Friday, July 11, 2008

Addie and Lucas

[Note: On June 7th, 2008, the marriage ceremony of my niece Addie and her affianced husband, Lucas, took place. I was more than a wedding guest; just over ten months earlier Addie and Lucas had asked me to perform the ceremony. There is some irony in this, at least for me, mainly because I have devoted much of my adult life to emptying myself of beliefs. I am an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church of Modesto, California, an on-line ministry apparently founded, in part, on the belief that spiritual authority is everyone’s birthright.

I was 26 when Addie was born, a young 26 by any reckoning; in a way, I grew up with Addie. She remained an especially important presence in my life during the five and a half years before my first child, Eli, was born.

The location for the ceremony was near Park City, Utah, at a dude ranch with a livery stable that separated a clearing, mostly paved, from a meadow, lush with the tender growth of green grass in early June, and surrounded by aspens whose leaves were just unfurling, green and sticky, from their buds. A clear stream of fresh snow-melt purled and chortled softly along the edge of the meadow.]

On behalf of Addie and Lucas, welcome, every one, to this wedding celebration. For those of you who may not know me, I’m Addie’s uncle Creighton. And though I have not come into my spiritual authority, such as it is, by any conventional pathways, I have performed five weddings now. I am happy to say that, to this day, each of the couples whose ceremonies I’ve conducted remain married, although I claim no credit for their success.

[During this introduction, the brides’ maids processed from the livery stable up to the speaker’s right of the altar. By the time I finished the introduction, Addie emerged from behind the stable doors on a black stallion named Teton, her white wedding gown billowing on Teton's jet-black flanks. It was among the most profoundly beautiful sights I have seen in my entire life. She rode up on Teton to the end of the row of brides’ maids, dismounted, and stepped onto the altar.]

None of us would be here today if it weren’t for many orders and hierarchies of interaction, for the marriage of mighty forces, for the co-mingling of many diverse elements – of earth and sky and water, of light and dark, of life and death. We are among a vast multitude of forms, continuously rising into and falling out of being, living not into certainty but into possibility.

And now we are gathered to celebrate the marriage of two mighty souls. Yes, Lucas and Addie, you are mighty souls. I begin here now, having accepted the priceless gift the two of you have given me. Of all the people you could have invited to lead this ceremony, many of whom now stand here with hearts full of love and best wishes and a thousand beautiful poems, you chose me. I confess that there have been many moments in the past few months when I did not feel quite equal to this immense gift – even now . . . . Yet, now, I stand among you all, upon this great earth, here in the Wasatch Mountains, as we join our hearts together to celebrate the profound miracle of your love for one another.

Now, we all get to hear another voice. Lucas' sister, Kelly Murdock, has a poem she has selected for the occasion, one that fits our “western” theme. Kelly? . . . .

[Kelly stepped up to the altar and read a cowboy poem, about two lovers who find one another in the mountains and deserts of Utah. I have yet to procure a copy of the text or to discover its source or its author.]

Thank you, Kelly. Thank you so much. That poem situated Addie’s and Lucas’ marriage beautifully within the context of the culture and landscape of America’s west, where the marriage between free-spirited independence and a commitment to care for others and for this earth has inspired the songs of poets, troubadours, iconoclasts, mystics, cowgirls, and cowboys.

Lucas, Addie, just look at you: all lit up in one another’s presence, listening to your hearts, to one another’s hearts, to the world at large, learning and growing and laughing, as you have since you first met. Many of your friends here from Southern California know the genesis of your relationship much better than I. But I have come to understand that out of the unimaginably varied experiences you brought to bear upon your first meeting with one another, you had the wisdom, good fortune, and grace to take the time to found your relationship on a deep and abiding friendship.

The etymological roots of the word “friend” reach back to the Old English noun frEo, which means “free,” and the Old English verb frEon, which means “to love.” Perhaps the most evolved form of relationship for human beings is one where we remain, in every circumstance, free to love. Lucas and Addie, you are showing us that a marriage grounded in a friendship where you have remained free to love lives not into narrowing certainty but into endlessly proliferating possibility.

A few weeks ago, I asked Addie and Lucas, each, separately, how they might go about answering the following question: if you could gaze deeply, one to another, and make a vow from the deepest wellsprings of your soul, what would you say? I realize now, as I feel your mighty hearts so fully present, so in love with one another, that I may as well have asked the Earth how it turns, the rivers how they run, the tides how they ebb and flow, the stars how they shine.

But you, Lucas and Addie, are nothing if not fearless. And though you may devote the lives remaining to you finding ways to give utterance to the deepest wellsprings of your souls, you spoke with your hearts, fearlessly and truly. What you said, Addie, hit an 8.7 on the Richter Scale of Love. You told me that you have remained so “in synch” with Lucas that you can immediately detect when things begin to wobble, and that you have learned to welcome even the slightest wobble as an occasion to open up, to learn, to grow, and to continue living into the possibilities you are creating for yourself and for your life with Lucas.

And you, Lucas, shared that the first impressions arising in your heart were how deeply and well you love, simply, to be with Addie, how much gentle joy you find in celebrating and sharing all you have in common. But then you said something that quaked my world with aftershocks every bit as powerful as those with which Addie had just rocked me. What you shared was that, in the time you have known Addie, you have gone far beyond an appreciation of what you hold in common; you have come to love and admire all the ways she’s different from you, and that every one of these differences is a quality you are seeking to nurture in yourself. Opening to the all the ways you and she are different is inspiring you to be more compassionate and steady and calm and accepting.

These may not be marriage vows in any familiar religious sense, but they are much more profound than anything that could be declared in any ceremony. They are inspiring me with a love that goes far beyond my humble reach with words. For I realize that you, Addie and Lucas, have been marrying yourselves to one another for years now, and that this ceremony is just one more way for you to share -- with us and with the world -- what you’ve been up to for some time now. Goodness gracious! Lo and behold, you’re already married! You’ve rendered my job as minister here today superfluous!

What is not superfluous, at all, is that you have invited all of us here today to share this fabulous day. Thank you. Thank you, so much. Your love for one another is creating for us the possibility of falling in love with our own lives, of living in ever more full and fulfilling fidelity with the people we love, and living ever more fully into our commitments to one another.

And there are many people who could not be here with us today, people whom we miss, people who, though no longer alive among us, have made this day possible. They would want to be here, I think, and, in at least one case, there is one dear soul I know for certain who wanted to be here. To the extent we carry those who are not with us today in our hearts, they are here, helping us to feel and to breathe and to love. I know that loss and death do not ordinarily come up as themes in a wedding, but you, Addie and Lucas, are not ordinary people, and this is not an ordinary wedding. Your love has deepened my understanding that death is the affirmation, not the negation, of life.

Your vows to one another are commitments to remain fearless, honest, responsible, and in good humor; they are commitments to remain free to learn, to grow, and to transform, vigorously and unceasingly; they are commitments to bring into being only what is best for one another, though you may not always know, from one moment to the next, what that may be.

Do you, Alison Addie Jane Daubner Burgess King, take this man, Lucas Graham Murdock, so deeply to heart that you will always love, uplift, and care for him; that you will always treat him with grace and dignity; and that you will always inspire him to be at his very best, no matter what else is happening in the world around you?

ADDIE: “I do.”

Do you, Lucas Graham Murdock, take this woman, Addie King, so deeply to heart that you will always love, uplift, and care for her; that you will always treat her with grace and dignity; and that you will always inspire her to be at her very best, no matter what else is happening in the world around you?

[Here, Lucas queued up a CD of the song “I Do” by Boyz 2 Men, and the grooms’ men grooved into a synchronized dance as back-up while Lucas did a phenomenal job lip-synching the song. It was hilarious and provided a balance of mirth that played way better than my wildest expectations! Then he resumed his position at the altar.]

LUCAS [to laughter]: “I do.”

May I have the rings? [Addie and Lucas whistled, and their Golden Retriever came bounding up with a satin pillow tied to his back. A ring was tied to the pillow. The real rings were in my pocket. I pulled the ring for Addie from my left pocket and gave it to Lucas. He slid it upon her finger. Then I pulled the ring for Lucas from my right pocket and gave it to Addie. She slid it on his finger.]

I now pronounce you husband and wife, wife and husband, and I wish you all the happiness and love in the world.

Addie, Lucas, you may now live, as free beings, into the possibilities endlessly marrying themselves through you. And you may now kiss one another.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Message from a Boulder in Havasu Canyon

Here is a translation of utterances made by a boulder resting in the bottom of Havasu Canyon, Arizona, not far from Havasu Falls:

You look at me now. Look at you. I know what you're thinking. It makes no difference whether you write this down or not. No difference to me. Well, that's not quite true. It's just that I've been hurt before. Though the passive voice is misleading. The wound turned out to be self-inflicted.
I'll spare you that story. For now. I know how to ease into a conversation.

I broke loose and toppled from the headwall of sandstone above. It must have been 3,500 years ago or so, as you count the laps Earth makes around the sun. How little you human beings understand of time – inured as you are to the rounds of day and night that so occupy the making of a life.

Listen, I can show you time: my disparate, constituent particles blowing around forever and a day, or so it seemed at the time, amidst an ocean of dunes. My gradual subsidence, spanning millennia, beneath a shallow sea. My slow burial beneath thousands of feet of sand and clay. My rise into wind and weather over the course of millions of years. Eons of deep time, passing mostly in silence, with no apparent movement whatsoever. And then, deja vu: the earth shook. Suddenly, borne
away from the stone strata where I'd been hidden from myself for so long, I fell thousands of feet and came to rest where you see me now: here, now, the solitary stone you find before you. I could show you more, but I don't want to bore you. Not that I think I have. It's just that a lot of people don't seem to notice. As if they think I'm dumb.

What, you think there's a law that says a boulder can't have a sense of humor? Or any creature feeling? You, standing there, in alarming contrast to the land around you, with your bright colors, your notebook and pen, acting as if you've never been and are not now hidden from yourself, trying not to miss or misconstrue what I’m saying, acting as if the words of a stone might carry some sort of gravitas. More likely they carry evidence of your lunacy. At least you get some credit, among those of your kind with a romantic bent, for listening to the moon. But surely you know what people will say when you try to pass this off as words you got from a stone, don't you?

If they only knew. And if they did, would it make any difference? What are they making of their biblical allotment of three score and ten, anyway? You can smell the burning and the blood from here.

And, more to the point, what are you making of yours? These are not rhetorical questions. It's ok, take your time. You have all the life remaining to you to ponder answers. Which only lead to more questions. On and on it goes. With hours that number so few, compared to mine, do you ever for an instant take your life for granted? Nothing personal, but it's not much, your life. I know, it's all you got. You could do worse. And surely will, some day. Not meaning to be harsh. I may be a stone, but I'm not devoid of irony. Or of art or empathy, for that matter, which, to my way of thinking, are all one and the same.

Pardon the redundancy, but this bears emphasis: I've been hurt. And the irony of the passive voice is that it veils the fact that I was more than an accomplice: I was principal agent. Though it's true I wasn't acting alone. Just unconscious of the fact. From the wound, I brought forth the conscious will to change what is, as if I could undo what had already been done, and with that, the will to cry out, to speak from the IS in me to the IS of the invisible realms, to be heard and understood. Perhaps that's the closest a boulder can get to time on a human scale. That's where you come in. A voice seeks an audience. It seeks to enter into conversation.

I understand why you would project the logic of your own small making onto the world at large, then endow that projection with sovereignty over all else, including yourself. It's a sort of spell you cast in the vain hope of avoiding pain, a spell that works only as long as you believe it will. But that belief, as infinitesimal and evanescent as the life given to you, cannot outlast the pain.
Of course it takes more than the words of a boulder to break the spell. That's up to you, entirely. But I got news: you don't have to wait till you're dead, though death's a sure-fire way. Do you understand now what’s at stake? No time to lose. I say this not to make you cry but as your friend.

I nearly forgot who I was talking to, and a rock forgets nothing. That I know of. Somehow along the way you must have learned to take others’ lives lightly, while conceiving of your own flesh, nerves, blood, and bones as substantial and inviolate, a solid-seeming wager against impermanence and loss. Let me tell you, that's a wager you're sure to lose. Not to lay it on thick with the cliches. I do what I have to, to get my point across. Circumstances being what they are. Less than ideal, if you don't mind my saying so . . .

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Havasupai Country

For nine days in February, along with fifteen students, three fellow teachers, and one alumnus from my school, I journeyed over a thousand miles, by van and on foot, from Las Vegas to Havasu Canyon to the Grand Canyon to Bryce Canyon to Zion Canyon and back to Las Vegas. It was our school's Winterim, during which time teachers lead students on various excursions -- from France to Guatemala to community service projects in the Tacoma region to college trips to backpacking and camping trips such as ours. My group gathered backpacking gear and flew from Seatac Airport to Las Vegas, where we rented a caravan of passenger vans and drove across the Hoover Dam toward our first night's lodging in a motel in Kingman, Arizona, which served as a staging area for our journey to the rim of Havasu Canyon the following day.

Havasu Canyon is a tributary of the Colorado River at the Grand Canyon's western part. The trail head, Hualapai Hilltop, overlooks the canyon from a vantage point more than 6,000 feet above sea level. As we closed our packs and hefted them to our shoulders, we could see snow from a recent storm brightening the shadows and setting off the lineaments of the north-facing buttes and sandstone cliffs, tawny and rust-colored landforms jutting into the clear sky, the bluest of blue. After descending two or three miles of relatively steep switchbacks, the trail eased into an open canyon that narrowed with each step along the six or seven mile walk into the village of the Havasupai Indians, who have lived and farmed in the canyon for thousands and thousands of years. Here, where the trail enters the village, the luminescent blue water of Havasu Creek flows into the canyon. We were greeted with views of old and new homes, yards with ramshackle fences surrounding horses and donkeys and mules and cows and the occasional goat, quite a few friendly dogs moving untethered and free, and gentle smiles on the faces of the Havasupai people.

The contrasts between the suburbs of Tacoma, where most of the students on our trip live, and the Havasupai Reservation, which depends largely on horse, donkey, and mule trains to bring in supplies and carry out mail and refuse, tells of two Americas: the America of egregious consumption, running on gasoline, credit, and greed; and the America of its indigenous, sovereign peoples, who live distinctly on the margins. The Havasupai people, for the most part, still inhabit their ancestral homeland: Havasu Canyon is remote and difficult to access, on land that happens to have no minerals to mine or forests to clear cut.

On our third day there, we hiked down to the Colorado River, following a route that meandered around and through pool after pool of turquoise blue water. We camped in the cottonwoods between two grand waterfalls, where we had a great view of the lunar eclipse during the night of February 20th -- the darkened full moon, filtered down to the color of blood by the earth's umbra, heightened the brilliance of the stars. And in the light of the preceding day, you could see cottonwood trees crowned with green buds, the grasses and early flowers breaking thick and lush through the soil’s winter crust.

After leaving Havasupai land, we drove through a full-on blizzard as we passed by the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, so our views were limited to a frenzy of snowflakes veiling ghostly shapes. We drove on through the storm across the Navajo Reservation toward Ruby's Inn and Bryce Canyon N.P. in southern Utah that afternoon, then hiked a loop in Bryce the following morning as the storm cleared -- it was magical swishing through crystals from one of those fabled desert snowfalls, amid almost unearthly colors and weird shapes called "hoodoos" -- like the lumpy towers of sand castles, pink and orange and red and hundreds of feet tall, drizzled through the fingers of giants, pointing toward clouds breaking to a deep blue sky.

We then drove to Zion N.P. -- all but two of our fifteen students ventured with two co-leaders and me toward Angel's Landing, a grand sandstone fin jutting about 1700 feet above the Virgin River below. We broke trail through the snow to within 100 meters or so of the top, but it became too treacherous to proceed, clutching as we were to chains and handrails the park service installed back in the 30s to aid climbing. Zion was absolutely amazing - I'd never seen so much snow there; the cliffs were heaped with white quilts, festooned with mighty icicles and silver strands of waterfalls; several of the waterfalls disintegrated into mist as they dropped a thousand vertical feet in free fall!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Giving Thanks

I give thanks to my parents, for showing me what love is. And, to the ones whom I have broken and who have broken me, thank you for helping me know what love means and for helping me grow up to be a man. Thank you, friends and family and fellow travelers, for your patience and forgiveness. I am learning to love, from facing the harm I've done to others and to myself, and I'm doing my best to heal. Love as I feel it now is a wound that opens in abundance and, lacking nothing of itself, seeks only the good of others and works so that good may always come to others. There is precious little good, it seems, in the world of people, and yet so many good people in the world. There is so much good I could have given the world that I did not give, and the truth is there's a great deal of good I have taken from the world, and taken lightly, with not so much as a word of thanks.

I have more than thanks to give, more than words. I have my work to give, for the benefit of my students and fellow teachers, work that may, in turn, come to benefit the workers who toil and die every day for the benefit of those of us at the receiving end of a supply line that is stripping the world of its resources at a rate unprecedented in all of human history.

I say this with a full, open heart wringing out: I can save my life only by giving it away (though with my son, Eli, and my daughter, Rachel, still in college and debts to settle, I'll continue to accept, with thanks, any honest pay for my honest work). I say this knowing there's work to be done and abundance to be shared, and many years of deep struggle for a great many deep people before any of us can hold ourselves up and say, justice has been served, justice for every child, woman, and man living on Earth. I have my vigor to give, and my sanity, such as it is. I have my courage and my patience to give--lord knows how my courage and patience have flagged.

And, with no claim of possession or sense of entitlement, I have my life to give, as it is given to me. I give my life to each one of my family and friends, to every person in my school community, to my neighbors, to the mountains and forests and deserts and rivers and plains and hills and coastlines of North America, to the wildlife that leap the fences and soar the skies and swim the waters and work the soil, to every human being whom I chance to meet, and, though I humbly and gratefully acknowledge my human limits, I give my life to this beautiful and beleaguered Earth that gives itself to all in such terrific abundance, day in and day out--this one, dear Earth, the only home I've known.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Wake

Just when the last fiber of his being vanished in a moment of unbearable pain, just when he'd given himself up for dead, all he'd done in life to force his dreams into being fell away. A shaman of some sort, with a headdress made of golden branches, his lower body a black serpent, spread his arms. The shaman's arms became the wings of an eagle. The dead man's senses, overcome with golden light, became indistinguishable from the shaman, indistinguishable from each particular crystal that glowed dimly from the shadows, indivisible from the formal energy falling out of and rising into being, without beginning or end.

All his friends circling, dancing and laughing, around a body festooned and mounded with pale roses. In spite of mistaking dreams for reality, in spite of holding on to belief as if it were the very earth on which he stood, he loses himself in love and finds that his perceptions had never been ends in themselves, but means to an endlessly expanding end. He could finally witness them for what they were: nothing more nor less than an array of tiny stars created for feeling, and growing to love, the dark.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Tropic of Cancer

Going up a mountain in the Absarokas,
making for the unlikely event
of shade. Scattered there
on the ground, a halo
of orange butterflies, maybe four dozen
amber wing-pairs,
tatted over in black and white, attached
to velvet bodies, tiny black legs
trembling, like hands of broken watches
drawing minutes down
to no time at all, there to siphon
snowmelt from puddles filling
the tracks of a passing bear, a grizzly
from the looks of it, if those terrible
claws & the mud closing in
are any sign.

What are these denizens
of Mexico doing a thousand miles
wide of their regular migrations
way up in the aspens & sage
of Wyoming?
A jaguar stretched thin
as paper
borne aloft & torn apart
by high winds,
coming to rest,
antennae searching for scattered remains,
feeling for the slightest trace
of the jaguar's pulse,
haloed there so close,
so far from their soft beds
in the leaf-shade
of the Sierra Madre.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Wind River Mountains

Wyoming's most extensive mountain range, the Wind River Mountains, rises north of Rock Springs and angles to the northwest just short of the Gros Ventres Mountains, thirty or so miles southeast of Jackson Hole. It makes up nearly 150 miles of the Continental Divide and has over 40 peaks above 13,000 feet. Wyoming's highest point, Gannett Peak, lifts its glacier-capped summit to 13,804 feet in the range's northern section. A surprisingly vast area of its highest cirques remains filled with glaciers to this day--more total area, in fact, than any other range in the lower 48--though, like glaciers all around the earth, they are melting faster than they are building up.

The name of the range is a poem itself, allusive to three of the four primordial elements recognized by the pre-Socratic philosophers: air, water, earth. And because the Wind River Mountains are an igneous intrusion that formed over 1 billion years ago--a type of formation known to geologists as a batholith--the range bears the impressions of its birth in the fourth element, fire. Despite its molten origins, the range as it now appears has been shaped most profoundly by rivers of ice. Since its current glacial remnants began receding just over 18,000 years ago, much of its granitic gneiss, bedrock for 2 and 1/4 million acres of wilderness and primitive areas, is freshly polished and striated, with thousands of lakes and tarns filling the declivities and bowls left behind by the retreating glaciers. These lakes, and the rivers and streams that connect them, are surrounded by forests, wildflower meadows, boulderfields, and steep mountain walls.

A couple weeks ago my son, Eli, who turns 22 in September, and I backpacked into the Dinwoody Basin on the Glacier Trail, which wends 12 rugged miles along the range's northeast flank before entering the Dinwoody's U-shaped valley at the lower apron of Floyd Wilson Meadows. A turquoise stream, which gains its color from tiny particles of silt held in suspension in the meltwater flowing down from the glaciers above, meanders in oxbow bends through deep green willow bogs. At the head of the valley is Gannett Peak. We were accompanied by our good old family dog, Sadie, still fit and frisky at age 12, though her muzzle has turned from black to white.

From our base camp just below treeline, at about 11,000 feet, we ventured off on our fourth day toward a mountain that, so far as I know, remains unnamed. We named it Mystic Mountain, in honor of the Greek word mystos, root for the words "mystic" and "mystery." Mystos is a word meaning silence. We both had experiences that were mystical, in the sense that their deepest manifestations may only be expressed, or apprehended, through silence, much like the lines in the Tao Te Ching that read: "She who knows does not speak. She who speaks does not know."

I can say that we were overwhelmed not only by the scale of the Wind River Mountains, but also by the ceaseless movement of every little thing, from the cells in our bodies to the crystals of hornblende, quartz, feldspar, and mica in rocks and boulders and cliff-faces, most of which have not moved appreciably for thousands of years. But just as DNA is known to transmit photons, the flowers, rocks, and pine trees, along with the water flowing from the glaciers and the clouds above, though all bathed in the brilliant light of the barely filtered sun streaming through the rarefied atmosphere, all seemed to give off a light of their own. I felt wounds that had remained open for many years slowly being healed from the inside-out, which intensified my awareness that life is a wound we are given to feel, not heal, a wound through which we have a chance to give birth to our true selves, our souls.

When we returned to our base camp, Eli climbed barefoot along the smoothly polished granite next to the roaring cascades of Dinwoody Creek. From about a hundred meters above him, with the roar and mist of the torrent filling the air, I could see him open his arms to the great valley below, draw forth the sorrows in which his heart had been packed, and heave with sobs of love and joy and gratitude. A resonant, empathic pulse rippled through my heart, and there we stood, our roles as father and son falling away from us, two free souls opening to the world, moved, as Dante writes at the end of the Comedia, "by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars."

Two days later we hiked out of the Wind River Mountains. And two days after that, we returned to our independent lives: he to Colorado Springs where he is soon to begin his junior year at Colorado College, me to my students and fellow teachers at Charles Wright Academy in Tacoma, Washington. I cannot speak for Eli, but I know our experiences in the mountains have changed me--are changing me--in subtle and profound ways. Those mountains are influencing me, apparently without any conscious will or effort on my part, to open my heart to the world, to find ways to uplift the lives of others, and to listen deeply and humbly to this great living being called Earth, our dear home.