Endless Autumn

A tree in fall with yellow leaves

The cool slant of late autumn light goldens up the world. The ungreened leaves twirl to the ground with a papery music and layer the bouldertops up and down the granite canyon. Amongst the dry leaf litter, under the fractal branches and unimpeachably blue sky, a few climbers play over the stoney surfaces. Winter is coming and the last mellow days of fall take on a special preciousness.

If surfers dream of an endless summer, climbers chase autumn; the pre-winter chill and low humidity make for ideal skin-on-stone friction. In the fall, the climbs we labored to complete all summer long become mere trifles. In a place like Little Cottonwood Canyon, my “backyard” crag here in Salt Lake City, late fall and early winter are the only times of year certain boulder problems can be climbed at all!

So it is that rarely frequented climbing zones begin to accumulate minor crowds in the fall. And a few times in my recent outings, I’ve run into acquaintances who, you might say, are in the late-summer of their years. A little heavier, a little slower to bounce back from injuries, yoked with more of life’s many responsibilities, these experienced climbers expressed frustration with their favorite pastime. They couldn’t do the things they used to do, and it was taking some of the fun out of things.

“Wait till you’re my age,” one of them warned.

I understood well enough. After two decades of climbing, I already have to navigate around recurring injuries and rest longer and longer between days on the rock to feel recovered. But the frustration my friends voiced, while understandable, comes from a problematic perception of the world. It comes from a holding on to expectations and to the past—something I’m always working, with varying degrees of success, to let go of myself.

It is common to think back to our best day of climbing, the day where we climbed harder than we ever thought possible, and to set that as our new expectation.

“I should be able to do this,” we might think of some route that’s giving us problems. “I did something at least this hard years ago!”

One problem with this way of thinking is that it’s not realistic. No one improves in a steady, upward line—we all move in cycles, ups and downs defined by all manner of life circumstance. But a bigger problem still is that such thinking is focused on something in the past and in our minds. Engaging in constant comparison creates dissatisfaction and wastes the short time we do have, to climb and to live.

The use of seasons to represent life stages is a familiar literary trope. Spring is youth, summer early adulthood, autumn late adulthood, and winter old age. For the climber who constantly strives to improve, grow stronger and ascend higher, the turning of life’s seasons can be an especially difficult thing. Accepting the gathering nip in the air is not in our nature.

In my blog, I often refer to Eastern philosophy or religion, and find a certain value therein. But it is not because I subscribe to any particular belief system. Instead I see the perspectives of the East as a counterweight to the dominant ideas of my own culture.

“Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” wrote Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. I do not deny the raw beauty of his sentiment. But to really be valuable, I think it should be balanced with words like those of the Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah, who said: “Letting go a little brings a little peace. Letting go a lot brings a lot of peace. Letting go completely brings complete peace.”

As Westerner with a taste for the ideas of the East, I try to climb somewhere between Thomas’ rage and Chah’s release.

Bouldering Alone

When from our better selves we have too
Been parted by the hurrying world, and
Sick of its business, of its pleasures
How gracious, how benign, is Solitude

— William Wordsworth, The Prelude

LCC_solo

For the most part, climbing is a pursuit of two or more individuals—climber and belayer is a typical arrangement—and many a word has been written about this unique relationship. Among climbers, few things are held in higher regard than the so-called brotherhood of the rope, the mutual trust and interdependence of two people whose fates are literally tied together. (On the other side of this equation, few things are less appealing than partnering with one you do not fully trust or respect, or with whom you share no natural connection or understanding. At best, such a pairing is annoying; at worst it’s dangerous.)

Bouldering is a particularly social sort of climbing. Many boulderers feed off the energy of a small crew and push higher and harder when cheered on by others. It is not uncommon for a herd of boulderers to descend on an unassuming rock, liberally pad every inch of exposed ground, flick on an iPod speaker, and commence to crack some brewskis. Such gatherings are as much about hanging out as they are about climbing, which is all well and good, but…

But bouldering is also a perfect activity for those seeking solitude, as long as you can manage to find some rock away from the crowds, which isn’t always easy. In such settings, I seek reprieve from the ceaseless piling on of responsibilities that grows only heavier as years advance. A man “must sequester and come again to himself,” writes Montaigne in his essay “Of Solitude.” For me, few things are as suited this task as a cool day among the smaller stones, the trees and sky, where the only sound of humanity is the distant passing of a car, or not even that, if I am lucky.

One short week has passed since images of the bomb-ravaged Boston Marathon and the smoking ruins of a Texas fertilizer plant filled the news. Only a few months since the Newtown school shooting. North Korea continues to posture, Guantanamo is still open, the drones are buzzing, the gun lobby screeching, half the nation cries for one thing while the other half cries for the opposite. Deaths in the family, work overflows its nine-to-five boundaries, the lawn needs mowing, the dog wants a walk… sometimes, I find, a solo mission to the boulders is as necessary as sustenance or sleep.

I drive into the canyon known as Little Cottonwood, its spring-lush slopes littered with pale granite blocks cast off from the soaring slabs above. A slow Sunday, cool and breezy, I park on the snaking road’s narrow shoulder and wander into the trees, just as two other climbers take their leave for the day.

Perfect.

I lay down my old crash pad, faded by sun and chalk dust and beaten soft by the repeated compression of falling bodies. There is no one here for me to converse with or consider. The air is free of ego or competitive spirit, of the half-urge to make a connection or ask some question.

Alone, the simple acts, typically done with haste and mind churning on some distant task, expand to fill my consciousness. Tying my laces, arranging the pad with the predicted plumb line of my fall, placing the pointed toe of my climbing shoe on a little cluster of crystalline points. Without distraction, I explore the granite texture with my fingertips and consider its implications. I begin to puzzle out these physical koans, minutely controlling seldom-used muscle groups and the position of limbs in space. Such thought just to move! But the mind can only get you so far; the body must come to its own understanding.

A quick rest. Chalk particles dance in an angled bar of sun. I taste my water, lukewarm and metallic as it rolls from the lip of this old stainless steel bottle. Thoughts traverse the space of my mind, twirling, frictionless, and disappear. I reside in each dust-laced breath like a yogi. Maybe on this day I climb better than usual. Maybe I complete the climb I’ve been working on…

Or not. Either way. In solitude, it’s easier for everything to be just right, or to be alright with everything.

But the real trick is to carry that self-contained peace of solitude back into the world of people, to hold it, undisturbed like a fragile, gem-like flame in the wind and chaos. That’s the long game, but in the meantime, a quiet wood and a fine chunk of granite to puzzle over will do.

 

 

Good Luck and Bad Luck

Good Luck / Bad Luck illustration

This weekend, I enjoyed reading Andrew Bisharat’s blog post called “The Games We Play.” Among other things, it talks about risk—in climbing, in more mundane activities like driving, and in life.

Andrew’s perspective on luck resonated with me. “It’s sometimes hard to know whether it’s working against you or actually on your side,” he writes, and then gives a series of examples to make his point. One in particular, about his alpinist friend’s knee injury potentially keeping him from a dangerous season in the mountains, read like a contemporary version of the old Chinese folk tale about a farmer and his horse

One day, the horse escaped into the hills and when the farmer’s neighbors sympathized with the old man over his bad luck, the farmer replied, ‘Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?’ A week later, the horse returned with a herd of horses from the hills, and the neighbors congratulated the farmer on his good luck. His reply was, ‘Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?’

Then, when the farmer’s son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses he fell off its back and broke his leg. Everyone thought that was bad luck. Not the farmer, whose only reaction was, ‘Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?’

Some weeks later, the army marched into the village and conscripted every able-bodied youth they found. When they saw the farmer’s son with his broken leg, they let him off…

Which of these events was lucky and which was unlucky? It’s impossible to tell at the time and a waste of psychic energy to worry about it much. We create our own burdens when we curse and celebrate every event through which we pass.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try hard. Work is critical—hard work doubly so—but there’s no need to see it as a burden. Instead it’s a privilege that we might try to perfect ourselves and work through the challenges life presents us.

Another example: In the late 90s, a dedicated climber named Josh was injured and had to sit out a season bouldering in the Gunks. It was an important moment for climbing in the area, relatively speaking, and Josh wouldn’t get to be a part of it. Bad luck, of course! But then Josh picked up a camera and made a video about his friends bouldering in the Gunks. The video was called Big UP, and it was the first step in what has become a very accomplished career behind the lens.

“One dream may hide another,” wrote the poet Kenneth Koch. When he was in full health, Josh’s dream of climbing might well have hidden the dream of telling climbing stories through video—a related but very different dream. His pain and injury uncovered this other dream, which perhaps was the more significant of the two.

It’s something to keep in mind the next time your project is chewing you up and spitting you off. Forego the wailing wobbler and instead consider falling as a sign that the climb still has something valuable to teach you. Therefore, the most appropriate response is to smile—because you have this chance to improve, because you’re climbing, because you’re alive at all, damnit!

Without fail, life will throw the kitchen sink at every one of us—how we see this and respond is what creates the “good” and the “bad” of it. On the one hand, this means we have much less control over our lives than we might think. On the other, we have much more control over ourselves than we care to admit.

Now is this good luck or bad luck?

You Haven’t Heard of Mary Oliver?

Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver

This isn’t my first blog post about the poet Mary Oliver, but it’s the first to see the light of day. I abandoned the others because they kept straying into the realm of dry, academic analysis. When writing about serious writers, you see, I tend to get an inferiority complex — do I dare comment on the work of a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet with anything less than polished, incisive, and heavily annotated prose? Do I have the right to even utter Oliver’s name without having read and considered carefully her entire oeuvre? And the words of the many critics who have critiqued her work? And her biographical information? Soon, instead of a quick blog about a poet I rather enjoy, I felt like I was looking down the barrel of a graduate thesis.

But then I reminded myself of a few things:

  1. We are all going to die someday. Maybe soon.
  2. This is my personal blog. It is not the New York Fucking Times. And even if it was the NY F”ing T, that still doesn’t mean everything has to be a work of genius — it just has to say something interesting in an interesting way. I’ve read plenty of sub-genius writing in the Times and The New Yorker and National Geographic. Genius is a very high bar; if you’ll settle for nothing less, then you’ll end up with nothing at all.
  3. My goal here isn’t to convince you, dear reader, that I am the world’s foremost Mary Oliverologist or some sort of poetry expert, but to share something cool with you. The truth is, I haven’t read all — or even most — of Oliver’s 26 books of poetry. In fact, I only own one of those books, called House of Light. And that one didn’t even win a Pulitzer (!). But still, I have read enough of her writing over the years to know that she is worth reading.
  4. Oliver, now 76 years old, is both popular (as poets go) and controversial (in that several critics have given her bum reviews, despite, or because, of this popularity). But whatever any critic thinks of her, I find something of great value in her writing. Therefore, I am under no obligation to defend her, only to share what it is about her that I find to be so valuable. If you agree or disagree, I would be honored if you’d opine in the comments section below.

Now, in brief, my explanation of why you should pick up House of Light and other books by Mary Oliver:

First
She is a master of language. After studying literature in college and getting an MFA in poetry, I have yet to encounter a writer who more powerfully evokes the sensual aspects of nature than does Oliver. Three examples of many (many!):

“the mossy hooves /of dreams, including / the spongy litter / under tall trees.”

“Now the soft / eggs of the salamander / in their wrapping of jelly / begin to shiver. … Off they go, / hundreds of them, / like the black / fingerprints of the rain.”

“the soft rope of a water moccasin / slid down the red knees /of a mangrove, the hundred of ribs / housed in their smooth, white / sleeves of muscle …”

Salamander eggs "in their wrappings of jelly"
Salamander eggs "in their wrappings of jelly"

Second

Oliver uses the images of nature to great affect in exploring the biggest, most unanswerable of human questions. She uses them as a lens through which to view being and consciousness, the existence  (or lack thereof) of God or god-like beings. She ties together the religious and philosophical traditions of the West and the East, mingling thoughts of Buddha (see: “The Buddha’s Last Instructions“) with the images of Christianity (see: “Snake” as well as the various examples of serpent imagery and references to Jesus throughout the House of Light) with the intense love of nature of Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau. In Emerson’s view, nature was the the inexhaustible source of our greatest understanding. Oliver seems to have taken this to heart, making nature the subject of nearly every poem, the wordless teacher of every important lesson we need to know. In “Lilies,” she even manages to reference a Zen story, which in turn references the alignment between Christian and Zen principles. She writes:

I have been thinking
about living
like the lilies
that blow in the fields.

They rise and fall
in the wedge of the wind,
and have no shelter
from the tongues of the cattle,

and have no closets or cupboards,
and have no legs.
Still I would like to be
as wonderful

as that old idea. …

Then compare that to the Zen story “Not Far From Buddhahood,” in which a student reads the following Bible passage to his master “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin, and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (Luke 12:27). The master, on hearing the passage, offers, sagely, “Whoever uttered these words, I consider an enlightened man.”

Lily of the field
Lily of the field

With all of Oliver’s references to Buddhism, it’s hard to imagine she did not read this Zen story. Or, if she did not, it is still hard to imagine she did not read the passage from Luke and see the similarities to what today we would call an Eastern way of thinking. It is a wonderful connection that re-orders the world. We humans could learn a thing or two from the lilies that “melt without protest” on the tongues of the cattle. We could be more at piece with the true nature of our circumstances. But that is not our nature. But we are part of nature. And the serpent eats its own tail…

Third
Because almost every poem in House of Light is about death, in a roundabout way. And since, as I mentioned, we are all going to die (maybe soon), and if you roll that all up with the first two reasons for picking up a Mary Oliver book, you will see that what I am talking about is poetry with an existential purpose. This woman has for over 50 years been intently observing and considering nature, herself, humankind, consciousness, time, and death and has, in her poetry, communicated a vision of the world that very few of us will ever have the time, effort, or talent to formulate. She is offering us an insight into something at once greater than ourselves and within ourselves.

And she does it in a way that is in perfect accord with our times. Unlike the old masters, Oliver speaks in the parlance of our times, in a language that even the least poetically inclined can make sense of without a thesaurus or the help of a teacher. She is carrying on an age-old tradition and doing the poet’s work.

This may not be the golden age of poetry, but that fact does not diminish one whit the value of today’s poetry. Mary Oliver may have sold some goodly number of books in her day, but I do not think most of my friends and acquaintances have been the ones purchasing them. Chances are, you have not been, either. So take this as an excuse to spend a little of that latté money on something with more enduring value. And also, take a walk in the woods.

National Poetry Month and the Head of a Dead Cat

I was standing at my kitchen counter before dawn last week, eating Greek yogurt and listening to NPR, as is my daily feel-good liberal ritual, when the newscaster offered up an interesting tidbit that made me pause. For most people, this news would have passed un-reacted to, but from me it elicited a good old-fashioned knee slap. “Well hey, what do you know?!” I said to the empty room. “April is National Poetry Month!” I was a little bit embarrassed that this had escaped my attention, since I spent two years and many thousands of good dollars earning a masters of fine arts in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College. Though I may be excused, perhaps, in light of the fact that I also was unaware of Easter’s approach until it was actually Easter (“What’s with all the plastic eggs in the neighbor’s yard?”). Likewise with Passover (“What’s with all the lamb’s blood on the neighbor’s doorpost?”). Still, I’ve had a much closer relationship with poetry than I have with any organized religion.

A masters in poetry is a rare thing, but for all its rareness, it isn’t particularly valued by society at large. Aside from my professors and classmates in the poetry program, I can’t recall ever meeting another person who saw fit to invest in an advanced poetry degree. No, the (sad?) truth is, poetry today is regarded as either easy, rhyming drivel of the sort found in self-help literature and greeting cards, or as an opaque, elitist exercise enjoyable only for those with afore-mentioned degrees. Even in the age of the Internet, where a premium is put on bite-sized content chunks, the imminently digestible stanzas of contemporary poetry are rarely shared. My Facebook friends quote movies, songs, and the odd snippet of philosophy, but rarely do I catch a sonnet, an ode, or even a rhymed couplet ticking by on the feed. (The haiku and the limerick are the most notable counterexamples, but these are typically made to suit less-than-honorable ends.)

Maybe it’s because poetry, really good poetry, if I may be so bold as to judge, doesn’t yield easily to passing glances and cursory interpretation. You have to be in the right state of mind if you want to get the meat out of the poetic nut, and willing to work at it. The poetic form is unfamiliar; it’s not how people talk. Like a magic show, a poem asks the audience to suspend its disbelief. Poetry is not like a piece of fiction, riddled with cliffhangers, or a movie with a simple, arc-shaped plot — it is at once more abstract and more complex, full of quantum possibility. Poetry requires the reader to empty his or her cup, metaphorically speaking, before learning what the poem has to offer. In short, there are so many barriers between the average reader and a poem, it’s no wonder we need a specially designated month just to remind us that poems are out there.

And to make matters worse, not all poems are good. Just as most anythings are crappy, so are most attempts at poetry failures, in that they don’t communicate with even the most ideal, receptive reader. Most poems are full of unexamined clichés and easy sentiments borrowed from the greeting cards mentioned earlier. A good and potent poem really is a rare thing, even rarer than an MFA in poetry.

Sometimes when I think of poetry and its paradoxical value, I think of the story of Sozen, a Chinese Zen master and poet. Sozen claimed the head of a dead cat was the most valuable thing in the world, because “no one can name its price.” The idea being that things of true value cannot be sold or purchased. The value of a poem to the human spirit is much like the value of Nature, with a capital “N”. As Emerson says in his essay “Nature”, “The charming landscape which I saw this morning is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms. Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape… . This is the best part of these men’s farms, yet to this their warranty-deeds give no title.”

In the end, National Poetry Month, initiated in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets, feels a bit like wishful thinking. As if a month in poesy’s honor would rekindle the passions of readers everywhere. And yet… . And yet my own poetic inclinations, long in a state of suspended animation, have begun to stir. (It is fitting that National Poetry Month would be in T.S. Eliot’s “cruelest month.”) I think they only needed an excuse. And in a way, any holiday or day of recognition is really no more than that: an excuse to think about ourselves, our friends and family, our countrymen and women, God or gods, or the universe in a different way. After three-hundred plus days a year of routine and rigmarole, it can hardly hurt to pause and appraise things from a new angle. So, in that way, National Poetry Month is a success, at least for this one-time poet who has drifted away from verse.

I get the feeling that now it’s time to dampen the ol’ quill and start scratching away on brittle parchment once again. Or maybe it’s just time to take up some of the many books of poetry I’ve accumulated over the years. In books, I’ve found, the words are static, but the perspective of the reader is different with every read. With this in mind, I’m excited to revisit my old favorites and see how their words sound to me now: Mary Oliver, Galway Kinnell, Wallace Stevens, Eliot, Yeats, Keats, Bishop, Pound… . I expect I’ll find new and inestimably valuable things in their metaphors and meter.

If you have a poetry collection on your shelf, I can only implore you to select a book long unopened and begin to read. If you have no poetry at your fingertips and no dollars in your purse, turn to the Internet, wellspring of free content. Head to poets.org and look to the right side of the page — the list of popular contemporary and historical poets is as good a place to start as any. I can almost guarantee you will find great worth in their words, at least as much as in the head of a dead cat, the most valuable thing in the world.