parcel, poetry, practice

Wilderness is political. It’s poetic. And it’s practical.

When I say wilderness is political I’m speaking of designated places. I’m speaking of parcels of space where the biotic community isn’t made to serve a single species but where each participant practices self-restrained freedom in service of the shared drive toward being whole. Wilderness areas are those where we humans, especially those of us who tend to trample, are practicing the discipline of restraint. 

Wilderness is also poetic. It is anywhere that we make friends with the untamed possibility of the world. It is anywhere that we gather confidence among the raw elements of who we are.

As parcel and as poetry the wilderness works as a context for forging community and practicing contemplation because it is free of easy absolutes. Rather than either/or, it is the realm of both/and. Wilderness is where multiplicity and nuance reign.

We go to wilderness with worn and weary souls, and with something to discover. We need space to catch our breath, and we need to hunt for resolve. We need to gather our thoughts, and we need to lose ourselves. We need some solitude, and to know we’re not alone. 

Today, independent of the degree of civilization you are enjoying or deploring, know that someone is rooting for you. And, when you need it, that there’s somewhere, someway to feel rooted.

community and contemplation

The world needs our collective commitment to community. It needs us to see value in relationships. The world needs our personal commitments to contemplation. It needs us to take responsibility for our thoughts.  

As it is, our days are more rife with disconnection and distraction than community and contemplation. 

Here’s the thing: Behind the impulse to disconnect there is something wise. There is a clarity there, a noticing of the limit of our capacity to carry the weight of the world. But what if, rather than disconnecting into loneliness and division, we would follow that impulse instead toward collaboration? toward community?

And here’s the other thing: The distractions that run rampant through our lives are more the result of an atrophied imagination than they are indicative of our moral apathy. We aren’t bad. We’re just out of practice. What if there is a way to take the stuff that drives us to distraction and channel that into playful practices of contemplation that build the muscle we need as a culture to give flesh to our moral ambition?

That would be wild.

bubbles in a puddle

Mid-storm this weekend I walked around the yard with the heavy rain hitting my skin, hot from a day in the sun. There was nothing I needed to do outside, but I ambled around my house just for the cool of it. I checked the mailbox. I made sure the gutter spouts were aimed at the drainage trays. I stood in the rain. I sat in a lawn chair in the doorway of my garage and paid attention.

There was a puddle three feet from my toes just outside the mouth of the garage. The raindrops, when they dimpled the puddle’s surface, would every so often leave a bubble in the spot where they dropped. Then subsequent raindrops popped the bubbles that their predecessors had shaped. A game of whack-a-mole. A pool of self-contained play. 

Bubbles in a puddle, both conjured and popped by raindrops: Making and breaking tiny metaphors.

I marvel at the nature of the world. It is a place of steady change. For the most part it is a nonchalant change. A change with soft edges. The way the day can crescendo with heat and humidity until a summer storm brews and breaks in the evening sky, punctuating the day with relief. I celebrate these rhythms of variance and change.

And still, sometimes I’m sorry that things aren’t forever.

Celebration and sorrow, side-by-side, are the substance of what it is to be human. These are the emotional barometers in our striving after joy and justice. Our hopes and efforts conjured and popped by shifting moments. Each of them temporal, tragic, beautiful, and worthy.

Generosity and Surrender

(a poem by Lisa Steele-Maley)

The peony blooms opened just days ago,

Soft round balls of warm pink

Sitting atop tall dark green stems.

The bulbs are clustered

but they open one at a time,

Each offering its fullness in turn.

 

Today, the large blossoms rest on the grass,

heavy with their own weight

and the added weight of the rain that fell last night.

I wonder what twine or fencing I might have in the barn.

I imagine I could create some support,

Alleviate the weight of their burden.

 

I watch an ant walk from a blade of grass

into the heart of one of the blooms,

Disappearing into the soft sweet folds.

The ant is served by the weighted blossoms.

What else might benefit?

Maybe the drooping is part of the peony’s offering,

A generous bowing to the earthbound insects

when it is done serving the airborne.

 

There is so much I do not know.

I am no longer wondering about twine and fencing.

I contemplate life and fullness,

Weight and burden, generosity and surrender,

Witnessing and honoring, beauty and decay.

The mysteries are infinite and close at hand.

Soft pink peony

Explosion of vibrant life

Rest your heavy head

the trail

There is a trail by my house where the dogs and I go as often as I remember my need for regular jaunts with nature, with my thoughts, with my stride. 

Being a year-round walker means I am allowed glimpses of the life of the trail as it cycles from season to season. The shifts are never abrupt. They are always gradual. But somehow the trail still surprises me one day each season when something connects in my consciousness and I wake to the fullness of the conditions of my environment. 

The trail is at its pinnacle of life right now. In the winter, when it’s sparse, I walk with a sense of the vastness of this parcel of neighborhood wilderness. But now it is crowded with green. And I walk almost hunched by the weight of intimacy in the forest’s felt presence. 

I say “almost” because I don’t hunch. There is still space for me to saunter in my fullness. There is still space for me to walk head high, chest puffed, face gleaming in the green-filtered light.

In this way, holding space for me, the trail is my friend and my teacher. The trail reminds me to move through my days as a pedestrian, which is a matter of pace independent of activity. The trail insists, with gentleness, that I notice the relationships that undergird our shared world. The trail invites me to pay attention, to be vast even when I feel crowded, to be less hurried and more curious. To be patient and full. 

The trail for me is less a venue for transportation and more a companion in my ever and ongoing transformation.

Being Unlocked

Each year I return,

pulled to the place

that anchors me,

knowing I can lean

on its changelessness,

no matter how burdened I am

by the cares of daily life,

weighted by losses

both new and old,

heavy with longing

for something to change.


At first

I clutch the burdens close,

somehow afraid

to let them go.

But inevitably

a moment comes

and I crack open,

undone by the simple beauty

of sunlight on running water,

the sound of wind,

a loon’s piercing cry.


It feels like a key

unlocking me,

allowing me to release

all that I carry,

drop it in the river

where it can be swept away

by those swift waters

rushing down the mountain.

They are strong enough

to bear all the heaviness

I’ve accumulated,

the weight of the world,

or at least my part of it.


It becomes

a type of baptism,

where each year

I am washed and revitalized,

given fresh strength

to get me through

until I can return

to be unlocked

and renewed

once again.

Being Unlocked

a poem by Erica L. Bartlett

my list

Yesterday I wrote that your vocation — your call to contribute to the work of making the world more beautiful, just, and compassionate — is worthy of the resources, time, and energy required to strengthen and sustain it. And I asked: If you were to make a list of the stuff that strengthens and sustains your sense of purpose, what would be on that list?

Such a list is and should be dynamic and personal. It’s also a good thing to share with others whose work in the world is worthy of sustaining.

Here’s my list, in its current form:

  • visit a friend

  • run around the cove

  • take a nap

  • people watch

  • stand up straight

  • write on a blank sheet of paper

  • eat slowly

  • organize a drawer

  • purge a closet

  • rearrange a room

  • go barefoot in the grass

  • eat a cookie

  • write a well-done list

  • have an alarm-clockless morning

  • wait before checking messages

  • cook an involved meal

  • make frozen pizza

  • light a candle

  • cuddle with pets/friends

  • say no to something

  • ride bikes

  • walk with some dogs

  • do one sun salutation

  • turn off some or all notifications

  • try not to say “should”

  • learn some local history/flora/fauna

  • drive the long way home

  • memorize a poem

  • read fiction

  • excavate an old hobby

  • get a treat

  • color

  • learn some new words

  • hum/whistle

  • make funny faces

  • browse shelves at a used bookstore

  • go hiking

  • go canoeing

  • play a sport

  • go down a slide

  • tell someone a joke

  • lean on a tree

  • splash my face with some river

  • make coffee

  • take a deep breath

worthy

I guided a half-wild retreat yesterday morning. We met at Wells Reserve and spent some time sitting and tuning our senses to the elements of earth and life around us. After that we went sauntering through the fields and forests at hand. Then, before closing out our time together with a picnic lunch, we gathered in Adirondack chairs on the eastward facing portion of the wraparound porch at the old farmhouse that is now the visitor center.

I gave a little talk about how we each have a call to contribute beauty and value to the worlds we inhabit. About how vocation exists a layer or two deeper than the roles we fill in our relationships and jobs. How it’s the soil that that stuff of identity roots in. And that our vocations are worthy of our stewardship; worthy of the resources, time, and energy required to strengthen and sustain them.

If you were to name your call, your collection of contributions, with a single word or phrase, what would it be?

If you were to make a list of the stuff that strengthens and sustains your capacity to contribute, what would be on it?

tokens

There’s a game I play. In my basement on a low table near where I do much of my writing I keep two bowls. In the bowls are eleven rocks. In the mornings on my way to write or on my way to feed the cat, whichever comes first, I move a rock from one bowl to the other depending on the following:

If I managed to get to bed by 11pm the preceding night then I move a rock from the bowl on the right to the bowl on the left. If not, I move one from left to right.

Once all eleven rocks are in the bowl on the left, I get a treat. There is no penalty for a bowl full of rocks on the right.

I made up this playful practice several months ago to help motivate me to head to bed a bit earlier than I was in the habit of doing. And it has served that function. But there’s something else, I realized this morning, that this practice does for me.

Each morning, while thinking of my bodied needs (in this case, sleep) I touch a stone. Each day holds a moment when my finger tips connect with another instance of earth, treating it as a token of my own being. This everyday practice has become for me a simple and subtle reminder of my origin, my identity, my belonging as human — as an imaginative assembly of breath-filled dust. I find this comforting. And inspiring.

Plus: I like treats.

mosquitoes and sunbeams

I took my niece camping this weekend. We spent some time listening to afternoon showers tumble on the roof of our shelter up on the bluff. We spent some time hiking along swampy trails past vernal pools, sweating under head-nets and swatting at mosquitoes. We spent some time paddling a blue canoe on a lake with little ripples made by the gentle winds.

There are two things that wilderness offers the human spirit; two things that I can do as a wilderness guide. One thing: I can take comfortable people to wilderness places to wrestle, strengthen, and grow. Another thing: I can give worn out people the space to ground in places of rest, retreat, and release.

As a guide I can decide which of these I wish to emphasize, but ultimately if I’m doing my job with the appropriate amount of surrender, the experience will meet each person where they most need meeting.

And seldom does one portion exist without the other. I think this is true of life as much as it is of wilderness: There is a kind of relief that comes only by comparison to the struggle that precedes it. Renewal of self, for the sake of the world, is found in exploring the dynamic relationship between wrestling and resting. 

The experience of formation exists somewhere at the intersection of the itch of mosquito bites and the way that sunbeams pierce through the forest canopy after a summer storm.

liminal places

My friend Pam shared a book of essays with me organized around the theme of liminality. Liminal places are those places and seasons that hinge from one thing to another. Moments that are not this or that. Experiences that, as the title of Pam’s book points out, are “Neither Here nor There”.

Last night fog hung thick in the air as I walked from the office to my car after a meeting. The fog gathered aromas from the nearby ocean and parceled them into breath-sized drafts. The air smelled of salt and seaweed.

Liminal places, times of turning and transition, threshold experiences, can be like that: Heavy with the scent and mystique of what is close but not current, what is possible but not yet realized.

Many of us, I think, live in fear of the fog. We avoid or deny moments of life that don’t promise immediate comfort and assurance. It can be easier to embrace a false absolute than to navigate an honest uncertainty. Many of us would do well to muster the courage to set out into the fog.

But thresholds are not meant to be prisons, they’re meant to be passed through. And this morning, I’m thinking of those among us who live in perpetual liminality not by choice. 

There are those among us who do not require more courage, but comfort. There are those who come to our shores and make their way to our borders seeking the simple securities of mundane life. Wherever we are on our journey today, may we examine our own fears and commit ourselves to collaborating as generous architects of home for the sake of those without.

headwind

I spent several days on the Wisconsin River last week. I witnessed turtles dozing in the sun and plopping into the water; sandhill cranes croaking out their cries from the beach on the island adjacent to camp; bald eagles soaring and then perching in the branches of dead trees to watch over their riparian realm. And a few other humans synced with me in the rhythm of paddling.

Much of the time, paddling with the flow of the river was sufficient to get us to the milestones we needed to hit on our trip. But one afternoon the wind made for itself a funnel out of the river corridor, and poured in from the southwest to meet us head-on. It whipped up whitecaps and sought to catch an edge of the canoe, to turn us broadside to the waves. In a canoe, broadside is not the preferred way to be oriented to a wave.

From the stern I pulled and pried to keep the bow directed into the waves. At first, for a while, it was like wrestling. My physical fatigue matched my mental fatigue as I tried to calculate and respond to the force of each coming wave.

At some point I ceased wrestling and found a sense of union between my environment and actions. Instead of calculating my next move based on the chop of the water, I felt for the wind on my face. 

If I turned my face a few degrees one way the wind pressed past my right cheek. A few degrees the other way and it pressed against my left cheek. I found the place where the wind kissed both cheeks equally and held myself there. The rest of my body responded with the strokes needed to keep the canoe in the sweet spot.

That shift toward communion with the elements was subtle. And my engagement required no less muscle. But when I let the wind take the lead it became less of a struggle and more of a dance; less enmity, more affinity; less grimace, more wonder.

stumps and dried brush

Walking down Twin Brook Trail on Burnt Meadow Mountain a couple years back I came to an edge where the shade of the forest stopped and the sun shone hard on a swathe of destruction. The trail disappeared into a portion of the forest, about a hundred feet wide, that had been cleared. A scar of exposed earth peppered with stumps and dried brush ran down the side of the mountain. 

There’s a line in the poem “Specimens Collected at the Clear Cut” by Alison Hawthorne Deming that says, “…the forest has one rule: start over making use of what remains.”

Yesterday I returned to Burnt Meadow Mountain with friends. On our descent along Twin Brook Trail we came to the same edge where shade turned to light and I looked down the slope of what had been the harshness of crumpled forest, and saw instead a swathe of green. The forest was emerging anew with the the slow deliberate presence of shrubs and saplings.

Whatever the result of your attempts at life yesterday — failure, success, stillness, anxiety, progress, uncertainty — today is new. Not brand new. Not bleached of all the potential you possess that comes from the days you’ve already lived. Brand newness would be disorienting. You have the residue from all your yesterdays to work with and around. You are a palimpsest of your yesterdays traced on the slate of this present moment. Those etchings are not you, but they are yours. And yours also: The opportunity to scrawl another today.

borrowed energy

At our house you can’t use the electric kettle and microwave at the same time. There are limits to the amount of energy I ask for in a given moment.

I don’t understand the particulars of the mechanics of how my house gathers energy from the grid, or how that energy is mapped out from room to room and portioned to the tools that I use from day to day: Light bulbs, dishwasher, oven, fan, and fridge.

But I know there are limits. And I know where to go in the basement and flip a switch when I’ve asked too much, like when I try to boil water for fresh coffee and try to heat up the last cup of day old coffee in the microwave at the same time. 

House shuts down my efforts. I chuckle at my lapse: For a moment there, I forgot that the energy I use to fuel my ritual of morning coffee is borrowed energy. Sometimes I forget that the powers I employ each day to get things done, while generous, are not limitless.

There are limits within the portion of the electric grid that I share with my neighbors. This is true also for me in the surges of spirit that I offer the world. It’s true for us all. 

Though tending the limits and capacity of our humanity — compassion, creativity, courage — is a more intimate process than the flipping of a switch. More intimate, but when it comes down to it not much more complicated: Walk into the basement, find the source, tend the source.

waiting, fleeing, squabbling

I wonder: What is it you want with the same ferocity that my cat wants breakfast every morning? Is there anything you wait for every day, outside the bedroom door, pining for a hint of movement from within that might result in provisions? That might be a being who will follow you down two flights of stairs into the basement where you take your meals? That might result in a scoop of nurture doled out by divine hand? Is there anything you are longing for today?

Is there anywhere we're going with so much focus and commitment as the group of folks fleeing mosquitoes in the forest after our hike last night? After ninety minutes of sauntering through the woods, past aged trees and babbling brook, past a pool of alewives gathered for their annual migration from sea to inland lake, with conversation and laughter and our hands windmilling to swat at the bugs proving too thick for us to linger much longer: We turn to the trailhead. The pursuit of shelter. Is there anything we’re moving toward today with similar urgency?

And the seagulls squabbling after a crust of bread downtown in Congress Square: Is there anything in my life today worthy of such effort? Such devotion to a cause? Such confidence in struggle? Knowing that, given my limitations, the only way to tear this problem full of potential into bite-sized morsels of actual goodness, is for me to grab on tight and pull in one direction, trusting that you’ll be there pulling in another.

scoop by scoop

In The Angle of Repose Susan asks Thomas in a letter from her time settling into life in an Idaho canyon:

“Have you ever built a house with your own hands, out of the materials that Nature left lying around? Everyone should have that experience once. It is the most satisfying experience I know.”

Several years ago Lauren and I went camping near Joshua Tree. We stayed a couple of nights in an earthen hut that had been constructed with sandbags and plaster, fashioned into a geodesic dome. The sand that filled the walls had all been drawn onsite, scoop by scoop, direct from the ground.

We slept those nights with an amplified sense of our relationship to the elements that shelter, nourish, and inspire.

I haven't ever built a house with my own hands. But even now I can reach out and touch the concrete walls in the basement of the house where I live. The walls are rough with grit and harsh seams. I can imagine the digging, the measuring, the framing, the mixing, the pouring, and the laboring with expectation.

I haven’t ever built a house with my own hands. But yesterday morning I snipped spinach from Lauren's garden, leaf by leaf, for our breakfast smoothie.

ordained

I walked into a sanctuary yesterday that was flooded with afternoon light. I was there to watch a group of my friends celebrate the culmination of their multi-year process becoming interfaith chaplains. They each received a stole and a blessing, and deep affirmation of their call from their communities.

There is something special about an ordination ceremony. It’s full of intention and symbolism, full of urgency and composure, booming with the assurance of vocation, and humming with promise.

And there is something common about an ordination ceremony. In many ways it mirrors the opportunity that comes to us all with each new day. The call to us all each day is dynamic.

One part of it is about stepping out, away from things that make us comfortable.  Another part is about staying put, being present to this place and time. It is about the courage to leave the familiar for the unfamiliar, and about confidence that the unknown can become known. It’s about a continuous search for meaning, which is the ongoing effort to make room in your heart for the outside world. And it’s about holding a sense of purpose, which is the often faulty but persistent inkling that you fit in the outside world.

Yesterday my friends each bowed their heads to receive the mantle of ministry. They inspire me this morning to bow my head as I pass through the threshold of home into world, ordained to live a day.

a purposeless fence

In my twenties, after college I worked as a substitute teacher. In the summers I worked on projects around Indianapolis for a handyman who ran his own small business doing remodels and repairs. There was one project that I remember well.

We were doing a variety of jobs in and around a large house on a large plot of land, and my task was to tackle the rusty spots on the iron fence that surrounded the property. Outfitted with some sandpaper and an electric gadget that spun a circular wire brush at a rust defying rate, I went to it. Every day. For days on end.

Some days it was purgatory. I buffed with bitterness over the task, finding it impossible to make meaning out of what I was doing with my efforts.

Some days I settled into the simple rhythms of solitude and repetition, turning the task into a sort of hermitic asceticism.

Some days I found small pleasures in removing a layer of rust, uncovering the gloss of unoxidized iron, and then covering it back up with a coat of black paint.

I don’t know what the lesson is from the days I devoted to touching up a purposeless fence. But I find a sort of solidarity with my younger self in this fact: These days, working a job that is heavy with purpose, even still I sometimes wrestle with apathy. And I sometimes settle into the rhythms of formation inherent to the work. And I sometimes bask in the simple, undeniable outcomes.

It’s good to remember that, in a way, each day all that is required of me is to show up to the project at hand. It’s good to remember that my humanity is a result of a long line of days of doing just that with humor and humility.

these old hermits

On Saturday I hiked, from north to south, on the trail that picks along the rim of Gulf Hagas, where the West Branch of the Pleasant River patiently unfolds its geologic saga, tumbling its way through the gorge. I hiked for miles serenaded by the sound and sight of unrelenting racket and grandeur. On the south end of the gorge the river begins to broaden and shift its tone from crashhh to rushhh to shhh. The trail leaves the bank and leads into a segment of forest populated with dozens of eastern white pine, some standing a hundred and fifty feet tall and as many years old. 

This collection of trees, called The Hermitage, are young by the standards of an earth that flows to the tune of trickles that cut into rocks and carve out canyons. But for a young man, shy by a few rings of forty years, sauntering into the presence of these old hermits was an experience of simple hush and wonder. 

As I stood regarding them, and they stood being who they are in proximity to me, the exchange between us tempered and stilled my thoughts. The story they told — of steadiness, of patience, of equanimity in the face of impermanence — squeezed a sigh from my lungs. And after sufficient pause, I tiptoed through the air of quiet that hung with the wisdom cast by their shadows.

the slow onslaught of dusk

On Friday I spent the night in a lean-to on Trout Pond. There was a cheap plastic lawn chair stashed at the camp site. I hauled it down to the water’s edge and found some ground that wasn’t too spongy, sturdy enough for me to set the chair and ease my weight into it. So I sat, with my feet propped on a log, and paid heed while the light ebbed and dusk found its voice with springtime chirps and creaks.

Then back up to camp where I stoked the fire and hunkered on a slab to watch it burn down. Then, just as the stars started staring back at my searching eyes, I climbed into the shelter and crawled into my bedding and let sleep take me. My consciousness drifted to the pace set by the slow onslaught of dusk, the gradual appetite of fire, and the clear-skied commencement of starlight.

To fall asleep with such spaciousness is a gift that the circumstances of life and environment, nerves and conditions, don’t always allow. But the casual drift into pockets of stillness and ease are one part of your wild birthright as a mammal concerned with meaning. Whatever your relation to the stresses of life, I hope you find the permission and ongoing support you need to access regular occasions of rest and release.