Thursday, September 13, 2007

Dipping into the Stream

Hobbs Hill, Saturday, August 25

Hoping to stretch my legs and get just a little exercise, I left home at about 8:00 AM and headed to Moose Hill on foot. I had hopes of hiking all the way to the summit, but my weakness seems to overshadow my ambition these days. I never made it to the summit – not even close – but I had a good morning all the same.

The air was warm and humid. The woods were dry, quiet and still as I walked the trail to Hobbs Hill. Unseen spider strands, like invisible tripwires, snapped annoyingly on my face. We’ve had very little rain recently and even the deer flies and mosquitoes were subdued. I didn’t see any but it felt like a few mosquitoes were finding my back through the weave of my damp t-shirt, so I put on an old long-sleeved shirt I threw in my backpack just for times like these.

On top of Hobbs Hill, I saw where a very tough animal, indeed, had excavated a hive of ground-nesting yellowjackets from the soil between two boulders. It was hard to imagine the wasp eggs and larvae could have been worth the vicious stings. I took this as a reminder that survival in these woods is serious business.

My plan was to have a quick breakfast on one of my favorite rocks on Hobbs and then press on up to Moose Hill itself. I found my spot on the edge of the hill, facing southeast toward the rising sun. This was not a problem because the sun was filtered by a light overcast and a summer haze. There didn’t seem to be any birds to watch, anyway, so crisp vision was not a high priority on this day when the forecast high was about 95 degrees (F).

The sandwich of natural peanut butter and jelly on leftover Shabbat challah was decadent. The coffee made with a little Peet’s house blend left over from our trip to California was soothing. The unexpected lack of bugs and an occasional puff of breeze helped keep me comfortable and I was finding myself content to sit and listen to the subtle sounds of the forest and idly dip into my thoughts as they flowed by. At about 8:45 the first cicadas of the day began to buzz.

One mental flow I keep dipping into these days are thoughts about Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums and the words of poet/essayist/environmentalist Gary Snyder (Jaffy Ryder). I was channel surfing the other day and clicked by one of the self-help gurus PBS trots out when it’s fundraising time. I went back. Here was an older barefoot guy (Dr. Wayne Dyer) with a shaved head in black pajamas. Normally, I’d cruise right by a show like that. I am innately suspicious about shows aired just so a station can raise funds and the guest can sell books, but because of my recent reading about Buddhism and meditation, I paused and listened for a few minutes. Now, I’m not hunting for a new religion. I have no plans to study Buddhism or delve into the Tao Te Ching, but I’m happy to receive wisdom from any source. The one point I heard Dyer make – and this may have been the whole point of the show – was “Change your thoughts and change your life.”

I found an interview of Gary Snyder on the Web where he said he meditates a half hour every day. Now, I’ve never had any instruction in meditation at all, but from my moments of quiet reflection on Moose Hill and a few determined efforts to sit quietly and alone at home, I can see how regular meditation could change a life.

One practical function of such meditation might be to focus on things that are troubling the mind. It might take a special effort to truly discover, acknowledge and confront the problem that is causing the unease. I find that once a problem is identified, it helps to write it down. Then begins the task of finding a solution. Sometimes the solution may be simply understanding the error in the way we are thinking about something. Maybe something is bugging us and all we need to do is realize that it really has nothing to do with us, it’s none of our business, it is of no concern to us, and we should just let it go.

Some may teach that changing our thoughts is all that matters. This may be true, but it will be a long time before I’m convinced that many thoughts shouldn’t lead to positive action. It’s through our actions that we change our lives for the better and through our actions that people know us. That’s why, after I identify what it is that is troubling me, I often find peace by visualizing a plan of action to solve the problem. These plans are not just make-work to-do lists, but a means to smooth out a life and bring calm to the mind. Some of these actions may be simple, like finishing a nagging task we’ve been putting off. Others might be a bit more challenging, like fixing a broken career or wounded relationship.

So, while actions are important, maybe it’s best if they spring from a way of thinking that aims to bring peace to the mind. I like to think that peaceful minds lead to a peaceful world. Upon first meeting, it is almost customary for people to ask: “What do you do?” Perhaps a more important and interesting question might be: “What do you think about?”

At that point, my real food was gone, and I was equally satisfied with the food for thought Moose Hill Had provided. This nourishment was free and I didn’t even have to endure wasp stings to get it. I headed for home hoping I might be able to incorporate even a little of my Moose Hill dreaming into my everyday life.

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Saturday, September 08, 2007

How Quickly We Fall

Having had almost no exercise for about seven weeks, I decided to hike to the summit of Moose Hill. While I was reaching for life, it didn’t take long to be reminded of death as I turned onto Moose Hill Parkway.

Shagbark hickory.

Squirrel tempted by crushed nuts.

One last fatal bite.

Walker sees squirrel.

Maggots dine on rotting flesh.

No life is wasted.

This brought to mind the writings of Gary Snyder I recently discovered where he reminds us that all death nourishes new life.

I pushed on up the road and at the steepest stretch near the top my heart rate approached 150 beats per minute. I’ve decided I needed to get more realistic about how long it will take me to fully recovery from my surgery. After all, less than ten days ago I was in the emergency room for a chest CAT scan for still-mysterious chest pains. I promised myself I’d stay in my aerobic zone – 140 bpm or below.

I left the road and started up the trail to Moose Hill Summit. On the steep, rocky trail near the top, it took great discipline indeed to go slowly enough to keep the heart rate down. I reached the top and was not surprised to see the fire tower was occupied. We’ve been in a nasty drought and any spark could ignite a conflagration. It took me over 49 minutes to cover the distance from my house to the summit, a trip that I did in a little over 23 minutes a few months ago. Of course this time, I stopped along the way to jot down a few lines of haiku and to make a few stops to accommodate one of the less pleasant side effects of my surgery, but mostly I’m just weak and out of shape. Not wanting to be too hard on myself, I thought of the dancing bears. We shouldn’t criticize their dancing but be amazed that they can dance at all. My evaluation of my next hike will benefit from low expectations.

As I turned at the summit and began to walk back down, I saw drought-dried leaves littering the trail. I thought of the wonderful recent blog post by Julie Zickefoose (See sidebar.) called “Letting Go” about how summer can slip away before we notice she is going. I thought about how my chimney swifts left – as they always do – on September first, and I wasn’t paying attention and never said goodbye. I thought about other things that slip away, too.

When does youth turn old?

Like summer turning to fall,

We want to hold on.

How will we turn old? Will it strike overnight like a sudden hard freeze? Or will youth slip away gradually like summer slipping quietly, barely noticed, into fall?

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