We visited Scotland recently, and I left for home enchanted by the history, the culture, the architecture and the story of the people of that beautiful country.
One place we visited was St Andrews Cathedral, in its time one of the centers of religious life in Europe, and the largest church in Scotland. After the Scottish Reformation in the 1500s (!), the church was sacked, looted and abandoned. The remaining ruins are cared for by the Scottish government as a heritage site. St. Andrews Castle is nearby, at one time the seat of the Catholic cardinal and site of a prison holding religious reformers. From the distance of time, we see the relatively static after-effects of the Reformation, but looking into the history, many people gave their lives at the stake over hundreds of years in places like St. Andrews.
I’m captivated by the depth of the recorded history that has so much to tell. While in Edinburgh, I bought biographies of John Knox and Mary, Queen of Scots, two important and colorful characters in Scottish history, and I can’t wait to dig into those books. Knox was a leader of the Scottish Reformation, had run-ins with the Catholic establishment at St. Andrews and elsewhere, and actually precipitated some of the events that led to the Cathedral’s ruin. Mary, Queen of Scots ruled Scotland at the time, and as a Catholic, she and Knox had several in-person confrontations. Mary’s story is one of intrigue, wonder and tragedy.
I also experienced a personal moment of mystery while at St. Andrews Cathedral, and I’m still puzzling out its potential meaning. While at contemplating the beauty, cruelty, and ultimate impermanence of Man’s works here on this Earth, I was anointed, on the right side of the head and across the back, by a seagull.
A tragic accident.
Her loss is incomprehensible.
Today the sun has risen, the clouds race.
Rain moves in and across, and the racing clouds again reveal the afternoon sun.
Tonight the moon and stars will rise again.
Still in the field of time, all moves forward.
Helping loved ones absorb the loss,
We hurt, and look for the pieces of what has broken, and reflect.
It is a mystery, how this could happen, from nowhere, to one with such a long future.
What could have been, will not – and for that the grief comes hard.
What was, was good – and for having had it,
We give thanks, look back with longing, and smile through tears.
A mid-Saturday run on a cold, radiant, bluebird January day. I run on the road, facing oncoming cars, and jump the slick ice on the road’s edge as each one approaches, tap-dancing onto the crusty snow that offers enough traction to keep my feet from going out from underneath. It’s a great counterpoint to the limited range of motion of a fairer-weather run, random sidesteps to keep the legs and hips guessing, and opportunities to get the knees pumping just a little higher than my typical loping gait.
The bare trees show their skeletal genius – how they’ve grown and spread to fill the volume they’ve been allotted by chance of location, and the limits of gravity and capillary sap transmission, maximizing exposure for their leaves.
Down the hill to the frozen lake, the middle one of Three Lakes, a single ice-fisherman spending his noontime as Dad would have, occasionally adding another bluegill or perch to the bucket on the ice. I wonder if he’s enjoying the sun, or would prefer more overcast — it’s pretty bright out there surrounded by all that reflection. I reflect on how we’re two people, each alone, each drawn to the water for our own recreations.
Back up the hill again and home. Radiant blue, cold breeze, matched rhythm of breath and footfalls, breath-moisture condensed on beard, and the prana of warm energy circulating.
“The sublime is rendered by prodigious power or by enormous space: when you reach a mountaintop, for instance, and the world breaks open: a motif that is used in Buddhist art a great deal, and the reason temples are put on the top of hills. In Kyoto, there are gardens where you are screened from the expanding view while climbing, and suddenly – bing! – the whole vista opens up before you. That’s sublimity. So, power and space are two renditions of sublimity, and in both cases, the ego is diminished. It’s strange: the less there is of you, the more you experience the sublime.”
Reading this, it seems true by examination. We’ve all had these kinds of experiences. On the mountaintop, or looking out over a seemingly infinite body of water, or finding yourself on a dark lake on a clear night with the full moon on the water or the Milky Way arcing overhead, the awesome awareness of our own powerlessness and insignificance is the source of a sublime feeling of expansive connectedness. I witnessed the birth of my girls and am forever struck by the mystery of such infinite complexity, driven so repeatably; everyday miracles of stunning scale, countless times a every day, everywhere on Earth.
How easily, though, we slip back into the ego-centric. Once back down from the mountain, back in the Real World, we’re self-concerned again. Back to work on Monday, with the demands, deadlines, and personalities that we engage and entangle with. That was a cool experience, but this is the Real World and I have to feed my family, after all.
Art and meditation and contemplation allow access to that ego-reduced experience of the profound, for those of us who can’t go on vacation and climb a mountain every day. A shared moment with a family member or friend, a painting or a piece of music, a well-written metaphor, quiet minutes looking at a tree or looking inward with eyes closed.
“It’s strange: the less there is of you, the more you experience the sublime.”
Quotation from ‘Reflections on the Art of Living, A Joseph Campbell Companion,’ page 136.
Michigan’s radiance in late summer approaching autumn…here the sunrise chases cool morning mist from a chain of lakes.
First Saturday morning of the school year, basking in the togetherness and at-homeness of it all.
There’s much to be done today – in fact it’s one of those days where there’s a huge Lazy Susan of ideas, opportunities and necessities spinning in my head, and I can’t quite bring myself to stop it and pick the one thing to be done next.
One thing’s certain, that I’m continually haunted and pursued by the need to dedicate time and effort to a writing practice. I find myself wishing for foul weather, which would force downward my available options and I could feel good about retreating to the new office I’m creating downstairs. I tell myself we need to follow through on plans to create living-room space in the adjoining big room downstairs so I can still be near the ladies while I pound away at this new lifestyle. Wait, I know! – I need a whiteboard in that office so I can really get going, mind-mapping stuff, plotting and planning.
“Just shut up and write”, they tell me, so I turn and tell that to myself.
OK – right after I work on this bike.
I wrote in my last post about cultivating some balance in our lives, and how our steady progression toward the end of summer might assist that goal. Returning from vacation to work this week, that balance seems elusive.
It’s not just the grind of returning to the day job, but meetings after work every evening this week to address needs related to my civic commitments. I serve our local community as a Village trustee and also as a trustee at our local community library, and I believe strongly at this point in my life in putting some effort into helping to keep our village as that place that first attracted us to live here…so while tired and off-balance toward the end of this week, it’s all worth it, all toward the right ends.
Plus…to cap the week off…
Our oldest daughter turns 13 today.
She was born at 9am, and I’ll never forget holding her and looking deep into her wide eyes that first night, when she was 12 hours old, while my wife slept soundly, getting some needed rest.
Not yet a day old, she lay wrapped in a blanket in my arms, hiccuping and looking back at me. I had the profound, mystical feeling that there was wisdom behind those eyes, that she knew things I couldn’t know. I held her there for quite some time, not wanting to let go of that moment with her new life in my hands.
I tell her this story every year around her birthday, as I want her to grow up knowing the impact she had on me that first night. Right now, she lays in the bottom bunk (with her sister in the top) in the room behind me, having slept away her 12-hood, soon to wake up as a teenager.
There have been, and will be many more, times when ‘wisdom’ is the furthest word from my mind to associate with some of her actions or behaviors (or her sister’s), but the memory and the impact of that first night persists. And whether or not she really knew unknowable things that first night, she and her sister have taught me so much…
So we’ll move through the work days and the birthday festivities today and Friday, remaining joyfully off-kilter, and will look to rebalance over the holiday weekend…