Chasing Windows

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

Sometimes I just want to see the world like I did that once.

“That once” wasn’t just one specific time. It’s all the times I’ve seen, really seen, the splendor of life right in front of me. I remember last winter: I had just lit a fire in the wood stove, and it was casting its amber glow. Rio was drawing, Annie was reading, and I was watching them. It occurred to me that I was witnessing clearly what I actually have in my life: a home, a family, health, love. There was no questing for more, no castigations of why not, no clouds of regret or self-doubt. No, I was watching a beautiful scene in a film unfold, and it was from my own life.

Ah, but how quickly it fades. Even though I have enjoyed almost 365 days since then with Annie and Rio in this very house, the number of times I’ve caught this same glimpse and really felt it in my bones seems paltry. I often think my own experiments with bending reality — I have a few tired tricks I use — are simply attempts to get me back to this blessed view.

Recently I was driving around a college town, worry on my mind. I was waiting for a light to change and saw two students smiling and laughing as they stood on the street corner. I recalled my own days in college towns, how much easier the world seemed to me then. I was more insecure, sure, but I had less weight on my back; there were days I could just fritter and float. As I drove off, I had the urge to return to those streets; to take the place of these young men and have a view of the world that was perhaps more naive but bright.

The most pristine vistas are the childhood ones, the ones I’m still trying to climb back into. The poet Coleman Barks describes “those two minutes at the end of the day when a golden light would fall across the floor. . . . I would lie down in it and hug myself. One time when I was doing that, I told my mother, ‘Mama, I’ve got that full feeling again.'” For me, such moments came when my grandfather and grandmother would drive my sister and me “down the lake” to the tiny fishing cottage they’d built there; as soon as we hit the gravel road I’d lean forward in my seat to get a glimpse of the water through the trees. When the lake finally appeared in slivers between birches I’d feel a joy I’m not sure I’ve ever relived, even though I still return to that lake every summer and relish it with as much gusto as I can muster.

One of the pleasures of having a child in one’s life is getting to re-experience some of this wonder. When we visit the same fishing cottage these days, I watch Rio’s face closely in the rear-view mirror to witness it register some of the same anticipation I felt as a boy. But it’s not his job to serve as a hope chest for my mislaid dreams. And I can’t be a kid again, just like I can’t return to that college town. But Rio gets me close; and there is some simple pleasure in nostalgia, that bittersweet proximity to experience that memory grants us.

Perhaps the best I can do is to be patient with the pace of beauty; to not fret that the spot at the window may only come to me now and again. And to not curse the ephemeral nature of joy but rather to say thank you for even experiencing it. Otherwise I’m relegated to a life hunting shadows.

The other night I took Stella for a walk down to the bridge after Rio and Annie went to sleep. The evening was unseasonably warm, and a faint orange marked the billowy clouds blanketing the sky overhead. The river was rushing high due to recent rain, and I could see the lights of our little town through the trees. Stella was off leash and smelling this and that, and suddenly I felt a swell of satisfaction, of just knowing that I love and am loved, that these wayward ingredients somehow make a feast. I called out to Stella and she came running, and I hugged that darn canine and inhaled her musky scent and felt a warm quiet rush of the unadorned goodness that life sometimes slips in my pocket.

The Portable Divine

Sunday morning I was enjoying a dip in the river with Rio and two kids from the neighborhood when I suddenly realized that people across the country were settling down into pews for their weekly sermon. In fact, just a stone’s throw away folks were bowing their heads in the Bynum United Methodist Church. For a moment I felt a pang of guilt — if I were really “good” I’d be right there with them.

But then I looked out at what was before me: Rio splashed while Glenn laughed. Caroline had just gotten off my back after a “dolphin ride.” The sun was glinting just right off the rippling water, and the trees and bushes beside the river were almost every shade of green. I took it in and felt it ping off the chunk of coal in my chest that sometimes glows amber.

My church is right here.

Later that day, I stopped by a friend’s house for some solo hang time, and we played a game of channel surf, skipping over the good stuff and alighting momentarily onto various bits of schlock. We stopped for a few minutes on a man who was sermonizing very unconvincingly from a thick and dog-eared Bible that he held solidly in his hands.

There are so many good books out there, I thought to myself, and that one isn’t bad. But how can anyone decide they have found the one true story?

Because I prefer to find sacred texts in the millions of lives and moments swirling around me. Divinity sure seems a lot more transportable that way: instead of having to be at a certain place at a certain time on a Sunday morning, I could be swimming in a stream. Instead of packing the same big book in my suitcase every trip I could bring Baca one day and Rumi the next, maybe no words the time after that, just the earth’s topography from thirty thousand feet my holy map.

I was once trying to help a man who had lost his way. I told him that the next time he felt really good, I mean really good, he should pay attention to where he felt it in his body. “In my chest,” he told me a few days later. “It feels like I’ve got a little bouncing ball in there.” Next I asked him to observe and jot down over the course of a week every time he felt that feeling: what had happened that had brought it on? A few days later he had a long list: sitting in church listening to a good sermon; helping a friend in straights; going bowling with his son; cooking a meal from scratch.

“Keep that list in your wallet,” I suggested. “When you find yourself sinking, do something on the list.”

The psychologist Dacher Keltner has spoken about the physiological roots of this feeling; he points that our body actually has a neural map to feel divine, alive, and joyous: the sensation travels largely by way of the vagus nerve, moving from medulla to chest (expansive feeling, slowed heartbeat) to throat (it often catches for a moment) to the eyes where tears often form the final gush of the rush. Each person’s specific response to joy has its own quirks, but Keltner’s point is that we are built to feel this feeling; our body knows what to do with it.

I felt the sensation strongly a few weekends ago at a retreat center where 100 people gathered to write and and share their truths. Prompted by good teachers, safe space, and mutual support, we wrote what came forth and read aloud what we’d written. This act was alchemical, and I got so used to my body’s joy-delivery system working that I felt a nasty comedown after I left that spot in the woods and entered my first florescent convenience store. I found myself chatting up the cashier as though he would be game for the same unveiling. He just raised an eyebrow.

This brought to mind leaving Burning Man one year; after spending eight days enmeshed in that carnival of free souls, where the supreme commandment is to be your true self, I burst into hot tears and irrepressible sobs the moment  our car left the playa [desert] and hit the pavement. The challenge is, as one saying goes, to “keep the playa alive 365.”

But as I’ve reminded myself incessantly after such peak experiences: I vow to not reenter old parodies. Those moments of joy and transcendence stretch me to new places, and there’s no reason I need to return to the humdrum after my true drum has been struck with an invigorated rhythm. If the ecstatic moment lives and dies in the churches that evoke it, then I must return to those particular pews to taste it again. This can lead to an overdependence on the source of joy, be it an event, a substance, a lover, or a place — just because I felt divine at the river on Sunday doesn’t mean I will feel it so strongly when I return on Friday. The best I can do is find my wells, to visit them regularly with respect but not oversized expectations, and to be open to new ones, which often appear where I might not expect them. I prefer to think of church as a floating palace, one that changes form by the minute and yet is always an open eye away.

The Bright Side

I’d rather talk about the glory than the glitches. But sometimes it feels safer to coast in under the cover of gripe. 

Not to say digging into the trenches and making sense of the soil isn’t valid; in fact, in this age of airbrushing I’d say it’s critical work to be candid about the struggle.  But I’d rather not fall to the other extreme, baring all in an angst-ridden pity parade.

The fact is, I am an optimistic, joyful person. I think that what comes out of a stranger’s mouth is going to revelatory, or at least helpful. I relish the sound of the crickets piping in from the leaves. I think people are basically good and trustworthy. I believe most dogs won’t bite me.

Last night was one of those blessed evenings when I communed with joy and it gave me a big, wet kiss.  Annie was out of town, and I was getting the house ready both for her return but also for a visit from one of my oldest friends, Zeus, and his fiance Lora whom I had not yet met. Lora was driving down from Ohio and was arriving the night before her sweetheart, and I found myself in happy anticipation; even though we’d never met in person, I knew — because of the depth and breadth of my relationship with Zeus — that someone kindred was about to grace our home.

Lora arrived about two hours later than she’d planned, but I was able to transcend the clock. It was one of those perfect spring nights when the wind is blowing the first warm breeze of the year and the stars are almost shocking in their plenitude. I cooked up some dinner, wrote a little, put on some music and then stretched and danced and opened the unhinged joints in my body that had been feeling so tightly closed. In the last few years my body has stiffened and at times I feel like the tin man in need of some oil. I was able to conduct my own freestyle body workshop in the dining room with the windows wide open.

At one point I walked into Rio’s room and talked a bit to the soundly sleeping boy. I told him I would always love him and try to be there for him. I reminded him to never ignore the directives of his heart. I had the strong and slightly eerie feeling that he could hear me despite his deep slumber. Then things got a little mysterious. As I looked down on his face I saw him as a teenager, then as a man sleeping on another bed somewhere.  I got a flash of him alone and crying, that sad communion with the sheets, and I thought of all the times he would be broken and I started to weep, turned my face to my sleeve, looked away. I was about to leave the room when I remembered laughter, the tops of mountains, nights like the one I was having, and I let the delight of those small gifts sustain my vision of my growing son.

And then Lora arrived, 12:30 a.m. and the night still felt young, and she and I talked and talked, needing nothing but the worlds that were suddenly broader and more connected, and as the darkness was about to greet dawn a storm came in from nowhere, thunder booming and rain suddenly pouring across the tableau at 45 degrees. I ran inside and closed all the windows I had opened,  cursing for a moment all the papers that had scattered across the room. We hooted and hollered at mother nature’s unforgettable howl, and I finally went to bed, satisfaction in my bones.