“Annigonol ydy un iaith.” — One language is never enough.
Sometime in the late 90’s, I hiked from the Isle of Anglesey, through North Wales, Snowdonia, and down the Pembrokeshire Coast path, with the Irish Sea to my side. I explored miles of solitude and natural beauty and ancient relics and history, an experience that I will be expanding in an essay, for a planned collection.
For today, I offer the following to honor the Scottish independence referendum, for reasons that I hope will be clear by the entry’s end.
On the first leg of my Welsh journey, I stayed on Anglesey, a large island off the western shore, that’s a short ferry trip from Dublin, across the Irish Sea. The island is a remarkable land, as are its people. I stayed on a 550 acre farmhouse bed and breakfast, taking day trips from this rural, comfortable base. Mrs. Jane Brown ran the bed and breakfast, and she was a model of charm, hospitality, warmth, and a library of history about the area and Welsh lore. Mrs. Brown gave me the kind of oral history rich in color and texture that only a native could create.
Her generosity was singular. Mrs. Brown and her daughter-in-law took me on several day trips to places that few outsiders could have or would have known about. One trip was to a church used only few months a year, for when the tides change with the seasons, water surrounds the church the rest of year making the sanctuary inaccessible. There are no public programs to change this. Instead, the locals work with the way things are, they honor nature, this ancient space, and the mystery of the two together. The doors open and close at nature’s invitation. When the waters recede, it’s a local pilgrimage that honors life, death, and change. Archaic, I entered a world in which rituals from nearly a thousand of years ago remained unchanged, the rough old stones and worn wooden benches whisper stories that give themselves over for a brief time. Most of the year, this space protects itself from the outside world, with the rise of water around it.
The world I entered in North Wales, and particularly in Anglesey, was rare. Strangers were friends in minutes. I remember tea with Mrs. Brown, her daughter-in-law, and their distant relatives who lived in an old farmhouse, near the island’s border to the channel, and the Welsh mainland. Mrs. Brown’s distant cousin embraced me, a modern American woman, and introduced me to the entire family, including the horses and sheep, an introduction followed by warm elderberry pie fresh out of the oven, which was a large stone hearth in the kitchen, hot black tea, and lively conversation.
One does not pay for such human, “cultural,” experiences, they are freely given when people share of themselves.
But here’s the setpiece of these hastily shared anecdotes, and why I offer them today in regards to Scotland:
Mrs. Brown fixed me a lovely dinner before I left, that included her entire family, with whom I had become attached, in two weeks. Over dinner, they asked what I would be doing when I left, where I would go, what were my plans. I mentioned my stint to hike up Snowdonia, then I would bus over to the coast and begin my long hike down the length Pembrokeshire Coast path, eventually taking the train from Carmathen to London. “I’m excited about London, because of the free museums,” I said. They chuckled.
I then said, in light humor, “Maybe I’ll bump into the Prince of Wales,” believing that I was connecting my London visit with them, even though they would be miles away, trying to tell them that I would miss them, and be thinking of them, still.
The table went silent. I looked around, and suddenly the uncommon warmth that had been given to me disappeared, and there was a palpable void.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
Mrs. Browne, said curtly, “We don’t speak of him here as ‘The Prince of Wales.'”
“Okay. I’m sorry. But why?” I asked, completely perplexed. I had offended these folks who had been wonderful to me, had adopted a simple bed-and breakfast lodger as family during my time with them, and I hadn’t a clue about what I had done.
Then, raising her voice, as if to take a knife and change history in a single slash, “Because he’s not Welsh!”
Dumb American, I thought to myself, wondering how I could be so thick.
The tension dissipated, and we returned to Mrs. Brown’s lovely supper, and Mrs. Brown opened another bottle of Welsh made wine. But I then understood that there were things not usually talked about with guests, and I also understood how deep the Welsh identity cut here in the northern parts, in the farthest reaches from England’s geographical influence.
The history made privy to me was Welsh history. Not English history. Not the history of the United Kingdom. They were Welsh. They had unique stories, and a unique understanding of the world, that they kept alive, passing down, giving freely. The were Welsh and proud. This identity was perhaps nowhere more clear than in the signposts written in Cymraeg. The smaller the village, the less the need or want to translate. You understand or you don’t.
Mrs. Brown and her family will most likely never see an independent Wales. I’m guessing they are watching Scotland’s vote with deep personal pride, and a kinship with those who share an island with those who dictate a strained beast known as “The United Kingdom.”
“He’s not Welsh!” I’ll never forget that moment, a moment that changed my too American perspective, and made my blood identity to my Scottish kin deeper, gave me more circumspect respect for the spirit of those who refuse the control of anyone’s history, no matter how quiet that rebellion.
Now, when I say, “I am a Guthrie, ” and remember the stories my mother gave to me about her family’s people, and their independent pioneering into the midwest, I understand something a little deeper and richer, thanks to Mrs. Brown.
“It is quite possible that an animal has spoken to me and that I didn’t catch the remark because I wasn’t paying attention.”
— E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web
Several years ago, a cream and yellow striped feline visited me in the early morning hours, during Cambridge’s oppressive mid-August swelter.
Charlotte, as I came to call her, introduced herself about five a.m. under my window with a hoarse, insisting cry. I looked outside, she saw me, and when our eyes met, I knew that she wasn’t going anywhere, soon.
I didn’t jump with joy to play surrogate mama to a lost cat so early in the morning. Despite my grogginess, I pulled myself out of bed and went outside to find the creature needing help. There she was, skin and bones, coat dull and shedding, skittish and frightened.
I went back inside, opened a can of food, put it in a bowl, grabbed another bowl, and filled it with water. I returned to the back steps where she was waiting for me. I put the bowls down, and Charlotte gorged the food in under a minute, which I took as my cue to go inside and grab another can. Finished with the first can, she greedily lapped the water, until I came back with more food.
She was too anxious for me to pet her, so I simply sat on the back steps and talked with her. This went on for about thirty minutes, me talking, her eating, drinking water, calming down, looking around and orienting herself, checking me out, until she finished the second bowl. I went inside for a third can, but she was gone when I returned.
The next morning she came back, about the same time. I again met her at the back door with a bowl of water, a bowl of food, and an extra can, certain that she’d eat two. She wasn’t as hungry as the day before, and her attention was as much on me as on the food. I talked to her in soothing tones, and asked if I could pet her. She nervously froze when I put out my hand, so I withdrew it and spoke my reassurances. She finished the first can, and attentively watched me as I opened the second. She again took her time with the second bowl, drank water, walked around, walked close to me, but she couldn’t bring herself to let me touch her. She wanted affection, but her frayed nervous system was all defense. She walked in big circles and small circles, went from bowl to bowl, moved toward me a little at a time.
I finally put my fingertips to her body as she lapped water from the bowl. She didn’t pull back. I touched her dry, dirty coat. She accepted my touch, and her tail’s tip curled a little and shook, like a faint smile. Two strokes. Three. She pulled away. She circled around again, came near me, looked up as I talked to her, let herself get close, then pulled away. It took maybe another half-an-hour before she decided that we were okay, and she finally let me caress her head, stroke by stroke. When I sensed a calm in her, I reached my fingers for her body and she moved close to me. I slowly stroked her, and a delicate purr hummed in her throat. We enjoyed each other’s affections for a while, before she moved on. When she walked away, I saw that her paws were bright red, and she put her feet to the gravel surrounding the yard as if to broken glass.
She didn’t stop by the next day, but she did the day after, announcing her arrival under the window, with the sunrise. She was friendly and calmer. On her third visit, I named her, believing that her sweet, resilient soul deserved my first literary hero’s name. She craved my touch as much as food, and she struggled between a desire for affection and her stomach’s demands. Conflicted she moved back and forth between me and the bowl, purring, rubbing against me, rapidly eating from the bowl, until, apparently, she ate enough to quiet her hunger. Then, after eating most of the first can, while I sat on the stairs, she stepped into my lap, nudged my face with hers, and purred as I stroked her. She stayed in my lap for a few minutes, then returned to her food and water. She looked better than her first visit, but she was thin, filthy, and her coat was in miserable condition. I got a better look at her paws, which were tender with abrasions. She had obviously traveled some rough roads. We spent the morning together, and when she had her fill of affection, company, food and water, she left.
I wanted to bring her in, soon, but there was Leonardo. Leonardo was curious about her, pushing his nose against the balcony screen when she appeared at the back steps, and squawking when I talked with her. He enjoyed being “The King Of Everything,” as I had nicknamed him, and I doubted that he could share — share me, share his toys, share his home and the privileges of his kingdom. He was older when I adopted him, and he quickly settled into his kingship after too many homeless days. I gladly spoiled him, knowing that someone had dumped him, not caring if he lived or died. According to the shelter, he had been homeless for a long time, because it was difficult for the volunteer to trap him and bring him in. I wasn’t certain if bringing in a one-to-two year old female was fair: he wouldn’t be aggressive, he was a gentle creature, but at his age and with his temperament, he was ill-disposed to happily adapt. I called my friends at the no-kill shelter, his home before ours. “You have to have her tested for FIV first,” Joan told me, “you need to catch her and have her tested, do the FIV testing before you allow her in.”
I didn’t know about this FIV protocol for strays, and the information bought me some decision time.
I researched how to lure Charlotte into the cat carrier — I didn’t want to scare her by trying to trap her, but I now knew that I had to get her in for the FIV testing before I could consider letting her into Leonardo’s dominion. This bred in me another anxiety, for I knew that I may have to give Charlotte to the shelter. I felt responsible for her getting the home that she deserved. Though the no-kill shelter vetted applicants, if I gave her to them, I had no way of knowing if her home would be a good one. My nurturing instincts were in overdrive, fretting about Leonardo if I decided to keep her, fretting about Charlotte’s long-term well-being if I gave her to the shelter.
“We have time,” I told myself. But Charlotte’s visits over the next weeks were irregular, and timing proved difficult. Her only predictable behavior was that she preferred visiting between five to five-thirty in the morning. My brain rarely worked that early, as I was on a late night schedule. Catching her meant cajoling a stray into a cat carrier in the early morning hours on the day of her choosing, while triumphing over my morning brain inertia, without notice. Or caffeine.
During the day, I often saw her in the neighborhood. Wandering the streets near the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, near the Graduate School of Design, darting in and out of yards on Irving Terrace. This deeply troubled me, for the neighborhood is deceptively tranquil, with its red brick side walks, old New England homes, flourishing trees, and Harvard owned buildings. Irving Street, the street I lived on, is a residential one-way shortcut to reach the Cambridge Street Mass Pike exit — cars illegally speed up to seventy miles an hour down the quaint, narrow single lane road during morning and evening rush hours. Kirkland Street, right around the corner, is a rambunctious thoroughfare for semis and delivery trucks avoiding Harvard Square’s traffic. Not many in the neighborhood let their cats wander outside for long. To do so is asking for heartbreak.
Seeing Charlotte run from yard to yard made my stomach ache. I had to catch her. Another concern murmured in my thoughts. We were now well into September. Soon the weather would cool. I wanted her safe before the cold arrived. All preparations were in place for what I hoped would be a gentle, safe trapping and cab trip. I hated the idea of trapping her, but I had to for her welfare. Food, carrier, cash. If she showed on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, I would take her into the shelter for testing. Any other day, expect Sunday, I would take her to the vet, pay the bill myself, and figure out what to do from there.
Oddly, Charlotte quit visiting. Mid-October arrived. No Charlotte. I feared finding her body on the street, hit by someone racing to work or dinner, her excoriated paws not fast enough to avert their speed. A few years earlier, a neighbor found her cat Maggie dead in the street near the Science Center, hit by a car. I imagined finding Charlotte in a lump of open, rotting flesh left for dead. I didn’t want that for her, and I didn’t want to remember her that way.
November. December. No Charlotte. I didn’t see her around the neighborhood. I left the window opened even as the temperature dropped, so I could hear her if she announced herself. The first snow came. There were no cries outside my window. Winter was brutal that year. Snow drifts covered my basement apartment windows after a record-breaking Nor’easter. For two months several feet of snow pack covered the tightly shut windows. In my heart, I had buried her.
As the days grew longer, the ice and snow melted. Spring came and the world dissolved into greens and flowers and singing birds. The windows were again open. One morning, late in June, about five in the morning, I heard a familiar if too long absent cry outside my window.
I jumped out of bed, grabbed a bowl of water, a bowl of food, and an extra can. I ran for the backdoor. There was Charlotte. Her coat shined, she was clean, and she had gained weight. She looked up at me, brushed up against my legs, and her tail curled. I put down the food and water, but she refused both. It seemed deliberate. She ignored both bowls, as if to say, “that’s not why I am here.” I sat down on the porch steps. She stepped into my lap, rubbed her face against mine, and melodically purred as I stroked her. I asked her where she had been, told her that I missed her. I looked at her paws, they were pink, soft, and healthy. Even though she didn’t have a collar on, I understood that Charlotte had found her home. I kept offering her food and water, but she wasn’t interested. She had come by to say thanks. She didn’t stay long. She seemed eager to get back to where she had come from, as though she needed to get back home. You may think my imagination has trumped my good sense, be amused at my anthropomorphic indulgence, find my need for sentimental embellishment running roughshod over intelligent narrative decisions.
I think not.
I think I was paying attention. Charlotte visited that day to say hello and thanks. She left, perfectly happy.
I lived on Irving Street for at least another five years. Charlotte never again visited, and I never saw her in the neighborhood.
Many humans suppose that because nonhuman animals don’t have language, they don’t speak, and because they don’t speak, they don’t communicate. In this view, reason and language show our superior intelligence, presumably because of either God’s will or evolution’s privileges. And we’ll continue to live in this privileged position until Jesus returns, or we get the research done that proves otherwise.
I believe that this hubris is wrong, be it a sacred or secular dogma; I also believe that the dogma has it backwards. Language doesn’t give us better communication: I believe language’s most common uses lead us into an intellectual and spiritual deafness that we must unlearn if we are to listen, again. This insight runs through the world’s great mystical teachings. This is why the mystics tell us, “Be still and know.” Meditate. Learn to listen to the whispers in the trees. Listen to the voices that aren’t heard with the ears, but are found in the heart. Life’s deepest communication comes from listening, not from language. Language seems to me something that we’re stuck with because we’re human, a tool as beautiful as it is dangerous, full of metaphorical darkness and light.
There’s a telling moment in the movie “Being There” when Melvyn Douglas says to Peter Sellers’s character, Chauncey Gardiner, “. . . there’s something about you, you don’t play games with words to protect yourself.” Chauncey is a simpleton, but everyone mistakes his simplemindedness for wit, understanding, boldness, and honesty. The story brilliantly and hilariously maintains a difficult premise: a simpleton catapulted into power and privilege through dumb luck and projected interpretations onto nothingness. “Being There” is one of the darkest, funniest comedies ever made. Written by Jerzy Kosinski, Kosinski was a Polish Jew whose family narrowly escaped being sent to the camps during the German occupation. (Itself a fascinating story.) The movie, based on Kosinski’s own novella, is a penetrating critique of the media, language, and interpretation — his insights obviously came from living during Germany’s propaganda fueled genocide. But Kosinski’s critique goes deeper than political satire. He distrusts language’s created realities, he questions our unassailable trust in this flawed tool, and he shows how we fall prey to the beliefs given by our uncritical dependence on language. We may do language, as Toni Morrison writes in her Nobel lecture, but in doing language, language does us.
Chauncey emerges at the story’s end a free man, unperturbed by the world. He doesn’t read. He doesn’t write. He is. He doesn’t do language: therefore, language doesn’t do him. The movie famously ends with a shot of Chauncey walking on water, as a voice tells us, “Life is a state of mind.”
We mistake language for communication, but it too often obscures communication, because it’s slippery. We believe that language is concrete and necessary, think that it reflects permanence and reality, and that’s the illusion, because nothing is permanent, and reality’s a strange and strained construct. There’s a more problematic conceit in everyday language use, though. We use language to hide ourselves from ourselves, and from others. We unconsciously play the mythologies, the stories, the unquestioned traditions, the denials in which we’ve created comfortable niches. Consequently, habits of mind bestowed by language and engrained by life’s inertia deafen us. Unless we work at unlearning, we don’t control language, it controls us, limits us, and keeps us from hearing what we would otherwise hear, if we weren’t domesticated to hear in ways too convenient for our own good, ways that keep us from listening to the world’s infinite voices.
That sunny spring morning in June, Charlotte said thanks to me, without saying a word. And she did it better than many of us who have this thing called language.
The philosopher Wittgenstein wrote, “Words only have meaning in the stream of life.” Words may need the stream of life, but the stream of life doesn’t need words. The stream of life needs us to listen. Then, if we’re paying attention, we can hear speech where we would least expect to, although it’s taken me almost twenty-seven hundred words to convey that point.
(Please note: I wrote this entry in two hours. It may show that investment. I hope it offers something useful.)
Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your destiny. — Gandhi
Since moving to the outskirts of civilization, I’ve done a lot of “spiritual work.” I don’t know what else to call it. I’ve experienced a shift in consciousness, how I see myself, and how I see the world. Stuff that I thought that I knew, I now understand better as a way of (B)eing. I previously posted a piece on loving myself, “A Love Story,” but there’s a bigger picture that’s unfolded: understanding myself as part of life’s beautiful play is finally sinking in.
The myth of separation dissolves. For today, I’m simply throwing that out there, do as you will with it, for brevity’s sake. Perhaps by the entry’s end, it will be clearer.
The past year, I’ve worked through many conscious and unconscious stories that governed my beliefs, and I’ve left the worst of them behind. And, yes, I do believe that these things can happen that quickly, when one is ready. Therapy wasn’t my answer, but committing to my creativity and spiritual path has unleashed insight after insight, in remarkable and demonstrable ways. Friends tell me of the changes they see. I smile. Nature is instrumental. I’ve come into myself by realizing how simple and magical life is without trying. Spring arrives, flowers bloom, tress grow. All this will pass, there will be a deep sleep, and the spring will come again.
I am one with the forces I see in the seasons, and I’ve merged with life and (B)eing, because life exists everywhere, here.
Education, for its many gifts, really fucks up life’s simplicity, on a fundamental level. We’re taught wonderful ideas, learn to ask better questions, and learn to answer with more sophistication, but self-love, awareness, and (B)eing are conspicuously missing from the curriculum funded by the incredulous student loan debt that I incurred and have since given to the Powers That Be to worry about. I am unlearning not only my stories, and my family’s stories, but the intellect’s hubris for its works and artifacts.
Last week, during an early morning walk, the world grabbed my shoulder, and got my attention. The sun hung low, a glowing ball shining through a perfectly clear blue sky, surreal in its clarity and depth. The valley and hills exploded with life, innumerable greens, birds, butterflies, insects, all the critters that remained invisible to my eyes. “I am the sky,” I heard myself think, “when light passes through me, life grows as it should, it happens without question or worry, and it will happen with or without my attention.”
God is a label. Gratitude another label, a way that language limits lived beauty and power and grace, the ineffable experience of being alive, and being part of life’s magnificence. “Gratitude” is how the mind places its attention, a practice that we can submerge ourselves in. It then becomes a loop, the more we do it, the better life gets. Beauty, joy, nature, poetry, the body’s strength, a good meal, a glass of clean water, a bird, whatever meaningfully grabs the mind and heart, no matter the circumstances, whatever feeds the soul and makes it feel alive, that’s where life presents itself.
I admit, it’s easier here and now. But during my psychotic break while living in Manhattan, I remember focusing on a pigeon nest across from my window, as I lost my mind, my family, faced eviction, had no food, and feared that I had entered mental nether regions from which I would never return. The wall between myself and the forgotten homeless living on the streets was a rent controlled building that I hadn’t paid rent on in months. For hours, I simply watched pigeons cooing and caring for each other, because I could do little else. They gave me serenity and a connection to living. Those hours in which I watched cooing gray birds, their nest tucked in between concrete slabs, affirmed life. And, therefore, myself.
I’m blessed with good friends, many who have had charmed lives. Truly charmed lives. Money, travel, life experience, prestige. Prestige with a capital P. While I was cleaning houses, they were traveling the world, making medical breakthroughs, starting NASDAQ companies, the list goes on. Yet, their lives are full of problems. Whenever we talk, I hear of some new crisis, some new problem, some melodrama occupying the most precious real estate on the planet, their mind. Relationships and circumstances always resolve, but you wouldn’t believe it from the way they talk.
Materially, they have more than 99 percent of the world’s population, but they believe they have nothing, believe themselves broken, believe something is wrong with them, see problems that don’t exist everywhere, and therefore create problems that do. They scream this reality with every-other-sentence out of their mouth, in their judgements of themselves, and of others. Instead of allowing a sunset to sink into their skin, or water’s music to slowly connect them to themselves, they fully inhabit their perceptions of the world’s failures. To look at, touch, and smell a flower, and radically experience it for a moment, eludes them, or leaves them far too quickly. Instead, they allow somebody’s annoying behavior or some situation rental space in their sacred mind, where we make and create the world we wish to live in. Nothing happens in the world, without it happening in the mind, first. I see them give away their life sentence by sentence, unconscious of where and what their attention is doing, at that moment.
This is the voice of experience writing, not the voice of judgement.
In the middle of nowhere, without a car, with a bazillion dollars owed in back taxes, student loan debt, and living, by some folks standards, a terribly uncertain future, I find myself the wealthy one, grounded and flourishing.
If I could give them gratitude, I would. But we have to find it inside ourselves, for ourselves, if that’s what we want. We’re free to do so, it’s all in front of us, with or without our attention. When my friends get tired of slamming their heads against that wall, when they realize that the pain they’re living isn’t worth the prices they are paying, they will come around. For those of us who know the talk, but struggle with the walk, it looks something like, “yes, I am grateful for x, y, z . . . but, [insert problem or complaint or whatever horrible thing that is happening far away, over which have very limited or no control over],” followed by more emotional engagement.
Most of this is fear. Fear that life will abandon them, fear that they can’t do it themselves, fear that they’re not worth what they say they want, which is presumably peace and happiness, which costs nothing.
It’s impossible to talk about accomplishing and doing wonderful things, then dive into melodrama. Most of us say we want all of life’s great things because we want peace and happiness, but the peace and happiness are already there. I finally get the platitude, “there is no way to happiness, happiness is the way.” I also believe it’s the quickest way to stop violence and hate, because when you’re really connected to radical love and happiness, you do less dumb shit. I didn’t write, “no dumb shit,” just a lot less. At some point, some of the dear souls in my life will realize that love does it’s job, and surrender to it, because they know they deserve to. That’s it. That’s why we’re here.
That’s when gratitude, no matter life’s heart breaks, disappointments, and setbacks, becomes a way of life, for those who want to live as fully as possible, and not practice gratitude as a period at the end of sentence filled with anxiety and doubt.
You don’t do it all at once, but you can get better at it.
This is how it looks to me, today.
Video: Children’s Orchestra Plays Mozart On Instruments Made From Trash
“Impoverished” children whose homes are built on a garbage dump see the world different, and create a better one.