Sunday, September 15, 2013

Elemental Self, Enigmatic Forefather


Who am I? The elemental question. The question that persists. The one that wakes me; drives me to ask other questions. The question that has me searching now for a grandfather I know little about. How do our forebearers shape who we are anyway? Geneticists tell us that certain traits are inheritable. Could a forebearers’s identity bleed into our DNA, then remember itself, as do genes that determine hair and eye color? Or do disembodied forebearers exist in some ethereal realm where our attention goes, then draws them back? These questions held me as I walked the wide trail to the hot springs.

The rain and cloud cover kept all but the determined out of the forest. There were no other cars parked at the trailhead. Bill and I walked silently into and under the cedars, ponderosas and firs. Water flowed in the streambed and through the canopy. Water droplets in suspension. The earth releasing stored heat. The lines that normally define the boundaries of everyday life blurred. I felt part of, not separate from. As my awareness reached out, energies rushed in. The sharp cry of a pileated woodpecker narrowed my focus and brought me back to myself, the trail, the sky, the trees, the rocks and my camera.

I reached the lower springs before Bill did. There are several pools. Some hotter, some colder and a long, deep one filled with cold, creek water and steaming water that slides off the rock defining the mountain’s slope and an outside curve of Warm Springs Creek. I slid into the deep one and stuck my face into the hot steam near the rock. My hands held me up in the water. My legs bobbed in the top layer of hot water, my hands in the cooler water on the bottom. The steam soothed my eyes and throat. I found it easy to relax into the moment. With my ears submerged I could hear the creek as it rushed by and a deeper throb. Was I hearing the hot water as it gushed rhythmically to the surface? Plunges into the hot water were punctuated by dips in the clear, cold creek water. Stretching from one granite boulder to another, hopping and jumping and sliding into and out of the creek, I made my way upstream. Moss undulating in an eddy, a lichen encrusted rock, a bright berry; like a magpie my eye was easily captured by shiny objects. I’d pull out my camera and play in the light. A layer of clouds cloaked the sun, yet the ambient temperature was warm. It reminded me of the climate on the Big Island of Hawai’I. I’d spent 4 months of last winter on the island and it was in my yurt around two o’clock in the morning that I met Teodorico.

I need natural spaces, free flowing water, old growth plants and heat. When these conditions are met I feel free and able to slip into and out of everyday consciousness and primordial being. I’d brought along J. Krishnamurti’s On Nature and the Environment . I’d read a couple chapters the night before.

“Love is as real, as strong, as death. It has nothing to do with imagination, or sentiment, or romanticism, and naturally it has nothing to do with power, position, prestige. It is as still as the waters of the sea and as powerful as the sea; it is like the running waters of a rich river flowing endlessly, without a beginning or an end.”

Maybe my reading the book before falling asleep last night set the stage for what happened. Even now I’m not sure where I was when I first met Teodorico. Was I awake or asleep, but then, does it really matter? Our first meeting was on the Big I in the middle of the Pacific ocean; this time a rustic cabin on the edge of one of earth’s last wild forests.

My four month sojourn on Hawai’I is in one sense over, yet in another exists in an individual and collective memory. My hosts in Hawai’I had a library of books on Hawaiian culture and mythology. I learned how ancient Hawaiians understood themselves within the context of their lives, their living space and the lives and living spaces of their ancestors. They understood themselves to be connected to the web of life and by extension to past and future lives and spaces. They could tap into their collective memory when they needed to, or at times these “understandings” came unexpectedly.

The slender branches of a giant albizia tree swayed overhead. The shadows the branches cast dappled the grass. Several zebra doves flushed and darted into the dense forest behind the yurt. I’d finished my four hours of work and I sat on my yoga mat on the deck facing southeast. Sitting here after work had become a routine. It defined the end of focused work and the beginning of free play, a time to satisfy my curiosity. A time when I opened my attention as wide as it would go. It was joyful. I think plants, animals, rocks, life…I think they love our awareness. The dogs would come over uninvited when I‘d decided to leave and explore. These afternoon explorations became routine for them too.

I find solace in nature. Living spaces comfort and heal. I enjoy climbing on the polished bark of guava trees. Guava trees grow horizontal limbs. Sometimes these long branches hold up shallow rooted trees that the winds have toppled and these other trees continue to grow, cradled by the guava. The cluster of branches invite stretching and hanging. Body awareness is a key component to spatial and mental perception. Body movement activates flow and this flow opens our senses and heightens understanding. My heightened awareness after this hike introduced me to much more than wild pig trails, lava tubes and Japanese white-eyes.

I had eaten dinner, walked back to my yurt and lit the kerosene lamp. It was my habit to read until I got sleepy. It could have been Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness I was reading. I read this book while staying in Puna.

“It seems to me that I am trying to tell you a dream-making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, the commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams… No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence-that which makes its truth, its meaning-its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream, alone…”

I fell asleep when it got dark at around 6:30. I slept soundly until two in the morning, then I woke, read and worked crossword puzzles. One part of me wants to say that I fell back to sleep; another that I fell into an altered state. A state of being I can’t explain. That’s how it felt anyway and that’s how I remember it. I lay on the stone floor of a vast cathedral. I was looking up at a mosaic filled series of arches and domes. It was as if the individual tiles were backlit with a golden light. As I lay there transfixed by the kaleidoscopic images, they morphed and slowly the image of a man, a king, emerged. Suddenly, as if amplified, a voice, deep and resonant, identified itself:


My body reacted involuntarily. I raised up in bed and was fully awake. I lay there for some time wondering what had happened. In the readings I’d done on Hawaiian culture and mythology, I had learned that Hawaiians believe we have “aumakua”, ancestral spirit guides. We can reconnect under the right circumstances and I had reconnected. I sensed too that being in Hawai’I and spending time getting to know its flora, fauna, geography and culture had contributed to my reconnecting with my “aumakua”. I felt awed and thankful. It was as if the spirit(s) of Hawai’I were recognizing and honoring my presence.

The following day I searched Teodorico online and what I found excited me. Theodoric the Great was the most famous of the Ostrogoth kings. His Italian name is Teodorico. The Goths were Swedes who left Gotland, the southernmost region of Sweden, and who first settled in what is now Poland. With the disintegration of the Roman Empire, German tribes migrated to fill power vacuums left as Rome imploded. The Goths moved yet again and settled near the Black Sea and eventually settled in what is now Austria along the Danube, south and east of the present city of Vienna, on the banks of the Neusiedler See near the Roman city of Carnuntum.  Teodorico was born just after the death of Attila, the Hun, and he eventually became the leader of the Ostrogoths, or eastern Goths. The Visigoths, the western Goths, allied themselves with Rome, while the Ostrogoths, under Theodoric’s leadership, allied themselves with Constantinople. Theodoric spent 30 years as a captive in Constantinople per the stipulations of a treaty his father signed with Leo, the then leader of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Captivity taught Theodoric the importance of tolerance. He eventually moved his people to Northern Italy, where he then became ruler of the entire Italian pennisula, and his 33 year reign bears witness to the importance he placed on racial harmony and how this emphasis on tolerance maintained peace between the Italians and Germans. He chose Ravenna to be his capital and he died there in 526. Ravenna’s basilica, the Basilica of San Vitale, offers the best preserved example of Byzantine mosaic art outside Constantinople. In my dream I saw these mosaics and I heard and saw Theodoric.

Night was falling. The cedar cabin we’d rented stood sheltered in the shadows of old growth cedars. An outside light accentuated the darkness of the surrounding forest and gilded the horizontal logs and hanging branches, swooping low and wide towards the ground. A reading light lit the cabin’s interior. I was reading J. Krishnamurti. I’d stopped to consider what I’d just read:

“I don’t know if you have discovered your relationship with nature. There is no “right” relationship, there is only the understanding of relationship. Right relationship implies the mere acceptance of a formula, as does right thought. Right thought and right thinking are two different things. Right thought is merely conforming to what is right, what is respectable, whereas right thinking is movement; it is the product of understanding, and understanding is constantly undergoing modification, change. Similarly, there is a difference between right relationship, and understanding our relationship with nature. What is your relationship with nature, (nature being the rivers, the trees, the swift-flying birds, the fish in the water, the minerals under the earth, the waterfalls and shallow pools)? What is your relationship to them? Most of us are not aware of that relationship. We never look at a tree, or if we do, it is with a view to using that tree, either to sit in its shade, or to cut it down for lumber. In other words, we look at trees with utilitarian purpose; we never look at a tree without projecting ourselves and utilizing it for our own convenience. We treat the earth and its products in the same way. There is no love of earth, there is only usage of earth. If one really loved the earth, there would be frugality in using the things of the earth. That is, if we were to understand our relationship with the earth, we should be very careful in the use we made of the things of the earth.”

It happened again. There I was in that unfamiliar state of being nowhere and somewhere simultaneously. I was sitting in a natural setting around a campfire with strangers. One person in the group seemed to be a teacher and the others were gathered around listening to what he said. I too was listening. I wasn’t impressed with what the teacher was saying and then abruptly he turned towards me and asked me to speak.

Be-leave or Be-come.

That’s what I said…and then I was flying, flying over a river at dawn. The forest was emerald green and the water glistened gold. I was losing altitude and I imagined just how cold the water must be. I fought to keep myself airborn and as I neared the water’s surface I could see my reflection, then I plunged into the water. To my surprise it was warm.

Was the teacher in the dream Teodorico, my “aumakua” helping me digest Krishnamurti and understanding my evolving awareness? J. Krishnamurti defines love as being a force that leads to right understanding, an understanding that like all things, changes, yet an understanding that ultimately results in more self and situational awareness. The next day, as Bill and I made our way back to the hot springs, I began thinking of a great, great grandfather I knew very little about and one I‘d given little thought to for a long time. Christian Dellin.

To be continued…