The Challenge of Thanksgiving

Greetings to all after a long absence! Below, you will find the text from a reflection – it kind of turned into a mini-sermon – I wrote and delivered yesterday (11/25/18) as part of the Peterborough Unitarian Universalist Church Service of Gratitude. It was a thrill and a pleasure, and I hope you enjoy. We’ll be back tomorrow with some wild original stuff.

(As a bit of an aside…barring any bizarre technical flukes, Patrons are going to have access to the audio from this reflection later today as a Patrons-only bonus episode…just sayin’.)

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Living with a spirit of gratitude is a fairly challenging thing in any age. Here in 2018, it often feels as though simply navigating the waters is a daily struggle.

It’s a deceptively simple and attractive phrase. If asked, I suspect nearly everyone would support it. Who doesn’t want to live with a spirit of gratitude? It seems like an easy enough concept. It even rolls nicely off the tongue. Living with a spirit of gratitude.

So how do we do it? As soon as we ask that question, I mean really ask it, that clarity vanishes into the air.

The ways in which we approach Thanksgiving Day itself shed some light on this. There’s the most obvious and most common approach – focusing on and expressing the good things we have, for which we are thankful. It may be that many of you, in your gatherings of chosen friends and loved ones, have some version of the annual ritual where the things we are thankful for are expressed aloud. The obvious blessings like family and friends, food and shelter, any good news or personal advances seen this year, any good fortune or achievement, blissful ending or fresh beginning. Extending this line of thought outwards, we can also put that familiar positive spin on the more malleable aspects of life – if we are mostly well, we can express thanks for our health; if we are sick, we can express thanks for still being alive. If we’re living comfortably, we can be thankful for our means; if we’re paycheck to paycheck, we can be thankful for the paycheck.

This begins to look almost like a version of “looking on the bright side” and “having a positive attitude.” And all of these are good things! But this doesn’t really point the way to living with a spirit of gratitude. You could say that pretty much everyone is also in favor of “having a positive attitude,” but saying so doesn’t provide much insight as to how to live a better, fuller life, or build a better, more harmonious world.

Besides, it’s not like we can go around talking like that every day all year – we would drive everyone else crazy.

There’s also the opposite approach, which I’m seeing more than usual this year. How can we sit comfortably in our safe homes sharing platitudes of thanks while the whole world seems to be falling apart? How can we fill our bellies with rich foods in our warm dining rooms while so many go hungry, while migrants are denied sanctuary? How can we enjoy a meal at all knowing that the economic structures that brought it to our table are the same ones bringing the sixth great extinction to our doorstep? How can we relax in this age of anxiety, when everything we believed about this advanced liberal society is turned to chaos before our very eyes? All this, before we even get into the awful historic context of the holiday’s origin.

We should, of course, applaud the social consciousness and indignation towards injustice that is demonstrated by this approach, but we must also recognize it for what it fundamentally is – a rejection of gratitude altogether. It’s a less common approach than the first one, but I’d argue it’s just as easy – and surely, it teaches us nothing about living with a spirit of gratitude. Quite the opposite. Despair is not an ethos. Attempting to live our lives each day carrying all of this around with us is simply unsustainable – and I say this from experience because I’ve tried. It’s a crippling mindset that prevents us from truly living our lives and, just as with the first example, if we go around talking like this every day, instead of making the world a better place, we are just going to drive everyone crazy. I know, because I’ve done it.

There’s also a sort of hybrid approach that’s probably particularly appealing to Unitarian Universalists, where we try to be judicious and respectful of all aspects of both approaches. We say our thanks while retaining the requisite amount of sorrow for the state of the world and also remembering to mourn for the atrocities of centuries past. I’d say this is actually a somewhat admirable and balanced way to handle Thanksgiving Day itself if you can really pull it off – but does it really give us any clue of how to handle the other 364 and a quarter days of the year?

This is going to get a little bit out there, but I think the answer lies in decoupling gratitude from nearly all conditions. That doesn’t mean we stop feeling delight and disappointment in response to the big and small things that happen to us. It doesn’t mean we stop fighting, stop doing whatever needs to be done to uphold the inherent worth and dignity of all people, for justice, democracy, and liberty. Not at all.

But it does mean our gratitude is not tied to those things. Instead, I would suggest we tie it to one thing and one thing only: this miracle that is existence itself. “Ripple in still water, where there is no pebble tossed, nor wind to blow” – that’s really what this whole universe is like! The fact that we are here today, or any day, at all, is a miracle, a bright, shining, blazing, glorious thing. It is this that is worthy of our gratitude, and if we hope to be able to live with a spirit of gratitude, all of existence itself must be the source of that spirit.

If we can but awaken each day aware of the truly remarkable state in which we find ourselves – simply by waking up! – if we can walk only but some of our steps in a given day holding that awareness somewhere in our minds, we transcend the ups and downs of our individual lives and transcend the disasters of this age and only then do we walk and ultimately live with that spirit of gratitude.

This is how we navigate these weird waters in 2018 – and soon, 2019 – without losing our peace and our minds. It is how we may remain steady whatever happens to befall us, and it is how we might manage to fight – and perhaps even prevail – against the darkness in this world without quickly becoming fried and burned out.

Now, before anyone shouts out accusations of hypocrisy, I do not say any of this as someone who is actually able to pull it off. Not yet, not in the slightest. Instead, I say it only as someone who tries. I screw it up a lot; just yesterday, in fact, I screwed it up. I don’t know that there are many days at all in which I can say I have succeeded at this, but I like to think there have been some. Furthermore, I like to believe that even the attempt has made some difference, that even a few steps in the course of a given week made in a spirit of gratitude bring us closer to fully living with a spirit of gratitude.

I believe that just attempting to live like this is the only way that we might see this life for the melody that it is, and then from there gain the freedom and ability to see what we might do about it, what we might contribute to the song, how we might do our part in this great expanse of miraculous existence.

Whatever else may be true, it is a wonderful thing that you are here, and I am grateful for the privilege to live this moment, here with you. As we go forward and leave here today, let us remember that all moments are like this. And may we be grateful. Let this be our starting point.

The Winds of Monte Rosa

On the coming of the Equinox in chaotic times.

Everything of that day was autumn.

The sun beamed in friendly fashion down upon our rock stronghold. It was still quite warm and formidable, but something in its character revealed the beginnings of its terminal wane. The wind, blowing steadily throughout the day’s adventure, made fewer pretenses. This was now the autumn wind, appearing unannounced, as though a switch had been flipped. The trees yet retained most of their green, but not unlike a Just for Men Touch of Gray model, or perhaps the very lightly frosted tips of a cool guy in 2001, they were beginning to show their age. Their day had come and was now very nearly gone.

The landscape spread wide before us, some sort of dirty dark blue lagoon in the center of our scene, the sketchy valley stronghold of Keene manspreading confidently a bit over to the right. The landscape agreed: This is autumn.

This is the autumn of 2018! I bid you welcome – and all the land and sky does, too, if you’re open to receiving it.

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The four of us welcomed the new autumn with panache, taking a winding, magical journey – “just a couple bends around the way”, as it were – through the site of a phantom hotel, onward (at our own risk) into a feudal manor, up to a high spring very obviously home to fairies (both the daylight and nocturnal varieties, by our measure), onward to Monte Rosa, the spectacular stronghold described above. The day was perfect, not just because it suddenly seemed autumn, but because the climate and blessed lack of insects made for ideal conditions; after all, both hiking and magic are better enjoyed and endured under at least some minimal level of comfort. My companions were of the highest caliber to boot. Two veterans and one rookie – and one wizard, of course.

Some climb…

It was Monadnock we had chosen that day, an obvious fact and obvious choice that still bears stating. It was the third of four (official) Sacred Mountain Climbs I am to host this year, an event series that kicked off with an inaugural run last October (making this “Equinox Edition” the fourth overall). Doing this has basically been a lifelong dream of mine, and none other than our friend Leia Friedman, the Psychedologist, deserves the credit for the idea of actually doing it. Despite this, even I am still amazed each time at how powerful the experience (ritual) is – without fail, each time, and seemingly for all participants.

I can hardly take credit for any of it – I’m just the sherpa who knows the mountain. I only provide, at no expense to me, mind you, a time and space. The mountain itself does the rest, along with everyone who shows up. Over the last year, in fact, I’ve been intentionally low key about these events. I’ve hardly written about them at all, made no more than brief mentions on the podcast, and only occasionally marked their occurrence by posting highlight photos on Facebook or Instagram. Sometimes, I only post the photos on my own account.

Why so quiet? It seems unlike me. Part of it, I won’t deny, is practical – these aren’t secret events and there’s nothing illicit about them, but they aren’t entirely open to the public, either. Why promote an event to you that you aren’t invited to? But it’s more than just that. I need to show my companions respect and consideration. I can’t just write about them and tell their story; even if that were something I wanted to do, which it isn’t, I’d at least have to ask permission first.

There’s also the fact that these moments in time prove so special and moving and, well, sacred, that you can’t just write a chronicle or travelogue about them. Suggesting such a thing can be tamed and harnessed with words is both hilariously arrogant and demeaning to the events themselves – something I’m certain is obvious to anyone who’s been there. Something like this…you just gotta let it be itself, you can’t be trying to nail it down or box it in or translate it, at least in anything that comes close to its entirety, to the consensus reality we all find at the bottom of the mountain.

All of this remains true, and yet here I am now – I seem to be talking about it all of a sudden. Yeah. Don’t get used to it. But as we enter this more contemplative season (#MichaelScott) I’m finding, not just after this particular climb but having experienced all of them cumulatively, that some balance needs to be found here. For me, at least, these experiences have become too big, too important, to remain entirely silent about them.

So I won’t. But I promise to keep them mysterious nonetheless.

Pilgrims and fools and chaos

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2018 seems to have been, for many people and for many different reasons – perhaps intertwined, perhaps not – a year of rapidly increasing and accelerating chaos, and not in the fun way. This is the mean Trickster and not the funny one. Further fouling the air is the sense that this is no blip but rather an enduring condition or, worse, the harbinger of even deeper chaos to come.

(Beyond stating that I generally agree with the preceding statement, I’m not going to weigh in on this in detail at this time. I’ll note only that both Coppock and White seem to be in agreement that we’ve got some pretty relentless and intense Weird and even Upheaval between now and 2021. Buckle up; I can only quote the good doctor: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” Now is your time – you know who you are.)

All this raged on below as we ascended to the Other Worlds, a central part of the power and experience of this glacially carved ritual. Today, the Equinox, was a day on which Light and Dark were balanced and even. This is not the territory of sprites and angels and warrior monks as is the Summer Solstice, nor is it the solemn turf of the rebirth and ultimate victory of light from darkness as we find at Midwinter. This is less defined than that – meaning it’s more open to possibility, to making of it what we will, at least to a certain degree, even as it dispenses on us what it yet wills in turn. There’s a dynamic interplay there.

Me personally, stepping into the winds of Monte Rosa, I found myself arriving in a state of uncertainty, slightly battered maybe, with the edge having been robbed from my usual balance and confidence. Hardly unexpected, of course, given that I’m as much affected by the chaos of these times as anyone else, but it was clear in that space that this sacramental observance was precisely what was needed.

As a group, we deftly handled the light and dark blend – 2018’s second soft serve of chocolate vanilla swirl – with care and aplomb. Freely extracting the joy of life from the sky and rock, we laughed about (and took delight in) all of existence, immersed ourselves spiritually and conversationally in the mythic realms – Tolkien’s, at times, but others as well. We were granted the ethereal understanding of the world’s Music. Yet all throughout, we remained acutely aware of the importance of understanding and holding territory, of fighting antagonists – enemies, even – and of the varying states of serfdom under which we live now and may or may not live in the future. We were not dreaming fools on the hill. We were pilgrims, clerical sojourners, artists, knights, and also citizens.

We departed Monte Rosa to brave the perilous cliffs – and their attendant thrones – of The Ampitheater. From the “stage”, I was invited to declamate, and – very briefly, with five words – I did so.

We meandered to the summit and held court for an indeterminate amount of time before descending via a route suggested to us by a berserk – but perhaps beatified – cardiac patient. The path took us back momentarily to our former stronghold, where we rested briefly before making a gentle descent that concluded with plenty of light to spare. Though one of our fellowship had to depart on a longer journey home, three of us posted up over at the Copacabana of Peterborough for our reintegration into the World of the Valley and reorientation to the new season to come.

For all of this, including the fall season, even in such times as these, I am profoundly grateful. The universe is an incredible place to be.

Happy fall.

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The Shuffle of Destiny

It’s been a lot of years since I regularly used the shuffle feature when listening to music. I know some people still do this, and it seems likely that I’ll get some vehement pushback from enthusiastic present-day shufflers, but we all know Peak Shuffle happened years ago. Streaming radio services, however carefully curated by you, do not count.

I’m talking pre-smartphone, when all of us were using mp3 players. Hell, I’m even talking about before that, talking about Windows Media Player and Winamp playlists days long, filled with endless torrented albums, and then set to shuffle. We have nothing like this today. In fact, while I can’t prove it – not by a long stretch – I actually believe the logic behind our existing (and often unused) shuffle capabilities today has declined dramatically in quality and sophistication.

During these halcyon (lol) days of youth, I actually approached The Shuffle as a kind of crude divinatory practice, even though I didn’t call it that at a time. That’s what it was, though. The bigger the playlist, the more divinatory the practice could be. The idea is simple – set it to shuffle and, though you may have to skip forward a couple of times, The Shuffle is going to play the song you need to hear. The Shuffle would present me with a clear message through song.

This was particularly significant for me given the fact that I would often listen to these long shuffle playlists while grappling with the uncertainties and inadequacies and disappointments and losses of young adulthood. Taking long walks, driving aimlessly, alone, for hours, I’d set it to shuffle and hear what I needed to hear. The more receptive I was to this concept, the better messages I could receive. Shit would even freak me out sometimes, when The Shuffle would just happen to bring me, out of 3,548 songs, the one that was clearly most relevant to the situation at hand. It would blow my mind.

I know how stupid that sounds and I don’t care – there’s nothing substantively different between what I am describing and more traditional divinatory methods, other than its crudeness. Divination is the presentation of symbols and/or patterns on a randomized basis in such a way as to convey meaning and understanding. The Ancients (or even those from the distant time of The Seventies and Eighties) could not have prescribed this method for grasping the universe and making the best possible decisions and holding the highest perspective because they had no concept of what shuffled music was!

I feel a small measure of shame in admitting that I hardly ever even recall this phenomenon, what was once such a big part of my life and growth. The ways I tend to listen to music today, some more general and some more precise, can’t manage to accomplish what the Shuffle of Destiny once did, but they do succeed at making us all forget.

Fortunately I – and you and any of us – can still employ this method, even if it’s not as pure and delightfully advanced as it once was. I did it at least once over the last couple of weeks, as I dealt with my funny-but-not-funny bullshit crisis, and I’m happy to report it still works.

Just a simple version of its former glory, but moving and profound to experience nonetheless. I’ve got a little over a hundred Jerry Garcia Band songs downloaded onto my phone, still getting decently heavy rotation for me but mostly leftover from the annual heavy JGB listening associated with the month of August. I flipped to all tracks and hit shuffle, just as I was cruising over Temple Mountain, looking over at – appropriately enough – Monadnock owning the horizon beyond, and the song you see above began to play.

Armstrong’s original, and nearly any cover, represents one of the only songs I can think of that is pretty much guaranteed to make me cry every time. Every time. If you’re sitting next to me and this song comes on and I notice it, I will cry – I probably won’t look like I am crying, but I am crying. I’m sure there are some who find this cheesy, but the simplicity of the lyrics underscore how true they are. Read them. “I hear babies cry and watch them grow; they’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know” – all the lyrics of this song get me, but this one, for some reason, more than the rest. I’m tearing up right now even as I type this, and the song is not even playing.

Through the Shuffle of Destiny, in the midst of pretty significant personal turmoil, the universe wanted to remind me that all of this is perfect and beautiful.

Message received.

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I’m Not Dead Yet (but I did lose a week)

Yeah, it’s Friday afternoon and up til now I haven’t posted anything in a full week – and the last thing I posted may have seemed a little ominous. Good news, everyone (well, hopefully, you think it’s good news) – I am still here on Earth! I find this fact absolutely glorious.

But then…if I’m still here, why have I spent the last week so quiet? Here’s what happened: I didn’t die, but I did experience a major crisis in my political life. I will not go into the details of that crisis in this space, but let’s just say that it was very difficult, personally, to endure, and it means major changes for how me and many of those close to me will organize politically at least for the next 6-12 months.

The toll this took on me mentally, not to mention all the extra hours spent directly dealing with the crisis, meant that this week was for my personal projects a complete and utter waste. I realized very early on that everything I had intended to complete, work on, and even begin this week would be pushed out by a full week. I’m not happy about it, but I can at least say with confidence that I now know how to recognize when such adjustments are necessary and thus avoid spending days and nights beating myself up about it.

What’s really interesting is that this experience is very consistent with all of my divinatory experience. As I discussed last Friday, there were several key lines and images in that week’s I Ching reading, but the one that stood out the most was about death. The line was this: “The man dies. His work comes to an end.” You can see why I would have been more than a little nervous about this. But as soon as the crisis went down (nearly 7 days after I had initially done the reading), the meaning was very clear. This ugly experience absolutely was a political death and the end of a certain phase or paradigm of political work. It was (is) a form of death.

I myself am not dead, however, nor am I or my associates done with politics. The work we believed ourselves to be doing has ended, but our political work has not. One phase has come to a close – along with alliances, memberships, campaigns, and projects – but another phase has immediately begun. The new phase, in fact, could never have begun without the end – the death – of the old. And it’s entirely possible that the new phase could be better or higher than the old, that this death was necessary to produce growth that is fundamental for what we are trying to do.

This the meaning of the concept of “death” in both the I Ching and the Tarot. Always and without exception. Death is not a final end or permanent defeat or descent into eternal blackness or nonexistence. It’s a transformation. A rough one at times, but a transformation nonetheless. It’s a move from one phase, perhaps even one world, into another. Not only do I believe that to be a helpful concept for living our lives, given that such transformations, though they may feel catastrophic, are hardly unusual, but I believe this may say something about the nature of our actual deaths. It’s entirely possible that all death, whether actual or metaphorical, is best viewed as a transformation, an end and a beginning, as opposed to the terminal nature we tend to ascribe to it. Something light to think about heading into the weekend.

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To all my friends, comrades, and allies, I extend my love and loyalty, my appreciation of your strength and courage.

AND MAY ALL MY ENEMIES BE CRUSHED BENEATH MY FEET.

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Live Tree or Die: This Week in Divination

The benefit of divination, despite what you or I may commonly think, has nothing to do with knowing the future and everything to do with understanding the cosmos.

Divination is a funny thing, because sometimes you get these results where it’s like, “Either I’m gonna die or I’m gonna end up like a half immortal tree attached to a mountain.” I mean, try and make sense of that. That’s what actually happened this week.

There I am, minding my own business, doing my weekly reading, and one of the moving lines I threw from the first hexagram was just like, “Death of a person. His work is done.” Oh cool, thanks, I Ching, now I’m gonna spend the rest of the week expecting to be run down by a car or attacked out of nowhere by ruthless assailants. And I’m only half kidding about that. But it’s fine, though – after all, it is Friday. Chances are, I’m gonna make it and the line means something else (which I completely missed because I was worried about my own mortality).

But I am half kidding. I was never that worried, especially since the rest of the reading and the tarot cards didn’t really seem to indicate my impending doom. Plus I fundamentally disagree with the idea that my work is done. It isn’t!

These lessons can matter if we take them right. The benefit of divination, despite what you or I may commonly think, has nothing to do with knowing the future and everything to do with understanding the cosmos. Toward that end, I was (hashtag) blessed to have some fairly interesting and instructive imagery thrown at me by the I Ching this week.

Start off with that tree I just alluded to. Think of a gnarly-ass tree high up on a mountain. I think of Monadnock, of course. The image makes me think of one of the few, small, craggly pines that have managed to build a life slightly above the mountain’s artificially scorched treeline. That thing didn’t get there overnight. The fact that it’s here right now is only because it slowly, painstakingly, step by step, not skipping anything or shirking from it either, set down its roots in the rock. You know what else? That tree isn’t going anywhere, either. The way it put those roots down, wind and rain can’t touch it. Malicious humans can’t yank it out; the only way for a person to destroy this tree is to cut it down, which they probably aren’t gonna take the time (or have the equipment) to do after climbing an entire mountain. The tree put in a lot of effort (and a lot of patience) up front, but now the thing is IN. It’s solid. A fixture. Unmoved.

I find that inspiring in a lot of ways.

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A second image found in a line of that hexagram was this idea that a wild goose doesn’t belong chillin’ up in a tree. You heard that right. That’s not where they’re supposed to be. They weren’t made for that. The point drawn by the line was that often we ourselves find ourselves in situations just like this. We’re the goose in a tree, finding our asses sitting someplace they really don’t belong, not in any natural way. And when it’s like that, it’s difficult to avoid dangers and difficulties.

Do you feel like a goose in a tree today? A wild goose in a tree? Well, look – this is a dangerous situation, but when is life ever safe to begin with? The task before you – if this is you we are talking about, here – is to find ways to keep cool and collected and avoid falling or getting eaten despite the fact that these are real dangers out there.

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Lastly – and this circles back to the whole tree on the mountain thing – remember that there’s a difference between seduction and courtship. This is not to say that sometimes seduction is not the more appropriate option. But the oracle here, twice, points to courtship. Following the proper customs and forms, taking things step by step, this is absolutely necessary if lasting unions and arrangements are to be cobbled and held together.

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Have a great weekend. If you feel like you deserve a treat – and I feel like you deserve a treat – go ahead and watch the video below. Here’s hoping I survive the end of the week!

And if you like what we’re doing here with this project, check out the Patreon. It’s better than average.

There Were Days Between

There were days, there were days,
There were days between.
Summer flies and August dies,
And the world grows dark and mean.
Comes a shimmer of the moon
On dark, infested trees;
Singing man is at his song,
The holy on their knees,
The reckless are out wrecking,
The timid plead their pleas.
No one knows much more of this than anybody sees,
Anybody sees.

-Robert Hunter (music by Jerry Garcia, performed by the Grateful Dead, in many incarnations)

[Author’s Note/Announcement: Just after 10 am Eastern time yesterday, Mars stationed direct. Mars retrograde is over. Hopefully, this means I can shut up about astrology for a while. Please understand that I appreciate your patience and have had little choice in the matter. There were some good times, but it was a very difficult period – 110% of the effort for 50% of the results, to paraphrase Gordon White – for me and many others. Here’s hoping for easier times ahead.]

I’ve talked about this song on many occasions and it’s time for me to talk about it again. I was driving alone Saturday afternoon (you’ll notice a pattern with the thoughts while driving alone) minding my business, jiving out to some Budos Band. It occurred to me that I hadn’t really been listening to much Grateful Dead or Jerry Garcia the last couple weeks. Less than usual, for sure. Momentarily okay with this, I suddenly flipped, feeling compelled to put this song on.

It may have been sudden and stark, but the compulsion was timely. It’s normal for certain of Robert Hunter’s lyrics to come to mind at this point in the year. “Summer flies and August dies, and the world grows dark and mean,” is an obvious one (“When the last rose of summer pricks my finger and the hot sun chills me to the bone,” is another big one; maybe we’ll cover that another day soon). As soon as I put it on, I found myself immersed, the song deftly and directly playing my nerves, my too-often-neglected emotions flooding to the forefront. It’s a very deep and emotional song, after all. That’s true just by looking at the lyrics of the four simple verses, and especially so if you hear it sung – whether by Jerry, its original singer, or Bobby Weir, for whom the song clearly holds very special meaning. You can hear it in his voice. He might even do it better than Jerry (gasp!).

This time, the words of this first verse were roughly twice as timely as I’d been thinking, what with the “Comes a shimmer of the moon” landing mere hours before the last full moon of summer would rise – not to mention the specter of Mars Retrograde’s long-awaited conclusion lurking behind everything I’m doing and thinking about.

Each of the four verses of the song can be said to describe or be set in one of the four seasons, starting with the end of summer. Everything is as it should be – everyone is fulfilling their roles, for good or for ill, even as decay creeps into this yet-beautiful scene. Whether we think we understand it or not, it’s impossible to prove that we actually do, that any of us know any more of any of this than what we can see, than what we experience each day or even in any given specific moment.

Maybe you like to think you do see all of everything going on and understand it to some degree. I know I do. But do we really get it? Or is what we get just shades and shadows on the all? Is it just so vast and so much bigger than all of us, that all we can hope for in these Days Between birth and death is the attempt at learning, loving, and growing, to catch glimpses of meaningful phantoms, perhaps to stand upon the world’s mountaintops, chase glows, and, above all else, hope that love does not forsake us.

Pay attention to this song. If you don’t like Grateful Dead music, don’t listen to it, but see if you can find something just in these words. There’s a lot there.

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And if you do like Grateful Dead music – or even if you just like adventures, documentaries, and/or good stories – this will be a good week for you. At long last, Episode 18 is coming. The story of SPAC 2018 will finally be told, with all the literary flourishes you’ve come to expect and love. Stay tuned.

And if you like what we’re doing here with this project, check out the Patreon. It’s better than average.

One Last Beginning (Can You Feel the Crispness?)

It happened during a quick after-work drive through my hometown. It was the last hour of golden evening daylight. Townsend, where I grew up, is a very small and very average town. (Seriously, click the link.) It sits along the north-central edge of Massachusetts, and it’s one of the greatest places on Earth. I ended my high school years in passionate hatred of the place and everyone in it, desperate to leave – playing to type, no doubt about it – but reversed my position and came to deeply appreciate it very early in my adulthood.

Though I’ve been living in New Hampshire for 12 years now, it wasn’t until I found myself truly at home in Peterborough – the last couple of years – that I stopped claiming Townsend as my home and not just my hometown. Up to that point, whatever New Hampshire town I lived in, I ignored the local news of that place while religiously reading the weekly Townsend paper. (Sadly enough, it’s not even truly a Townsend paper but a highly generified regional one.) I still harbored dreams of moving back one day, permanently. I vowed to never purchase property anywhere else. (Of course, I still haven’t bought property anywhere, but I’ve rescinded the vow.) It’s a magical little place and I was lucky as all hell to have grown up there.

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I was cruising through to return some books and kids’ DVDs to the Townsend Library before going on vacation in order to avoid massive fines for myself and my mother and I was reminded that here we are, right on the cusp of my favorite time of year in this particular spot of the planet. I first articulated this only a few years ago, in a conversation with my best friend. “There’s something positively magical about Townsend in the last week and a half of August,” I had said. “It’s something you find mostly in the light, the way it hangs in certain aged yellow and gold slants, but there’s a certain larger spirit that the light points to – the summer has been fulfilled but the looming school year is unformed and mysterious. That’s a little scary in certain ways, but there’s so much potential, so much newness, just hanging in the air, all around us, and standing in that light we can’t help but breathe it in. Everybody who’s been gone starts to come home, people we might see less in the summer want to hang out, we start getting new clothes and supplies and backpacks for the year. Back in the day, we’d be having captain’s practices for cross country, shit like that.”

I’m sure I didn’t say it so clearly when I actually said it, but he knew damn well what I was talking about. He countered that all of August is pretty magical in Townsend. He agreed that there was something distinct and probably stronger about late August, but suggested the month might be split into three-ish phases – early, middle, and late.

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I agree, and it was so obvious, practically like a blow to the face, that I was driving that evening (Thursday the 10th) smack along the line between the early August and mid August Magical Time in Townsend. It’s never a let-down, and this was right after I had written about the difficulty I have each year with the coming of Lammas at the beginning of the month. This was (and is) a clear signal.

All right, maybe let’s back up for a second. First of all, the whole thing relies on the idea of a “back-to-school season,” even though I graduated high school in spring of 2002 and quit college two years later. I haven’t seen the inside of a proper classroom since (unless you count drunk driving class in the late oughts, which you don’t). I haven’t actually experienced any sort of back to school in almost a decade and a half.

So…why do I still feel this, after all this time? Why have I held onto this, why do I still hang onto it? I wonder if maybe the familiar sensation here is archetypal rather than literal – and I wonder if it always was. After all, I hated going back to school 100% of the years I actually did so. I dreaded it, found it a source of great apprehension and consternation and, conversely, relished my summer vacations. Even still, just as I do today, I recognized the thick, fat, palpable, breathable latent potential-turned-magic that always hangs in the air.

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Regardless of whether or not any of us are actually enrolled in a Fall Semester or Fall Quarter, I would argue that this sense of newness is intrinsic to the time. We’ve long since left spring behind and indeed are hurtling at breakneck speed toward our darkest day and the winter and new cycle to follow it, but late August presents us with something of a reprise, perhaps something more than just an echo, a final moment in 2018 and every other year for us to seize or savor, one last beginning.

Can you feel the crispness? The world is telling us things.

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All right, that being said, why would any part of August be different in Townsend as opposed to, like, everywhere? The truth is, it wouldn’t. What I’m saying applies everywhere, I just personally can’t miss it when I see that mature, pregnant golden light and deep blue sky in the great place where I grew up. Maybe it’s not as easy to catch as the beginnings of spring, perhaps many of us require certain triggers in order to pick up on it and appreciate it. So keep your eye out! Harvest is coming, but what’s happening right now is not to be missed.

It’s pretty great.

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Be like grass. Or like water. Or both.

Note: While I’m working on getting out the long-awaited Episode 18, I thought it worthwhile to adapt certain portions of Episode 17’s liturgy into post format, for your enjoyment. If you wish to listen to the entire liturgy (which I recommend), you can find it here on SoundCloud or search Wizard of Monadnock on any podcast app.

The I Ching speaks of a new blade of grass sprouting from its seed, still underground but creeping with the delight of new life toward the surface. Like all new life, however, the blade of grass discovers that there is more to existence than effortless delight when it runs into a blocker. It seeks a direct path to burst forth in the fresh oxygen and direct blessing of sunlight, but an obstacle is in the way.

The grass, for all we know, may be inclined to curse the obstacle and believe it to be an active antagonist or even an enemy. In all likelihood, of course, we know from our perspective that the obstacle is most likely a rock or something that just happens to already BE there and really has no ill will toward a blade of grass it wasn’t expecting and that wasn’t there a moment ago.

It doesn’t much matter whether the obstacle is a malevolent actor or an accidental circumstance. The blade of grass does nothing for itself by spending much time trying to figure that out – either way, the grass needs to break through the surface. The grass isn’t a tree. It doesn’t have decades to work on the problem, so destroying the obstacle is not really on the table. The blade is left with but one option – to find the way around the obstacle and up to the surface. The way might be long and difficult and inconvenient. Perhaps it only seems so and will later prove a minor detour requiring a short delay, but the blade of grass can only find out, and ultimately escape the ground and fulfill its destiny, by beginning that search for the way around, and then slowly taking it.

Recklessly switching metaphors, this notion is hardly different than the difficulties inherent to the birthing process. When we know we are compelled toward new life, we must not be shy about facing and enduring the brief difficulties that lie between where we are and where we are destined to be. And if we know we’re doing this because the promised land (third metaphor!) is just around the bend, we need not find ourselves miserable in the process, as we live it out. It’s not so bad.

The promised land, it should be said, may indeed be around the corner. “If you walk together, little children…”

The second image/lesson I want to share, also from the I Ching, is the water of a flowing river and how it approaches obstacles and rough terrain. This is even simpler than the grass – the water just flows on. It doesn’t hesitate or fret or question the path ahead or seek to skip anything seen to be unpleasant or undesirable.

It flows on.

It fills the gap in front of it, whatever it is, until it is full, and then it fills the next one, all the way, no shortcuts, no skipped steps, just one gap after another, flowing on and on. The flowing water, of course, is unstoppable; unlike the blade of grass, the flowing water in filling the gaps and moving on will eventually demolish anything so foolish as to stubbornly place itself in the water’s path. As the water continues on and endures, so can we, so must we, so will we.

When faced with overwhelming difficulties and daunted by the chaos and the sorrow and the sudden disaster, remember that there is but a single gap in front of us and we need to fill it and then flow to the gap in front of that one. One gap at a time, we will flow unimpeded to our destiny. And when we can feel shoots of new growth taking shape in our lives, we should expect them to encounter blockers, and we shouldn’t bother getting worked up or pissed off about this. Keep calm and find the way around. The sunshine awaits us.

 

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Vacation is Dead (Long Live Vacation!)

Like Merlin returning from Bermuda in the animated Sword in the Stone, I’m BACK, fresh off a glorious week spent smack on the elbow of Cape Cod.

I’d probably be dead or lobotomized were it not for vacations like this one. And look, this isn’t an advice column – I’m not here to tell you why you need a vacation. For most of you, if you aren’t taking one, it’s because you can’t, and I get it. Were it not for the ample vacation time I get from my employer and the generosity of my in-laws, I wouldn’t get to do this, either. That’s the rub. And I’d be toast. The older I get, the higher my requisite comfort level gets. I’m soft. Anyway, before I fully commit myself to being back in the real world, I’ve got a few things to throw out there.

Don’t hate me for not saving the link, but I read something about vacations just before vacation, some kind of meta-study talking about how it takes at least four days to get out of Everyday Drudgery Mode and then another four days to get into Peak Vacation Mode. In other words, if your vacation is less than 8 days long, you never even fully get a vacation. If you think about it, if you work Monday through Friday, this means no mid-week departures – doing Wednesday to Wednesday doesn’t even get you there. You have to take a straight Monday through Friday in order to use the double-weekend to bump you up to nine days, and even then, you only just get to where you need before you’re plunged back into the drudgery again. That was the punchline of this article, too – only one or two days back at work is all it takes to erase the Vacation Zen you just spent all those days building up. It’s like that Sisyphus guy.

I don’t think it’s the whole truth, though. I don’t think it’s entirely that bleak. It makes sense that the feeling would be fleeting. The feeling is based on the absence of all the crap that’s no longer absent as soon as you get back. I mean, duh. What I would suggest instead, and what I think is much more difficult to measure in a study, is that subtle, perhaps sub- or unconscious benefits are accumulated through positive, joyous, life-affirming experiences that actually endure even after we stop perceiving them consciously. (It should be noted that vacations are an easy way to get these sorts of experiences, but are far from the only way.) It’s like using psychedelics. Yes, there are obvious reasons why one would focus on the Trip, or the Microdose Day, as the essential – and fleeting – experience at the heart of the matter. But as every good psychonaut knows, the real benefit is the nearly imperceptible changes such things plant beneath the surface – where they can grow.

On the other hand, maybe I’m just looking for a fancy way to justify the fact that I only survive all year based on the knowledge that I get weeks like this one. You pick, I don’t care. But here’s just a sampling of what I got this week that I wouldn’t trade for anything:

  • I became acquainted with preening cormorants and majestic ospreys (ospreys are AWESOME)
  • I finally rode on a paddleboard for the first time, after like a decade and a half of envious spectating (paddleboards are AWESOME)
  • I saw seals – they’re like little water dogs begging for scraps
  • I swam in shark-infested waters, because sharks can’t fuck with me
  • I got to spend all that time in a house with some of my absolute favorite people (some people have shitty in-laws, mine are AWESOME)
  • There was tequila and cider
  • There was a hammock on which I lay with the love of my life watching the tail end of my favorite meteor shower of the year (not to mention MARS)
  • Decent sandwiches
  • Enormous amounts of coffee, not to mention watching The Office nightly with other people who can also quote every line (and who still laugh at them all)
  • I read nearly the entirety of Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles (for the 4th time – more on this another time), a huge chunk of Thomas Merton’s spiritual autobiography (which is great but so slow I’ve been working on it for almost a year), and all of a phenomenal Italian crime novel called The Shape of Water
  • LOBSTER, 2x

I’m not even remembering it all. I don’t say all this to gloat – in fact, some of it is for my own benefit, so that I have the right amount of perspective about the whole experience. The reality is, between all the retrogrades and whatnot, I set my expectations for the week fairly low. Who knew what could go wrong? We did have some minor illnesses and a flat tire. But the end result still far exceeded my hopes. I am very grateful.

That’s just the thing – and maybe the only thing I’ll say here that almost approaches the treacherous ground of advice. This summer, as expected, was not triumphant and record-breaking like last year. At times, it was not particularly easy or relaxing. But I’m profoundly grateful for it and for everyone that had a part in it and for the shitton of great experiences I had – not just the past week of vacation, but throughout the last two months.

Now I have a couple weeks to put the finishing touches on getting my shit together before we start the “school year” or “fall semester” or whatever we want to call it. Work is work more or less all year round, but the nature and level of my diverse activities outside of work varies dramatically throughout the seasons. Summertime I’m in Summer Mode, wintertime I’m in Winter Hibernation/Hold Away Deprression Mode, but spring and fall are my busiest, most ambitious, and most productive seasons. This fall will be no different. It promises to be packed and frenetically-paced; I mean this in a good way, but it will almost certainly be difficult, frustrating, and exhausting at times, and I will likely greet December with palpable relief. But whatever this summer contained or did not contain, I am ready for the days to come.

Despite the fact that I just said I have a couple of weeks, I actually have my first meeting of the fall season after work tonight. Wish me luck.

 

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Mercury Gets Right, Rainbows Connect

I know it was a bit of a tease – I showed up on Medium and then made three posts in three days and then…silence. Knowing I risked losing whatever tiny amount of momentum I had managed to amass, I made the calculated decision to take the week off before resuming regular activity next week. I’m on vacation! I’ve liberated myself from self-imposed productive demands (actually, I’ve liberated myself from pretty much all demands).

There’s still technically three days of vacation left, but this seemed worth a quick suspension of the rules. Today’s the day we move out of 2018’s second Mercury Retrograde (of three). And thank all that’s good and holy for that. Pat yourselves on the back. Breathe deep. Relax your shoulders. You did it. We did it. We made it through. Raise a glass.

I’m not gonna lie, I’m more than a little bit self-conscious – yes, I can’t help but feel a little bit like an idiot – about writing yet another post involving astrology. I try not to let things like that stop me. For the millionth time, in my own defense, I’m really not into this shit, but all these retrogrades this year seem to be kicking my ass in a compound way that I can’t really ignore.

Mercury retrograde is over now and I made it out, and it gets even better because there’s only a few more days before the fucking heavy-ass, angry-ass Mars Retrograde ends, too. I’m happy to be moving into a new phase of time, and I hope you are happy, too. Whether or not you’ve been having a hard time and/or a seemingly endless series of mishaps and mixups and obstructions and failures to communicate, I extend to you congratulations, blessings, and well wishes.

Now, I may be ashamed to write about astrology, but I have never been ashamed to write about signs despite the fact that some might consider them equally as illogical. Just as I sat down to write this, I got a notification on my phone. Hayley Jane, who’s fast become one of my absolute favorite living musical artists, was going live on Facebook to sing a couple late-night songs. I switched it on. She explained that she’d felt compelled to go live to send love and good vibes to all the poor Phish fans currently devastated by the last-minute cancellation of a big multi-day Phish festival due to catastrophic flooding at the venue of Watkins Glen. Strumming her guitar and smiling, she launched into “Rainbow Connection,” most famously sang by Kermit the Frog and a song that cuts deep, straight to my heart. I am moved and filled with joy. Hope, too.

The video in question, a sign:

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Someone requested a second song and so Hayley sang another song I love, “That’s Life,” most famously sang by my sometime-patron saint, Frank Sinatra himself.

Too much, too cool. Thanks to Haley Jane for shining her light at just the right moment, and thanks to Mercury for getting its shit together and itself right at long last.

I’ll leave off with some of the “Rainbow Connection” lyrics that just nail me. I think they’re appropriate on multiple levels:

Who said that every wish
Would be heard and answered
When wished on the morning star?
Somebody thought of that
And someone believed it –
Look what it’s done so far.
What’s so amazing that keeps us stargazing
And what do we think we might see?
Someday we’ll find it,
The rainbow connection,
The lovers, the dreamers, and me –
All of us under its spell,
We know that it’s probably magic!

Have you been half asleep,
And have you heard voices?
I’ve heard them calling my name.
Is this the sweet sound
That calls the young sailors?
The voice might be one and the same.
I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it,
It’s something that I’m supposed to be;
Someday we’ll find it,
The rainbow connection,
The lovers, the dreamers and me…

Laaadadadeeedadadoo, etc. – these words I see as literally true.

Happy Friday. Welcome to Mercury Stationed Direct. Enjoy. We’ve got until mid-November before we have to go through this all over again.

And spare a thought and a prayer for those poor Phish fans – that really does suck and I too am very sorry. Chalk it up as the retrograde’s last stand. Onward!

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