"always roaming, with a hungry heart", Tennyson's Ulysses A grueling winter, this, and it is supposed to be spring. I shiver as I set the coffee on the stove and stick my hands under my armpits to ward it off. The meteorologist on the radio says something about record breaking. Wisecracks that we now have a winter we can brag to our grand kids about, implying a rareness of this deep, long, white season. We are in the midst of something that will only come to us once. Or is, at least, something the weather man thinks he needs to make jokes about.
I scowl and turn him off, peek timidly out the window to see. There it is, the muffled, white, frozen world. Shrouded as they once shrouded houses out of season, covering furniture and every last trace of intimacy and warmth and detail. I drop the curtain and pad back to the coffee, willing it to boil.
Later, I leave the house with scissors. Swathed like an arctic explorer, wielding my kitchen shears in mittens. Two days ago and three blocks from home I spied a pussy willow or something like it along the river, tentative in this freak year, but fuzzed just the same. The scissors, the dog, and I stumble through deep snow until I find it. I remove mittens and touch the bark with my naked hand, slowly and questioningly. As if asking permission, as if bark were skin, as if I couldn't possibly touch the velvet soft, living fuzz before acknowledging the branch. I snip three twiggy boughs and hold them delicately as can be in parka and over sized mittens. Screw the mittens, I think, and trudge home valiantly with the things held in cold hands. The cold in the fingers is very nearly virtue. Exhilarating, at least. As only virtue or sin can be. Coming into the house, the dog tracks snow up the stairs and I stomp into the kitchen boots-on; floors be damned. For an instant, dark. Then my eyes adjust. I put the willows in a vase and sat across the room to admire them. A still life; morning table, tufted willows, a window behind them framing the still falling snow. For the first time this season, I feel the hope of spring.
It doesn't take much to go on a journey. You leave a place of familiarity, encounter the world, and return changed. The most ancient metaphor for life is a journey, and there's no dimension of experience that cannot be understood within the journey's context. Certainly each miniscule spiritual venture (each foray into doubt, each intentional walk around the block, each worship service or meditation) is a journey, inasmuch as we are transformed, however slightly. It takes very little for the heart to travel outside its comfort zone and be moved.
Or does it? The bleakness of this season checks me; the reality of human lives. If it is the nature of a soul to be moved, why is it so often a move into suffering? And what the hell do I mean, soul? This has been a good year, in my life. But it has been a year of grief for others. Death, pain. Murders in schools and along the Boston Marathon. Political, social, disease. How will we weather this? Why do some people seem blessed, gifted, happy, while most of us begin to shrivel and cringe? True that bit about most humans living lives of quiet desperation. Most of us live lives of diminished returns and restraint. Most of us die entirely bored.
When does a journey become spiritual? What is it that moves a heart?
Later, still, with the sprig of willows in their vase, I trudge to the yoga studio. Empty, since the weather prompted me to cancel classes. I put the willows on the alter, adjusting them a bit. Then I kneel down. The sun in the northern windows doesn't directly light the space, but sends in chords. The air is dry and I lick my lips. After a few minutes, I begin to move.
I move until I feel a humidity building in the small of my back, the nape of my neck. I feel the bones of the hand crack, and then begin to glide more smoothly, and eventually I feel the muscles in the palm change texture and the skin of the hand pinks. I feel the pain in my low back, radiating from the spine's attachment to the sacrum to the muscles of the low back. I bend backward and touch those muscles from inside. They begin to change texture, as well. I move quickly, until I feel my heart thudding in my ribcage, and then I hold. Sweat leaves my hair and falls into my eye. I blink. But I still hold.
When I am done, I put back on the arctic explorer's uniform and step back into what has become a glaringly bright sun. I'm not fooled. It is the same day. It is the same spring. I have errands to do, there are still headlines coming in from Boston. I have changed, not world. My heart has moved.
There are times we set out with the intention of nourishing the soul, when we seek insight. We go to landscape, a holy site, a guru. We follow our longings beyond the borders of the familiar. These journeys are conscious and deliberate; they are the equivalent of a retreat. We expect transformation. We open ourselves to movement.
But then there are occasions when we're blundering along without any intention of being changed and new awareness bursts through regardless. You're in a foreign country, and suddenly American gluttony and status quo are meaningless. Or you are struck with illness that forces you to question your life's purpose. A certain amount of open heartedness is necessary for revelation to break in on us, the sacred and our own soul can catch us by surprise.
What begins as a trip to the grocery can leave us different.
They say yoga is the oldest spiritual path known to man. It isn't hinduism; it preceeds hinduism. Yet somehow this set of practices, sounds, aphorisms and suggestions, is a thing I find myself drawn to in the middle of a snowstorm in the middling west, thousands of years later.
It was not a journey, it wasn't intended to be. I reluctantly followed a girlfriend to a class in Brooklyn. But yoga has changed me.
Perhaps a spiritual journey is when both your physical self and your soul move. External changes have their counterparts in our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. I spent years trudging around Latin America, and my sense of living a metaphor was eerie. I was both trying to run away and trying to find something. I'd head up into the Andes and feel my chest get tight with thin atmosphere, legs cramping, gut strained, pushing every cell of my physical capacity; inside, I scaled a mountain of loneliness as I learned to trust my abilities and my emotional limitations. Watching the bastardized Catholicism in the Andes, I felt both confusion and longing. Traveling that way, I knew both physical freedom and the struggle to live that freedom out or bring it home with me. I felt the alienation of an ex-pat, the lewdness of a voyeur, the alienation of a non-believer sitting through ceremony.
Intense journeys or any sudden immersion into the new have a tinge of the pilgrimage to them. For one thing, we're physically engaged, moving, eating, or sleeping in different ways. This demands that we pay attention. And it proves how limited our prior version of 'the way things are' tend to be. Awareness in our bodies is intensified. When we travel, or do anything with the intention of learning, we are removed from the familiar and become absorbed outside of ourselves - in the smells, language, plants, people, books and ideas or songs and rituals around us. We're all eyes, ears, and surprised tongues. This absorption has a childlike quality; memories of travel often have the same vibrancy as memories of childhood or early love. The selflessness of travel can make us vulnerable and open in ways we may not comprehend until we've returned home.
In fact, it may take coming home again to fully understand where it is we've gone.
After returning from months in Ecuador, one of the girls I traveled with called me in the middle of the night. She was crying. She said she had been standing in the supermarket, looking at the aisle of jams and jellies, and viscerally recalled the simplicity of the tiny corner store in Saraguro. The gaudiness of her own culture overwhelmed her. Later she met friends for drinks and dinner and felt herself removed, abstract, feverish. As if I were listening to them, watching them, from behind a pane of glass, she said. As if I could no longer talk about the things they talked of. As if I couldn't possibly explain to them what I've seen.
I knew exactly what she meant. When I came 'home' to my apartment in Brooklyn, I felt the pain of culture shock. I believe the pain of culture shock to be more intense in coming home than when we go away. When we go away, we expect to be lost and confused. We're open to not knowing what will happen next. But when we come home, it is terrible to see the same chair propped against the wall, the same blue sweater slung over it, to hear the same voices through apartment walls. It is painful because we have changed and our rooms have not.
There is a link between the tangible world of a journey and the intangible, responsive changes that occur within.
Physical journeys provide a catalyst and form - a beginning, a middle, an end. This is mythic in quality and reminiscent of many holy stories, from Siddhartha's venture outside the palace walls to the Jews' crossing the wilderness to the Mormon's migration west. Journeys provide narrative; we can't help but wonder what happens next. Because we've traversed a landscape, we intuit that we've traversed a landscape of psyche or soul as well.
What if our lives had such narratives, even in our own kitchens? Do they, or do they not?
In Peru, I spent weeks alone on the coast. It is an odd coast; desert runs right up to the shore, and the desert then runs right up to the foot of the Andes. It is a place of enormity. One can feel small there. I took this as a comfort.
I met an ex-pat who had been sunburning on that coast for 30 years. I did not like him. I didn't like his hawaiian shirts or his unshaved blond chin. I found his unbuttoned collar and his sharktooth necklace offensive, as we sat drinking a beer together and I watched the locals pulling in their fishing nets. I did not want to be like him.
I wasn't looking for whatever it was he was looking for. I wasn't looking for a place to live, a way out, a chronic boozy vacation. I was looking for something without knowing what it was. I was looking for meanings. I was looking for ways to live in Brooklyn that made more sense. I was looking for hope, or reasons, or inspiration. I suppose I was looking for my soul.
I have a few collected rosaries from that trip. A painting. All my photographs were lost. There are times I wonder what it all came to; if the fact of my being there matters much at all. Or if it is one more of a long list of things, experiences, chances in life I left unfinished, couldn't do, quit. There are times I wonder why I - a tattooed alcoholic divorcee living in her hometown in the midwest - am practicing yoga. Isn't that offensive? Is that possibly authentic? I wonder why it should feel more complete and soulful than those other journeys.
Maybe because I am not running away from the world, but toward it.
Maybe because I'm not running anywhere, at all.
Perhaps we can uncover the spiritual nature of a journey by asking: what changed? Bringing the pussy willow into my kitchen changed my atmosphere and altered, however slightly, my awareness of spring. Moving my cold and pessimistic body until it shivered with exertion and warmth shifted my attention. Change isn't always positive, of course. Some journeys are through hell. Even so, if we examine the transformation that occurred, comparing the 'before' with the 'after', describing and understanding the factors and details that have brought us from here to there, we touch on something essential and true. Understanding transformation requires a patient, gentle rendering of attention. It's just like the 'before' and 'after' photographs in diet ads; you need the comparison to appreciate the diet's success. The significance of any journey, of any change, is measured against it's starting place.
Grounding ourselves in the consequences helps us arrive.
But what are the consequences of where we live, and who we are?
When I wrote that bit about the pussy willow, I didn't give the act of cutting a few branches much thought. It was impulsive. As I wrote it, however, I became aware of how the act changed my morning, how the branches changed the air in my room and the picture of my window. I enjoyed the cutting, the placing them in a vase. But why did I have the urge in the first place? And what drew me to write about that, exactly, instead of some other thing? It was a soulful movement. The twenty minutes were spiritual. But I didn't realize that until I wrote it out, until I paid attention.
We are asked to pay more attention. Holiness likes hidden until we tend it with listening and actions. We do not have to go far, I think. As Wendell Berry says, "The world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet and learn to be at home." The miles we've traveled, but also the habits of our mornings, the minutes we spend on the mat, are a means for discovering that single, blessed inch.