Threads of blue, wings of clay

At the writing retreat, during one of our lovely lunch-time conversations about practice, I asked the group what they thought about the relationship between writing and meditation. If we’re practicing being present, why do we write stories about the past and the future? I told them about a monk I’d met who had quit being an artist to join the monastery. No-one thought very highly of this idea! Two people said that writing helps them be present when they’re not writing – so they can notice the details of things. Miriam said we are bringing our present selves to the past – our current wisdom – and working to not get lost in it. I also talked about wanting to bring about a better future through writing. Miriam called this my “bodhisattva ambition.”

Inspired by this and some of the others sharing writing about the place we were in, I practiced noticing details while sitting down at the dock with my feet in the water. I wrote:

Today, with windy, cool cloudy weather, the lake water does not feel shockingly cold as it did yesterday. Just cool, with almost a comforting warmth, my feet and calves once immersed are protected from the wind. Two pelicans pass by, one of them undulates up and down, its flight path a sine wave. The other seems to be veering right to left and back again. Are they seeking prey? Or just playing with the wind? I wonder about other birds who fly over also – gulls and a small brown cheepy one I can’t identify – where are they en route to? Somewhere, it seems. I simply can’t help attributing purpose to their actions.

There is a band of blue sky near the horizon, suggesting some hope for sunshine later. The waves are varied, occasionally coming in smoother waves, then the wind gusts them into more complex interference patterns, a fancy knit stitch or chain link fence. Mostly the water looks greenish and gunmetal grey, but as I fully take in what I am seeing, I notice rivulets of robins-egg blue threaded through some of the waves – the ones towards the strip of blue sky low on the horizon to my right. The threads of blue in the water look almost electric, like the neon lights in the pedestrian transit tunnel at O’Hare – yet so much more fluid. These scribbles of blue become swatches as I watch – is the patch of blue sky widening? I look the other direction, towards my left, and see no blue in sky or water – just grey clouds, gunmetal greens and froth wave tips.  

I try to remember what I know of optics to explain this – why the waves look blue to me when I look towards blue sky, and grey when I look towards cloudy sky. I imagine I can trace the trajectory of light coming from the sky, reflecting off water, bouncing into my eyes, like planning a bank shot in a game of pool, and it starts to make sense to me. This boundary between bluer water and greener would follow me, were I to move along the shore, the way the moon appears to follow me when I drive in the car at night.

It reminds me of the mirror meditation Mingyur Rinpoche teaches – imagine everything in your field of vision is a reflection in a mirror. Everything we perceive about the world is as illusory, according to Tibetan Buddhism, as the boundary between blue and green water before me, or the moon following me.

It also reminds me of how persistent the idea of being watched is. Here, I notice it when I head down to the beach, and I imagine that Miriam in her room, or J___ on the porch, are observing my movements. It is a strange combination of aversion and longing – not wanting to be supervised, to be judged, yet longing to be seen, to be witnessed, to be approved of. So easy to let a belief in an omniscient deity fill that place – a place perhaps created by parents, teachers, older siblings, all those charged with our care as we grow.

“Look at me, look at me, look at me now!” says the Cat in the Hat. The next line – “it’s fun to have fun, but you have to know how!” – never seemed as fundamental as that first line. The desire to be witnessed, to be seen. To be heard. Perhaps, though, I could relax into a sense that awareness is my witness. I bring it, and with it connect to a larger Awareness. Capital A? Maybe.

On my way back up to the house, I collected a few rocks and a shiny feather for my sculpture project. I’d been imagining making something that had to do with trees growing up out of rocks – an image that had stuck with me from an earlier trip to Door County, on the north side of the peninsula, where the rocky cliffs are threaded with roots. On other walks I collected a floaty bit of down or seed fluff, some brown cedar leaves (flat scaly branching antler-like things), and a mayfly carcass. I added these to my improvised movable workstation – the purple plastic lid from the bin of craft supplies I’d brought – which already held the drying driftwood and some of the items from my altar on my bedroom windowsill that I’d brought down to include in my Time Guide sculpture; the quartz, the pumice, and the ceramic shards.

On Day 4 of the retreat I wrote:

Realized I want to make my Time Guide have a pendulum clock in her hand, and roots coming down thru/in/among the rocks. Also her head could have two faces – one looking up/surrender position and another looking down – I’ve looked at time from both sides now, from up and down, and still somehow, it’s time’s illusions I recall?

I mused some more about the ideas I’d had as I had played with the pieces, tacking some of them together temporarily with poster putty. “Wings of clay – there’s a metaphor! Or do I want feathers? I’d imagined the feather coming out of the top of her head…”. And I made a couple of rough sketches in my notebook, in pen. It’s times like this I’m grateful I use unlined sketchbooks for writing practice!


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