on navigating New England

New England roads, bless their spice-pickin’, shoe-cobblin’, trade-wind keelin’ hearts, take a traveler straight down to the knees a few times before they let up and simply remap your brain for navigating their terrain. Either that or you just stay down for the count.

These roads, someone once told me, bespeak aged connections to cow paths and backwoods trade routes. They circle utterly enchanting commons and roundies, but it’s important not to show up thinking you’ll follow a road map anywhere here. Narrow, winding, and gutsy, these roads are, and the marking of cross streets is wankered verboten. Street signs, even at intersections, carry one name: one: the more common two (everywhere else but rural Iowa) must be a colonial sacrilege of some sort that my years of study did not adequately prepare me to understand. You’d think you should be able to navigate your way around New England if you have a Ph.D. with one field straddling the long 18th century and kicking out both ends of it (late colonial Americas and U.S. in the world), no? No. You can drive on a main drag here for four miles and never know the name of it, because it simply isn’t marked on any of the cross streets.

Street names, too. They change them every few hundred feet. Even when the road doesn’t split or turn or do anything but lay itself out as straight ahead till morning as it can go? They give it a different name. Often. Google Maps handles that by constantly repeating the command, “Continue on x.” “Continue on y.” Continue on.

It’s a ruddy sight on earth. The road signage alone seems to intone, sermon-like from a tall pulpit, in the stentorian tones of Sinners before an Angry God: If you don’t know where you are, you probably shouldn’t be here. That used to buffalo me, so I over prepped my pre-mapping. Collected every last step of every planned jaunt, down to the distance between one turn and the next. This is a terrible idea and a worse practice. The more prepped you are, the more lost you can get, and the quicker you’ll do it, too. There is a better way. It involves thinking like a cow.

I adore New England. Everything about it. Even the fact that it is packed with more people than you can shake a stick at. But when I get behind the wheel of a car to go someplace entirely new—and especially when I’ve been away for too long—if I forget the insights of the cow path and start thinking like a person? I will get lost. But when I remember to look up and around and smell the air and follow my instincts in the general direction of where I’m headed? I get where I’m going. Usually by a preferred route to boot (though I only learn that much later, which makes it akin to getting happy news twice).

You have to aim somewhere and then amble, peaceably, chewing a cud and not overwrought at the world, genially following the tail of the car ahead and taking direction off the side streets: I’ve been on this road now for 4.2 miles and there, I just passed a Lowell Ct sign. So yes, this must be Lowell Road now. Oh, that’s Andover Ct. Must’ve transformed itself from Lowell to Andover somewhere near that blue colonial with the metal-gray roof. Wonder if there’s a watering hole anywhere close? Ambling thus makes me thirsty. Oh yes. Of course. Dunkin Donuts. There’s one roughly every block in all directions. Sometimes two. Can’t use them to navigate by, because they nearly all look alike, but you can fuel up for the trip everywhere. Plus you can talk to Yankees while you do it.

These people are some of the friendliest I have ever met. Most of them don’t know what|from on directions (they can be two blocks from where I’m heading and have no idea what I’m talking about, though my accent and historical leanings could be skewing that sample; and if I were looking for a baseball or football venue, I’m fairly sure I could get detailed instructions). Those who know are happy to help: I’ve had people cross busy streets and come out from behind lunch counters with people waiting in the line to help me when they see that I’m asking someone who doesn’t know.

New England is about community. It would have to be, given how many people are here and how long that’s been so. It’s also about land and sea. And therein may lie the crux, a better explanation than colonial cow paths and jeremiads to boot: this culture is deeply rooted in navigating blue water with nary a spit of land within beckoning or seeing distance, no matter the mood of the skies and winds, and, as if that isn’t enough, they are skilled in bringing vessels safely to harbor undeterred by the perils of any shoals because they relied on pilots and instincts and sea charts and advice shared from one mariner to another for generations. Cross-directional road signs? Who needs those?

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 ~

 

 

on being sent places of a morning

“I can’t help but believe that I was sent here this morning to meet you,” she said, this woman a few years younger than me, walking an elegant dog half as tall as herself. The dog, mottled brown, wore a large shoulder bandage still from the last of two dog attacks on him, just days ago. Insecure and anxious, he had nearly provoked another one—in his efforts not to be attacked yet again—as my dog (Sexy Louis, tiny by comparison) and I walked up minutes earlier. But we, being not foes but friends, let him close the gap as we stood non-reactive but alert, letting the moment unfold without forcing it. When the big brown started to leap toward Louis, both of us turned half a step aside so the aggression could not connect, and it faded swiftly in that space.

We visited then, the woman and I, Louis and the brown, and the low-key energies of Louis and I eased their concerns, for we are friendly and approachable and, after all, people walking dogs or vice versa are nearly always benefited by stopping to sniff  one another and share stories and the like. I shared with her some of the tips that reliably have worked for me with aggressive off-leash animals, and I could see her fear lessen as I spoke, Sexy Louis standing staring up at the big brown dog, curious but leaving a completely loose leash between him and me, even when that big guy finally reached over to sniff me, and calm enveloped the four of us bar none as we stood there and kept visiting.

In the way of conversations unforced, we wound up talking about dog encounters from here on this deeply historied commons by the sea in Massachusetts all the way to the Mojave, and Louis vouched for me with his peaceable behavior. We exchanged names then, this woman and I, expecting to cross paths again before long, and she started on her way, but turned back and said that to me, impulsively, perhaps surprising herself. Definitely surprising me.

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“I can’t help but believe that I was sent here this morning to meet you.”

What a gift that was, of a morning following close on the heels of a full day and night and part of another wondering if my whole life has been wrong to this point, one bad choice unleashing a cluster-strike of decades of less-than-good decisions because there were no others to make after that single unwise choice so long ago. Life cascades at us. Pummels us on good days, and crashes in like a tsunami on the rest. We try to walk free, but keep getting sucked back into our mistakes. It’s as if our future footfalls all landed years ago, some days, and we only get to trudge through them, knowing the end and yet not being able to step aside. Ah, what dramas we weave in our stories of such matters!

For then we awake and pray and walk a small dog along the sea’s edge to the commons, and all along the way there were people connecting—making eye contact on purpose and then conversation. Another woman and I walked eight blocks alongside, visiting about this little city that I love so well, chatting about our dogs and her noticing and mentioning the look of open adoration that Louis turns my way every few feet no matter what else is afoot and how he and I seem to be communicating without words even needed, which she thought was cool and so did I, for that matter, now that it had been mentioned so that I could notice its extraordinariness, too, and that was a full half an hour before we ever reached the commons and the brown dog and his owner—and this is New England, no less, which far too many have tried to convince me (with zero success) is not friendly to strangers!

In these connections and the overwhelming feeling of neighborly kindness, of being valued just for who I am, bad choices and trudging through notwithstanding, I can’t help but believe that I was sent there this morning to meet each one of them and their dogs. For in every one—I know this now though I cannot say how—some slip of my spirit resides, calling me home in the world, dramas moot, for the real stuff of being is so much more arms-wide-open-to-it-all than that!

~

on standing with peace in a loss

I am struck today by this: When we stand grieving the loss of someone or some thing we have loved or held dear, it serves us in many ways. If we can find the beauty in the loss, though, and feel the peace within the transformations that this loss has engendered, then grief serves a deeper purpose. One of healing and renewal and a deep knowing that from every death arises another rebirth.

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on belonging to the earth and beyond

“In the village, life is directly inspired by the earth, by the trees, by the hills and rivers. We live at the threshold between the ancestor world—the world of spirit—and the human world.” Sobonfu Somé, Dagara “keeper of the rituals”

As I read these healing words yesterday, it came to me strong that our villages rest on the portals of all that is or ever was. We are not strangers here. We belong to the earth and to what lies beyond.

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~

on what we agree to becoming our fate

On waking from a dream of social destruction and primal violence last night, still held in that world’s thrall and unable to shake the sense that these portents and doom have emerged from the now that is not a dream, I feel sure of nothing but this:

How we treat the most assailed among us now is our personal destiny. If we demean or add to their suffering, we will be demeaned, we will suffer. If we do not do everything in our power to lighten their daily burdens, we will one day carry those burdens alone. If we agree to some parts of our world remaining broken just because we do not seem to be affected by them yet, we break the whole world in the doing, and we will not escape its broken, jagged edges. Gated communities, privileges of any kind, police forces and militaries and corporate greed and the political gamesmanship that appear now to be holding that jaggedness at bay for some and not others? Will turn, as surely as the earth does from day to night, on the privileged and unprivileged alike. No one is immune, no matter how seemingly impregnable a fortress s/he builds to hide in.

I speak not of karma here, for what I am describing is a deeper truth emerging from right now, this moment in time and beyond, as so many are suffering due to the actions and inactions and sheer apathetic willingness of the rest of us to agree to their pain, their exploitation, their illnesses and hunger and lack of any kind as we ourselves move right on—full and seemingly protected and entertained and filling ourselves with all that is good—heady into the shallows of what appears to be our removals from even the suffering that we have caused. Or deepened. Or made inescapable for someone else by our choices.

Nothing can redeem us as individuals or communities unless we can look on all beings alongside as inescapably part of us. Nothing. All one—bar none ever—we will succumb to the same fate as do the most assailed among us. We have moved to a point in human history where everything good is possible, for we have all the tools that we need right now to alleviate suffering for all, but we have also more chances than ever to construct only destruction and swathes of privilege resting on the broken bodies of untold billions, both human and not. But, no matter which paths we choose? Our destinies are inextricably intertwined.

No more will the wealthy get off so easy, while clambering up on the backs or throats of those who have fewer resources. No more will the well-placed be able to secure safety for themselves at the expense of others. Such moves were always temporary anyway, as history itself has demonstrated repeatedly, but the coming cataclysm will test the human species for a single lesson: Can you recognize your oneness with all that exists and act accordingly? Or will you sentence yourself to primal destruction alongside the beings whom you have agreed can be destroyed on your behalf?

Life provides many a lesson, all valuable but some taken more easily to the unruffled heart than others. Few have shaken me to the core. This one feels different. This one splinters all the carefully justified and evidenced reasons for why it is okay to move through the world being okay with using other people and animals or destroying life-giving resources of this planet solely for gain and greed. This one behooves us to take signal care of the whole earth and each other, paying especial attention to those among us who do not have all the privileges we presently do, for our own fates are tied up with theirs and will most surely come to pass, both in time and beyond it.

Yet there is no earthly need to throw ourselves into cataclysm so determinedly. We have all the tools we need to choose otherwise. We are better than our fears and our present greed. We are better than our needs for status and wealth and position. We are better than our soul- and body-wrecking consumptions and waste in a world where so many do without. We have all the love of forever within us—every last one of us, bar none—and it only awaits our slightest glance to become fulsome within and reach out to bless all alongside. We are all one. That is the core lesson. We will learn it. The only question is when, and how much suffering will we agree to cause for others and ourselves on the way? For the planet’s sake, and the sake of all beings alongside us, and for the sake of all humans now and still to come, I pray that we learn it soon.

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~

on this moment

This moment. This exact one. No other.

No yesterday, tomorrow, mañana, or anon. This moment.

All that ever is or was, could’ve or might’ve or even should’ve been,

all that never was and now never will be?

Is here, right now. In this single moment.

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To breathe, to know with all cells and beyond what it is just to be, simply alive.

This moment.

~

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