One day later. My ipod is out, buds rest in each ear. The tiny screen before me glows, telling me what’s playing. I know this, though. It’s Dido, again. ‘White Flag’ for the second or third time. I feel like crap.
Yesterday was a gift. It was as if a moment of grace opened in all directions and swallowed me whole. In Amazing Grace Kathleen Norris writes of one such moment: “God’s response to finding Jacob vulnerable, sleeping all alone in open country, is not to strike him down for his sins but to give him a blessing.” Wandering in that crisp air, beneath that clear sky, resting against that tree weeping, life felt exactly like this: a blessing that had been given.
Now I want it back. The day started to tumble around mid-morning. A couple very difficult exchanges, some bad news from good friends. A sense of despair began to creep in from the edges. A note about numbers in an upcoming workshop, a quick glance at my bank balance, and the creep became a rush. Soon I was swallowed not by grace but by hopelessness.
This is when I reached for the ipod.
Yesterday Dido seemed like an angel descending to find me. Her voice, her feeling, her soul as it found expression in that song woke something long forgotten deep inside and the result was revelation, delivery. It was glorious, a far cry from how I feel today, and so I want to go back. And we all know how that goes.
When I was a swim coach I used to work through a season that was four very intense months in length. For one hundred-plus days, myself and the swimmers would see each other every day - sometimes twice a day, sometimes all day. We would see one another at our best and, as the campaign wore on, we would see one another tattered, beaten, hurting, lost. The closeness and intimacy of this experience is something I have rarely felt elsewhere in my life.
Once the season was over, however, we would scatter. There would be hugs and tears and long, lingering grins, then each of us would go our separate ways. Sure there would be run-ins throughout the year - many of the swimmers went to school together, for instance - but nothing like what we’d enjoyed during those endless summer months.
Occasionally, in an understandable effort to recapture what we’d had together, someone would organize an off-season gathering - dinner at a pizza place, a movie in somebody’s basement. I was always excited by these opportunities and rarely less than disappointed afterward. Hugs and grins were rare at these events, more common was distance and awkward, uneasy silence. We all wanted, I think, this to not be the case. We all wanted, I know, this get together to be like it was during the summer with us. But, of course, it wasn’t summer. It was October or December or March. It was it’s own time with its own character and promises and needs, and we were trying to make it something else.
This is why I couldn’t listen to Reggie yesterday. He was my first choice as I started wandering. A cluster of short talks on meditation, a subject he addresses so well. I wanted to like what I heard. I wanted it to ignite my fire. But what he was saying did not offer the resonance that was appropriate to that moment; this, instead, was Dido’s task.
So I’m sitting at the kitchen table with her once again playing in my ears. My head is in my hands as I do this. Hair falls down around my face. I still feel like crap and, those summer ‘reunions’ having been forgotten, I don’t understand why.
One thing that strikes me in the quote above is Norris’ use of the word ‘vulnerable’. “God’s response to finding Jacob vulnerable...” she writes, linking this condition of tenderness with the appearance of grace. As if tenderness were some sort of necessary precondition.
Tenderness, however, is not what I’m feeling now. I am fighting this lousy mood with all I’ve got, trying to find a way out, a route to something else, an escape hatch to better. Unlike last night, when the choice of Dido was based on some sort of felt resonance, today’s selection is much more conscious, much more deliberate. Listening to ‘White Flag’ again is an attempt to manipulate out; yesterday, in contrast, reflected an inability to do much other than surrender in. To “go down with this ship.”
So I try to meditate. This is my training, after all, and it has served me well over the years. In many ways, the practice is tenderness, vulnerability, surrender. So I lay down, bring attention into the body, begin to feel my way around the legs...
After a few minutes my eyes fly open. I’m breathing hard. Glancing down I see my chest rise and fall in quick succession. I am nearing panic. There’s something wrong here, something is amiss. Feeling I am somehow missing the point, I push up and move to the window.
It is another stunning day outside. Spotless sky, smooth and still. Sunlight warming the world. Turned in a certain direction at our living room window, I see a church cross rising in the near distance; father away is the long, tree-covered line of the Sooke Hills. Staring where forested darkness meets the clear blue of sky a phrase arises: ‘I am tired of being who I am not.’
Memory follows. Years ago our swim team attended a competition in Courtenay, a community about half-way up Vancouver Island. This event was usually held at the city’s outdoor pool, which was great. We would all camp in the park surrounding this facility - one of those instances in which we saw each other all day every day from Friday afternoon to Sunday evening.
This particular year we arrived to find a number of large, hand-painted plywood signs posted along the road to the pool. ‘POW WOW’ these announced in capital letters. “Can we go?” some of the swimmers asked while setting up camp. The answer was, “No.”
All night the sound of drums beat through the air. Sometimes a voice was heard, occasionally music. Mostly, however, it was drums thrumming a steady pulse through the darkness, finding me over dinner, in my tent and in my sleep. Finding others, too, it seemed.
As a result, the next night, Saturday night, ‘No’ was not an option. So once swimming was done and food eaten we walked down a long hill, across a dusty road, and entered the fairground where the pow-wow was happening. Not much struck me as unique in this. There was not much I saw to distinguish this gathering from other rural affairs. There was food and produce, crafts and games. There was a lot of noise and a lot of music.
At the heart of this all, though, there was drumming. This rose up and wound through everything. Wherever one stood, whatever one was doing, there it was, pumping its rhythmic beat. I was exploring the grounds with one of the swimmers. “Wanna go see what’s going on?” he gestured.
Maybe this was a race course most other days of the year, a large riding ring. Tonight, however, it was an enormous circle of people shuffling counter clockwise. There were maybe a hundred in all. Indigenous and non-indigenous. Young and old. Moving steadily about an empty center, feet rubbing dry earth, rising dust into the air so the entire scene seemed enveloped in some way, dream-like.
The swimmer and I looked at each other for a moment. Smiling, we moved forward and were welcomed in.
How long my time in this circle lasted I do not know. It seemed like ages; it seemed only seconds. There was something familiar about being in that place where feet touched earth and body moved to a deep, steady beat. I have long wondered what that familiarity was. An answer has often felt so close. Many times I have sensed its shape and texture - but nothing more until this afternoon while staring out our window.
This is how I felt as a kid, I realize, circling our living room with my Playtape 1200 on one shoulder, Hank Williams’ singing in one ear. This is how I felt as a kid - as if I knew.
There are songs in the earth, do you know this? The earth holds songs of healing, songs offering guidance and insight and teaching. In recent years, these as much as anything or anyone have given me the next step. This is something all people of all places and all times have known, but I, until some time ago, liked to pretend I had forgotten.
How do we find such songs? Maybe it’s not all that different from being swallowed whole by blessing and grace - swallowed holy. Gary Snyder again:
“At the very bottom is the question, ‘How to prepare your mind to become a singer?’ How to prepare your mind to be a singer. An attitude of openness, inwardness, gratitude; plus meditation, fasting, a little suffering, some rupturing of the day-to-day ties with the social fabric. I quote again from the Papago: ‘A man who desires song did not put his mind on words and tunes. He put it on pleasing the supernatural. He must be a good hunter or a good warrior. Perhaps they would like his ways. And one day in natural sleep he would hear singing. He hears a song and he knows it is the hawk singing to him of the great white birds that fly in from the ocean. Perhaps the clouds sing or the wind or the feathery red rain spider on its invisible rope. The reward of heroism is not personal glory or riches. The reward is dreams. One who performs acts of heroism puts himself in contact with the supernatural. After that, and not before, he fasts and waits for a vision. The Papago holds to the belief that visions do not come to the unworthy, but to the worthy man who shows himself humble there comes a dream and the dream always contains a song.’”
So today, this afternoon, I put down Dido and leave meditation and I look to the distant hills. My heart aches with longing, with sadness and uncertainty. That phrase arises: ‘I am tired of being who I am not.’ And then comes memory. And then comes song:
Singing to distant mountains
“I will come to you”,
The horizon calls me
To be in this place
Where land meets sky,
Between two worlds.
Now I know nothing
What does this mean? That is not the point. The point is this, what has been given.
I offer thanks to distant hills with a smile and a bow, turn from the window and go back to the meditation cushion. Now I will sit and do walkabout, wander this fine land with this song in my heart until I discover what it is waiting to reveal. I do not, of course, know what will be found. But I do know this, it has already awakened: I am ready.
This life is good.
NEIL MCKINLAY - MEDITATION | COACHING | INTUITION - WWW.NEILMCKINLAY.COM