Orion has returned. He’s visible just above the south-eastern horizon around 5 am. A friend since my time as a security guard for a cookware factory. On the midnight shift I worked alone and during the fall and winter months we became acquainted. He signals the season of inner work.
As the growing season yields its bounty, the plant world gets ready for the fallow season that will start on October 31st, Samain. The nights grow longer and cooler. On September 29th Michaelmas, the springtime of the soul. Perennials send food down to their corms, tubers, bulbs. Their leaves turn brown and die back to the ground. Annual flowers finish their summer long journey by spreading seed for the next year.
This is the Great Wheel and it repeats each year, spiraling out along earth’s orbit. Lived too, in lifetimes of birth, youth, maturity, and senescence. It is the way of the earth. For living things, the most ancientrail of all.
This is the lens through which I see my life, the one I use for comfort in difficult times, celebration, understanding.
Saw a movie yesterday, Midsommar. Its opening scene shows winter, spring, summer, and fall in a tableau. You may be aware of the naked dancing the Swedes (and others, too) enjoy at their midsommar bonfires. Well, this isn’t about that. It shows the dark side of a pagan worldview, how it can devolve into traditions every bit as dogmatic and frightening as any inquisitor. I loved this movie. Kate hated it.
Fans of Wicker Man will see Midsommar as an instant classic in the same vein. Kate said, “It made me glad I’m not Swedish.” Spoiler alert: the character named Christian does not fare well.
At 5:20 am this morning the full moon of the First Harvest illuminated Black Mountain from just above its peak. (I was a bit premature on Tuesday, only 92% full.) A few faint stars were visible, but its soft brilliance dominated the bluing sky. The moon and its constancy phasing wax and then wane full in the middle buttresses our lives like the earth on which we stand and its orbit around Sol, our true god.
Do we consider these phenomenal presences in our lives, pay true attention to them? Usually not. They’re too common, too literally mundane. They are like the flaws in our homes, the ones we’ve seen so long that they no longer register. That slight crack in the ceiling. The water dripping slowly in the sink. That step with a slight cant. Or our bodies. How well do you know the back of your hand? Really?
Yes, we see them. Here comes the sun. The moon is up. Mother earth. But do we see them as we want to be seen? In full. With love. With forgiveness. With hope. With careful observation. Often not.
Anthropocentrism. Not difficult to understand. A specialized form of speciesism. We’ve learned as millennia have passed that our original assumptions were not true. Earth is neither the center of the universe nor even the center of the solar system. Third rock from the sun. We’re not the only intelligent species: dolphins, elephants, whales, corvids, the primates, for example. Some of whom may be more intelligent than we are.
We have confused our rise to apex predator as equivalent to being an apex species. No. There is no apex species. It’s not possible to have one in our interdependent world. We need predators, but we also need one-celled organisms. We need plants. We need insects and lichen and ferrets and bats. We need the whole blooming buzzing confusion (apologies to William James) that is our world.
Think of it. Strip the earth bare save for humanity. Like say a nuclear winter might or a great volcanic eruption like Krakatoa. How long could we last? Weeks. Months. If we resort to cannibalism.
Humans live embedded in a world made no less for them than for the mosquito or the meadowlark. We need a place on which to stand. A source of food. Energy. We need mystery in our lives, but we don’t have to invent it. The moon rises like an occult lantern shuttered, then unveiled by an unseen hand, only to be rehidden at the end of each lunar month.
The moon of the first harvest. Full now, lighting the night for those who want to work the fields a bit longer. This one this moon this full moon, the same as last month’s full moon save only for its position in our mutual orbit around Sol, punctuates our need for her. Sol has shared the energy created in the nuclear fusion reactor of her heart the whole growing season, especially since Beltane.
The plants have gathered it in, taken the nutrients from the top six inches of the soil, and in perpetuating their own species, provided food for ours. In the same way fish eat algae, or eat other fish who eat algae. Cows eat grass. We eat the fish and the cow. The chicken eats plants, but also insects, worms. We eat the chicken.
All of them need the water that cycles through soil, through the lakes and streams and rivers, through the oceans. That cycles up into the clouds and returns fresh and potable to the earth. But consider this. The earth makes no water. Our water either came from the original formation of the solar system or from asteroids crashing into our planet later, perhaps some of both. In either case the water we take so much for granted is ancient, beyond ancient, primal. All of it. It goes up and comes down. It flows. It rests for a while in lakes and ponds and in our bodies.
Earth. Water. Fire. Air. The middle ages did not err in seeing these four as constitutive elements of our world. And by our I mean those of us who live, who move, who grow, who die.
The full Moon of the First Harvest floated above the mountain tops as Kate and I drove home last night from Beth Evergreen. I love these night drives through the Arapaho National Forest, wild animals sleeping, hunting, drinking from the mountain streams, a full moon casting its light down among the lodgepole pines and aspen.
The Mussar Vaad Practice Group met. We checked in on our awe practices for the last month. Instead of cultivating this middah, as we do with patience or joy or enthusiasm, the consensus was that we open ourselves to awe. As I’ve written here a few posts ago, considering awe this month led to an insight for me, one I’ve been seeking for years.
Opening ourselves to awe is, I believe, the act of opening ourselves to revelation, to seeing the Otherworld, the one that lies close to us, even within us, but which habit, culture, language, fear, denial, inattention blocks from view. When we open ourselves to awe, we find the cracks in those all too human barriers. At first we may glance behind the curtain only briefly, but this openness we can cultivate.
There was the Moon of the First Harvest yellow gold, round, luminous. It slipped behind this peak, this grove of trees, then reappeared as we drove up Brook Forest Drive and on to Black Mountain Drive. You could say, oh, that’s the moon. Nice. Or, you could open yourself a bit and see, maybe first, our rocky satellite come round again. Keeping the aperture open a bit longer you might feel the beauty of its loneliness in the night sky. The wonder of its soft light. Imagine what it means to sleeping deer, elk. To prowling mountain lions or foraging bears.
You might find yourself lost in the legends of moon phases or practices like moon watching parties in Japan. Or, you could open yourself to this particular full moon as the skies memory for those first nights of harvesting wheat. Smell the bread. See the corn dollies and the shocks of cut grain. This full moon is not just another full moon but one embedded in a natural context, a cultural context, a personal context. Each of these available if we only pause, push away the occulting screens of routine and the need to hurry home.
The MVP group is precious to me. It’s a chance to be honest, to think clearly, to learn from the inner work of others. I love these people: Susan, Judy, Marilyn, Ron, Rich, Kate, Jamie, and Tara. And that love is part of the experience of awe. We met as strangers not many years ago and now we see each other, really see each other.
Gonna do a bagel table in September. That means I lead a discussion on the Parshah for that week, Ki Teitzei. Parshah are much longer than lectionary selections in Christian churches. Where a Christian lectionary might identify a few verses of one chapter, parshah have multiple chapters in them. Ki Teitzei runs from Deuteronomy 21:10 to 25:19.
I agreed to this a couple of months ago, planning to focus on it after the radiation was done. Well…
Sorta intimidated. Steve, a CBE member who is also doing some of the bagel tables, reported he’s been studying Torah with Rabbi Zwerin and other Rabbis for over 25 years. I’ve been studying Torah for at most 3 years and not in any dedicated way. (caveat: that statement depends on seeing torah as the first five books of the Tanakh. Rabbi Jamie sees the purpose of torah as learning how to be and how to be in the world. I would say becoming, but that’s for another time. In that sense I’ve been studying torah my whole life.)
What did I imagine I could offer? Any quick study of essays and commentaries will leave me short of knowledge, not least because I don’t know Hebrew. Realized mimicking a Rabbi or an educated lay person was not only not possible, but not a good idea either. Why try to be who I’m not?
Gonna read the essays and the commentaries anyhow, but I’m gonna take a different tact. A couple of different tacts. First, I’m going to own my relative ignorance. Relative in that I have studied the Torah as part of biblical literature in Sem.
What I want to do is draw from those who come how they perceive the torah and how they perceive its use in Jewish congregations and in their personal lives. I’ll talk first about the very different way I would look at it from within a Christian hermeneutic. Then, we’ll discuss their perceptions of torah as a whole, then their perspectives on the particular content of this parshah. I’m going to try to communicate Rabbi Jamie’s idea of torah, too, because it makes a lot of sense to me.
In fact, I may introduce a bit of Emerson to them, that introduction to Nature I’m so fond of.
Still in the weekend. First day with no radiation is tomorrow. And tomorrow, and tomorrow. Not fully sunk in yet. Except for putting away the Miralax, the Beano, the Renew Life. Back to regular bowel life in a week or so. Yeah! Spent Friday night and Saturday eating forbidden foods like cucumbers, carrots, ice cream, fried falafel. Bring on the gas.
Kate got up yesterday, wasn’t feeling well. I can tell quickly. She went back to bed. Sometime around noon she realized she’d not taken her morning meds. Oh, she said. Turns out they’re really important. A better afternoon.
It’s been cooler here the last three days. Nice sleeping. Overcast this morning. What my Aunt Roberta would have called a dull, gray day. She often opened letters with that line. A variation, I think, on: it was a dark and stormy night. In this usually sunny state overcast is an oddity.
Sent out notes about the end of radiation. Receiving messages back. The support of such a wide group of folks has given me a safety net for those times when the weight bore down. Thanks to you all. You know who you are. Especially to Kate who has role modeled a phlegmatic response to medical issues. Thanks, sweetheart.
More convinced than ever that resilience is key to the third phase. By definition we’re going to hit tough, scary bumps in the road at our age. How we respond will determine how miserable they make us.
In my case I’m pretty sure it’s acceptance of death that has undergirded me. Got into accepting my own death thanks to the Yamantaka Mandala that hangs in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts Himalayan gallery. He is not, as often identified, the Tibetan Buddhist God of Death. He’s the god of conquering your own death. Contemplate yourself as a corpse. Feel what it will be like for your loved ones when you die. Practice being calm in dire physical situations. Whatever makes you really feel your absence from this world.
If death is not scary, then a potentially terminal disease isn’t either. What Yamantaka taught me has allowed me to go through this whole process with little anxiety. It allowed me to be present for conversations about what to do, for the treatments, and for the possibility of failure. It also helped me accept support and not push it away.
Worth considering for all of us in the third phase, I believe. Second phase, too, but definitely now as we live into the last phase of life.
And then there were two. Just two more fractions, that’s all. With July 4th and the Bedbug incidents this is the 8th week since I started radiation on June 17th. 35 fractions in all. 7000 cGy.
Gonna do Renaissance music again today, but I’ll shift to Dixieland for the 35th. Something up beat and celebratory. Due to scheduling changes I’ll do my last fraction at 9:40 am on Friday. After that I’ll have a final meeting with Dr. Gilroy.
Kate’s coming along. We’ll go up to Maria’s and pick up some empanadas. This Maria’s is straight up I-25 from Lone Tree, easy to access. Originally planned to go to PappaDeuxs, a steak house up in the same area, but that was when my treatment was at 1:20 pm. With the shift we’ll head back home after the empanadas.
Tomorrow night we’re going to the Black Hat Cattle Company where I intend to order a big steak, rare. Probably tenderloin. I will be very happy not to have to watch my diet anymore. By that I mean restricting gas producing foods, taking Beano and Renew Life. Taking Miralax every night. Back to Metamucil, a kinder, gentler source of fiber.
I will also be happy to let my bladder announce its own needs, rather than fill it to 100 ml or above each morning at just the right time for my treatment.
The staff at Anova, each one I’ve met and I’ve met them all except the medical physicist and the billing person, have been kind and thoughtful, careful in their work. Glad I chose to use them.
There’s so much to be grateful for. And, I am grateful for all of it: CBE meals, the care at Anova, friends and family who’ve reached out, helped. Whether the radiation succeeds or not, I feel good about having done it.
Beyond Friday I move into a different phase. The Lupron inflected phase. I have begun getting mild hot flashes. Mostly a feeling of heat in my head, a prickly sudden flush that soon recedes.
Kate and I will have to redefine our lives, recalibrate. A CBE friend, Judy, who’s still on chemo for ovarian cancer, said recently, “Cancer uncomplicated my life. I had to focus on healing. Now that I’m doing better I’m trying to figure out how to complicate my life again.”
Made me think. I don’t want to complicate my life again. Without pushing for a redefinition yet I do see some outlines: Kate and I do more together. Kate returns to sewing. I continue to write and market my work. I continue to paint, to workout. That’s continuity. I also want to read a lot more. Hike more. We’ll see.
After a week of rest from the radiation and as my energy returns things will come into clearer focus.
Awe and gratitude. Then, acceptance. Awe sees, hears, feels, smells, tastes the Otherworld always with us but so often made invisible by habit of thought, by custom, by hurry, by dullness. Gratitude blossoms on its own when we see the Otherworld of which we are a part. Constant gratitude embeds us in the mystical, sacred world that awe presents to us.
Once we know the Otherworld for what it is, there even if today we are blind and deaf, gratitude becomes our way. We then accept our embeddedness in it. We are not other, rather we are part of this pulsing, dynamic whole. Acceptance and gratitude are not only for the wonderful, the special, the good. Acceptance and gratitude have to include things like cancer, divorce, death, decay for they are part of the sacred world, too.
What? Grateful for cancer? Why not? It’s challenged me to rethink my life, to carve out what’s important from the usual block of cultural granite given at birth and accreted over the years. The experience has reaffirmed cherished views, too. My friends do care. My family does love me. The medical system has many people who care a lot, who know a lot, who can help. (OK. There was bad Amanda and the axumin scan business, but, hey!)
How can I not be awed at the living marvel of cancer. It adapts, changes, strives for immortality. It feeds and grows. Its reach is wide, stretching across many species. It’s no worse an actor than heart disease or old age or stroke. It is the Big C, yes; but, it’s role in the Great Wheel turning of our lives is no different from any agent of decay or decomposition.
Am I ok with its plans for my body right now? No. Not even a little. In order to counter it though I first have to accept it. Not deny it. Not turn in fear or arrogance. Cancer’s reality is awesome, even has that yirah tinge of fear attached. I’m grateful I found it in me, learned about it and have means to halt or stop its progress.
Accepting it gives me power. Strength. When I accept it, I say that it is not the final word for my health, my worth, my life. Even if it proves fatal, it will not have determined my life.
I have reimagined faith. At least for me. Didn’t realize I’d done it until I began work on answering my friend’s question about joy in being. (see post for Aug. 2). And did it long ago. It was my philosophical/theological bent that kept me from seeing it. Ironic, eh?
Awe is a key component. Awakening awe. Awe not confined to the Grand Canyon or birth or pretty flowers or innocence. Awe seen in the magic of decay, decomposition. Awe for the water coming from the shower, pumped up from fractured granite beneath our land. Awe for the skills of the snow plow drivers who keep Black Mountain Drive clear. Awe for the gradual changing of seasons, of plant life’s reaction to the subtle changes, of animals dancing to the rhythm of the change. Awe for the years of intimacy and love with Kate, with Joseph, with SeoAh, with Ruth and Gabe, with Jon. Awe for friends who reach across cyberspace. Awe for inventors of concrete. For stonemasons. For quilting. For the CyberKnife. For the kindness of strangers.
Why is awe critical? Because it answers the implicit question in this line from Emerson’s introduction to his essay, Nature: “Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us?” Yes. Yes. Yes. But. How do we find revelation? Do we need gold tablets like Joseph Smith? Do we need special access to “G-d?” Do we need an angel whispering in our ear?
No. And we never have. Awe is the answer. It peels back the mundane layer from things simple and complex. When we experience awe, we see into the world and our part in it. This peeling back removes the false accretions our hurry and our anxiety and our fear have laid over the sacred in the ordinary. We can see the universe emerging through that compost pile, in that child’s laugh, in that gas flame on our stove.
Awe leads us to the altar of gratitude where we kneel in thanks for all these, our many gifts. Gratitude is a prayer lifted up when our hearts find the soul in the other. Namaste. Awe opens the door. Gratitude shows we have walked through the door to what the Celts called The Otherworld.
The Otherworld is not far away. It is not in a hoped for future or a golden past. It is now, here. Right there. Look at your hand. Touch thumb to fingers. Awe. Evolution of the prehensile thumb. Breathe. Awe. We can take oxygen from the air to fuel our bodies. Eat. Awe. We can transform, transubstantiate, carrots and lettuce and a rib eye and a potato and watermelon and popcorn into a human. Walk. Awe. Sleep. Awe.
Do we need to write a new bible to let others know? No. Our reimagining responds to Emerson again: “…why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe?”
Awe and gratitude. Revelation and grace here and now.
Wanted to say something about this for a while, keep forgetting.
I’m not an atheist. Not an agnostic. Nope. Don’t choose to define myself over against a belief system which no longer works for me. I’m a seeker. Of awe. Of kindness. Of justice. I’m a lover of the earth, the universe, of life, of amazement. I see in you the universe looking back at me, as I look at you.
Text based faith, any system which requires your surrender, written or spoken or enacted, is a web meant to catch the easily gulled. And, guess what? Most of us gull pretty easily, most of the time. I did for years and years, once as a child then later as an adult after my leap of faith moment in Appleton. 1970.
But no. What we need is to open our eyes, unstop our ears, savor the taste and touch of the world, smell the communication, the revelation from what’s out there, near us or far from us.
A friend asked me: “(As a result of facing death) have you been informed by any wider sense of the simple joy of being? Or any other description of the immediate worth of being?”
Mortality signals. They’ve been in my life since toddlerhood. Polio in 1949. Mom died in 1964. Lost all hearing in my left ear suddenly at 38. MRI for brain tumor as a result. High blood pressure. Took me years to come out from under mom’s death. An alcoholic haze lasting until my late 20’s.
Even after I emerged from my grieving sober, there was still rage, still self-loathing, still so much overburden. Took another decade of Jungian therapy. Then, finally, I met Kate.
She was my chance to live a different life, one unhooked from the patterns and history, or, at least, unhooked from their power over me. We made a pact to support each others creativity, each others deepest hopes. And, we have done that.
We’ve raised two boys into men. We went as close to Mother Earth as we could. Years of soil amendments, planting seeds. Corms. Tubers. Bulbs. Slips. Trees. Shrubs. Harvesting tomatoes, leeks, onions, beans, beets, carrots, raspberries, apples, pears, plums, cherries. Bee keeping. Artemis Honey for friends and for ourselves.
Kate’s quilting and sewing became her place to express love and imagination. I wrote. Many novels. Literally millions of words on this blog. We both supported, in our own ways, political values of compassion, love, justice. Or, leadership as my friends Paul and Sarah Strickland, Lonnie Helgeson, and Gary Stern defined it for Leadership Minneapolis back in the 1980’s. (funny story there. for another time.)
We moved. For family. And, because, as John Muir said, “The mountains were calling.” Mortality signals began coming with more urgency. Prostate cancer once. New knee. Prostate cancer twice. Kate’s Sjogren’s, her bleed, weight loss, lung disease. Her new shoulder and, earlier, hips.
All this time, even from my youth, besotted with religion, small r. The deep, the awesome, the wonderful. Sure, in my childhood it had Methodist as a label. Threw that away in my junior year of high school. “Your god is too small.”
Went looking for other clues. First in Roman Catholicism. Then, existentialism. Later, a more examined, more intellectual, more spiritual Christianity. The ministry. Disillusionment.
Here’s the synchronicity. Before I met Kate, a year or two, I’d been in spiritual direction with John Ackerman at Westminster Presbyterian. As I explained to him where I found spiritual sustenance, in the earth, a tactile spirituality, I said, he had an ah-ha, “Charlie, you’re a Druid!”
By the time I met Kate I was well on my way out of Christianity. In fact, I was all the way out, yet still, Grand Inquisitor fashion, working in the ministry. When she agreed to my quitting the ministry to write, the timing saved my soul.
She recommended I find a niche, a place to call my own when writing. Hmmm. Looked to my ancestors. Knew I had some Irish and Welsh blood, Ellis and Correl, so I went searching into Celtic thought.
The Great Wheel. Seems innocent enough, ordinary. An agricultural focused calendar. The Celts started out with only two seasons: Summer and the fallow time, Winter. They added the solstices and the equinoxes, then named the cross-quarter holidays: Beltane, May 1, Lughnasa, August 1, Samain, October 31st, and Imbolc, February 1, each halfway between either a solstice or an equinox.
The sequence was “…a Druid!”, Kate, Celtic thought, Andover and the perennial flowers, the orchard, the raised beds, the fire pit, the bees.
After, in Colorado, living in the Rockies, I found the consolation of Deer Creek Canyon. Drove back home to Shadow Mountain after my biopsy results confirmed my cancer diagnosis. Through Deer Creek Canyon.
The mountains on either side of the road that followed Deer Creek Canyon. Exposed rock, cliffs, peaks. Deer Creek moving rapidly down toward the South Platte. Their age. The Laramide Orogeny. Rock thrust up from its place in the earth’s crust. Started 80 million years ago, ended 33 million or so years ago.
Those rocks reached out to me as I drove, called to me. I thought about the Appalachians, once mighty and tall, now worn down by millennia of rain and streams and trees and grass. They formed 480 millions years ago. These mountains, these rocky mountains through which I drove were young. Still jagged, still exposed in parts. Might take 400 millions years, maybe more, to wear them down to Appalachian size.
The may fly. Flies up and mates in one day. Then, dies. Oh. I see. My life. A may fly life. Shorter, even, compared to the Rockies. More like a fraction of a second. When I’m gone, my may fly life ended by prostate cancer or something else, these mountains (I’m still driving and thinking and feeling shocked) will look as they do now. Yet, even their life above the earth’s crust has limits.
So, too, the earth. When the sun comes to the end of its life and becomes a red giant, it will engulf the earth and our planet, our only home, will be gone.
That day the strongest mortality signal I’ve ever received cracked me open, laid my soul bare to the complex interleaving of human life, of life itself, and the souls of the mountains. We are one, all part of the cycling of elements that began with the Big Mystery. We have our time, long or short, then we return to the primal forces that wander among solar systems and galaxies.
That was the Great Wheel realized at its most expansive, a repeating series of beginnings, growth, harvest, and decay. The movement from Beltane to Samain. It became enough for me, spiritually and religiously.
When the cancer reemerged, I was in a different place. The consolation of Deer Creek Canyon, the fundamental and universal rhythms of the Great Wheel had reshaped my inner landscape. I do not need a text based religion to tell me who I am or what life means. I do not need a guru or a silent retreat to go into my own deep well.
This is me. 72. Prostate cancer. Still alive. Still living my life. I sleep well at night. When I wake, I do not ruminate. I have a pleasant, floaty feeling, then return to sleep. This is new for me. Not something you’d expect after a recurrence of cancer, but true anyhow.
Here’s my direct answer to my friend. “Have I been informed by any wider sense of the simple joy of being? Or any other description of the immediate worth of being?” Shifting one word is enough. “Have I been informed by any wider sense of the joy of becoming? Or any other description of the immediate worth of becoming?
Deer Creek Canyon finished my long journey from monotheism to a process theology. I was not. I am. I am not. I don’t care. A Roman epitaph. I would change it to: I was becoming. I am becoming. I will become. I love this butterfly turning of the Great Wheel.
With Chuang Tzu, I don’t know if I’m a butterfly dreaming of Charlie or Charlie dreaming of a butterfly.