The Wine of Creation

After we create something–story or image, song or poem, project or initiative–we store it like fine wine in some earth-smelling cellar of our minds. We cork it and let it age where no one is to step for many years. Though that wine may very well live in the world–published as a story, or sold as art, or put into action as an initiative–for the creator, it has been stored away in the unconscious. The aging in the cellar allows meaning to take hold independent of the act of creation. The thing changes even as it does nothing. Its essence concentrates, free of the tyranny of its maker.

And then, at some uncertain time, the hatch opens and the maker steps down into the cellar and it all comes back to him: the feel of the unpressed grapes, the sound of the press and the trickling juice, the aroma and struggle to make something from nothing, the beauty of the finished thing.

And the dust is swept off. The maker is now observer, even as he always was both. He begins to both construct and reconstruct the meaning of the piece–the shape of the bottle, the colors of the label, the vintage and earth that it was grown in–and what is recreated in the observation is both linked and separate from what was formed in the moment of creativity. He takes on new power and (re)writes the making of the thing in a way that is both old and new. He tips out the rich redness and drinks in the work and the cycle begins again: the eternal act of observation-creation. The eternal moment that contains both.

And yeah, sometimes he spits it out and looks at the label and realizes the wine is crap. And then he wishes he never spent the time creating it in the first place.

Photo by Lomig on Unsplash

Mariners of the Once and Always Mysteries

The morning sky lights a pink the color before we’ve awakened. I look through the window of the ship of my life and the oily lattice-work obstructs the Eastern lightening even as it reveals it with the roiling of the waves like cold mystery beneath me, beside me, above me, hanged in the remnants of the paling sky against the world’s physics like some phantom strung up for treason against reality.

My sails take on alien winds. I am far from home. I am a mind afloat on this rebellious sea where every gut-wrending trough is separated by a wave a mile high. My province of this sea is not yours. Yet I feel watery wetness just as you do. I taste salt as you do. I cry out, I laugh, I pray as you do. We are of this same mystery that encircles us at every compass point and every cardinal direction and every place of turning whether logical, spiritual, or emotional.

As others have before, many after us will engage with the vastness of this Truth in the same way, separated by troughs but joined by the very mystery that allows us to call each other mariners on that same phantom sea hanged amongst the beauty.

Those that follow will engage with the very many mysteries that have been scribed by some divine hand upon the parchment that guides our reckless expeditions. This litany is long and here is only recorded a portion of those mysteries: “The paradox of the beginning of existence: that miracle of something from nothing. The distant points of space: the voids of black holes that are portals into new ignorance and the black spaces of missing energy. The meaning of human relationship: the holy give and take, teach and learn that exists between all people. The riddle of time: that arrow that moves only forward only toward a blurring chaos of less understanding. The wisdom of new and ancient gods: that struggle to pull total meaning that is independent of circumstance, time, place, existence itself.”

The waves tear at the boards and soon they will be pulled free or cracked beyond repair and the vessel take on that dark phantom water and it will drag us down or up dependent upon the capricious whim that rules its nature. And we will sink through that salty sea to rest in the alien soil many leagues beneath or we will rise through the clouds and be split apart into a million atoms that we may be totaled into the dark water mystery by condensation or precipitation. And though we are split beyond recognition we will be joined: mariners of the once and always mysteries of life.

Photo by Jamie Morrison on Unsplash

She Dared to Laugh in the Place of the Dead

We were headed down to the Outer Banks. We made a pit stop at a little gas station in Virginia. Across the street was a Baptist church. Single room, white pine siding, black steepled, with a cemetery off its side, no fence. No fence to keep the living from the dead.

Leah fed Simon in the car. I went across the street to the cemetery with my daughter.

The headstones all waited for remembrance with their stony dignity. Flowers rested at some. Some were well manicured. Others overgrown.

“What are these?” Hat asked.

I told Hat that cemeteries were places where people are who other people love and miss. And that’s why there are flowers. Because people bring flowers to people they love. And I smiled at her, and it was clear she did not understand what I was saying or what I was trying to say.

“Oh,” she said.

It is not an easy thing to explain: rocks rising from the ground, the flowers, the quiet, the solitude, the density of the air, the weathered whiteness of the church.

She skipped and ran to a stone. Then another, and she reached out and touched it. She smelled the flowers. She smiled and asked again where we were, what this was. I tried again. Again the misunderstanding. Again the little “oh.”

I stood there and I remembered, as a boy, riding bikes in the summers with my brother and father. We would sometimes visit Cemetery Road and bring flowers to a young girl who died a hundred years ago. Then I remembered my college days when I had to get away from the mayhem of a party and how I would take the long way home so that I could go by the graveyard where it was quiet and the distant murmurs of the parties didn’t have a hold of me (I had to hop a fence to get in there–I definitely wasn’t supposed to be there). I remembered how I have watched loved ones pass on, and I thought about how I will probably watch many more.

Death demands something of me, whether I want it to or not. I have responded to that demand in many ways. I have honored the dead. I have wept for the dead. I have sought peace amongst the dead. I have stood with a brave heart before the dead. I have loved the dead.

But I felt as if I were missing something as I watched my daughter. In pink shorts and a white, sparkly t-shirt, she ran between the headstones. She dared to laugh in the place of the dead, a smile emblazoned on her face.

I smiled then, too. And I ran to pick up my beautiful daughter, from whom I have learned so much.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

The Broken Orb: Scattered Bits of Light in a Shattered Mirror

If the world was ever one thing, it was this: a fluid, molten sphere that reflected back all existence at a single glance. Every being that looked into this mirror saw more than themselves. They saw the totality of existence. The lines of sight were not linear, but they were clearer than any eye could see. They warped and wrapped and dove through time and space with a single glance of the heart.

But something went wrong. Perhaps the orb cooled. Perhaps the beings who looked into it cooled. But the orb cracked into a million pieces. A single moment splintered it apart, sending separations through it like black veins, and the light that it reflected back to the world was scattered.

The Shattered Mirror

Our mirror is a cobweb work of irregular angles and sharp-as-knife edges. Now, we can only see what’s in front of us. If we look too far to left or right, up or down, the image cuts short and we fall into an ink-black void that holds the shards together.

Sometimes, if we stand on tippy-toe, we can get a glimpse of another fragment. “Ah, there is something else!” we say. “But what is it?”

That being feels so alien, so disconnected from us. We can’t find a way to synthesize it with our own vision, so we reduce it to its lowest state. “That is no human over there; it is merely a mass of atoms, spun together to give the illusion of a life. Split it apart, and you never had a human in the first place,” we say. But with good humor, we say, “Nonetheless, I hope it does well.”

And then we stop standing on tippy toe, we look straight ahead, and stare into our own faces.

The Scattered Light

“Now this is reality,” we say as we look at our own face. “This is a human. This has dreams. This has a future. This is more than atoms and organs. This is a burning spirit that will change the world.”

But we can not see that this face has all the grotesque horror of a Picasso without the redeeming virtue of creativity. We can’t see that we’ve split out our identities across an array of technologies and groups. Bits of ourselves are lost in the wasteland of America’s servers and America’s history, sitting, dying, suffocating in the past–but alive. Those past identities rip and tear our flesh. There is no possible way to pick up the scattered bits of light and life that we have trailed behind us like chunks of our own flesh.

So, when we look into our small shard of that broken mirror, what we’re left with is blurred out, scattered, unfocused, unsure of what eyes it sees with, what mouth it speaks with, what ears it hears with.

Is it possible to see the world again as a mirrored orb? Perhaps not. Perhaps it never was, not in this age or any age past. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. That doesn’t mean we slice up our identities like pre-cut cheesecakes and serve them to any grotesque, scattered-light face that pops its head into our lives.

The Mirroring Orb

And I am just as guilty of it as anyone else. So perhaps it’s time I try to focus the light of my own image. And then, maybe–when my own face has become clear, when I can see with my own eyes, hear with my own ears, speak with my own mouth, I can work on repairing the orb.

Even if it never was a molten sphere of pure reflection. I’d like to build it into one. Or perhaps just a small part. The part I can get to in my lifetime. I think that would be a beautiful thing.

Photo by Matthew Fassnacht on Unsplash

Aim for the New, not the Best

There are two topics which I had thought about previously, which only now I see are related.

The first: the motivation, or aim, of being saintly (or, what we can simply call “good”) is greater than the fulfillment of being saintly.

The second: I must stop aiming for the “best” and start aiming for the “new.”

Putting these two ideas together, I think I am realizing that the aim of saintliness is not to be “best,” but to ride upon the ever present, ever eternal wave of the “new.”

“Best” is an abstraction–impossible to implement in reality, often impossible to measure. What makes it “best” is merely the quantity of its human support, or a result of a man-made measure. “New,” on the other hand, is concrete. It is what we are and what we are experiencing. It is objectively our present place and point. It is what we make manifest. “Newness” is a qualitative point of reality.

If this is the case, then, being “saintly” or “good” becomes more simple than I thought. To be saintly is to be qualitatively new–to embrace the present flow of experience–to not get sucked into the illusion of living “best,” of comparing oneself to another. Only by living presently can we live well. To aim to live “best,” then, is to aim to live in a kind of hell.

So this is what I need to work on, especially in my work as a teacher and writer. I do not need to aim to be the “best” at these things. Perhaps I even need to stop aiming at being a “good” teacher and writer. I need to start being a “new” teacher and writer, one who brings the reality of experience into the present. This is not so much a shift in practice as it is a shift in mindset. But those are sometimes the hardest.

And so I will aim for a childlike embrace of what is new. I need to seek newness instead of the best, child-like freshness instead of frequently used practice. In this, I am worried, as chaos seems to be on the other side of that door. But even chaos has its own kind of order. And within that confused order is newness.

Originally written 10/28/19.

Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash.

Like a Mustard Seed: The Practice and Discipline of Growth

“Faith should become so transparent that it does not need experience. But it takes a lot of experience to reach that point,” wrote Thomas Keating. This idea came up in my last Alpha meeting. A group member talked about Jesus’s mustard seed parable: If you have faith like a grain of mustard, you can move mountains. Bob, the group member, said he never understood what it meant until he started to have faith, and build upon it. And what he realized was that he didn’t move the mountain, it was his “big God.” All he needed to do was put a little bit of trust in God to do so.

And what is ‘a little bit’ but a small incremental change to our current state? What is a seed but a blossom in waiting? What is a blossom but a sapling in waiting? And a sapling a tree in waiting? (Mustard isn’t a tree, but you get the point…) Experience of life is what allows for learning which allows for these small, incremental growths in faith.

Faith, then, is a habit. We start out with it, and only through practicing it in the experiences of our lives can it grow. This, I believe, is true of all of the good fruits of life. They must be made practices if we want to know them.

Brene Brown, in her audiobook, The Power of Vulnerability, discusses how an “attitude of gratitude” is not enough to experience actual gratitude. In order to experience it, we need to make a practice of it: by a gratitude journal, prayer, whatever–so long as it is a continuous discipline. Likewise, an attitude of faith is not enough. We must experience life, pushing its margins, relying on faith to help us reach a point of serenity, peace, equanimity. And only by doing that can faith grow incrementally, from seed to plant to mover of mountains.

There is no quick and easy way to find peace in the world. There is no simple way to realize our vocations. There is no shortcut to growing into God’s presence, into peace, into equanimity, into wholeness–whatever you might call that thing in which you place your faith. It takes work. It takes the creation of habits, practices, disciplines. Attitudes and good thoughts will only get you so far. But ultimately, in order to grow, one must put in the work, day in and day out, moment to moment.

Adapted from a journal entry written 1/19/20.

Photo by ross tek on Unsplash

Journal

Writing Into Who I Want to Become: The Hope and Optimism of Daily Journaling

Week of 1/13/20

This morning, in bed, I found myself thinking about my journaling. So much of what I journal on is not about “who I am,” but about “who I want to become.” In other words, I write into my future self. I do not write as my current mindset, but that mindset which I wish to move into. My journal self, in this way, drags my real self with it, pulls it along into new being and new creation.

Is this journaling a false self? No. I don’t believe so. Is it a hypocritical self? No. I believe, because I am aware of this ‘disparity’ between the two selves (I hesitate to even call it a disparity as the two are not really in conflict) they are actually part of a larger, unified identity.

As Father Erent says in “The Fourth Stooge”: “There is something about fools you fail to see. When the fool knows he is a fool, he becomes something more. He becomes both actor and audience. He becomes both fool and sage, stooge and scholar, sinner and sacred, alive and dead, existent and non-existent.” This holding of my two identities in creative tension with each other is what drives me toward growth and change.

It is as if I have become, in many ways, my own teacher. I think this is what contemplative practice does. And yet, it is not I who is the teacher. Perhaps the better image is of myself as observer (or audience) and practitioner (actor). The teachers are actually others: Rohr, Merton, Keating, the Stoics, the Bible, philosophers, thinkers, writers, all. But I, like Father Erent, see myself in a kind of dual role of paradox. This perspective, at least at times, grants me insights into God and myself that I wouldn’t otherwise have.

Before journaling, I lacked any capacity to think of myself. That sounds bizarre, but it is true. I could not really perceive myself. I perceived the world around me through myself, but I never perceived myself directly. Only in the silence of these mornings, only when I’ve learned to be comfortable here, without the noise and distraction of the day, have I begun to see myself through a lens of continuous evolution and roiling thought.

Only here can I stand awed by my experiences, be humbled by my blessings, be patient withmy failures and frustrations, be blessed by love. It is only in this space, where I write into who I want to be, who I can be, that this is possible. Once the din of the day begins, I backslide into “who I am.” But always, in that eternal silence, I know who I can be. And that hope is why I journal every day, why I think, why I live. Journaling has made me hope to become a better person. And even just that hope is enough.

Originally written on 1/8/20. Photo by Jan Kahánek on Unsplash