation disorder?

There is, too, an I don’t know what to call it feeling. A sense, a feeling niggling, popping up once in a while. Maybe I’m pushing too hard, trying to get too much done.

jews do jewsJust looked back over a few posts and I can see the issue more clearly now. It’s been a lot. We went into Denver for Jews Do Jews only two days after we went in for Gabe’s concert. There were medical appointments and Rigel’s assault on my hearing. Jon’s birthday, grandkid watching, the bagel table Saturday on sexual harassment. And Beth Evergreen alone had adult Hebrew, kabbalah presentation, mussar, then the MVP group. In addition due to some unexpected morning disruptions my exercise suffered last week. When I miss too much exercise, I get a I’m not taking care of myself feeling that I really don’t like. Time for some down time. And what better time than high Holiseason?

Busyness. Good. Rest. Good.

Samain                                                                                Bare Aspen Moon

Ottlite. Or, dental robot?

Ottlite. Or, dental robot?

Yesterday was, by this retired guy’s standards, a busy, busy day. Over to Evergreen for my quarterly glaucoma check at 9 a.m. Dr. Gustave says my pressures at 12 and 13 are just right. Who wants to go blind, right?

Back home for a bit. Helped Kate set up her new Ottlite, an early Hanukkah present for this Jewish quilter and needleworker. It looks really weird.

At 10:15 I went down the mountain into Aspen Park where David at On the Move Fitness gave me a new workout. The reverse crunches and planks were. Hard. After a comment about my knee implant David, 51, and I got to comparing surgical histories. He mentioned he’d had brain cancer and brain surgery in 2015, then 17 months of chemotherapy. He’s still scanned every 12 weeks, having graduated from every 8 weeks recently.

When I mentioned prostate cancer surgery as the least troublesome compared to the knee replacement and the Achilles rupture repair, he lit up. “I like to hear positive stories.” Turns out his brain cancer is of a type that tends to recur.

Dave and Deb, owners of On the Move Fitness

Dave and Deb, owners of On the Move Fitness

We agreed that nature was a great healer for both of us. I told him my story about the consolation of Deer Creek Canyon and he told me about his hikes, feeling the sun on his face. David ran a 15 mile race in the Canadian Rockies, near Whistler just this summer. He’s not letting fear hold him back.

I don’t really feel like a cancer survivor. It was such a strange experience, no symptoms, no sequelae other than those related to the surgical procedure. Yet, I am one. So far.

Back home for some vermicelli soup and a brief nap, then over to Beth Evergreen for the Thursday mussar class (Jewish ethics and character development). Marilyn and Carol led the session on gratitude. All through the class I thought about David and how grateful he was to be alive, feeling the sunshine on his face. Cancer does put things in perspective, if you pay attention. It releases us into a world where mortality has a more vigorous grip on our consciousness. If we survive.

expectDuring the conversation on gratitude we talked about the wonder and awe available to us always, in any given moment. I asked, “I believe the world is always wonderful and awesome if only we pay attention. So then a question is, what blocks us from seeing it. What’s the barrier?” Rabbi Jamie, in his way, came up with seven reasons, three major and four minor. I don’t recall them all, but he included over-sharing and numbing. How can we lean into gratitude, rather than self-absorption?

Vanessa, a member of the mussar group who has m.s.a., multi-system atrophy, a form of Parkinson’s, sent the link to this website. I’m usually not a fan of this sort of stuff, too treacly and soft for my taste, but this, this is something else. It’s the Network for Grateful Living.* Their vision, which surprisingly to me summed up my own, is below, along with their core values.



Back home for a brief nap, then a true grandparent evening. We drove in, through rush hour traffic, to Swigert elementary school. It took us an hour and a half of often excruciatingly slow traffic to get there. We were just in time for Gabe’s fourth grade concert of songs relevant to Colorado’s history. It lasted twenty minutes. Gabe ran over, gave me a hug, then grandma, then Jon. Jon was proud of him because he did not have his shirt tucked in. In fact, he looked a mini-Jon. Gabe went to his mom, then, because he and Ruth are with Jen this week. We got in the truck and came home.


*A peaceful, thriving, and sustainable world – held as sacred by all.


Our Core Organizational Values guide every aspect of our work, and are expressed and advanced through the practice of Grateful Living, which:

  • Reveals that everyone belongs and everyone is valued
  • Generates an experience of oneness and interconnectedness
  • Deepens love, compassion, and respect for all life
  • Cultivates a sense of sufficiency and abundance
  • Awakens kindness and generosity
  • Inspires the impulse to serve with humility
  • Contributes to the healing of body, mind, and spirit
  • Unleashes joy
  • Anchors hope and trust in life, especially in challenging times
  • Opens us to growth and opportunity
  • Offers pathways from conflict to peace
  • Is an engaged YES to a wholehearted life.


Samain                                                                    Joe and SeoAh Moon

Rollo May, JoyFriends. Tom and Bill are here in Colorado. They came to Beth Evergreen yesterday and attended my adult Hebrew class, then we went over to Sushi Win for supper. 30 years of life together, weddings and funerals, laughter and tears. The easy understanding that comes from time, lots of time together. Irreplaceble. Fundamental to life. I’m grateful they took the time and expense of coming here.

It wasn’t long before we were at questions like when life and its ravages becomes too much. Bill’s wife Regina and her stroke at the end of a painful time struggling with cancer. Pat, a friend’s wife, who has lupus and suffers, perhaps at this point, too much. How do those of us in these relationships honor the dignity of the other, realizing we can’t ever inhabit their body, see the world from within theirs?  These are the difficult questions that the third phase visits on us and those around us.

Another long time friend

Another long time friend

Being able to talk about these things easily, but soulfully, is what long friendships can offer. And we need the spaces in our lives where these conversations can occur. I’m lucky to have Bill and Tom.

I’m also lucky that Beth Evergreen has begun to offer a similar depth, though not, of course, the long developed trust and confidence I have with them. That may come over the next few years. I imagine it will and that sense is a major factor in my love of that place.

So this is a hymn to friendship, an often unattended to aspect of our lives. The Woolly Mammoths graced me with a space that encouraged it. And I’m forever thankful for them for that space. I hope you have one.



Samain                                                                    Joe and SeoAh Moon

Mountain spirit in velvet

Mountain spirit in velvet

Pagan. I call myself a pagan mostly to say I draw my religious content from the world around me, including other humans, rather than the texts held close to the heart by so many different world religions. Recently though I’ve come to think that the word might obscure more than it reveals, so I’m hunting for another one. Pagan, which simply means, in the same manner as heathen, someone living in the countryside, took on the coloration that it has now gradually.

Sophisticated theological thinkers tended to cluster in cities or in monastic settings while the peasants, those who had to live off the land, close to the land because their lives allowed no other way, held on to the traditions and rituals of their ancestors. The gap between the advancing dogma of the Roman Catholic church and the folkways of the countryside grew larger and larger over time. This was long before the majority of people lived in cities, so there was a numerical imbalance between the pagan rural and the educated elite in London or Paris or Rome. This meant that an institution that prided itself on knowing the truth had a problem.

predates the ancient Celts

predates the ancient Celts

Far more people, especially those in the woods and fields outside the urban centers, practiced a syncretic religion, a merging of folk beliefs and a limited understanding of Catholic dogma. The day of the dead, being celebrated now in Latin America, illustrates that this dilemma for the Roman Catholic’s extends into our time. Most of the Great Wheel holidays got Christianized at one point or another, with All Souls Day taking the place of Samain, Lammas taking the place of Lughnasa, Easter the place of Ostara, Christmas the place of the Saturnalia, at least in the hearts and especially the mind of the church.

In other words pagans are not at all uniform in their beliefs. Hardly. The Celts had their Great Wheel holidays, their pantheon of gods and goddesses like Lugh, Arawn, Bridgit, the Morrigan. The Norse had their bards who sang the songs of Odin and Thor and Sleipner and Fenrir. Go around the world and you will find a similar struggle between those who clung to the local deities and local traditions and the prevailing institutional power of, say, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity. Even Taoism and Confucianism in China faced similar, usually passive, resistance when they institutionalized.

611333-ancient-roman-wall-with-street-nameboardSo when I say pagan it may conjure in your mind Wicca or witches or maybe the Norse Asatru. But that’s not what I’m trying to convey. I say pagan and mean over against ossified and ossifying dogma. I say pagan and mean over against institutional power trying to determine the inner life. I say pagan and mean pay attention to the natural world, close attention. Learn how you are in it. I say pagan and I mean think for yourself, don’t spend all your time interpreting the words of others, speak your own words, name your own experience.

This is not what pagan meant in its original context. In the days of medieval Europe the pagan was an unlettered serf, a person so consumed with bare survival that the subtlety of Aquinas or Augustine cluttered up their lives. They resisted not out of intention, but with a passive insistence on the value of their passed down ways of seeing, of knowing.

I say pagan, too, to mean that I’m not agnostic or atheist in identification. The result of my thought might seem to place me in those categories, but they are categories defined in relation to monotheism. So you might be a Christian agnostic or atheist, that is, you doubt or don’t believe in the Christian god. Or, a Jewish agnostic or atheist. Or, a Muslim. Or, a Hindu agnostic or atheist. Agnostic or atheist is really a place holder for something you define yourself against, the a meaning not, not known or knowable, not theist.

Black Mountain, September, 2017

Black Mountain, September, 2017

I don’t care what you don’t believe in. I want to know what you do believe. What moves you? What shapes your heart? Unlike the original pagans, I want to intentionally resist the clouding of our perception by powerful institutions, be they political, economic, educational, or religious. I have no new dogma to offer. I like the Great Wheel because it allows a useful frame for seeing ourselves in the cyclical turn of the seasons, not because it is a new dogma. I like Judaism, at least that of the Reconstructionist sort, because it acknowledges the metaphorical nature of religious texts and rituals, does not give them ontological power.

Bull and doe, Evergreen Lake, 2015

Bull and doe, Evergreen Lake, 2015

Most of all though I like the coming of night and day, fall and winter, dry and wet. I like the lick of a dog’s tongue, the kiss of my wife, the hugs of my grandchildren. I like the mountains and their streams, their wildlife, their majesty. Seen from within these precious realities the political is incidental, the religious suggestive not prescriptive, the economic a tool and education an unveiling.

Maybe I’m not a pagan, maybe I’m a human, living this life on my own terms. So, maybe humanist?

Fall                                                                                 Harvest Moon


The gold is mostly gone from the mountains, at least up here. Summer’s heat lit up the aspen leaves, then dispersed into air. Now the nights are cooler, the sun lower on the horizon. We have shifted toward the season of night and cold, away from the urgency of growth and into the relaxation of a fallow season. Now, with Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah, holiseason begins earlier for me, around the time of the fall equinox and lasts until Epiphany on January 6th. It’s my favorite time of the year.

Awesome. Awefull. Godsmacked. Ancora Imparo.

Fall                                                                               Harvest Moon

Goya, Ancora Imparo, I am still learning

Goya, Ancora Imparo, I am still learning

A couple of months ago I joined a new group at Beth Evergreen, one designed to provide leadership for continuing to integrate mussar (Jewish ethics and an approach to spirituality) into synagogue life. The group’s work involves deepening our own practice of mussar and through that enhancing the practice of others.

In the first month we focused on-hmmm, I don’t recall, which is telling. I felt embarrassed when we got together to discuss our practice because mine had not gone well. The next month, I resolved, would go better. That month, the month of Elul, ended on September 20th, the day before erev Rosh Hashanah, New Year’s eve, or the first of Tishrei. We meet again next next Wednesday.

Mussar identifies soul traits that come from within the Jewish tradition, but have universal application. That is, though mussar is a particularly Jewish approach to ethics, it can have application for anyone. According to Mesillat Yesharim, the medieval text we’ve been studying for the past year plus, these traits develop in a particular seder, or order.

The first trait, according to this book, is watchfulness. The subtle permutations of each soul or character trait get a good deal of attention in Mesillat Yesharim (The way of the righteous) but the first task is to get a grasp of the trait. Watchfulness correlates to mindfulness, to self-awareness, and I relate it most to the Greek know thyself.

aweAwe, or hitlamdut* in Hebrew, being a learner, being in a constant state of curiosity/awe, was the middah (soul trait) for last month, Elul. This month, Tishrei begins with Rosh Hashanah, and its tenth day is Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. The period from Rosh Hashanah are collectively the Days of Awe, the High Holy Days in the Jewish liturgical year. Awe is central to the experience of the most sacred days of the Jewish year.

In my mussar practice for the month of Elul, I committed, once again, to journaling and to using a focus phrase. Mine was, Say Awe, a yellow post-it note is on my computer tower. Over the month I have noted moments of awe using Keep, a note-taking app on my smartphone.

The first morning of this new practice I got up at 4:45, fed the dogs as usual, then went outside to walk up the stairs to the loft. On clear nights, most nights here on Shadow Mountain, the starry sky is a wonder all on its own. This night though had something special to kick off my days of awe: Orion had risen. Readers of this blog may recall my special relationship with Orion, one begun on lonely nights in the guard shack where I worked during my senior year of college.

20170821_113505Orion returns as the Great Wheel turns into fall, the beginning of my favorite half of the year, reaching its high point (low point?) on the Winter Solstice. Each year since 1968 Orion has returned as a friend, a companion during lonely, dark nights. It gladdens my heart to see him since he only visits during this time. His return on this particular night was awe-some. Orion got me started on a month of awe.

As the month has progressed, I have encountered many moments of awe: realizing the heat on my face had traveled 93 million miles through empty space, being aware that each night I go unconscious, taking myself out of the much more familiar waking world, Black Mountain appearing in the morning as the sun burned off its misty shroud, experiencing sonder-the realization that each person you pass has a rich, full life and that you will never know it. At the dentist’s office for a teeth cleaning, alone in the chair and waiting for the hygienist I went into a revery about light, light bulbs, electricity, the wonder of human invention, the evolution of teeth, the astounding reality that each of us are the current instances of an unbroken line of successful procreation, a line of procreation that began with the very first one-celled organism.

As I followed this practice, this mussar practice, deeper into awe, I discovered I could summon an experience of awe at will. And, that I’d been doing something like this for a long time.

whitefishHere’s an example. Kate and I enjoy eating at the New York Deli, an authentic Jewish deli that happens to be on our route into Jon’s house. We went there a couple of weeks ago and I ordered a white fish platter. It was huge. There was white fish, dollops of cream cheese, capers, tomatoes, onions, lettuce. On the side were two bagels, sesame seed as I had requested. Awe was on my mind so I looked at the platter. This meat came from a white fish that swam in some lake, it’s a freshwater fish, not too long ago. It had to be caught, selected, preserved (probably through refrigeration), processed, packed, stored and shipped. Then it had to be opened, divided and placed on my plate. Imagine all the individual people involved, all the different modes of transportation: boat, truck, maybe rail, maybe airplane. The cream cheese: specific cows were milked, the milk pasteurized (Louis Pasteur), chilled, then sent to a dairy somewhere and used to create the cheese which likewise had to be transported here to end up on the plate. You can see how this goes. The wheat in the bagel: sowen somewhere, cultivated over a growing season, combines in formation harvesting it, more transportation, milling, mixing the flour with eggs and yeast, baking. Growing the sesame seeds. The tomatoes. The onions. The lettuce. Do you see what an amazing, awe-some thing that white fish platter was?

My conclusion, right now anyhow, is that awe, far from being an irregular, occasional moment of OMG, is a matter of the perspective we bring to each life moment. If we choose to probe deeper, we can find the awe in the awedinary.

So, as I learned at the dentist’s, say awe.


Hitlamdut/התלמדות – being a learner. Hitlamdut is central to R. Shlomo Wolbe’s mussar. Practicing Hitlamdut means adopting the perspective of being a constant learner. We are always just practicing and we never actually reach perfection in this life. A perspective of hitlamdut protects against arrogance and destructive self-criticism. With the perspective of hitlamdut, we try to see every experience from the 30,000-foot view. Rather than just being in the experience, or responding to it in negative ways, we recognize that we can learn from it.

Let It Snow

Fall                                                          Harvest Moon

Vega in the snow

Vega in the snow

Weather forecast says snow beginning at 5:30 a.m. It’s 5:10 right now. The first snowfall is still magical to me, after all these years. Snow is gentle, quiet, transformative. Its return ushers in the fallow season, the time of holidays, of holiseason. The forests become different places, too. Streams will run under ice. Tree branches will have loads of snow ready to drop on unwary hikers. Snowshoeing and skiing. Then there’s the feeling of sitting in a warm house, watching snow accumulate, not having to be anywhere-thank you, retirement-maybe some hot chocolate and a good book, a movie.


Lughnasa                                                                         Eclipse Moon

A friend on facebook shared this:

January 2018
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