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Heart Work

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We tend to think that the younger generation carries on the legacy of the generation that came before it. I want to begin by thanking Jim and Linda Hunt for realizing that it also works the other way around. And I thank everyone in this room for helping them with that.

Okay. Heart Work. 

My dad died last month, when his heart finally stopped after 83 years. I've been studying on that, feeling my way through it, for six weeks now, and I have to say: I'm not at all convinced that this word we all toss around-- the word, "d-e-a-d" ---is in any way accurate. To my ear as a writer, to my intuition as I live a life, and even to my body as the son of my father, I feel that the word "dead" is far too over-confident to signify the true situation of any no-longer-visible person. I've studied too much metaphysics, watched too many frozen winters turn into too many gorgeous springs on too many trout streams, and known too many so-called "dead" to any longer believe the word depicts anything that's truly going on around me, physically or spiritually. That none of us are getting out of this world in these particular bodies is obvious ("and thank God for that!" add those of us old enough to be feeling the need for a rebuild). But even without this former body, my dad, formerly know as Dean, and before that, Woody, who died last month and is thoroughly unseeable now, has left so dang much of himself thanks to our shared half century that I'll be hanged if his being dead has gotten rid of him. He taught me to fish-- for which the fishes still surely curse him. He taught me baseball---for which reason I still wreck my back lugging around The Brothers K. He taught me how to tease--- the way I'm teasing him now. My dad spent 83 years being so unmistakably, irascibly, sometimes annoyingly himself that he feels no less himself to me know than two months ago, and I would need not just a pick, shovel and pulaski but some kind of spiritual dynamite to root even the part of him that's in me , out. So what's with this "dead" concept? 

Phil and David's and my home state, Montana, is kind of a quaint place, philosophically speaking, in that there are still quite a few Remedial-Nietzsche God-is-dead-type nihilists running around. These barroom philosophers---they almost all tend to be men---look incredibly self-impressed when they declaim, over their repeatedly emptied beer mug: "We got one life. Then, NUTHIN"." As if they knew! As if they had seen, felt and tasted this "nuthin"." But then, if all they could talk about were what they know about, they'd have nothing to discuss but beer. 

I find blanket answers to spiritual mysteries to be so nonsensically unfounded that the folks who cling to them strike me as cute---like contemporary members of the Flat Earth Society. Just as smug as the Remedial Nietzscheans and their beloved 'Nuthin', but parked on the opposite end of the spiritual teeter-totter, are the fundamentalists who say, "Our beloved Fred took out a phone pole the other night and is in Heaven with the Lord now." As if they knew! I'm not belittling the faith of others. I'm just saying that judging Fred and sending him to Heaven used to be God's job, not his Baptist sister Luverna's. What happened to the days when we bided our time in humility and ignorance and let they Mysteries Themselves reveal what they truly are? "The tenets of religious belief, "wrote my friend Henry Bugbee, "are not intended to be the termination of wonder: they're intended to be occasions for it." 

Anyone bound for "global citizenship" is bound to befriend a lot of citizens. I can hardly believe how many people I've grown fond of in half a century. Because of this, one loved one or another is pretty much dying all the time now. I don't feel it's in any way inconsistent with love for God, or with faith, to leave declarations of where they're headed to their Author. For my part I try to simply pay close attention to the end-drama and after-drama of each person, allowing each its particular feel and flavor. My dad's departure, for instance, included a vehement insistence on no funeral, no coffin, not a penny wasted on the undertakers' morbid art, and no fuss or tears on our parts either, if possible. He insisted on cremation and pronto. He added a simple request that his ashes be tossed---illegally, it turns out, but oh well--- into his favorite steelhead fishing water, which flows past a single rock he loved to stand on all day, day in and day out, which rock he dubbed "The Pulpit." The feel and flavor of this departure could be worded something like: "Yeah, I'm gone. But don't make a fuss now. Your grandparents gave me life. Your mom and I gave you one. We take turns pulling up stakes and moving the circus of ourselves on to the next town, is my feeling. I'll see ya later, or maybe sooner. Who knows? But know this: I luv ya." That was my dad. And whether he's in Heaven with Luverna's brother Fred or in Nuthin' with the Remedial Nietzschean's is God's business, not mine. And I thank God for that. And, so I'll bet my bottom dollar, does my dad! 

I want to say a few things about how to conduct a life in times like these. But I find it ever more true that the limited length of our lives, and our love for those who have left this world before us, have a hell of a lot to teach us about how to conduct our lives. So here's one more story with death in it. I dedicate this tale, in friendship to Jim and Linda---and Krista, too. 

I taught creative writing at the University of Montana last fall. I don't know how much about how to teach writing, since for the most part I just sit home doing it. One thing I do know, though, is how to write letters. I've received thousands through the years, have answered almost all of them, and have learned from experience that this wonderfully free form of not-quite-art, being rule-free and sloppy-as-you-like and devoid of critical or publication pressure and motivated, often as not, by nothing but love for just one other reader, very often lets us sneak into the heart of the matter without quite knowing how we've done it. So when the teaching got tough last fall, I'd let my teaching take the form of letter writing. This brings me to a student with an impossibly interesting writing problem. I'll call her Marcy, to protect her privacy. Marcy is Assiniboine---one of the Great Plains' tribes---and has been struggling for years not only to master English, but to learn her native tongue. Her English is excellent. Her passion is poetry. Her Assiniboine, though, has few practical applications for a grad student in and English-speaking world. So even though it's a seriously endangered language, with few native speakers left, and even though Marcy feels it is the vessel of her people's culture, she has been forced to neglect Assiniboine to pursue her education. She suffers terrific guilt over this.  

The plot thickens. The nonfiction piece Marcy wanted to write for my class was about her mother and grandmother, both of whom are what we call "dead"---a term I have just protested. Marcy protests it, too. The two women's bodies are buried in a tiny church graveyard above a bend in the Missouri, and because it's the family graveyard, Marcy knows that her body too will some day lie above the riverbed. She often visits the little rise, to stand between her mother's and grandmother's graves. Trouble is, she would like to make a spiritual home of this place, a place of solace in this life. But because of her split culture and two tongues-- English and Assiniboine---Marcy doesn't feel at peace there. In fact she feels deeply unsettled. At tribal schools in her grandmother's day, native language was literally beaten out of the children by their white teachers. In her mother's day, it was shamed out---which may be worse. Because of this, Marcy feels that one of the first things her mom and grandma shed after dying was the English language. She suspects they returned to Assiniboine words and ways joyfully. But in doing so she feels they left their ability to communicate with her behind---because she was not taught the language, and has only a few hundred awkward words of it. So there Marcy stands above the river bend, yearning to communicate with the two most important women in her life, feeling that she is conveying almost nothing. She doesn't even feel she's conveying anything when she recites stuff to them, like the Indian Joy Harjo's poem, which goes,

Give me back my language
And build a house inside it...
A house for the dead
Who are not dead.

The beauty of poems like this smites Marcy, so she wants to share it---but when she gets up the hill between the two graves, even Joy Harjo goes dead, because: English! That's how balled up Marcy was when she wrote a piece for me. To make her task even more difficult, she has a tough, no-nonsense side that dislikes---indeed, withers with scorn---anything that smacks of New Age-ism, woo woo, or the various attempts of white people to center their lives around ripped off Indian spirituality. So even though she yearned to write a piece about her mother and grandma and split tongues and broken hearts and cultures, and, as she put it, "prayer and death and such," she was determined to do it with out a hint of what she disparagingly called "mysticism." 

"Can you help me?" she then asked.

Holy shit. I had no idea how to help. All I knew was that some how or other, poor Marcy needed to relax. To her face, I gently suggested that Macy was being a knucklehead toward herself---because, something I haven't yet managed to fit into this story: at age 25 Marcy is off to become the youngest, and only female, K-through 12 principal on any reservation in Montana, and probably America, one of the biggest problems she faces at the school there is that her 150 charges want to call her "Auntie" instead of "principal," because they know and trust her so much. So in building that historically beat the Assiniboine right out of children, Marcy is giving 150 children a year a safe haven for, and education about, their wild native souls. That said, I took her admittedly failed attempt to write "about prayer and death and such without mysticism," realized that I as a white male was the last guy on earth who should critique it, gave up completely, and wrote Marcy in that great art form, the letter, instead.

The letter went like this:  

I can't speak publicly to your losses, Marcy. But I have some experience privately contemplating, praying over, and writing about my own losses. It's this experience I'll try to tap. A few before-thoughts:

You say you want to "avoid mysticism." But to my mind, true mysticism is practical, and inevitable in a life fully lived and deeply perceived. It is not credulous or pious. It is fiercely independent and freethinking. It has nothing to do with this self-indulgent "New Age" (rhymes with sewage) crap that certain people, bless their hearts, embrace as salvific the first instant they look up from their TVs. To me the word "mystical" ties in with the word "supernatural" not in a ghostly or occult way, but in a straightforward way that means something like "even more natural than the regular old natural." "Extra-natural." "Really really natural!"

And one of the most natural things I can think of, Marcy, is the love between a mother and child. Of course we run the risk as sounding like idiots when we "talk about prayer and death and such." But if people who love language, and life, and poetry, and Indian kids, grounded, workable, day-to-day, non-new age spirituality don't talk about "prayer and death and such", they leave the prayer- and death-talk to the clerics, the undertakers, the embalmers, the language-of-death-profiteers.

Screw that strategy! Who better to talk about our dead loved ones, and to our dead loved ones, than we who love them and were, and (mystically) are, loved by them? I still talk now and then to my grandma who died fifteen years ago, because fifty years ago I was born with a foot folded under, and she spent weeks straightening it out with her own two hands while she rocked me and sang to me and taught me the rhythms of living and breathing without even trying, and the foot has worked great all my life, and still works, and it's one of the two feet that ground me, connecting me to this earth, and if my foot even now got bent and she could figure out a way to help me from wherever she is, I know she would, I just know it. So why not tell her thanks and thanks again, even though she's invisible? Why not tease her still, too? There was a log of rough give and take between Gwamma Woe (as I called her) and me when she was visible. I can't tell you how often she told me in my teens that I was gonna burn in hell for being a smart ass. But I saw the love in her eyes even as she condemned me, and so would cross my eyes back at her, and say "Better a smart ass than a dumb ass," and she'd start laughing and yell even louder about how hot hell was gonna be, and I'd cross my eyes a different way and start making sizzling noises, and she'd laugh and curse and sometimes pinch and sometimes hug me and back and forth we'd go. So why not keep going? To keep gong may be mysticism, Marcy, but I hope you see it's also practical, and sane-making. 

Another example: My mother and I are so close it's nuts, and she will die one of these days, and I already know that when she does I'll talk to her even more than I do now. Because I can't not talk to her. To an almost scary degree I AM her! Half a century of behavioral influence and affectionate osmosis, not to mention the fact I used to live in her, have made my mom so different in shape but similar in spirit that I long ago gave up, admitted our relationship was stupid, hilarious, confusing and precious, and accepted it for what it was. An example: Mom's 6 foot and 79 years old. I'm 6 foot and 50. Yet for thirty years we have had the exact same body weight. Is that weird or what? With totally different diets, in different states and continents, different phases of life, different genders, we have slowly risen, side-by-side, from 145 lbs up to our current 178! If this is some sort of "mysticism," it's a hilarious form of it, so: so be it. I have been loved by my mother and my dead grandmother, my dead grandfather and brother, my dead mentors and friends, my dead dad. These loves weren't always pretty, and at times were even hellish, but I have no reason to assume their flow has stopped because of death, and I'll be damned if I'll cease to love my dear dead back, and to talk with them as I please. I've run on long here, but it's huge that you know that your words can express love to your mom and grandma even now. Even your English words! Our actions express it too, of course--- and learning a tough language is a decisive action. But just standing by their graves is love. Even our failed words express love. I suspect even the Assiniboine words you haven't yet learned, but yearn to learn, express love, via your yearning.

That was my letter, and I'm stickin' to it. I sense it's pretty related to the strategy Jim and Linda have stuck to, too. And for what it's worth, Marcy rared back and wrote one of the most beautiful, free-free, practical-mysticism-filled little pieces to her grandmother and mother I've ever read. 

Okay. I'm going to spend the rest of my time trying to define my sense of citizenship as best I can. And the term "heart work: sums up what citizenship means to me. But before I get to that, I want to share the definition of "global citizenship" that Linda Hunt told me on the phone last week. Correct me if this is off, Linda, but I remember you saying that the term implies an effort to become citizens not just of a "God-blessed America," as the song keeps telling us to do, but of a God-blessed entire Earth. (Linda nodded.)

Needless to say, we who yearn to see the whole Earth blessed, and not just Americans, or Muslims, or oil execs, or whatever faction, nation or clique you care to name, have got our work cut out for us. Working for a God-blessed entire Earth is a great calling in at least one practical way: there are an infinite number of job openings.

One of my favorite workers in the field---Mother Teresa---made a statement that's become a mantra to me since the war on terrorism cranked the tension way up, all over the Earth. Mother Teresa said, "We can do no great things---only small things, with great love."

My God what a statement! I think we've all felt the truth of it. I've even seen the truth of it in my life as a fisherman. On great big trout rivers like the Missouri, the lower Clark Fork, the Spokane, the big Blackfoot, your often see fly fishers trying "do great thing" by "fishing big," "fishing heroically," making great big casts out into the giant flow. But we can do no great things. Only small things, with great love, for which reason those of us who love to actually catch fish scarcely, glance at the great flow. Instead we parse the river. We slice off just a creek's width of it, in our minds. Within that little creek we then look for an even smaller slice, known as a feeding lane, where, if a trout is holding and buts are hatching, you'll see one fish repeatedly rising. In rivers six or seven hundred feet wide, we're talking about a ribbon six inches in width. But this ribbon, believe me, is where all the fish get hooked and landed. 

A weakness of mine: I have no faith, as a citizen, in any kind of political party, left right or centrist. The only spiritually responsible way I know to be a "global" or any other kind of citizen is by doing small things, with great focus and love, regardless of politics. Or despite them.

I'll tell you how I first learned to appreciate Mother Teresa's strategy. My friendships with rivers have resulted in three books. As a result I've been asked, more times than I deserve, to speak to gatherings of river-lovers. Four or five times these gatherings were "national." In preparing the first national talk, I initially felt that I should say something about "the nation's rivers." But my mind, in the presence of such a concept, simply wilted. I am 72 inches long. At a full shout my voice carries a quarter mile or so. I can walk maybe twenty miles without quite dying. I've lived my whole life on a few small Oregon and Montana streams. How does a creature like me address a national anything?

I tried. In the name of National grandiosity or some damned thing I once tried to compose remarks that would be found equally interesting by every member of a fifty-state audience. What emerged from my exoskeleton were sentences of such fiberless banality that they could have served as any-ol'-party Presidential campaign speech: "Good evening, National river People. Powerful wet stuff, our national water. As a thing to float your boat on, you can't beat it. Oil. Gas. Beer. They'll float 'er, too. But not as cost effective.

"We had water back home. Powerful wet stuff, as I recall, though of course we stayed out of it unless we had on the swim trunks. We were the heartland, not Hollywood. Swam clothed, if at all. You had to love the water, tough. So wet, as I remember it. On the reservoirs of wet water, we had our boaters. Fishin' in it, we had our fisherfolk. And our farmers would, uh, squirt the crops with it when the, uh, sky water---'rain' as we called it there in the heartland---wasn't gettin' the job done. Not gettin' the job done. Remind you of anybody we know livin' in a big white house in Washington? My fellow Americans, I feel it is time America squirted me on the crops. That's the national water situation as I see it. Thank you."

Mother Teresa did not squirt herself on all of India. She grew world famous by helping homeless Calcuttans one sick or dying person at a time. She took this approach not because she didn't wish to help all the sick and dying, everywhere, but because we can do no great things. Only small things, with great love.

Another personal weakness: I am hopelessly flawed. This is another reason I love Mother Teresa's advice. When small things are done with great love, it is not flawed you or flawed me who does them: it is love.

One of the truest fictive scenes I ever wrote one measly pair of pages I expect I could read to my Maker on judgement day without shame, perhaps because I so loved the small thing I was doing that I vanished in the doing of it---occurs in The Brothers K. The scene concerns a little Seventh Day Adventist girl, Vera Klinger, who happens to have a harelip, but loves to say the out-loud prayer at the end of Sabbath School anyway. Her lip makes her words sound ridiculous, which makes the kids in class crack up as she prays. Her teacher every week tries to find somebody besides Vera willing to say the closing prayer. No one ever does. Here's the two pages:

"All right then," Brother Beal murmurs, wearing a half-happy, half-miserable smile. "Would anyone care to offer the prayer?"

Then Vera Klinger---who I'd forgotten here beside me---starts waving her hand and craning her body like she'll die if she's not chosen.

As usual, Beal pretends not to see her. As usual, no one else volunteers. Finally Beal looks at her. They both look desperate. As usual, Beal's desperation climbs like a tourist back into its tour bus, while Vera's doesn't budge.

Brother Beal sighs, then gives her a grim nod. Sixty-some heads bow---and sixty-some bodies stiffen in their chairs, knowing all too well what's coming. Vera closes her eyes tight, and draws a breath so deep it sounds more like a sob. The torture begins:

"Nyearest Nyeesus!" she calls out, her voice, her whole body quivering. "Nank nyou!, nank nyou!, for nyall nyour nyimmy nyimmy nmlessings, nand for nthis nay of Nhristian Nyellowship!"

At the words nyimmy nyimmyMicah uncorks a snicker---and there are lots of answering snorts today, maybe because I'm stuck here beside her. My stomach knots up, and most of me wants to snort with the others, but part of me, the part that hopes thekingdom might be within me, makes me gouge my knuckles in my eye sockets and fight to hear her words. "Mlease, nLord!" Vera cries, as if she's pleading with an axe-murderer. "Mlease fornivus nhour snins an nrespassenth! Nwee are snow nunworthy, snow nvery nvery nunworthy!"

Noses blow violently. Stifled giggles circle the room, like pigeons trapped in a barn. Beal keeps his head bowed, but clears his throat and steps threateningly round his podium. "Nopen our narts, nwee veesech nThee!" Vera shouts.

"Narts! Narts!" Micah moans, and the pigeons pwip-pwip-pwip even more wildly. 

Irwin says he heard there's an operation that can fix lips like Vera's, but that her parents feel the thing's a special cross God gave her to bear.

Everett says it's the parents who deserve a cross: somebody should nail their upper lips to one, he says.

Peter says her name means, "Truth" and that she has nice eyes, and might be pretty when her mouth gets fixed.

Whatever she might be later, and however she felt before, she's on some kind of rampage now.

"Nyelp us to nlove nyou nmore and nmore!" she prays as Micah laughs outright, "and nmore and nmore!" she pleads as girls grab Kleenex, "and snillnyet nmore!" she cries, her voice breaking, her body quaking so violently it makes my chair quake too. "Nenter nthem now! Nright now! Nwee are nso nlost, nso nvery nvery nlost, nwithout nThee!" and even as it occurs to me that this must be real prayer---even as I see that what is being laughed at is the sound of someone actually ramming a heartfelt message past all the crossed signals and mazes of our bodies, brains and embarrassments clear on in to her God---when I open my fists and peek at Vera I see a face so exposed, so twisted with love, grief and longing, that if she was my sister I'd take off my coat, wrap her up and hold her, and beg her never, ever, to do this naked, passionate, impossible thing again.

"O nYeesus!" she gasps. "Nyearest nLord! How snorely nwee need nThee!"
"Snorely!" Someone croaks.
"Gugh!ugh!ugh!" goes Micah.
"Thank you, Vera!" Beal blores, hoping to put an end to it.
"Nmakes us nworthy, Nlord!" she cries, hearing nothing but her prayer. "O mlease! Nmake us nworthy!"
"Amen!" growls Sister Harg.
"Gugh!ugh!ugh!ugh!"
Pwip pwip pwip pwip pwip
Vera's prayer goes on forever.

I thought this scene was pure comedy until the day I read it, ten years ago, to a big crowd, and when I got to Vera's prayer several people started weeping---including me. Five years later I tried to get through the scene in public again. Same thing. Years later a third try: more tears. At that point I realized the little scene contained---quite by accident---a power greater than anything that I as a writer know how to create. It's a weird thing to make a character up, find that you admire this made-up person more than you admire yourself, then make the person your role model. But that's what happened between Vera and me. A fictitious girl's real prayer helped me deepen my own hare lipped prayer efforts through the years. I first depicted Vera the way I did because I was trying to imagine a soul that loved God so truly it didn't care whether her love made her appear ridiculous. It then hit me that my own soul loves God, indeed all souls love God, in the same utterly unselfconscious way, because that's what love is: a pure flame, unaware of its own burning. Love just loves. At which point I realized I wanted to be wildly more like Vera.

Us owners of souls are given a daily choice: we can try to conduct ourselves in a manner that never risks appearing ridiculous. Or we can be so true to love that we no longer care what sort of passionate, impossible, agonizing, hilarious things love makes us do. If we are to be true to the Vera that wants to love her Love nmore an nmore an snill nyet nmore!, there is always going to be a mental Micah going Gugh!ugh!ughugh! in the background. But this tension between our mental Micah and our inner Vera, speaking of living with tensions, just might be the true "divine comedy."

--After his beautiful brother Paul was beaten to death in a back alley, Norman Maclean was still able to capture what was funny about growing up with Paul in A River Runs Through It, and was still able to say, "Agony and hilarity are both necessary for salvation."

---After growing up as the oldest and Catholic son of the head of the Southern Idaho Cattleman's Association, then falling madly in love, at age thirty-three, with a black man, moving to New York city, making the crazed gay scene there in the 80's, becoming HIV positive, my friend Tom Spanbauer was still able to write, "Love the mess."

And as she was dying of cancer, Gillian Rose managed to write in her memoir, Love's Work, "Keep your mind in hell and despair not... To live, to love, is to be failed, to forgive, to have failed, to be forgiven, forever and ever... Earthly, human sadness is the divine comedy---the ineluctable discrepancy between our worthy intentions and the ever-surprising outcome of our actions... The mismatch between aim and achievement (is) comic, not cynical; holy, not demonic... It is love to be able to laugh bitterly, purgatively, purgatorially, and then to be quiet."

This kind of approach is all I know about any form of citizenship, global or otherwise. Which means, as you can see by now, that the little I know about citizenship is spiritual, not political. I am a political ignoramus. Our legacy as Americans, it seems to me, is too powerful to escape. That the world is small, that its so-called 'resources' are not a boundless economic bonanza but finite parts of a fragile and holy web of life, that humanity is part of the same web, that the web's health and ours are as closely connected as a child's life and its heartbeat--- these god given links and limits will, I feel sure, be the scalding revelations of the coming decades. Because they will scald, I don't wish to define myself politically at all. I'd rather be true to my inner Vera, serve people of every and no political persuasion, and pray for revelations that soothe like love and water---and I believe we'll get them. As wrong headed and deadly as humans can be, we haven't eradicated love or water yet.

In thousands of lives and stories I encounter in my travels, in a widening circle of awakening friends, in the beauty of love and water, I continue to sense an invincible spark in the world and in people, shining the brighter for the surrounding dark. What my first novel got most right is its allegiance to this spark. Bill Bob called it Queenlight. Nick called it the Fisher's love for a wooden headed ass. Hu called it Clod. Gus called it Nameless, and later the line of Light. What I call it will remain secret, because Matthew 6:6, but I continue to revere it just as Gus did, and whether this reverence will change the world is not a question I even ask anymore. In my experience, the desire to change the world only makes me paralyzed or furious when I then fail to change the world. A very long time ago, Lao Tzu said it very well: "Those who desire to be of use in this world soon burden the people with their own insufficiency."

Getting back to citizenship and living with the tension, the great Oregon poet, William Stafford, once wrote, "We live in occupied country, misunderstood. Justice will take us millions of intricate moves." I couldn't agree more. And Stafford's statement is a lot, you will notice, like what Mother Teresa, Norman Maclean, Tom Spanbauer and Gillian Rose already told us. I also feel---and this is a tricky one for idealists and altruists---that the courage and energy to go on making just and intricate moves requires certain intricate moves to protect our fonts of energy and courage---moves I try to summarize in a piece of writing called "Strategic Withdrawal." An inner cogency is for me buried or lost when I fail to ignore the smoke and mirrors in centers of political power, especially Washington DC. So instead of gathering politicized information and the televised stuff called news, I spend time shedding information and news, tuning in a Nameless spark instead. This spark may or may not change the world. But what I have seen it do is pierce it. When spiritual light shines out in darkness, the matter of this world is pierced so deftly and completely I'm sometimes left wondering whether matter isn't just spirit in a denser form. And I'm hardly the first person to wonder about this. 

Teilhard de Chardin: "Concretely speaking, there is no matter and spirit. There exists only matter that is becoming spirit."
Frederick Somer: "Spirit is the behavior of matter. Perception does not take spiritedness into a state f affairs that does not already have it."
Stephen hawking: "What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?"
St. John of the Cross: "The fire! The fire inside!"
Bhagavad-Gita: "Behind the manifest and unmanifest there is an Existence that is eternal and changeless. This Existence is not dissolved in the general cosmic dissolution. Fools pass blindly by it, and of its majesty know nothing. It is nearer than knowing..."

So even when I'm being a so-called "activist"---even when I'm clanging alarms about mutant net-penned salmon or fatal Snake River dams, for instance---I'm not trying to "make political news" or "change the world": I'm just trying to be true to a light that pierces it, when the salmon come up the rivers and I pursue those salmon with great love.

To state the citizenship situation another way: a lot of my friends and I have found, quite by accident, usually painful accident, that when the heart opens up, whether in love or in heartbreak, there is an unscientific yet palpable spaciousness in there. And words said or written, and deeds done, within this mysterious spaciousness, satisfy like no others. For this reason I decided long ago to turn my writing work, earth work, fishing work, yard work, parenting work and messing-around-doing nothing work, into what I call "heart work."

A story about my conversion to heart work:
Thirty years ago a brilliant friend of mine, Carl Ernst, was married on a farm I was care taking in the Cascade Mountains. Carl is now a Sufi scholar of world renown, but thirty years ago he was a half-baked hippie whippersnapper like me, with a cape, broad-brimmed hat, astonishing vocabulary and reading habits, and hopelessly inept harmony with rivers and fishing gear that were in large part the inspiration for The River Why's resident scholar, Titus Gerrard.

I fed Carl and his bride fresh-caught trout on their wedding day, in honor of the fact that the bride, Judy, was a fisherwoman from my own fishing mecca: Tillamook county, Oregon. Judy is brilliant, too. Had to be: in her youth she served society on a Tillamook High pep squad that had to invent rhyming yells for an athletic team known as the Cheesemakers! Her budding Sufi scholar was so nervous about their approaching nuptials that, perhaps after meditating on the word cheesemaker, he upchucked the trout I'd fed him. But after recovering, happily marrying, becoming fluent in Arabic, Persian, and other languages, living a life of true scholarship, and growing deservedly renowned, Carl published many books. My favorite is his translation of the spiritual diary of a twelfth century Sufi named Ruzbihan Baqli: The Unveiling of Secrets.

As it happened, I first read this book in the midst of doing a storm of writings and talks on behalf of the Northwest's salmon and rivers. I had taken on this work largely in reaction to industrial and political forces destroying salmon and rivers. Out on the road, though, doing the work, I couldn't fly fish, and so lost touch with the rivers that keep me detached and balanced. Because my work visibly changed nothing, the harder I worked the deeper I sank into fury and despair.

One day, en route to another such Fury and Despair talk in Portland, feeling in advance that, given the momentum of the nation, my words would be fruitless, I sat down in a plastic chair in the Spokane Airport and opened my friend Carl's translation of the Unveiling of Secrets. Ruzbihan Baqli then quietly told me:

I saw God on the streets of the hidden, carrying something in his hand.
"My God," I asked. "What is this?" He said, "Your heart." I said, "My heart has such a station that it lies in Your hand?" He gazed at the heart, and it was like something folded up, so He began to spread it out, and out, and out. When He had finished, it covered all of space from the Throne to the footstool, highest heaven to the core of the earth. I said, "This is my heart?" God said, "This is your heart, and it is the vastest thing in existence." I said, " Where are you taking it?" He said, " To the world of eternity, that I may look in it, and create the wonders of reality in it, and forever manifest Myself in it with the attribute of divinity."

No Sooner had I read this than my heart began to unfold. As my entire grew larger, the Spokane Airport grew smaller and more beautiful, till the people saying goodbye to and greeting each other were so fragile and poignant that I began to weep. I closed Ruzbihan, opened the talk I was going to give, and read, still weeping, some words I planned to share with an audience simply because they'd engendered fury in me. I'd found them in Derrick Jensen's A Language Older than Words. Louisiana Pacific CEO Harry Merlo said them. With tears streaming, heart unfolding, the airport and people so beautiful, I read Harry Merlo roaring, "We need everything that's out there. We don't log to a ten-inch top or an eight -inch top or a six-inch top. We log to infinity. Because we need it all. It's ours. It's out there, and we need it all. Now" and his words grew so tiny amid the heart's spaciousness that they vanished, taking my fury with them, leaving me grateful for every breath of air wafting into fragile passengers and me thanks to trees that had survived the desires of poor folded-up Harry Merlo.

America is distracting, and I as an American am distractible. But my willingness to stay folded up in works that fail to acknowledge the heart's vastness died in the Spokane Airport that day. I now try my utmost to unfold, regardless of venue or of emotional climate. I make this effort, to cite one spectacularly distracting example, even when Montana's hate radio guy is praising our ex-governor for having tried so hard and long to cyanide-heap-leach the river that runs through it, the Big Blackfoot, for flecks of gold to benefit rich Toronto corporations, it would've been so great, the hate guy says, but the eco-Nazis stopped him with their whining about dead rivers, so now you salts of the earth are unemployed, he says, so I got an idea: Go whack an Eco-Nazi! Then some guy listening to the broadcast sees a nineteen-year-old girl driving a used car with a Save the Planet bumper sticker that isn't even hers going to bag groceries to lower her college debt, and when she steps inside to work, firebombs her car. My God, I want to ask while the car is still burning: My heart has such a station that her car is burning, right in Your hand? I then want to stand so quiet I feel the Maker of hearts gazing at the heart in His hand, and at the burning car and flagrant injustice in it, till I feel that they truly are "like something folded up." I want to feel the heart as He then spreads it out and out. I want to know just as surely as any Buddhist monk or Sufi sage that we needn't worry about justice, that on the streets of the Hidden justice lives as surely as does love, that karma is as real as falling forests or burning cars or inconceivable blessings we ourselves pull down on our heads with our own words and actions, that there is no way to escape justice by lying, shredding documents, telling half-truths, or living hypocrisies, for there is no such thing in the soul's realm as smoke and mirrors: we can only reap what we see. And knowing justice is inescapable, and not in human hands, I want to ask, finally, Why judge? Why hate or rage? Why not just serve, wherever and however and for as long and as gratefully as we can, step by step, heart to heart, move by intricate move?

 

crystal evening clutch