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.
Our backyard this morning after a late-winter storm. Another snow day for our ladies, off to work for me.
I captured this photo on a November hike, arrested by the hieroglyphic quality of the insect trail on the tree trunk. Perhaps this is the dead trunk of an ash tree, and the grooves were made by emerald ash borer larvae, deposited as eggs beneath the trunk and munching to maturity while slowly killing the tree. These little bastards have left thousands of dead trees in their wake across Michigan, just in the last few years.
In trying to put myself in the head of a bug that made these channels, it strikes me that they came into awareness in a dark location suitable for their growth, and started living their purpose, chewing blindly forward, ever forward, until something told them they were done and it was time to move on. They came and left with only the narrowest conception of the tree, their host, as just the flat earth they wandered while they lived. I can step back and take measure of the tree’s geometry from my perspective, the intricate three-dimensionality of it, the size and the volume of space it occupies. Then mentally subtract the tree, and what’s left is a delicate cylindrical negative of the bugs’ road. The destructive little bastards left us some art to attest to their one-dimensional grindage.
This weekend I went for a run in a nearby forest, a few times around a 2-mile loop in the snowy woods. Hills and tough footing made it slow going. After all that struggle and conversion of oxygen into forward motion, I finished right back where I started. But nothing was the same, including me. As an aside, an hour of solitude in the woods offers solutions to many things.
Time pushes us forward, usually not unidirectionally, instead on a tortuous path around, over, under, between and in spite of. Even Brownian motion must still be forward, driven by the arrow of time. We go backward in our memories while we move forward in time, forward on our path – whether it’s linear, forked, bifurcated, doubles or triples back on itself, we still have to move forward.
Blindly we make our path and trace our wild pattern in the dark substrate, unaware of so much, and never really appreciating the beauty and complexity of our winding course or the medium on which it’s traced. And we’ll never have the vantage to see revealed in full the path we trace – but might someone else?
Forward is time working upon us, us working within time. You’ll never read that last sentence again, for the first time. You’ll never have this exact now again. You’ve moved forward.
“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.
Down on the writer’s block, there was a character living out the summer in a second floor studio.
His neighbor next door had the one-bedroom apartment, equipped with a window air unit. He knew this from observation of the building from the street, but had taken care to avoid any interaction with his neighbor. His studio had just the single window and no air. The second floor drew the spent, stale, warm air from the antique furniture shop below. Some of it passed through when he opened the window, smelling of dust and old homes, but he never felt perceptible flow or fresh air without putting his head outside. He’d lain awake many nights that hot summer, listening to the window unit kick on to cool the bedroom in the apartment next door. It was hot again tonight, but the summer had been dry, so bugs weren’t a problem. The noises from the park across the way helped him remember what drove him here and what he needed to resolve before moving on.
Refocusing from the park, down on the street below he noticed a tourist with a camera. The tourist took aim at his building for a few seconds, looked at the LCD on the back of his camera, and aimed again. He moved urgently, deftly back into the shadows to avoid being exposed to his lens. The tourist checked his LCD a second time, and then wandered with some dim purpose toward the park – apparently another shiftless amateur photographer trying out his new toy.
Nevertheless, he hoped he hadn’t been spotted in the window.
We spent the early part of this week in northern Lower Michigan – a day trip to Mackinac Island launched from our several-day base in Petoskey. This has become a tradition for us over the last several years, a late-August trip together as a family before our free-form summer lifestyle reverts back to the phased rhythm of work and school routines.
“Loving where I live” is a major component of my TGQ (Total Gratitude Quotient), and of course “loving other places within a few hours’ drive from where I live” factors into the equation as well.
Experiencing this recurring ritual getaway affords an opportunity to benchmark our girls’ growth over time. We pass this way another year older, and that brings a little more clarity to how they’re growing and changing. We’ve shed the baby jogger and the scooters, and there are no more rides on Dad’s shoulders as we hike into the Petoskey Gaslight District from our hotel a mile out. New opportunities and perspectives emerge, riding bikes around Mackinac Island and letting them wander down to the shoreline by themselves while we watch from a distance.
This brief unwinding also brings into relief the balance that we try to strike in our lives. We’ll start the cycle again soon – school will start with the requisite drop-offs and dramas, routines of homework and music lessons. We’ll measure it off with the Monday through Friday metronome, and learn again together how sweet Saturday mornings are.
I went out yesterday morning with the camera intending to capture striking, stunningly beautiful photographs of nature – the sun was rising, dew was heavy in the cool morning – conditions were perfect.
Near our house is a through-way of high tension power lines. I’ve taken our ladies berry-picking back there many times on the trail underneath the power lines, filling our small containers with ripe black raspberries. Those hikes were as much about the time outdoors together as they were about the fruit.
A couple weeks ago, a cutting crew was contracted by the power company to clear-cut underneath the power line easement. Everything’s gone now, all the small trees, the sumac and honeysuckle, and the black raspberry bushes.
The trail is still identifiable.
I’m not quite mourning, as I know the reasons why. This area will grow back over time, and there are other spaces for hiking and berry-picking. It’s an occasion to consider the tradeoffs of our modern age, and to aim the camera upwards for a change.