Saturday, December 22, 2018

What Is the Purpose of My Life?

As I sit to write at early, early Friday morning on the winter solstice, a north wind blows outside and the sun has not yet risen. Sunrise is two hours away, and as I walked in the darkness this morning to the garage for a galvanized metal bucket so that I could empty the ashes from the woodstove, it was not excessively cold but rather just under freezing. Even the north wind with its bite was not ravenous.

The fire is busy now warming, my wife sits beside the stove drinking tea and enjoying the dancing light of the fire, and I type out words to explore: What Is the Purpose of My Life? I write these words without heaviness. This is no dark night of the soul. Purpose reminds me of Archibald MacLeish's poem "Ars Poetica," which ends with “A poem should not mean / But be.” The Poetry Foundation tells us that this poem is just one of a long series of poetic meditations on the art of poetry, and provides a number of references.

If art mirrors life, then it can be said that our lives are not meant to mean but be, that who we are is more important than what we do, that who we are is the foundation of what we do. Being precedes becoming. I think of my life: I am a man, a teacher, a husband, a father, a writer. "I am" is the foundation and the continuity. "Man, teacher, husband, father, writer"--the list could continue forever, for howsoever many words or concepts exist, and then simply flip the polarity and define oneself by what one is not: I am not a woman, a monk, a surgeon, a danseur, a diamond. That which remains steady is that continuity of consciousness, that "I am."

I remember--one of my earliest memories at four or five years of age--when my family lived "out in the sticks," as my father said, in Northern California, near the Feather River in the black oaks of the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. I was out by myself, walking our long gravel-and-red-dirt driveway, and I stopped before a tangle of brush beside a gnarled digger pine tree. It was as if I were passing a neighbor and stopping for a hello. My awareness recognized another awareness, yet "my" and "other" are misleading words--more that I looked into a mirror and saw myself looking back: my eyes looking into my eyes looking into my eyes, an infinite loop of awareness. I said my greetings and moved on, but I have always had a special fondness for digger pines, a conifer with long, gray needles, the seeds from its large cones eaten by the Maidu Indians, who were the indigenous to that area.

When I grew up and moved away to college, there was a tree on the UC Davis campus that I would sit beneath and rest and read, a digger pine. Although I never hugged those trees, they connected me. I find my "retired" self now remembering that digger pine as it leaned toward the sun and so silent yet so alive, its roots reaching deep into the subsoil to find moisture; find myself remembering the rough bark of that pine on the college campus, my back pressing to its rough surface. It's as if my roots reach back through the years of experiences and memories to those early beginnings of an awareness of silence, a commonality of consciousness, as if those silent trees taught me how to dig deep into the soil of my being. Awareness curves back upon itself and perceives the continuity, sun warm upon a young face and woodstove warmth upon an elder. First we are; then we grow, expand, and take joy in our expansion. First the stillness, then the myriad bustle of the world.

I published in 2009 a book of poetry, Bare Ruined Choirs, and one of the poems in the book is "Winter Solstice," first published in 1993 in the Hiram Poetry Review. It's about reaching back, reaching deep, about our infinite depths and the roots of our lives.

Winter Solstice

Clouds like branches heavy with fruit
sag in the sky above the orchard,
raindrops leaning toward their long fall.
Day greys, moss blurs the being of stones,
horizons erode, ravines ruin the sky.

If I could gather enough silence,
I would root myself to this moment,
turn the inedible rind of the seasons
to rhymes ringed in the flesh,
to plum leaves drifting from the branch.

The worm breaches the red flesh of the plum;
leaves burst green from our scars.
The storm works in wet rhythms above me,
air fringed with beads, dark with cloud.
Rain drops from eaves, craters the stillness.

Beyond branches, tendrils of cloud
twine the seams of trellised sunlight,
break through this least of days.
Cloud, rain, this thicket of the sky.
Leaves burst green from our scars.


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