Mystery: The Practice of Keeping Open

I’m learning to open myself up to finding natural beauty in unexpected places, and in the worst of weather. Walking into the woods… What will I find? Why is it there?  And the beauty that appears one day, may be gone the next, which adds to the sense of mystery.

—Mark Kotz

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The Visit

I feel Your softness
Lingering between my breaths-
Warm and dark,
Holding fear and mystery.

Fear of letting go.
Mystery – enticing  me
To Your comforting blanket.

You sit waiting-
A dark, distant Star,
A Sacred Spirit

Ablaze with silver hope
That lights a path,
Guiding this life,
Pulsing with possibility.

—Miriam Roth
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LOVE AND SURPRISE: SOLO EXPLORATIONS ON TWO WHEELS

On June 19, 1971, I began a solo bicycle trip from Portland, Oregon, to my family home in Lansing, Michigan. The trip was a celebration of my graduation from college. On June 19, 2015, I began an approximate replay of that trip, from Bellingham, Washington, to North Oaks, Minnesota, this time in celebration of graduation from the full-time work force. I arrived home on July 19. On this trip, as in 1971, I camped most nights, spent some in motels and quite a few in the homes of old friends or of people who offered hospitality to a stranger. My blog along the way became a record of people, places and events and of physical, mental and emotional meanderings along the 2000-mile route.

The guiding principle of the trip was love and surprise. A simple-minded but important approach to life: do what you love and be open to surprises along the way. It was reinforced by another principle: have a plan to depart from, which allows you the flexibility to follow unexpected opportunities. These two guiding rules opened doors to people, places and lessons that enriched the experience.

It was a remarkable month on the road, and when I arrived home, certain questions from friends and family came my way repeatedly. Among the more mundane questions – What was your average mileage? What was the physical challenge like? – were several that required careful study. Why did you want to do this? Why did you do it alone? What did you learn?

Why do it and why do it alone?

Shortly before my departure, when I told our eighteen-year-old neighbor about my upcoming trip, his response was, “Wow, that sounds really awful!”  I had to laugh, but I know full well that many people think the same thing without expressing it in such a forthright manner. There are several answers to the why question.

To experience the country in a different way. On a bike you become part of the landscape. You see every tree, flower, deer, eagle and cow, more clearly than in a vehicle traveling at highway speed. Approaching Washington Pass, I saw and heard the rushing Skagit River as I ascended toward the summit. I studied the peaks and cliffs of the Northern Cascades and admired their shapes and shadows as I passed slowly by. I was captivated by cloudscapes evolving in the skies over Montana and South Dakota, even when the resulting thunderheads caught up with me and forced me off the road. I smelled fields of flowers, the special aroma of cattle and horses and the fresh scent of an upwind lake on the South Dakota prairie. I heard the sounds of tall grasses whooshing in the wind, children’s laughter, birds, trains and distant thunder. On a bike, vistas linger for closer study, and no sounds or smells are attenuated by steel and glass.

To celebrate a new phase of life. The first time I crossed a large portion of the country by bike, I was celebrating college graduation. This time I was celebrating retirement. This year’s trip confirms that this next phase of life promises new adventures, unencumbered by strict schedules. It’s a time to experience awe, appreciate beauty and seek exhilaration.

Why did you travel alone?

Solo travel by bike is a lonely endeavor. So why would one choose it? For one thing, you never have to argue about which way or how far to go. Second, biking alone opens the door to meeting new people. When two riders enter a campground together, people are reluctant to interrupt their conversation. When you travel alone, two things happen. People are more inclined to approach you and ask about your trip, and after a long day in the saddle alone, you seek out and welcome human interaction. With these forces at work, solo travel becomes less lonely than you might think.

A side benefit of solo biking is that it offers ample time for introspection. It fosters an awareness of details of the world that often escape our attention, both outside and inside our heads. Values, relationships, plans and priorities, past, present and future, are subjected to close examination.

What did you learn?

Gratitude. On my 1971 trip I was amazed at people’s capacity for hospitality and generosity, and I felt sincerely grateful toward the people who offered it. A surprise to me at the time, that trip ended up being more about people than about seeing beautiful country or achieving physical feats. Now, all these years later, it has happened again. Old friends and new friends invited me in for rest and camaraderie. A deputy sheriff in Newport, Washington, invited me into his home on the spectacular Pend Oreille River. People in campgrounds shared their food and their stories. A fellow cyclist I met in a bar in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, offered a room for the night, and a WarmShowers.org host couple in Helena, Montana, told me by phone where the key to their house was hidden and welcomed me in, even when they were not home themselves. Conversations in cafes, campgrounds and convenience stores were engaging and entertaining. The list goes on and on. It’s still about the people, and I am grateful to them all.

There are many generous, hospitable people out there, but that fact is hard to realize unless you put yourself out there in a position to receive their generosity. In our society, we lean towards self-sufficiency over dependency. But, although accepting assistance is somewhat outside our typical behavior pattern, it is nonetheless very human and very valuable. It’s a way to truly connect, and I encourage it. I’ll never forget the people who offered help on this trip.

Finally, I think about what effect this little adventure might have on others. Along the way many people asked where I was going, where I had been and why I was doing such a crazy trip. I answered by recounting stories of people, places and experiences. Some thought I was crazy, others were intrigued and yet others said they would love to do a trip like this. Right there is a goal. If this story were to encourage even one person to pursue his or her own adventure, whether by bike or on foot or whatever mode one might choose, for that I would be truly grateful. Do what you love and be open to surprises along the way.

—Jerry Yanz

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Explore world cultures, know the people, color and variety. As Twain reminds us, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”

—Miriam Roth

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Guanajuato, Mexico

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Call of the Loons
I stand on the dock
Heart-thumping rhythm
Blue-awed mystery
Swirling, raucously back.

—Jocelyn Stein

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Thousands of sandhill cranes gather at sunset on the Platte River. Listening to their ancient chorus is a breathtaking moment!

—Miriam Roth

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There’s a Bird in My Chair

On the other side of the glass, the grey rains.
There’s a bird in my chair.
If I left right now, they would find
a yellow metal car shell,
black vinyl cushions,
my thin papery exoskeleton,
an echo of scratching bird feet,
and two black feathers.

—Jonee Kulman Brigham

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The layers of fog and trees evoke a sense of mystery for me about what lies in the next layer.  We live in fog, it seems, and occasionally get glimpses of how things are.

—Ken Stewart

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Wolf
I said Wrap your arms around my neck
to a wolf
and he did
and I staggered backwards
and he lurched forwards
and then he was free from the quicksand
that protects the east entrance
to the elephants’ graveyard
and a monkey screeched on a high birch branch
and a lion roared
and a Jack Russell Terrier
in a jingle dress
danced in the falling snow

Wolf, I said
it was a dumbass thing
to fall into quicksand
anyone with your knowledge of the Paris subway system
should know that
Girl, he said
I had a hunger deep inside
and the marrow from the thigh bone
of a she elephant
is so filling
as long as she didn’t die
of a broken heart
so I took a calculated risk
Besides, you shouldn’t talk
everyone knows you go out in your jim-jams
to score Oreos at 24-hour convenience store prices

Wolf, I said
you see right through me
Girl, he said
you are a Pyrex measuring cup to me

—Katharine Holden

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Zenith
Immortality
Hotel heaven up on high?
Praise the bird in hand

—Don Lifto

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These ancient ruins in Cambodia evoke many mysteries for me about the eternal quest for enlightenment.

—Ken Stewart

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What happens when we die?

In Aging as a Spiritual Practice, author Lewis Richmond quotes Buddhist teacher Suzuki Roshi, reflecting on the reportedly calm death of the Buddha.  Reflecting on the meaning of death, his words are elegant in their simplicity, counterintuitive and not without evidence to the contrary:  Suzuki reassures, “Don’t worry – nothing happens.”  Nothing happens?  Richmond explains that in the light of Buddhist practice, your last day is essentially just another day.  Of course, logically we understand that something does happen when you die, but what happens and how does this speak to the notion of immortality?

Suzuki continues with his reflections on the meaning of death saying, “Body and mind will both have their end.  The body dies, individuality dies, but there is an aspect—let’s not even call it a something—that has always been there, that will always be there.”  But what is it and does it really exist?  Many Christians would call this “something” the spirit or soul.  If it does exist where does it go when we die – to “Hotel heaven up on high” as the Haiku contemplates?  Or, are my parents and grandparent’s immortality literally alive “Like blood through my veins.” Will my immortality be manifested in the same way, my essence living on through the veins of my children, grandchildren and endless generations to come?

My faith journey has taken me from Episcopalian to Roman Catholic, back to Episcopalian, then off to Martin Luther for a number of years, a brief (and very quiet) six months with the Quakers, before what I believe is a final landing as a Unitarian Universalist.  At the heart of Unitarian Universalism is the need for each seeker to wrestle with these big spiritual questions within the context of seven principles, but in the absence of creed and dogma.  The seven principles and six sources provide a foundation for seeking, alone but together within the faith community.  These spiritual travels continue to move my heart and inform my head in wonderful ways.  My evolving beliefs are what life and death are increasingly drawn to embrace the now.  Poet Robinson Jeffers, whose poem is below, suggests that if there is a spiritual zenith, for some of us it might be here and now.

“It is eternity now.  I am in the midst of it. /It is about me.  In the sunshine. /I am in it, as the butterfly in the light-laden air.  Nothing has to come. It is now. /Now is eternity.  Now is the immortal life.”

—Don Lifto

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Camera, please alter the literal moon.
Find an essence of what I thought I saw-
A glimpse of her mystery.

—Jonee Kulman Brigham

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Montezuma’s Well
At the well,
along the creek,
before the cliff homes,
walking the path,
reading the wall,
I am moving
with ancestral spirits.
They sing
and till the red earth
so She will gift them with
beans and corn and cotton.
Ancestors walk the land
and are in the land,
and know the rabbit,
the creosote,
the mesquite,
the hawk and deer.

They know the moon
and the season’s cycles,
know the portals
where souls and shaman journey.
They sip the sweet well water
and labor stacking stone
to build castles that
cling to the cliff
or perch hawk-like on edges.
They tell their stories
and fill the desert air
with sacred presence
as I walk their path
along the creek
at the cliff
reading their sacred story.

—Miriam Roth

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The ambiguity of trees in fog is somehow appealing  - the visible and the partially visible. How much ambiguity  can we live with?

—Ken Stewart

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The Mystery of Our Inner Landscape

When Michelangelo was asked how he created a piece of sculpture, he answered that the statue already existed within the marble…Michelangelo’s job , as he saw it, was to get rid of the excess marble that surrounded God’s creation. So it is with you. The perfect you isn’t something you need to create, because God already created it…Your job is to allow the Spirit to remove the fearful thinking that surrounds your perfect self. —Marianne Williamson.

Who is that “perfect self”? Our personality, which is created by parents, culture and context, often separates us from our own true nature. It keeps us blocked from parts of ourselves we don’t want to see, because they don’t fit our self-image or perceived personality. But we can open to the inner qualities that are unique to us. It always starts with accepting and loving ourselves even when we start to see our shadow side. Through self-awareness, going into the quiet within and learning to calm the mind, the mystery of who we are starts to unfold. It is a gift to be able to listen within, to be without distraction, and sink into the beauty of being alive. When we stop living from “the shoulds” but start living instead from our deeper selves, we find ourselves on the path that leads us to true joy and freedom. So find your passion, your deepest loves, and make time to follow them. And then connect them with a practice of stillness and reflection so that the mystery of who you are can emerge from the “excess marble” in your life. You are beautiful!

—Becky Myrick

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Photo by Mark Kotz