Lately, I’ve been turning more and more toward nature as a way to remain sane and solitary during this pandemic. I hope these brief meditations and reflections are helpful in providing a small window of contemplation in the midst of negativity. Enjoy!
Please enjoy the video poem above as we seek serenity, equanimity, and stability in this troubled time. Faith and peace to all.
As I begin to conclude my time as faculty at Word and Community: A Writers Retreat, I feel it would be appropriate to reflect on what I’ve learned and gained here. The following are a few lessons I’ve taken from a week in the Wisconsin Northwoods with other writers:
1.) One’s creative impulse and personal faith are two halves of a larger whole. They work integrally with one another and often simultaneously.
2.) Solitude is great, but like everything else, it demands balance. Being by oneself for reflection and contemplation must be counter-weighted by relationship and interaction with others. Too much time in either community or isolation can be detrimental to creativity.
3.) Being on a body of water opens the mind’s gateway to metaphor, analogy, and critical perspective. The physical supplements the metaphysical when paddling a craft.
4.) Nature is necessary to allow the processing of events, truths, and ideas from our lives. Clarity is fostered by trees, trails, and the wild.
5.) We must go in order to return. Away is anywhere not home. Seeking simplicity through complexity leads one back to the familiar and the cherished. And these ideas are also interrelated.
In retrospect, I probably would not have had the time to better understand my craft and my self without this week in the woods. It has allowed me to write, edit, revise, teach, and most of all, relax. I’ve met others I won’t soon forget, eaten differently (and more nutritiously) than I usually would, and cleared away a number of mental cobwebs.
Tomorrow, I will return my rental car, board an airplane, and resume life as husband, dad, educator, and leader. But for these final hours, it’s nice to hear the wind through the pines, watch the ripples on Trout Lake, and hear the bird songs of a place unlike my native Florida. But it will also be good to get back there. Farewell, Wisconsin.
Lately I’ve been pretty fortunate. I’ve had lots of work accepted by various journals and venues, and it’s caused me to think about how the cycles of rejections and acceptances are much like the growth and disappearance of our moon.
Rejections are like the waning: They incrementally diminish the brightness of literary optimism. Each “no” is a small fraction of blackness eating away at the visibility of our hope.
But acceptances are nothing like the moon’s waxing (for me, anyway). Instead of a gradual accretion of luminosity, an acceptance is like the whole moon suddenly lit up, brighter and bigger than science could reasonably explain. Whatever darkness may have accumulated is swept away with a single “We would like to publish…”
Ancient adages tell us that planting on a growing moon gives us a better harvest. The Old Farmer’s Almanac tracks moon cycles for just such purposes. My grandparents believed that getting your haircut during a waxing moon meant that the hair would grow back faster. Better wait until the waning to get a trim.
Maybe these pieces of lore have relevance for writers, too: How many Adrienne Rich poems mention the moon, for example? How much more inspired are we by the bright glowing orb in the sky than by the fading slender smile of its counterpart? Perhaps this line of thought is stretching logic a bit, but let’s be honest: The earth’s gravitational pull, the tides, and the other forces of nature around us bear more influence on our artistic motivation than we care to admit.
And when that motivation, that muse, whispers words to us that we lovingly bring to the page, we hope that soon, our lunacy will be rewarded. A bright yellow moon will hang in the sky of our minds, lit fully and immediately by a single glorious word: Yes.
Poets tend to view age a little differently from most people: We measure our years in publications, gatherings (literary and not), and in Eliot’s case, even coffee spoons. I had some real reservations about being 41 over the past year. After all, could there be a less consequential age? Friends and family make such a big deal out of 40 that its successor seems like an anticlimax.
For me, 41 was fairly quiet, but I did get to inch a little closer to bigger goals and dreams. I wrote a creative writing course for my college which was adopted institution-wide (even in China and Latin America), I wrote some pretty decent poetry that got published in places I liked, and I moved to a new home in a friendly neighborhood just miles away from scenic woods with a creek.
Maybe the creek has been the most monumental of all “41” discoveries. It has given me the chance to spend time with my boys making memories that are genuine. There are vines hanging over the creek that are strong enough for both sons to swing on, a tree bridge, and of course, all the other nature-based sights and sounds that go with a small flowing body of water: fish, snakes, raccoons, and even an occasional bobcat. It’s a place that is magical for many reasons.
I suppose, however, that what I appreciate most about the creek is its authenticity. Unlike theme parks, movie theaters, or tourist traps, the creek is a place where my boys can allow their imaginations to determine their adventures. There are no lines, no prescribed rides or experiences, no Hollywood artifice. At the creek, we are kept company by red-tailed hawks rather than costumed characters, and we are guided not by slick brochures or fake technology, but by the soft currents that flow through Florida forests and boyish ambitions.
At different times, I’ve watched my sons become pirates, jungle explorers, and even characters from various novels. Recently, I helped both boys create flutter-mills like the one mentioned in Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling. Rawlings used the flutter-mill as a symbol of passing time and a foreshadowing of coming maturity, and never have those ideas held such weight in my own mind. Middle age reminds one that things are halfway over, and you better get busy making your difference.
Maybe my difference won’t be measured in ink. Maybe it will be measured in creek water and sons’ laughter. Either way, I’m satisfied. If 42 is anything like 41, I’m looking forward to it. There are still plenty of things I’d like to accomplish both professionally and personally, but the 40s are also much like a hammock stretched in the middle of one’s chronology — yes, there are visible fixed points at both ends, but as long as I’m here in the middle of leaving a legacy, I might as well enjoy the sway of the breeze, the sky above, and the soft rhythms that make life enjoyable. Happy birthday to me.
Once when I was fifteen years old, I climbed a waterfall. To be precise, I climbed the rock facing underneath the waterfall. My family and I were in north Georgia at the time, and the trail leading to the falls had ended at a wooden deck-style overlook some distance back, but I was not to be restrained by man-made barriers. As a young man full of vigor and adventure, I knew I could get closer. I had no idea how close I would get…to dying.
At the base of the falls well off the path, I began my steep ascent. The hard rock underbelly of the falls was covered in algae and ferns, and my fingernails dug up green with each new handhold. My hiking boots were not designed for this type of climbing, but they held fast to the slick and treacherous surface. Their cleats, too, ripped into the carpet of greenery. Each move was a calculated, deliberate decision. My pulse was racing, my stomach flooded with adrenaline. Still, I was too deep into the task to go back, and had I wanted to, I probably couldn’t have. I decided to see this venture through with discernment and strength. Even with caution, though, bad things happen.
As I neared the top of the falls, the gush and roar of the waters above me became near-deafening. I knew I’d have to veer to one side of the overflow or the other. The problem I now faced was inexperience — as an untrained and unfamiliar climber, I knew how to go up, but beyond that one direction, my movement was limited. I’d have to go straight through the water to reach the top. I summoned my most courageous breath, and felt the current strike the crest of my scalp. I pushed upward, caught a face full of water, and fell backward.
It was a surprisingly short fall — unlike those dreams where one seems to descend for eternity before waking with a jolt, this fall scraped my chin and chest on the rock outcropping, and in the midst of the peril, my fingers and boot-treads made one last grasp to the surface. I had enough purchase to shove my way up the right side of the falls, and eventually, I found myself standing at their apex, looking back down the long trail of white and the brutal path beneath it. Around me, mountain laurel were in bloom, and I could see our campsite in the distance. The victory at last was mine, and a hard lesson was learned. My chin was still bleeding. I covered it with my bare hand, and walked in the direction of camp.
I thought of this experience recently as I was growing impatient with other life circumstances. As regular readers know, I have a book forthcoming this summer, and my career is in a state of flux as I attempt to transition from secondary to post-secondary teaching. The end of the school year is upon us, and I’m generally discontent with waiting. The waterfall climb of my youth was one made with persistence, care, decisiveness, and bravery. As I think back on it, I recognize traits that I now need as the next chapter of my biography is only a few pages away. And while I may experience a “slip” or two along the way, I understand that, like surmounting any great obstacle, judicious patience remains key.
You knew it had to show up sooner or later, reader. What better way to conclude a series on epiphanies than with the one thing that has inspired countless poets over centuries? Nature, when all else fails, returns us to our basest and most earnest humanity. In nature, we find a little of what has motivated all those poets who have come before us. Moreover, who can resist the mesmerizing wonder of a spider repairing a dew-dropped web, or a leaf reflecting with the orange of seasonal light? Nature, for certain, holds both scientific mysteries and spiritual inspiration, even for the most adamant cynic.
Why else would so many poets “go for a walk” when words fail them? Why is it that, when we wish to “escape” our civilized routines, we inevitably turn to remote greener locales as our getaway? Yes, the view in wilderness is different from our common existence, but there’s also a matter of instinct at work here: As living, breathing organisms, we have an inchoate desire to connect with the raw and unmodified elements of a more primal, unspoiled world. I know. Some of you are shaking your heads, yelling “Just give me my Ritz-Carlton, my Starbucks, my iPhone and my Land Rover!” That’s okay. Deny it all you want, metropolitan, but deep within you, beyond that glossy, technology-loving veneer, you too have a drive to connect with nature. We all do.
Poets, of course, have historically been more susceptible to this drive than others less sensitive. Every crackle of a branch, every rustle of a leaf, every soft flit in the brush is amplified to the artist, and so, nature becomes a sense-heightening experience. This fact drives the plethora of residencies, fellowships, and conferences held in splendorous locations amid mountains, forests, lakes, and canyons. Knowing full well that artists, and especially poets, cannot resist the draw of God’s inimitable creation, organizers and program developers often choose serene vistas for optimum imagination engagement. It just makes sense.
The writer’s versions of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau embodied the Naturalist aesthetic, and in so doing, fathered a movement followed even today. We can look at formalists, modernists, post-modernists, Language poets, or the broad spectrum of other “schools” that exist out there, but within each one, there is influence that stems from the natural world, no matter how slight. Some may justify this influence by stating the obvious: The world is all around us; of course it’s going to drive artistic work! True, but in a world dominated by steel, circuits, satellites, and fiber optics, why would we continue to devote our attentions to things less shiny, less electronic, or less progressive? You, reader, know why. Whether you believe evolution and adaptation are to credit, or whether you believe in a more supernatural cause, the truth is undeniable — nature is as much a part of us as our flesh, our blood, our very DNA. To get outside our limited perspective, we must literally and figuratively get outdoors.
As I draw this series to a close, I would ask my followers and readers to respond to one simple question: What is it that gives you revelation? How do you generate or receive epiphanies of your own? Your thoughts and comments, as always, are appreciated. And until next time, get outside!