I will soon celebrate the one-year anniversary of my cross-country trek from southern California to New Jersey, as well as my birthday. Anniversaries are good opportunities to stop and take stock of things, to imagine what could have been done differently, to come to some (tentative) conclusions about “what it all means.”
I didn’t take many pictures or even journal during my journey. I drove alone, with a great deal of anxiety, at a punishing pace. Now that I think back on it, my lack of reflection at the time was typical of my usual difficulty with change. Sometimes, it’s easier just to rip the bandage off and think about it all later. My cross-country drive was an instance of one of those rare, poetic situations where spatial and temporal movement coincided; I was literally driving away from my past life, spent almost entirely in California, to a new and uncertain future – my potential future, if I could successfully carry out my dream, as a doctoral student.
There are strange, spatio-temporal associations in the dominant Anglo-American cultural psyche with respect to this continent. There’s an associated trajectory of movement, in time and space, from East to West. The West is “forward,” a “frontier,” the “cutting edge” – Silicon Valley, optimistic progressivism, venture capitalism, etc. The East is “back,” the place “where the history is” – a place of established traditions and institutions, the origin place of so many immigrant ancestors.
And the middle is just sort of … caught in the middle.
Of course, these are stereotypes. The West has its history, its legacies, its deep roots. The East has its own cutting edge, its constant influx of “the new.” Likewise with the middle.
And all have their erased, forgotten peoples and legacies.
Even so, I felt myself participating in this mythic movement, if in a contrary way. The academic future I’ve always longed for is “back” somewhere. “Back Easternism” is something of a slur in circles I’ve moved in, a way to talk about the perceived (and undue) elitism of stodgy, hidebound east coast and Ivy League schools. In my own family narrative (like many Anglo-Americans on the west coast), the east has always been part of the past, a place of ancestors and distant history.
“Anyone who had any sense moved West. Our family has always been nomadic, always looking for the best new thing,” my mother always told me. (The extent to which my Anglo-American heritage is caught up in the history of Anglo-Triumphalism and Manifest Destiny is personally disturbing.)
To some extent, the “Back Easternism” stereotype has been both true and false in my first year of experience. But I’m not really interested in confirming or dispelling that stereotype. It’s a waste of energy. Rather, I’ve found it’s more helpful simply to allow myself to experience a broad range of cultural and bioregional “shocks.” Strangely enough, the culture shocks have been less difficult to get used to than the bioregional and ecological ones.
The Self is a melody that emerges out of a jazz riff that the ego plays in concert with space and time. We are, all of us, stretched “back” by memories, “forward” by hopes, and both “up” and “down” by ecstatic experiences in the present moment. The Self exists in all these spheres, consistent only as an unfolding search for harmony amidst dissonance and playful syncopation.
My own experience of Self, and my sense of life trajectory, has been thrown for a loop by my dislocation in space, from West to East. Dry to Wet. Evergreen to Deciduous. Mountainous to Flat. My visual register has been disturbed. There are no ravens here, and definitely not enough lizards. I’ve never encountered so many waterfowl, nor so many large mammals out and about on the regular. (My first groundhog encounter was memorable. Deer randomly wandering through a neighborhood still amazes me.)
My ego doesn’t know how to map my memories into this place, nor has it become adept at plotting a course into the future along as-yet-unfamiliar highways, byways, and landscapes. This spatial and physical disruption interrupted a longed-for re-entry into a temporal flow – into a “forward movement” in life, a “getting moving again” on my academic career, my idealized future. One might think that arrival into complete novelty would enable pursuit of the same – novelty through process and progress into the unknown.
But navigation requires both familiar and unfamiliar territory. When all is horizon, where is the point of origin?
Forward movement arrested.
I’m not so much “lost” in space and time as locked into what my father would call a “holding pattern,” hovering over the small patch of landscape that has become familiar enough to be safe, but has no true horizon enabling dreams of possibility.
But to say I’ve wasted this year would be a mistake. In addition to my formal academic work, cultivating a sense of place has been this year’s project. (Thankfully, the two tasks harmonize rather well.) In practical terms, this has meant a great deal of passive, but deeply engaged, experiential learning.
In other words – sitting, watching, listening.
As part of a class project, I journaled about my observations and experiences of one place over the course of a semester. I allowed myself to adjust to the pace of this place. I adjusted my own rhythms, following along as vibrant, sultry late summer became a rich, colorful autumn, became a mournful shedding time, became a snow-covered, frozen “stick-season,” became a tentative, gentle awakening, became green, pink, goldenrod, white, magenta – a bursting of life, became shady boughs and deep, thick grass again.
Sometimes, before you can chart your trajectory from the past into your hoped-for future, you have to learn to be present in time and space – embracing what Heidegger called the “ready-to-hand.” Finding yourself on the Wheel can mean letting go of the horizon for the moment, and simply letting the world turn around you. Embracing cyclical time, even as you long for the not-yet of the linear, can be profoundly stabilizing. Leaning into the now of the present-presence, the life of this place where I am now, helps me chart my own movement from my past (California) to my present (New Jersey), and to let that place become past, become distant. Homesickness is debilitating when “back home” is more present than the place where you currently live.
As I celebrate the Wheel of the Year in this place, I marvel at the novelty and ferocity of the seasons as they manifested in the mid-Atlantic, as compared to southern California’s gentle rhythms. I watch mushrooms appear and disappear. I watch a landscape transform – what a difference the humble leaf makes! I see in winter a stripping bare, and in summer a veiling.
Awake! Alive! Prickled by sensations when I allow myself to be truly open, though I’m usually so conveniently numb! I am a stranger here, an outsider to the forms of sociality reigning in this place. It is quiet, but if you listen carefully, watch out of the corner of your eye, there is a conversation happening. Creaking, rustling, falling leaves – my green ceiling is alive with animal presence, and the slow, steady, onward march of autumn. The floor is littered in the cast off remnants, the old, crinkled notes of an ongoing conversation.
There’s a strange combination of stillness and movement, silence and noise here. When I enter the Arboretum, or when I sit down on the bench, sometimes I hear alarm calls from birds or squirrels, alerting others to my presence. But when I am still long enough, the forest seems to find its peace again. Then I attune, and listen, and the small movements – fluttering leaves, jumping squirrels, skittering chipmunks – will register in ways they did not before. I’m not used to all this movement. Everything seemed so much more still and quiet in the desert. Most movement was quick, darting, quiet, and hidden; with so much open sky and so little cover, circling raptors overhead were a constant danger. The wind stirred up violently sometimes, but apart from the cotton trees planted in stately rows in neighborhoods, there were only little sways and rustles in the gale. Squat junipers held firm. Buckwheat and thistles leaned, but the wind had its own, mournful song. But here, the trees sing more than the wind does.
It’s hard to get a sense for how big the sky is here. There are so many trees in the way, and so little elevation, that the sky seems continuously obscured. Instead, everything is close, close, close! – it makes me feel trapped. I feel the same way in the city sometimes.
At home, autumn was swirling dust, the crunch of cold dirt, rolling tumbleweeds freed from their precarious moorings, movement all below. But here, autumn is the raging canopy of leaves on fire, like restless storm clouds gathered around the grey trunks, movement all above. At home, the colors were stark: cold red dirt, ghostly grey stalks of old grass, stalwart green junipers, encircled by purple halos of berries. But here, the hues all blend into one another: green leaves dipped in fire, a blue, then grey sky peaking through the dark branches, grass still emerald and sparkling in the morning dew, but dappled like mosaic under the precarious shade of leaves ready to fall.
It seems to me that the “big questions” of spiritual life and philosophical inquiry ought to be woven intimately into the everyday struggles of learning to live in time and space. Dichotomies and tensions which seem intractable – Eternal or transient? Universal or particular? Stasis or Change? Commonality or difference? Cyclical or Linear? Objective or Subjective? Ideal or Material? One or many? – collapse and stretch when they become part of a life story, a process which can contain both dissonance and harmony, so long as the song plays on. The resolution of jazz’s sometime discordance is always on the leading-edge of the music, in the not-yet, the expectation of its resolution in the next bar of music. The experience of is like listening to a conversation of many partners.
There is beauty, complexity, pain, contradiction, creative contrast, and joy to be found by embracing the whirling, buzzing, sensory-intensive present moment. But when we wait, listen, witness, the present stretches, extends, flows, hints at something new on the edge of its becoming – a horizon appears, and with it, the blessings of the not-yet: possibility, emergent novelty, hope. What kind of Self might emerge when the ego learns to dance along with these ever-emerging rhythms?
“If we surrendered
to earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.
Instead we entangle ourselves
in knots of our own making
and struggle, lonely and confused.
So like children, we begin again…
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.”
Rainer Maria Rilke, “Love Poems to God.
Emile’s blog is here.
Amelia “Émile” Wayne has studied the intersections of religion, history, and culture for eight years, and has spent the last two years teaching undergraduates in various Humanities courses as an adjunct professor. Émile’s personal spiritual quest flowed along lines of inquiry laid out by research, and eventually led them to seek out a form of religion which could counterbalance Émile’s tendency toward intellectual abstraction through a radical affirmation of lived experience. It was through participating in Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF) style rituals that Émile came to embrace Paganism. Émile will be pursuing a PhD in Philosophy and Theology at Drew University in New Jersey from 2016-2019. Their goal is to construct a naturalistic pagan philosophy which engages Queer Theory, Process Philosophy, and Ecstatic Naturalism, while remaining firmly rooted in actual soil and actual lives. While not studying or teaching, Emile enjoys horseback riding, mystery dramas, and craft beer.
Read Emile’s previous posts here.