Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Returning from Elsewhere: Dislocation

Having spent much of the last month living from a tent—sleeping in a tent, waking when the sun hits the tent, going to bed when tired, traveling long distances by driving, all across the northernmost parts of the Midwestern parts of the US, the northern regions of the States of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota—I'm having serious difficulty with re-entry. I feel dislocated, like I'm not really here. Here I am, back home, after some serious driving, feeling like I'm camping in my own house: like it's not real, just a bigger tent; like I don't really live here or own the building; like it could fall away from my life at any time, be folded up and put aside. For awhile, after almost every roadtrip, I feel like I'm just camping out here, with no real sense of ownership, or mutual contractual possession. Eventually I can sleep in my own bed again, but for awhile I sometimes find it easier to sleep on my camping air mattress, on the floor, cocooned in my usual nest of blankets that I sleep in when camping out. Things fail or refuse to work properly, when I first get home, that I used to depend on. You can be scared by how enraged that makes you.

Time is part of my dislocation. I wake with the dawn, even as I usually do when sleeping in a tent. It's that one is not ruled by the clock, so much, but that the clock becomes irrelevant. Where's the sun in the sky? Is it warm enough to emerge now from my cocoon of blankets? How much sunlight do I need for today's chores and/or planned activities? How much daylight is left? These questions are more relevant. But so are the questions raised by the spiritual reading I tend to do in the morning, and even take with me to read in the tent, first thing in the morning, over a cup of tea brewed on the propane-powered portable Coleman stove. That first cup of tea makes a huge difference.

So it is with a recently published book by Zen master and teacher Dainin Katagiri, Each Moment Is the Universe: Zen and the way of being in time. A book compiled from transcripts of dharma talks, like many similar Zen-talk books, this one is themed around the questions of time, organized around the central truths of Zen philosophy. Katagiri-Roshi says, for example:

Sometimes we think doubt is not good, but doubt is important. It's not so important that we should become crazy from it, but if you are questioning, that's fine. We need to question. Even though you don't get answers to your questions, all you have to do is just swim. Questioning is always going on in real time; it is always returning to zero. So, little by little, questioning becomes questionlessness. That's why Dogen says to swim on the surface of the ocean with your foot touching the bottom of the ocean. This is just swimming. We have to swim in the big scale of the world. Then questioning is also right in the middle of time, and very naturally questions disappear. Why do they disappear? What makes them disappear? Time, truth, buddha-nature, makes them disappear. Time gives us questions; time gives us answers to our questions.
—Dainin Katagiri, from Each Moment Is the Universe

Space is part of my dislocation as well. I've been a peripatetic wanderer much of my life, semi-nomadic even when rooted. This comes, perhaps, from traveling so much as a young boy that I don't have a real feeling of Home Town, the way most people seem to have: when your childhood is literally split across the planet's antipodes, and you don't have a sense of growing up surrounded by one familiar set of surroundings, people, and culture, sometimes the only sense of Home you can generate is about where you are right now. The nomad's Home is wherever his tent is set up for the season: you carry Home within you, and constantly re-plant it. This I do know.

Thus I had a most peculiar sensation, yesterday, driving across Michigan's Upper Peninsula—a rare sensation for me, even a phantom one—that this land, this place was Home. That I could, eventually, move there, settle there, feel at home there. I can't explain why Michigan, as a larger place, would start to feel like home to me, now, after years away, and even though no one specific place in Michigan is Home, just that sense of being up North in Michigan. Perhaps it's because my parents' ashes are now buried in Muskegon, in northern Michigan soil. In one day's driving, up and down the Leelanau Peninsula, then over to the UP and down, I crossed the 45th Parallel three times: that mid-way line between planetary equator and pole. Each crossing seemed significant. My thoughts wandered. But nonetheless Michigan around the 45th started to feel as familiar as I imagine a Home Town must feel to those who, unlike myself, have had one in which they grew up: the land, the light, even the smells, are familiar, comfortable, known. I felt perfectly at ease, at rest—able to come to rest—comfortable and calm on the roads and trails, wandering along under even a bleak rain-filled sky.

There is little nostalgia for place in me (except for sacred places I have encountered and significantly remembered), and very little sentimentality about childhood. It's not that I lack feeling, in fact I feel rather too much from childhood still, it's that it isn't sentiment, which is always unearned emotion, it's a sense of place. I am connected to the North American land—geology, lake, formations, and textures—in ways I can feel deep under my feet but that words cannot contain. Right here, under my feet, I can feel the distant hot throat of the Earth's mantle, and every layer of new and old rock between my feet and the unimaginable antinomic alloyed core. The crust of our planet, from a certain point of view, which many geologists learn to see from, is as chaotic, messy, fragile, and changeable as today's news. It's all a matter of time-scale, of viewpoint. The earth feels permanent to us, who move quickly across it, but it all changes, has changed, and will change again.

In a life of dislocation, how many things can you learn to trust, and to continue to trust? Only those few things that remain universal, despite your travels, that have never let you down. I trust the stars, even when they change overhead as I travel. I trust the earth under my feet, its sense of solidity and geologic history, which I have a strong feel for, in that strange way that geologists become slightly odd about time, flipping back and forth as they must between considering deep time and making sure to steer the car down the road rather than into an outcrop.

So I'm reluctant to dive right back into the fray, to re-engage, to take up the sword of cutting remarks made to display wit's weaponry in arguments about absolutely nothing. The world expects you to dive right back in as soon as you get back, no hesitation, no pauses, no time to re-adjust, and I find myself rebelling, even angrily ignoring those demands. So much gets put back into its proper perspective when one travels and returns: The news is not newsworthy, but a filler of silences and a slurry of time you could spend in the garden; the news would have one believe that the apocalypse is always happening, right now, and we'd all better care that the world is coming to an end. But the world is always coming to an end, and always has been. The things people seem to care about most matter the least; you know you're supposed to also care, yourself, but you find yourself unable. What I linger on is what I've encountered at the end of a bad day of departure: a six-point buck standing by the roadside, waiting to cross, its gaze meeting mine fleetingly; a mature bald eagle in a branch of a tree ten feet above the road, talons and beak digging into its prey, in its majestic self-confidence unafraid of the road beneath it, and who might pass fleetingly by. If they're not dead, they live there still.

The endless arguments and debates one encounters wherever one turns are about nothing, and matter nil. I pay my bills, I read in the morning, I ignore the news. (Every genuinely important piece of news gets through to you, anyway, when a friend calls to tell you, or you get an email, or it's everywhere on TV interrupting everything.) There are events and pseudo-events, and the news mainly reports the pseudo-events of minute changes in the political climate or the lives and deaths of the celebrities whose lives one is supposed to live through vicariously. As though we peasants had no lives of our own. I see in my absence one of the morning glory plants has exploded with new leaves, and is beginning to attach itself to the stone wall next to it, training itself horizontally along the slates. Is that not news that matters?

I let my beard and hair grow a bit shaggy while traveling this past month, and I see some white-haired, wizened poet's face in the mirror this morning who I don't recognize. He looks more like an experienced, now-deceased 60-year-old gay poet I've renowned, James Broughton, than he does like the 20-year-old uncertain young man I often still feel like, inside, unsure of what he wants to do when he grows up. Am I finally grown up? Humans have a unique ability, it seems, due to the gift of consciousness, to time-travel between younger and older selves. We play like children at any age. We fool ourselves into fixed opinion, thinking it to be wisdom, far younger than we ought; then we spend our adulthoods stripping away those youthful certainties, not replacing them with new certainties, but with deeper questions. If we can learn to live the questions, time-travel between older and younger selves becomes all that smoother. Time gives us questions; time gives us answers to our questions.

My slogan this epoch, invented jokingly with friends while camping earlier this month, probably something I'll design a t-shirt around at some later date, was:


It's not just a choice.
It's a lifestyle.

I remain disoriented by what I'm told I need to care about, which I mostly find myself unable to care about. I cannot claim, like a monk, to never watch TV; but I do claim to strictly limit that diet, and to do my best to avoid its junk-food components. I cannot claim, like a wizened poet, to have an experienced overview of what really matters in life; I can only claim, at this point, that there are few things that really matter, after all. One of those is love. I do my best to remember to say I love you to those people I do love, at the ends of regular conversations, just in case it's the last thing we ever say to each other. Freshly back home, when the little technologies and means of daily life fail, I am scared of how angry it can make me. Can't the Things in life just work right, for once, just for once, without falling apart or failing? Just once? We know we live in an entropic universe, which is the modern Western scientific equivalent of the myth of the Fall. Myths, if you recall, are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Entropy is the new face of evil.

One of the stresses of travel is change: travel is a real breaker of routines. Those patterns of habitation and possession one builds and collapses into when living in one place for a long time all get thrown out the door when you hit the road. You have to remember to take enough of your routines with you that your health and well-being remain guarded and cared for. Some days you even have to remember that you get tired, simply tired. Travel is tiring. But so is returning home. Which routines do I want to pick up again? Which as necessities, and which are optional? You find yourself asking these questions anew, and perhaps making changes. When I come home again, I can briefly see it as a strange place, just another hotel room, with an objective eye that reveals what might be improved, might be altered. I make decisions about what I want to do next with the place. Some of these are organizational, but others are aesthetic. It's a brand new home, each time you return to it. Maybe that's why I only get around to fixing some of those failing technologies when I'm fresh home from a roadtrip: they irritate me more, or newly enough to do something about them.

So where am I supposed to feel at Home? I still feel like I'm camping out here, back "home." It's all very familiar, yet it's also rather alien. I can't seem to summon much interest in anything, especially in diving right back into the fray. Maybe the old myth, found in more than one nomadic culture over the millenia, is true after all: If you travel too fast, or too long, it may take a few days before the soul can catch up with the body. And so I must wait awhile, before taking up those burdens of life again. It takes a few days to really arrive. If I ever really do.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Returning from Elsewhere: Sidebars

Still finding it difficult to re-engage, or to want to re-engage. Still listening to silences found. Yesterday, the day after returning from the woods, I spent the afternoon at Madison Pride, which was entirely too loud by comparison. Today I'm being forced by inner forces to Do Nothing, take a day off, whatever. I'm just a little numb.

After arriving back home near midnight, the next day was spent driving again up to Madison, to spend the afternoon at Madison Pride, a late entry in the annual Pride season. Arriving on a dust-swept island next to the convention center, covered with colored tents and rainbow flag banners, not too many people about, my first feeling was, It's good to see Madison doing a Pride again, but it's so tiny next to the last few Prides I've attended, notably San Francisco's. Matters of scale, location, and economics. One thing noticed: fewer LGBTs here advertise themselves loudly. Perhaps it's a local cultural effect on branding, to make it more discreet. Nonetheless, the rainbow or HRC bumper stickers are more discreet, less noticeable. You only realize you're parking in the right space after seeing a small, almost hidden rainbow flag on a parked SUV, so you park next to it.

My purpose for going to Pride at all was to sing with Perfect Harmony, a short Pride concert of an hour's duration, excerpts from our last two shows. Think of it as a summer pops concert. Mostly our lighter material. Perfect Harmony is Madison's gay men's chorus (and gay-affirming, which means we've had non-gay members before), and so has a bit of an ambassadorial function. So it's good to sing at Pride events, or Pride-like events.

I drove up from Smalltown after shopping at the downtown farmer's market, then going home to make a real meal. The sweet corn is starting to be sold. This year has been a good one for corn, with early rains, then lots of heat and humidity in July. The fields of corn as you drive by on the country roads are deep grain, without that yellow fringe at the edges early in the season that indicates underwatering: signs of drought that have been present for over a decade, banished these past two or three years of high rains. We've had flooding at times, especially along the Rock River, but the high rains have also been replenishing our aquifer, so the groundwater reserves are back to full strength.

I wandered around Pride for awhile, visiting each of the booths, overly aware of the loud music coming from the main stage and the tent with a partial dancefloor, gritty with dust and grains of dirt, which was starting up an hour of country music line-dancing. Social dancing is big in some zones of the LGBT subculture: line-dancing, square dance, waltzing, swing, all these living archaic social dance styles. I grew up with isolate solitaire dance styles being the cultural avant-grade: punk mosh pits, rock & roll mutual touchless grooving. Being touch-starved, I always appreciated social dancing. When I was a shy boy, I was actually good at square-dancing. I remember going to some barns in small town Michigan for square dances, with some friends and co-workers, pre- and post-college. It was good fun, but it didn't set deeply into my soma. Contact improv and contemporary modern classes, which came later in my life, left deeper marks.

I shopped a little at a couple of the storefront booths. I bought two or three new LGBT lapel pins. I collect and wear lapel pins. Except for some necklaces, some of which I make myself, which are more tied to neo-pagan urges, I wear no jewelry except pins I can attach to clothing. No tattoos, no piercings, no jewelry, no rings, nothing. Wearing gold makes me crazy after a few days. I only wear silver or pewter, or non-conductive materials. It's something energetic. I found a few rainbow-patterned LGBT pins that I liked, including one that's a Taoist yin-yang, only the white side of the evolving spiral is rainbow-patterned. It's all branding, it's all advertising. We use these logs and markers to broadcast who we are, ever so subtly. How often do you find an Eastern religion icon being combined with LGBT patterning? It's very rare. I may have to design a Buddhist eight-spoked wheel with rainbow insets. The yin-yang-rainbow is unusual enough in context. You can find rainbow crosses, fishes, and other Christian icons all too readily. As usual, very little is available for us non-mainstream religious types, unless we make it ourselves. Actually, I'll have to make a rainbow medicine wheel, a rainbow pentagram, and other icons, to fully express my own inner spiritual diversity. I found at one store a pewter raven icon, which I gave to my Radical Faerie friend named SilverRaven; I gifted him with that name, and now with an iconic calling-card raven emblem: pattern recognition.

I had a snack of Jamiacan jerk chicken, and a bottle of water, from a food stand. I chatted with friends for awhile. I walked around some more. I took some candid photos of the crowd, and attractive bodies within the crowd. It was a hot day, and shirts were often off. Soon it was time to perform. we gathered near the stage, listening to a loud queer rock band doing mostly 70s rock covers. Why is it that so many lead singers in such bands play bass? Bass players seem more grounded than guitarists, and often compose and sing. At least four or five great singer-songwriters in pop music are bassists. (I admit to bias, being a bassist myself.) They were a loud band, but a good one. Rings of tough-looking women were in front of the stage, some dancing. A pair of gender-indeterminate swing dancers circled near the mixing board. We did our hour-long set, and several times made the crowd laugh, or nod and sing along with the music. We pulled them in, and joined all of us in the music.

When we were done, and offstage, I was so tired I could barely walk back to the truck. After a week of camping in the Northwoods, and the long drive home the day before (300 miles from campsite to front door), I found this entire Pride festival entirely too loud. It was great fun, and too loud for me. I love that Pride is a celebration; I don't always like that it's a party, and not always very political anymore. Our set onstage reminded us all of some of the politics, with songs about rights, about being who we are, about requiring more than mere tolerance from our culture.

I drove home in silence.

I have spent all day today collapsed and exhausted. The days have been tiring. I've needed the downtime. Tomorrow is soon enough to listen to voicemails, to answer emails, to re-engage with those aspects of modern life I feel no desire to engage with today. Perhaps not even tomorrow, but the next day. After a long time camping in the relative quiet of the distant wilds, I'm reluctant to re-engage at all. Time changes: it slows down. Time becomes a daily cycle rather than clock-driven demand. Time stretches. When time changes, so does space, because they're inextricably linked. You can change one by changing the other: and their effects on you. Today, mostly tired, mostly silent, not even wanting to read very much, having reached the end of words, the limits of words, I find myself wanting to do no more now than watch the lingering dusk, listen to the small frogs and crickets out the window, and feel the cool breeze after another hot, dusty day. There is no need to fill this silence with noise; no need for any rush back to the Usual Stuff. Why rush? It will eventually catch you up. The trick is to make it work for it, to make it work hard to get you back, to postpone the inevitable re-engagement as long as possible.

And that is what vacation means.

Returning from Elsewhere: Narratives

Well. I'm back.

From eight days camping in the Northwoods. Off the grid. Off the map, even. From dipping into Lake Superior's mists and shoals. From No Place Between. Northernmost Minnesota, above the Lake, in the Arrowhead counties that have few paved roads once you leave the shoreside highways and towns behind. Where they call the region The Top Of The Map. Where you're as close to Canada as you can get without treading waterlines, where you're closer in mood and art to the Arctic than to life in the cities.

Back from all that happens when you go: those rapid intense changes to the self that happen when you're focused in and there's no outwards distractions to keep you from mortal spelunking. From being dislocated at least once into a shards of what you once believed, given permission to fall apart on the lawn and take several days to stitch yourself back together, a kind of reconfiguration that honors the old pattern of self without duplicating it, or its mistakes. From the annual hard work of camping with others that takes its toll on your strength and energy: having fun at such a high intensity is as tiring as having a meltdown, because living life at such high intensity for more than a week is always exhausting, and requires time to process. From sleeping in utter dark and silence, with a loon calling occasionally from the neighboring lake. From getting out of the tent in the middle of the night for a moment, to witness the Milky Way covering half the sky, foreground veiled by the tall silhouettes of cedars and white pine. From starlight bright enough to see to be able to walk the trail. From the long glare of a close meteor, so bright it leaves a long tail behind it, so close the fireball at its head is green-white with the light from distressed burning ions. From where a bachelor wolf came into the cabin clearing the other day, a little bit lost and curious. From dipping naked into the Temperance River, and Hare Lake, and showering outdoors under water hand-pumped cold from the well and heated in 55 gallon oil drums over a small fire to run down the hill through hoses and valves and emerge as liquid ecstasy.

And I'm not back.

Part of me always wants to linger, after returning from a week's camping, or a roadtrip, or a photo travel expedition, or just going to visit someone Elsewhere. I'm always reluctant to dive back into the virtual world of Connexion, be it online, via phone, or even just to let the neighbors notice you're back. Of course they will, anyway, when on a steambath morning in August you're unloading the truck, shirtless, and piling clothes and blankets for laundry, washing the road dust off the windows, and opening the tent to air and dry it out. The tent lies on the lawn on its back like a satellite dish or an upturned beetle kicking the air, helpless and cleaned out. It's a downtown market morning but do you really want to do the work of getting dressed and going out.

You want to linger in the silence that you slept in, comfortably, for the past week. You get no better sleep than sleeping outdoors in a tent, in utter silence and darkness. Sometimes very strong dreams emerge from it. Time has shifted; nothing ever seems quite as urgent as it did before leaving. Reluctance to re-engage with the high speed traffic of email and Connexion from everywhere via cyberspace, that feather-light non-touch that means nothing to the body. Even reading books in the morning, the usual morning practice, shifts away from deep thought towards deeper thoughts in fiction or poetry, those truths that can tell deeper human truths because they cloak them as lies.

You want to take a few more days to return, to gear up to speed slowly and gently, not grinding your gears, not pushing or being pushed faster than inner quiet requires. To spend at least a day doing nothing but laundry and silent integration before you take up all those other conversations that Connexion requires.

And eventually get back into the pace of everyday life. But maybe slowed down a little. Maybe a little more thoughtful than before. Maybe with a slight sideways look at what people take for granted, don't think about much, a look with a little suspicion that it doesn't have to be that way, that it could maybe be better, or at least different. A little detachment brought back from No Place Between, to protect you from the vice of egoism, the sin of pointless drama, the sadomasochism of everyday life. A bit of perspective, no judgment on it, a bit of detachment, learned from Elsewhere, and those gods that walk there, reminding you that whatever you think you need to live, there's Something More than this.