“Summer was like your house: you knew where each thing stood. Now you must go out into your heart as onto a vast plain. Now the immense loneliness begins. The days go numb, the wind sucks the world from your senses like withered leaves.”
Rainer Maria Rilke
THE OTHER SIDE
This morning forcing myself to rise from the Other Side of the bed the world a sky where rain fell no bombs not rising to cram essentials into small bags before entering a corridor of human strength and misery
This morning on the Other Side of the world the bed first foot met the floor with “Thank” the second “You” humanity rising no Other Side to Courage Truth Freedom
We rise unstoppable tide forcing everything everyone Forward.
I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.
Henry David Thoreau
My wanders to the Island loft have resulted in a few stories none of which are extraordinary but I feel inclined to record the more insistent ones….. the visits have been ‘between storms’ or alternately ‘riding out storms’ which have cut off ferry service and electronic communication. The times I spent incommunicado felt strangely more like a comfort than an inconvenience.
Contains some “salty language “
THE TWO BEST WAYS TO DIE
He was a Street Photographer’s dream, but this was not the street and it would be next to impossible to get a candid shot from my position in the driver’s seat parked in the ferry lineup. My hand had involuntarily reached for the camera when I caught my first glimpse, but instinct told me to retreat, sit back, watch and listen.
Minutes earlier I had pulled up behind an older model car with a broken tail light and bumper sticker that instructed the reader to BE RE’MARC’ABLE. I was hoping to see some evidence of this re’marc’ability from the car’s occupant, I did not have long to wait.
The car door opened, out stepped a West Coast, post modern, biker-pirate-sailor hybrid. Every bit of clothing on his body was some shade of black. A mariners hat with a small brim was pulled down tightly over his dark hair. A long pea jacket ended just above the knee under which hung a shapeless wool cable knit sweater stretched almost the length of the jacket. Tight jeans and leather biker boots whose tops flopped side to side as he stepped. So many layers of darkness it took me time to detect the braid that fell over his right shoulder ending just above the waist. He was living up to his PR and hadn’t yet spoken a word.
In these days of distancing I was well aware of my “come from away” status on this small and intimate island, maintaining a safe physical distance from the locals. ‘Marc’ as I will call him, made his way past my partially open window coming to a stop nearby, within earshot. Two women stood outside their vehicles just behind me, they formed a Covid friendly triangle. It became clear they knew each other casually, also clear was that Marc had much to say and jumped right in and started saying it.
He lived on his boat and had spent time moored in various bays and marinas up and down the West Coast for years, twenty to be exact. Speaking to no one in particular he declared that if he ever had to live on land, someone would have to “just take me out and shoot me.” What followed was a ten minute monologue of his life at sea. It was never clear if he had ventured far ‘out’ to sea but he was very familiar with the bays and harbours of the islands that border Vancouver Island and the Mainland.
Time had been spent ‘below deck’ with ‘mariners’ where much alcohol was imbibed and ‘salty’ stories of the sea exchanged. He spoke of sailors and boats that were part of West Coast lore, stories were told in a way that left no doubt he had indeed spent much time below deck.
I recognized the name of one couple, Alan and Sheri Farrell. They were legendary, as was the China Cloud, one of the many hand crafted boats Alan had built. I caught a glimpse of it one day…..
His tales of the sea were interrupted for a moment as Marc admired the necklace one of the women wore, she told him it had belonged to her mother who recently died. Marc’s mother was also dead and he spoke with scorn about being offered a Kitchen Aid mixer when her belongings were being distributed. Living on a sailboat there is no space for such luxuries, he had taken instead a piece of her jewelry.
The talk of dead mothers brought the conversation around to a place that many of us find ourselves when death overtakes a conversation. What was the ‘best way to die?” it was quickly decided that the best way to die was, without doubt, “in your sleep”. There was a silence as this peaceful end was pondered by all…. Marc broke the silence…..”or fucking”.
A rather jarring addition to the usual death options. I adjusted my rear view mirror to see the reaction of the two women but everyone was heading back to their respective vehicles. The ferry had arrived, it was time to board, and so we did, each in our own vehicle with our own thoughts on the matter of Life and Death and how we hoped to experience both.
“There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep and still be counted as warriors.” Adrienne Rich
OFF MAP -FOLLOW THE TERRAIN
“Sit down and weep”, not something I have considered during this period of containment. I own but have not read a book titled “By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept”. I like the title so well I am not sure I will ever read what is inside. Weeping appears to be a more enlightened form of crying. Do we weep for humanity and cry for ourselves?
I want to learn how to ‘weep’ and then search out ‘those among’ us who could acknowledge my strength as a warrior. My hope is they are waiting somewhere ‘off map’, beyond the beyond.
This poem by Joyce Rupp, OLD MAPS NO LONGER WORK speaks to that part that yearns to go ‘off map’ and discover new terrain… perhaps that decision has already been made for us.
these days when words fail us and so many need to be heard, I offer these “two words” in a quote from Richard Wagamese……..
“Sometimes people just need to talk. They need to be heard. They need the validation of my time, my silence, my unspoken compassion. They don’t need advice, sympathy or counselling. They need to hear the sound of their own voices speaking their own truths, articulating their own feelings, as those may be at a particular moment.
Then, when finished, they simply need a nod of the head, a pat on the shoulder or a hug.
I am learning that sometimes silence really is golden, and that sometimes “Fuck, eh?” is as spiritual a thing as needs to be said.
Richard Wagamese. Embers One Ojibway’s Meditations (2013)
Holland House Library London September 1940 morning after an Air Raid
“Order in the midst of Disorder, Outside but also Inside”
This photograph, taken the day after an Air Raid on London in the Fall of 1940 has lived as an icon on my desktop for a few years.
I click on it intermittently to remind myself how resilient we are as human beings. Story-telling animals who in the midst of chaos and uncertainty keep moving forward. Reading, writing and telling our story as part of our survival.
Split screen, calm and chaos, our story being written day by day.
photo westcoastwoman 2020. the ghats at sunrise Varanasi
“Last night, on the banks of the Ganges, I finally learned how to pray.” Michael Allen
VARANASI by Mary Oliver
Early in the morning we crossed the ghat,
where fires were still smoldering,
and gazed, with our Western minds, into the Ganges.
A woman was standing in the river up to her waist;
she was lifting handfuls of water and spilling it
over her body, slowly and many times,
as if until there came some moment
of inner satisfaction between her own life and the river’s.
Then she dipped a vessel she had brought with her
and carried it filled with water back across the ghat,
no doubt to refresh some shrine near where she lives,
for this is the holy city of Shiva, maker
of the world, and this is his river.
I can’t say much more, except that it all happened
in silence and peaceful simplicity, and something that felt
like that bliss of a certainty and a life lived
in accordance with that certainty.
I must remember this, I thought, as we fly back
Pray God I remember this.
Mary Oliver A Thousand Mornings (Penguin, 2012)
Acknowledgment to Ken Chawkin of The Uncarved Blog for bringing this poem to my attention after reading my last piece “Hotel on the Edge of the World” I am a huge admirer of Mary Oliver but had never before come across this poem.
A mother has set up a tightrope for her young daughter to walk and balance upon. There is no net…..not for the daughter or the mother. We are all walking a tightrope here, no net. I find it difficult to look or to look away at this point, some things I have seen I find it hard to find context for.
Illusion of safety no longer exists on any level, unsure of when I surrendered to that fact. One by one we all surrendered in our own time and in our own individual ways. The travelling road show we have been a part of for the last two weeks has arrived at our last place of shelter ‘The Ganges View’ in Varanasi. The Hotel on the Edge of the World is how it feels to me. In reality it is a converted palace full of treasures and art and secrets from the past.
We have heard stories along the way of Varanasi (our final destination) they ranged anywhere from descriptions that portrayed either ‘Pearly gates, Mordor or Oz’ others described it as an LSD trip. It is all of those things and none of them. Varanasi will change you forever but only from the place you are when you arrive. We were warned it could shatter you, I was suitably shattered by the time we arrived ……in some indescribable way this would bring it together.
photo westcoastwoman 2020 one side of the river ‘everything’ the other ‘nothing’
Those who know Varanasi need no explanation, those like myself who knew little of the city before this voyage will need some introduction. Kashi/Benares/Varanasi is India’s holiest city. The Mecca of the Hindu world , the city where every Hindu wants to come to die. Hindu scriptures state that dying here and being cremated along the banks of the Holy Ganges (Ganga) river allows you to break the cycle of rebirth and attain salvation. Up to 150 bodies are publicly cremated every day, 24 hours a day on the banks of the Ganges. The remains are offered into the river.
Every morning and throughout the day there is the life, people bathing, washing clothing and living their life on the banks of Mother Ganga. Everything playing out all at once.
On our last evening we headed out as a group for dinner. Our walking route took us past one of the cremation ghats on the river………four bodies were burning, in attendance were family members, passing public and various other onlookers. Bodies are burned in a wooden pyre and all four were at various stages of disintegration. I saw a foot hanging out of the fire, I looked at my walking companion and she had also seen it. We walked on in silence for a while, finally she said “only in India would you see such a sight on your way to dinner and it would just be part of a day in a life”. She was right.
My experience of death in North America has been hidden or more usually “celebrated” without the celebrant. Life and death in India is just business as usual no safety net or illusion of safety. Raw in your face life and death playing out second by second.
photo westcoastwoman 2020 train station Jaipur our luggage being portaged
I have been changed in ways I have not begun to process and as difficult as some of it has been there has been great strength and love I have felt and assimilated from the people I met. I have been taught about religion by Swamis and scholars and shown a way of life I did not know existed. Visited Tantric Temples, Buddhist Temples, Hindu Temples and the Temple of the ‘Street’.
Someone told me before I left that “When it is your time to go to India, you go to India”
It was my time and I went. It is with much gratitude that I put my hands together in prayer position bend forward and with more understanding and from a deeper place in my heart say to both the country and the people “Namaste”.
A note about the Corona Virus, in order for the group of us to get through this journey we had all personally assessed the risk we were taking from the news reports at the time and decided to go forward. We had access to WiFi off and on during the journey and sometimes we would get the ‘Corona report’ as I came to call it. Carnivale in Venice cancelled, outbreak in Italy, bits and pieces of the outside world getting through. We criss crossed paths with others …Germans….Brits in planes, hotels and temples along the way. It seems we were all wanting minimal information, nothing we could do about it anyway. Turns out we were a week ahead of the Italian travel group that tested positive 16 out of 22 members that are now quarantined somewhere north of Delhi. ( a truly terrifying thought) Timing, decisions, being in the right or wrong place at any moment in time…….illusion of safety, no net.
I am not sure given the current situation I would be choosing to head out on a tour of India today but I am grateful I did when the time seemed right. The wild and sometimes eccentric group of merry travellers I shared the experience with will always be close to my heart.
photo westcoastwoman 2020 early morning at the Temple
This is written like a journal entry, it is the only way I can think to come close to expressing my impressions of India.
I had often heard the expression “assault on your senses” I realize now that I had never really experienced anything close to what India is capable of doing to the senses of a first time North American visitor.
Landing in Delhi is probably a rough way to start but the group of twenty coming from all over the world assembled there just over a week ago. We are a rather strange and eclectic group and after sharing a week together in Delhi, Udaipur, Jaipur and now Agra it is starting to feel a bit like a travelling Agatha Christie novel as interesting a cast of characters one could dream up.
In some ways just allowing yourself to look and take in what is presented you by the mass of humanity that passes by each day is almost too much to comprehend. There is a post apocalyptic feel to what you are seeing and experiencing. The air is unbreathable, the water undrinkable but there is a fullness of life that is unmistakeable as cows, dogs and people coexist in ancient streets and deplorable conditions.
As we slowly make our way from airport to train station to luxury hotels i see and feel my white privilege and need to understand what that really means. I feel more gratitude for what I have and the people in my life than I ever have.
India is not just a place on the map, it feels like an entity that is ripping open my heart and allowing me to see things that would have been impossible to see any other way.
This morning as the sun was rising I stood in front of the Taj Mahal with tears streaming down my face. I have never been so moved by seeing a structure in my life.
This afternoon I am heading out on the adventure of a lifetime, the weeks leading up to it have been an adventure in themselves. The Corona virus and numerous other unexpected roadblocks led me to comment to the organizer of the trip:
“I knew India had things to teach me, I just thought she might let me arrive before the learning began”
I will be visiting North India on a tour of Sacred Places, a Pilgrimage of sorts. I’ve always wanted to expose myself to what India promised to open in anyone who followed the call to travel there. I have readied myself for the fact that in certain areas the air would be hard to breath, the water undrinkable and the food a little dicey for my stomach. The people, the culture and the mass of humanity that is India will test my limits.
Not expected for anyone travelling the world right now or just staying put, is the Corona Virus. I refuse to live my life in fear so I am setting out on what is starting to feel a bit like an Indiana Jones adventure complete with “Nago sadhus” (snake-worshipping ascetics) who live in mud huts dug out in the banks of a river.
The bizarre part comes on the next line of the itinerary :
“Overnight at the Double Tree Hilton”
Snake charmers……to the Hilton I expect I will learn much more than just the history of sacred sights on this journey.
There are 23 of us signed up, a tour leader named Andrew Harvey who is a Scholar, author and a Mystic born in India and spent large swaths of his life there.
So, for the next two weeks when time allows I will be sending little missives, reflections on what I am seeing, feeling and hopefully some words will start to follow me and show up in poetry.
“Humans are liminal creatures. We exist on the margins of the wild. The idea that we might exist in perfect bliss entirely within the wild is rich, romantic fiction. The idea that we might ever exist entirely outside the wild is equally fatuous. It is a witch tale rather than a fairy tale: a dystopia disguised as an ideal.”
Mating in Captivity
Our containment born of song, film, illusion we mate in captivity.
Caged on the edge of a civilization
lost, on its way to where?.
a question or answer.
This destination with no map,
hovers above liminal space
feet dangling, legs pumping.
a pendulum of humanity
drawing in, releasing
breath, body, spirit,
Eyes searching, meeting,
knowing, it’s All or Nothing
one final sweep and we are
“It is a strange and wonderful fact to be here, walking around in a body, to have a whole world within you and at your fingertips outside you. It is an immense privilege, and it is incredible that humans manage to forget the miracle of being here. Rilke said, ‘Being here is so much,’ and it is uncanny how social reality can deaden and numb us so that the mystical wonder of our lives goes totally unnoticed. We are here. We are wildly and dangerously free.”
John O’Donohue quote from Anam Cara
Just over a year ago I posted one of my favorite Joyce Rupp poems “Old Maps No Longer Work” on this site.
For reasons that are still a mystery to me, the link ended up at the top of the search list on Google for that poem. Every day since, at least one person somewhere in the world read it on the site. The constant attention given to the piece prompted me to reread it many times over the last year. Each reading took me deeper into understanding what it meant to be ‘off map’ or ‘mapless’.
As the decade comes to a close I feel compelled to let go of some of my “well travelled paths” with gratitude to where the twists and turns of life have led me but now “It is time for the pilgrim in me to travel in the dark” and “wait for the stars.”
For the next year when I find myself at the inevitable crossroads we all have to face in life, I will repeat the following lines:
“The Map is not the Territory. When Map and Terrain differ, follow the Terrain.”