Don’t let your throat tighten
with fear. Take sips of breath
all day and night, before death
closes your mouth.
Cruising on the road between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas the day after Osama bin Laden was killed, I pick up NPR out of both cities. No surprise the programming speaks to all things bin Laden, the waves filled with interviews, one after another, most speakers proclaiming happiness or relief at bin Laden’s death, some suggesting if we listened carefully enough, we could hear a collective American sigh. Others are more analytical, concerned with Pakistan’s possible collusion, or how little or much the killing would affect international terrorist operations, or how the wars might or might not turn on the event, or how certain politicians would benefit, while others most certainly would not. Loved ones of those lost on 9/11 speak candidly of the pain endured on that day in 2001 and in the years since, some admitting to feeling less than gratified by the killing of bin Laden, or any killing at all for that matter--killing is not their thing. Then there are the voices of mothers and fathers of fallen soldiers, those who have taken brunt of the hit since the attack. Opinions are strong, a few laced with the improbable calculation that vengeance equals justice. I listen closely, confess to being fascinated and troubled. Every once in a while I look up to notice the world passing by, sage fields, the snowy mountains to the east, a hawk perched on a fence post. A lot of cars pass me. People drive fast in Utah. Some say it’s a Mormon thing, but I have my doubts about attaching speed limit infractions to religious affiliation.
By the time I make my destination, a long mesa on the Utah/Arizona border that rises 500 feet above the valley floor, however strong the discussion is still going, I’m glad to get out of the truck and away from the chatter. The truth, as fascinating as the reaction to bin Laden’s death is, I don’t have strong patriotic feelings. Yes, I know that he took part in the killing of thousands of innocent Americans. But this is what war does, kill innocent people. The real question, is war necessary? For those who believe it is, like bin Laden, like the Pentagon establishment, like fundamentalists of all stripes, the killing of Americans is no surprise--again, this is what war does, kill people, most of them innocent. It’s impossible to calculate the suffering associated with so much unnecessary death, yet what we can say for certain is that Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, General Electric, Northrop Grumman, AT&T, Honeywell, and many, many more companies and corporations and universities profit from such suffering. War keeps our economy churning. In the first four months of 2011 alone, the US government awarded $86,830,140,795 in military/industrial contracts. This money is added to the GDP, the number we use to measure the health of the economy. Economics 101 teaches that a growing number equates to health. But should we feel good that the costs of disease are also included? Consider cancer. Is money added to the GDP in the name of cancer supposed to lift our spirits, too?
I understand so little about our civilization. I do, however, understand the need to heal and the desire for grace.
I pitch a tent in the pinyons and eat a little dinner then walk to the edge of the mesa to watch the sun fall behind sandstone cliffs on the far side of the valley. Birdsong in spring, the sky layered orange at the end of the earth in the last light of blue. Ancient walls of layered stone carved by wind and water, once this valley was a sea, and in five million years, where I sit now could very well be an ocean shelf. I find a sense of joy and magic in imagining the earth turning throughout geologic time. This is where the notion of the divine becomes meaningful, when I fall into the big picture, when I envision the earth in fifteen or eighty billion years a cold dead place, a planet without sun or moon or oceans. For me, a dead earth does not equate into a dead universe, just as vengeance does not equate to justice. In fact, the universe is expanding, growing out, just now an unfolding blossom. Life too big to grasp, at least for me, so I don’t even try.
I love this place, this earth, the moments my body experiences a lonely dusk or a chilling wind or the shadow of a raven. I walk between pinyons and junipers that migrated to this spot hundreds of years ago, through cinder fields and rabbitbrush, across the grassy plains. (I laugh to think that some folks would want these trees removed if they knew pinyons made their way here from Central America and Mexico, that the junipers arrived from Eurasia.) While the branches now appear still, to cradle a pinyon cone in the palm is to feel the movement of seed. Dead trees become nurses for seedlings, providing nutrients and shade. Flycatchers go for pinyon nuts; we use juniper berries to make gin. Mistletoe is a parasite to both pinyon and juniper; moths bore and kill. Clark’s nutcracker and the pinyon jay disperse pinyon seeds, while juniper berries are carried across fields of sage in the belly of coyote. Fire scours these mesas clean, greasewood and Mormon tea rising quickly from ash, the land forever in cycle and succession. Once trees are wiped out, juniper seeds wait for ripe conditions, can lay dormant for forty years before germinating. The pinyon is more brittle, more fussy, and may not return at all, but move on to another slope, always in need of just a little water, always reaching for the sun, always followed by juniper, maybe even harassed. Mycorrhizal root fungi is key to the health of both trees, symbiotic relationships at the heart of survival.
For this journey, I bring Rumi along, read him aloud before sleep: “You may learn to imitate a birdcall,/but do you experience/what the nightingale feels for the rose?” No, I admit, and put the book down, stare at the sky, stars.
When the sun hits my bed I rise, stretch, make coffee. Where there is juniper there is woodrat, where woodrat, snake. The woodrat has problems I can’t resolve. Morning passes quickly as I search the mesa rim for a spot to build an angel mound for Ira Cohen, 1934-2011, just passed. In the coming days I’ll build three more as I make my way to the north rim of the Grand Canyon and back again, one for Chuck Simmons, one for Peter Schneeman, another for my father. Like Ira, I am drawn to the mysticism from which we begin to understand not only the part of us that meets the universe, but the part of us that grows and expands and empties itself out in the moment our chattering minds become quiet, when the border between bird and tree and sky dissolve. The moment the mystic kisses the divine the world is emptied and cannot be defined. Rumi speaks much of this process, as doe the Buddha and any number of spiritual teachers. Rumi in fact echoes the Buddha when he speaks about the process of awakening:
We weep God’s rain.
We laugh God’s lightning.
Fighting and peacefulness
both take place within God.
Who are we then
in this complicated world-tangle,
that is really just the single, straight
line down at the beginning of ALLAH?
I have trouble intellectualizing emptiness, or what some Eastern traditions refer to as the void. It is possible, however, to experience emptiness, and on the rare occasion that I do, I call it grace. Grace is a practice as much as a state of being. Today my practice entails building Ira’s mound on a sharp ledge under the shade of pinyon. Below the cliff opens a wide valley cut by several dry washes; the sky here is long and open for flight. I use small river stones to form a spiral, the heart of parabolic dance. The spiral represents, among other things, a river eddy, a change in the direction of water along the bank. The mound will not last forever, will shift with wind and snow; one day these very stones will be ground to soil and sand, will become yet another layer in an uplifted cliff wall. So will my own bones fade into rock, and it is in the recognition of this I say a little prayer for Ira, for a life come and gone. I doubt anyone will ever see the mound, and I have no map to chart its existence. Ira spoke and wrote often of death, “sharing the smoke/w/ancient shapes in future garb”. He was a clown, a jester, a photographer and filmmaker, a poet, a maker of frames, a performing artist who would “Meet you in the middle,/neither here nor there,/but in that mystical place/called everywhere.” Ira’s poetry was urban and angelic, so much like Ginsberg’s, the poet who channelled Whitman who channelled Rumi who channelled Muhammad, Buddha, and Christ. This is what I love about words, how they pass through us like dust storms, how they can barely be grasped and never owned.
Your grief for what you've lost lifts a mirror
up to where you're bravely working.
Expecting the worst, you look, and instead,
here's the joyful face you've been wanting to see.
Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you would be paralyzed.
Your deepest presence is in every small contracting
the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
(this entry is an excerpt from a work-in-progress)