Friday, April 18, 2014

A Child in Eden - That Which We Already Know



Hello everyone. I hope you enjoyed the introduction of That Which We Already Know. I’m presently envisioning a three part book with three chapters in each part. As you will see, remembrances of childhood will become vehicles for the fleshing out of the book’s main thesis. I hope you enjoy this journey through childhood, yours as well as mine. In doing so I hope we will realize together the exquisite nature of that which we already know.





Part I, Chapter 1 - A Child in Eden


We were enjoying one of those periods of autumn weather when the mornings and evenings are crisp and cool and the afternoons are summery warm. Indian Summer is what we used to call such a pleasant string of days, harkening back in some barely understood way to a time when the onset of winter – whether harshly abrupt or blessedly gradual – determined what life in the coming months would be like. Would there be ample time to augment the winter food stores, or must haste be made instead to prepare for deprivation?

I must have been wondering then what life would have in store for me in the coming months and years. Gone were those not too very distant days when I could wake of my own accord and enjoy my childhood paradise as weather and whim and the availability of companionship might dictate. Life had begun to make demands. School was still a brand new experience for me, and as much as I might have enjoyed it I must have also sensed that it was but a precursor to a dangerous new season of life. I’d already caught glimpses on the evening news of the endless summer of jungle warfare that followed the spring of youth for so many young men – whether they chose to take part in it or not. Yes, the grownup world was a worrisome one, and my time was marching inexorably toward it.

Perhaps sweet respite from those concerns and encroaching demands was what I sought as I closed the back gate behind me and headed straight for the Nursery’s interior. Eschewing the trail through the darkened wood, I veered right instead and then quickly left – past the thicket of white cedars on one side and the stand of birch trees on the other. The birch grove was always a pleasant enough place to while away the hours, with its dense undergrowth of Mayapples, wood lilies, wild ginger and such stretching clear from the trail’s edge to the drainage ditch meandering along its southern edge. On this day, however, it was light rather than shadow that captivated my eye. It pulled my gaze in between the birches and across the drainage ditch and through the understory of the double row of climbing oaks to where the sunlight set aglow the clearing just beyond. Yes, it was sunlight that I needed, and solitude; and I knew precisely where I would find them both.

Just past the birch grove the trail skirted the broad sinkhole and angled across a grassy clearing. The sounds of home and neighborhood were far behind me now, replaced by the croaking of frogs pulsing from the collection of ponds on the clearing’s far side – less insistent, to be sure, than during the height of summer, but insistent nonetheless. I continued on, though, across the dirt road heading south from the Gerhardt mansion, down into a shallow swale and up the other side to the middle of the meadow rolling down from the ball field.




 
The ravine was invisible to anyone approaching from the west, hidden by the tangle of wasting wildflowers spilling over its edge; and the fact that there were only businesses off to the east made it unlikely that I’d have any company for as long as I chose to stay there. I scrambled down the earthen wall and settled into a cupped space along the opposite bank. The bare earth felt warm on my back, having soaked up the sun for at least a few hours prior to my arrival. It cushioned me, and supported me, and surrounded me – even as the sky above remained as deep and open as ever. The sun felt warm on my body, and the air was still. It was quiet, too, for the stirrings of what few insects remained up above in the dry meadow were directed skyward, away from my ears. Only occasionally was a red-winged blackbird loud enough to make itself known – its sharp trill piercing my awareness quickly before easing me back into silence as its subsequent elongated cry trailed away.


I studied the earthen bank, and felt the moist coolness below the surface as I dug my fingers into it. Occasionally an ant or some other crawling bug would make itself known and I’d study it for a time as it went about its business seemingly unaware of my presence. I studied the sky – milky blue, with wisps of clouds that seemed to barely move. And when my eyes grew tired of studying what was going on around me I simply took to studying the way the sun shone through the red flesh of my eyelids. No, nothing much was going on at the bottom of that ravine, which was good, for too much was going on back in the world from whence I came. That world wanted something from me and I wasn’t sure what. My beloved realm, on the other hand, wanted nothing from me but my ability to observe.


The passage of time becomes interesting when there’s nothing much going on. It becomes difficult to measure. Everything that is has a certain rhythm and duration to it that we make use of in order to gauge how long it has been from then until now. The call of a bird, the chirrup of a cricket, the wriggling of an earthworm – each measures time in its own way. But when there’s nothing much going on, our experience of time becomes more subtle. The pace of our thinking slows down and likewise ceases to be an accurate measure. In the absence of anything else our very own breath creates our minutes, and the beat of our heart ticks off our seconds. Time ceases to be something that we move through and instead becomes something that we create. And so it was that I sat there creating time for almost the entire afternoon.




At some point I looked up and noticed perhaps for the very first time a little bulb midway up a dried goldenrod stalk angling over the edge of the ravine. How odd, it occurred to me. Why would such a thing come to exist? I climbed up and snapped the bulbous formation off of its stem and returned to my place. I tapped it on a nearby rock to determine its density and firmness. I rolled it around in my fingers and scratched it with my fingernail. It was a widening of the stem – almost woody, yet fairly light. But even though I could readily ascertain the what of its existence, I couldn’t for the life of me fathom the why. Why did such a thing form in the first place?

Notwithstanding this great mystery, I took to creating time by filing off the little nubs on either side where the thin part of the stem entered and exited the bulb. I rubbed them against a flat rock that happened to be beside me in the ravine until what remained was perfectly spherical – like a large wooden bead. And when I was finished I sat with it in the palm of my hand – watching the clouds drifting slowly past, and watching my own being creating time from moment to moment.

I spent the afternoon that way – at times merely watching, at other times meticulously crafting another wooden bead from one of the odd stems that I’d come to realize were much more common than I’d thought. I had four of them in my pocket by the time I finally climbed out of the ravine for the walk back home. It was growing cooler by then, and I was getting hungry. Back home my mother would be fixing dinner, and then I’d be able to watch a little television. No, the circumstances that had prompted me to take leave of civilization and go off to be alone weren’t any different, but at least a little bit of the stillness that I’d known out there in the ravine came back home with me.

I don’t know what ever became of those beads that I carried with me as I left the ravine behind all those many years ago. I kept them in a little bowl on a shelf in my room for a time, and then I lost track of them somehow. Nonetheless, I carry them with me to this day. They represent the great mystery that we carry with us day in and day out – the mystery of our very existence. Perhaps we keep it tucked away, only occasionally to pull it out to ponder and appreciate before tucking it away again. Perhaps we think we’ve lost it altogether, but it never loses us. It’s still here, and it will remain forever that which we already know.

By the way, I did finally learn the origin of those strange bulbous formations growing on the stems of some of the goldenrod. They are called galls and they are created by the goldenrod fly laying its eggs inside the stem. As the hatched larvae begin eating of the plant, the plant responds by creating a woody formation around them. If the larvae are fortunate, they will eventually make their way out into the daylight as fully grown flies. Without such good fortune they become a meal for a woodpecker or a chickadee. Curiously, however, even the luckiest of goldenrod flies don’t live very long. The fully mature adult does not even have the ability to eat! Indeed, no matter how much we learn the inherent mystery of life remains.




 

Images


Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:


Erosion by Marshall Brain via:



Goldenrod gall in autumn courtesy of BioKIDS via:




Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Introduction - That Which We Already Know

With this post I will be veering in a new direction. I’ve come to realize that writing books and writing blogs and working full time and maintaining a house and relationships makes for a very busy life! How, then, to fit this new inspiration, this new realization of what I need to say, into an already busy existence? Yes, I COULD sell the house! That has definitely crossed my mind. Since I’m not quite ready to do that, however, I’ve decided to combine two of my most valued endeavors. With this post I will begin writing a book – in public, in “real time”, without a net, and in as close to final page order as possible. I hope it will be, for the reader anyway, a little like looking over the shoulder of a painter with easel set up before a great vista. I suspect, however, that it will be at times more like sitting in a backroom watching the making of sausage!

The regular reader will recognize the theme of this book in some of my past writings. In that regard this new direction will be a rather seamless transition with respect to Crossing Nebraska. More specifically, check out Returning to the Source and Those Still Wild Places. If at times over the coming months I feel the urge to slip in an “unrelated” post, I will let you know. Without such introduction, however, please assume that the next post you are reading is the next few pages of a larger composition which has a working title of That Which We Already Know.






Introduction

The back gate of the very first home I ever knew opened onto a tract of land that once served as the nursery for nearby Gerhardt Gardens. By the time I arrived on the scene, however, the various plots of shrubs and saplings were already so overgrown as to seem more like wilderness to the child that I was. Or if not exactly wilderness, it was at least a crazy-quilt of different habitats stitched together and overlaid with whatever weeds and grasses and woodland succession plants happened to put down roots and begin working their way toward the sun. Notwithstanding its state of near abandonment, we still referred to those 24 acres of beautiful wildness as the Nursery. If nothing else, it was a nursery for young minds.

A well-worn path headed east from that garden gate, through a dark patch of woods squeezed between a thicket of white cedars and the corrugated steel fence of a heating & cooling company. It was there that my father hung for us a rope swing in a welcoming box elder tree still within view of our house. And it was there in a much more imposing elm that a treehouse built by some older kids of days gone by beckoned to our new generation, challenging us to ratchet up our climbing skills.

On the other side of that dark wood the path opened onto the yard of an old abandoned barn. Within its yawning embrace were just enough rusting implements to be of interest to us kids even as its perpetual darkness and the ricketiness of the steps leading up to its loft kept our curiosity in check most of the time. Much more likely were we to be found scampering after the multitude of skinks that made their home amongst the rocks and debris piled end to end along its sunlit side.




Just past the barn was the white stone mansion where the Gerhardt family lived. We thought of it as a mansion, anyway, for we rarely saw one statelier – with four white columns gracing its two story face, and stone chimneys either side. The Gerhardt’s, we’d been told, were the real owners of all of the land that I’ve only just begun to describe; and so it was that we took care not to be seen as we passed by the back of their home, lest we have some orders shouted at us that we knew we couldn’t obey.

A dirt road headed south from there, laying claim to the heart of the Nursery – an open space that likely served as the staging area where the harvested plants had their root wads wrapped in burlap prior to being carted off for sale. A row of trees and blackberry brambles lined the far side of that road, beyond which a rolling meadow sloped from the outfield of a baseball diamond all the way down to the nether reaches of our domain. For all practical purposes that meadow was then the easternmost region of our world, save for an occasional journey out to oversee the activities of the men working in the stone yard bordering the railroad tracks.

Another trail headed south from our back gate, past the backs of the other homes on our side of the lane. From it one could access any number of other trails extending into the Nursery’s more tangled interior. Eventually, though, it met up with another dirt road veering west from that central staging area, wending its way up the hill and out to the main thoroughfare, passing by the bottom of our street and skirting a little vineyard and an old farmhouse along the way. Gephardt Gardens was out on that main thoroughfare – just across the way and down a little bit. We’d pass it every Sunday on our way to church, until the interstate came through and provided us with a more direct route, that is.

Perhaps business was already in decline by the time I came into the world, or maybe it had just gotten easier to ship plants in from elsewhere. At any rate, it was only very infrequently that we’d see a workman puttering along on a tractor with a flatbed cart in tow – sent to abduct one of the tidier looking shrubs or something for sale back up the hill. As might be expected, such sightings prompted a flurry of surveillance activity on the part of us kids so as to ascertain the mission and intention of these intruders. Which part of our beloved realm were they being dispatched to? How much disruption would they cause?

Thankfully, nothing much ever came of those incursions and the Nursery remained for the duration of our childhood an overgrown paradise, one in which we were free to wander and explore with precious few cares or constraints. It was a Garden of Eden – a perfect place for our sense of wonder to put down roots and flourish. Here and there, rows of evergreen bushes had grown to maturity so close together as to form cavern-like spaces underneath just big enough for a child to crawl through. Elsewhere, a ring of mimosa trees remained with trimmings piled high around its perimeter – just like in my Tarzan book when the villagers needed to keep the man-eating lions at bay. There was a field stretching the full length of its southern boundary, with prairie grass tall enough to get lost in or to be shaped into little hollows in which to hide as the case may be. There were also two great halls of oaks: one oriented such that it glowed like a golden cathedral in the autumn sunlight, the other with limbs spaced so perfectly as to tempt us to climb far higher than we were really ready to climb.

Threading its way between that hall of climbing oaks and an airy stand of birch trees was a drainage ditch that carried stormwater runoff from up above our lane down to a sinkhole about a hundred meters behind our neighbor’s yard. Of course we were warned to stay away from it lest we should tumble into its darkness and not be seen ever again, but that didn’t stop us from throwing rocks down into its gaping mouth in order to see if we might learn something about its interior from the sounds that echoed back. And down the hillside from that sinkhole, beyond where its effluent flowed out into a broad patch of sunchokes and Queen Anne’s lace, was a grove of honey locust trees whose thorny branches always gave us pause, as did the industrial detritus that might be discovered there half-covered in the grass and weeds.

Which brings me to the low-lying corner of our beloved realm: a vine-draped cluster of trees huddled there in solemn vigil around an eroded basin into which the runoff from the entire watershed came together before disappearing under the railroad tracks for parts unseen. Our entire world flowed through that point. The spring showers dripping down the still-dry stalks of the prairie grass and the cloudbursts pummeling the wildflowers in the meadow rolling down from the ball field, the trickling mist from the irrigation pipes watering the truck farmer’s field across the way and the rivulets draining from the streets and sidewalks of civilization to gush into the darkness of that sinkhole and out again into the light – they all made their way through that point. Perhaps I sensed that even without the understanding that I presently have, for I was drawn there just as surely as the waters were. I would meditate there while sitting on a fallen log, allowing my gaze to grow soft so as to take in everything and nothing in particular all at once. The varied hues of emerald green, the glints of sunlight piercing the leafy curtains, the tangle of branches and gravel washed there from above, the subtle impressions of that sacred sanctum of form and light, of gathering waters and being – they all flowed through me just as the waters flowed through that basin.

Ah, but there was no shortage of such sacred places back there in the Nursery. There was that patch of cool grass between the spruce and the fruit trees where we lay with the scent of wild onions wafting up our nostrils and the clouds billowing past overhead. There was that notch way up in the tallest of the sycamores that required no effort at all to rest in once you’d made it up that far. From there one could watch over the entire world that otherwise seemed so large while standing on the ground. There was the bottom of the ravine formed by the rainwater washing down from the ball field from which the entire world seemed to disappear save for the sky. And there were all those little ponds created by rainwater filling up the holes left behind after a bush or a sapling had been plucked from the earth. If you sat still beside them long enough the frogs would begin to croak again, the birds would return to their chirping and chortling, and a dragonfly might even light upon your knee. How still could I be? How long could I remain as one amidst the suchness of so much sacred activity?




I learned a lot back there in the Nursery: the life cycles of frogs and mosquitoes, and the coincidence of box elder trees and box elder bugs; the call of the crow, the red-winged blackbird, and the mourning dove; the look and feel and scent of the varied plants contained therein, and the earth in which they grew. I learned where you’re likely to find a puffball and what will happen when you pop it when the time is right. I learned that that which is moist nurtures life and that which is dry welcomes rain; that all of life is a transformation from one thing to another – a coming into being based on causes and conditions, and a passing away when those causes and conditions subside. I learned that nothing exists of its own accord, and that in the midst of all of this coming into being and passing away is stillness.

Stillness is there in a lonely bird call on a sweltering afternoon, and in the blur of a dragonfly’s wings – hovering and darting, hovering and darting. Stillness is there in a chorus of frogs that falls silent as soon as our presence becomes known, and it is there deep inside of us to be known whenever we just sit quietly and observe. Yes, I learned a lot as the seasons came and went during those precious years of childhood. But what I appreciate most about the Nursery from my fallen position as one who is now all “grown up” is its ability to nurture in me that which I already knew – the value of being still, the value of being watchful, and the value of this human life as a time of deep observation.

That which is most central to our being is most easily overlooked. The simplest and purest truths of our existence are the ones most easily forgotten as we succumb to a frenzy of doing. Modern human life, even with all of its comforts and conveniences, is rife with the tyranny of busyness and frivolous distraction. And so it seems appropriate to devote an entire book to the rediscovery of that which is in the heart/mind of every child, of that which nobody needs to be taught, of that which we already know. 



Images

Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:
Five-lined skink photo courtesy of Michael Holroyd via:
Dragonfly photo courtesy of AndrĂ© Karwath, aka Aka, via:


  

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Monday, March 24, 2014

The "Jealous Guy" and the Empty Chair


This post will be a bit of a departure from my usual style, while still remaining true to themes frequently touch on here such as mindfulness and self-exploration. Perhaps the real departure is that I generally don’t try to be funny. However, I’m in the middle of some heavier writing right now and I need a little lighthearted break.

Those of you who are old enough to remember the old Steve Allen show might recall how he would, to great comedic effect, read the lyrics of the pop songs of the day in a very matter-of-fact tone of voice. I’m going to borrow from that schtick just a little bit with what follows. At any rate, I hope you enjoy it. If it’s not your cup of tea, then please check back in a week or so; I’ll soon be embarking on a totally different long-term project.




Anyway, this is how I imagine the lyrics of John Lennon’s Jealous Guy would read if they were part of a dialogue between him and a therapist using the empty chair technique of Gestalt Therapy. Cue up the song and see how it works! If the video thumbnail doesn't appear on your screen, then you can access it via the YouTube link.





THERAPIST: So, Guy, tell me how this latest episode began.

GUY: I was dreaming of the past,

THERAPIST: [nods] Past times in which you’d felt hurt?

GUY: and my heart was beating fast.

THERAPIST: It sounds like you were aware of what was happening.

GUY: I began to lose control…

THERAPIST: But you hadn’t lost control. That’s an important insight.

GUY: I began to lose control…

THERAPIST: Is there something that you’d like to say to her right now? How about saying it to her as if she were sitting right here in this empty chair.

GUY: I didn't mean to hurt you.

THERAPIST: Anything else?

GUY: I'm sorry that I made you cry. Oh, now.

THERAPIST: Good, go on…

GUY: I didn't want to hurt you. I'm just a jealous guy.

THERAPIST: Well, perhaps you behaved in a jealous manner, but jealousy is not what you are. Tell her about what you were feeling.

GUY: I was feeling insecure.

THERAPIST: Go on.

GUY: You might not love me anymore.

THERAPIST: That’s an assumption. Describe what you were feeling.

GUY: I was shivering inside.

THERAPIST: Were you afraid?

GUY: I was shivering inside.

THERAPIST: It’s okay to be afraid. It’s what you do with your fear that makes the difference. Can you tell her anything more about your feelings?

GUY: I didn't mean to hurt you.

THERAPIST: You’re feeling regretful.

GUY: I'm sorry that I made you cry. Oh, now.

THERAPIST: You acknowledge that you behaved in a hurtful manner.

GUY: I didn't want to hurt you.

THERAPIST: Regret seems to be a big part of what you’re feeling right now.

GUY: I'm just a jealous guy.

THERAPIST: There’s that label again. Do you really mean to say that jealousy is what you ARE?

GUY: [begins whistling]

THERAPIST: Guy, tell me what it means for you to be whistling right now.

GUY: [continues whistling]

THERAPIST: Guy, help me to understand how whistling goes along with your expression of regret.

GUY: [continues whistling]

THERAPIST: [scribbles note regarding possible insincerity, possible self-soothing behavior]

GUY: [continues whistling]

THERAPIST: [scribbles note about possible dissociative behavior]

GUY: I didn't mean to hurt you.

THERAPIST: Yes, I’m hearing regret once again.

GUY: I'm sorry that I made you cry. Oh, now.

THERAPIST: Yes, yes, you BEHAVED in a way that was hurtful.

GUY: I didn't want to hurt you. I'm just a jealous guy.

THERAPIST: [scribbles note about revisiting what it means for Guy to keep labeling himself]

GUY: I was trying to catch your eyes.

THERAPIST: [nods] You didn’t think she was paying enough attention to you.

GUY: I thought that you was trying to hide.

THERAPIST: You didn’t think she wanted to be with you.

GUY: I was swallowing my pain.

THERAPIST: So you didn’t want her to know that you were hurting inside.

GUY: I was swallowing my pain.

THERAPIST: And then what?

GUY: I didn't mean to hurt you.

THERAPIST: So that’s when you hurt her.

GUY: I'm sorry that I made you cry. Oh, now.

THERAPIST: You didn’t know how to tell her about the fear and the hurt you were feeling, so you hurt her instead.

GUY: I didn't want to hurt you. I'm just a jealous guy. Watch out. I'm just a jealous guy. Look out. I'm just a jealous guy.

THERAPIST: There’s that label again, Guy. It might be good for us to explore that further in our next session…


Jealous Guy music and lyrics copyright Lenono Music





Image Credits




John Lennon & Yoko Ono by Jack Mitchell via:




Der Stuhl courtesy Rocafort8 via:





Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank