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.


  1. In a life of dislocation, how many things can you learn to trust, and to continue to trust? The crucial question, I think. We must have something trustworthy from which to venture out, whether on some escapade or to solve a problem. I shall need to read that through again - slowly.

  2. I am working with a very personally-meaningful aphorism for myself since this past summer of much travel. I did a lot of confronting past patterns and difficult emotions this summer. I had a few meltdowns. One of the deepest of them gave me a few lessons, and this saying to work with:

    Trust that which I already know is trustworthy

    . . . and let go of the rest.

    So I agree it's essential to have something trustworthy from which to venture out on our journeys.