A life’s journey is a marvelous thing – bookended by confusion and disorientation – yet between those awesome extremities there are abundant opportunities for clarity and comprehension. The true blessing is that those chances are legion. The most important residuals of having lived are those times when life comes into sharp focus and, within a broader nature, begins to make a bit more sense. Before you are born and after you die you will not be not here – the opportunity to live and experience is not yours. In those decades between however, there are the opportunities to experience life and its meaning in all its various implications. This is the living time between ‘all that might become’ and ‘all that might have been’ – between the blind hope of youth and the melancholic regrets of old age. For those of us who can write or read books such as this one, that time is still very much our own. This is a book about that time and those opportunities.
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A Question of Substance
Searching for Buddha
A monk set off on a long pilgrimage to find the Buddha. He devoted many years to his search until he finally reached the land where the Buddha was said to live. While crossing the river to this country, the monk looked around as the boatman rowed. He noticed something floating towards them. As it got closer, he realized that it was the corpse of a person. When it drifted so close that he could almost touch it, he suddenly recognized the dead body – it was his own! He lost all control and wailed at the sight of himself, still and lifeless, drifting along the river’s currents. That moment was the beginning of his liberation.
Visit to Meadow
As it happened, it was one of those clear crisp winter days that bring life into sharp focus. The snow cover in the meadow had been freshened overnight. The combined efforts of Early Morning Cold and Morning Sun had covered the world with a glistening icy coat.
Wolverine was relaxing under the cover of a particularly aromatic long needled pine tree. Its scent filled his nostrils and the soft sound of Wind moving through its branches was soothing to his normally aggressive nature. The morning foraging had been productive and now, with a full stomach, he settled in to contemplate the world that lay before him.
At the far edge of Meadow he noticed Deer peering out from the cover of the trees. She carefully sampled the air. To Deer open space was both a lure and a danger. There was grass under the snow. Food that would satisfy a hunger that twigs, bark and moss could not. But there was also exposure. Eyes that could see less well through the trees could see easily across Meadow and the trees that now sheltered her might conceal the approach of a predator. And so she hesitated and feared.
Although Wolverine did not share Deer’s timid nature, he thought about what it would be like to live in such a way. It was a mystery to him. How could one live a life constantly at risk – without the protection of strong teeth and claws, a savage nature and a safe burrow at night? So much was lost and such poor quality sleep. But then his sleep had been less than peaceful lately.
Meaning and No Meaning
He saw Deer draw back into the shadows. As he gazed to his left (upwind from Deer) he saw his old friend Wolf enter the meadow. His nose brought him Wolf’s scent and his sharp eyes told him that his friend’s morning hunt had been productive. The small flakes of frozen blood still on her muzzle meant a full stomach; nourishment for the growing pups that she carried – and an opportunity for an unhurried journey of exploration.
“Otherwise, why enter Meadow upwind?” Wolverine thought to himself. “Eat or be eaten knows when it really matters!”
His eyes traveled back to where Deer had been and saw only the faintest outline deep in the trees. He would have missed her if he had not been looking.
Deer couldn’t have known that Wolf was no immediate threat. And, even if she did, she wouldn’t take the chance. Death had no real meaning for Deer but no meaning did have meaning – and Deer was afraid of no meaning. For her, Wolf was part of no meaning.
And Deer knew death like Wolf did. She had watched members of her herd die under the unrelenting pursuit and sharp teeth of the likes of Wolf. Grass does not die violently. Bringing death close up – face-to-face – is a sure way to experience its immediacy. Deer feared such a fate and trembled at the slightest thought of it. “Fearing death only pushes it back into the shadows of no meaning,” thought Wolverine. He wondered what it would be like for him to die but the question did not seem to want to stay with him – so he let it go.
A Question of Substance
He was under this very tree this very morning by intention rather than by chance. Yesterday certain events had brought a question to his mind – a question that had stayed with him – would not depart – even when he tried to ignore it.
The truth was that this question was beyond him and, hard as he had tried, he had found no way to get his mind around it. The night had brought frustration – and frustration had allowed little sleep. At Sun’s rising he had decided to seek the wisdom of another. He knew that there was one in all the forest who might help him sort it out. And so he set out to seek this one. The exercise was not without its risks – for the spirit which he sought was a notorious trickster, the most powerful spirit in the forest. And he was also prone to confusing and confounding just for the sport of it.
Overhead, Red Tailed Hawk circled and let out her single, high-pitched cry. Wolverine turned his attention skyward. “Well, the day’s hunting is not over for all of us,” he thought. As he watched Hawk circle he became aware that a dark shadow had moved into the trees on his right. The shadow settled onto a branch just above his head and a bit of snow fell onto his muzzle. “How did he know I was here? Maybe he knows. Has he sensed that I need to talk to him?”
Raven was the only spirit in the forest that Wolverine felt second to. There was something about Raven and the bird’s presence that was unsettling. He couldn’t put a name to it but something ancient and deep followed the bird around.
But, unsettling or no, yesterday’s experience and a sleepless night had carried a thought to this morning – and that thought needed talking out. Trickster that he might be, Raven was the one to talk to when a question of substance needed talking out.
“Do you have a question?” asked Raven.
“I do kind spirit and would be honored if you would allow me to ask it,” Wolverine replied.
“Let’s drop the ‘kind spirit’ stuff,” Raven shot back. “We both know that’s only occasionally true. I sense your mind is troubled and that I might be able to help you come to terms with it. Ask your question.”
“My question starts, as all the good ones seem to, with a story. I will tell it if you have the inclination to hear it.”
Raven nodded in what seemed to be provisional assent, clicked his beak sharply and settled down for the hearing.
Thrush said …
“It was just after Sun had made his farthest journey of the day. I had gone to Pond for a drink and then a time on Large Flat Rock That Warms. I was just dozing off when Thrush arrived and started going on and on about some things that had happened to her.”
“At first I thought that she was talking to herself. I hadn’t moved and she was immersed in her monologue. But then I realized that she seemed to be talking to one who wasn’t there at all.”
“Can’t you keep it down – some of us are trying to nap,” I growled.
“Well blessings of the day – I didn’t see you there on Large Flat Rock That Warms. The colors – you know – you blend in so well.”
“What were you blathering on about,” I asked – not out of interest but out of a lack of interest in her current blathering.
“Well, today has brought a most amazing experience. When I awoke this morning I was over near the place where humans sometimes stay. I was looking for something to eat in places that they kindly provide. They are really very considerate in that way, you know.”
“I have my own feelings about those types,” I said. “Get on with it if you must.”
“Well, I found plenty to eat and decided to fly into the forest and find a comfortable place to rest. On my way I stopped for a drink at the small movable pond that humans sometimes use. But, when I perched on the edge to take that drink a very strange thing happened. Looking Back Face seemed different somehow. It seemed more like me than Looking Back Face.”
“Who could you be and what does that make me?” I thought. “The thought just popped into my head.”
“Who, indeed?” was the reply.
“I was frightened by Looking Back Face and its answer. I flew away to Tallest Tree Deep in the Woods. Morning Cold was still among the lower branches so I flew up towards the top and found a branch that was receiving lots of gifts from Warming Sun. As I sat there warming my feathers, I turned and noticed Shadow on the trunk next to me. But Shadow seemed different now. It seemed more like me than Shadow.”
“Who would you be and what does that make me?” I thought again.
“Who, indeed?” came the same rely.
“Frightened, I left Tree and flew to High Rock. Wind was in a mellow mood and Sun was warming. My mood improved. I forgot about my unsettling experiences and I thought to sing. You know how singing always brightens my day?”
“I’ll take your word for it,” I said.
“Well, I took in a deep breath and started my finest song. I sent it out over Forest as far as River of Sun’s Wakening and Mountain of Sun’s Retiring. But as I sang I became aware of a different song – one that seemed to be shadowing mine. When I stopped, it continued on for a bit. This song sounded like mine only different. In some ways it sounded more like me than me.”
“Who would you be and what does that make me?” I sang.
“Who, indeed?” was again replied.
“I grew confused and flew down to the ground – looking for a place to hide and think these things out. But, as I neared Earth, I saw the body of a dead bird – one of my relations – lying among the leaves. I flew down to where the body lay to take a closer look and was immediately struck by how much that dead body looked like me. It was as if I was both lying there dead and looking at me being dead.”
“Who would you be and what does that make me?” I asked with considerable difficulty.”
“Who, indeed?” was again the reply.
“For a long time I have been moving from place to place – afraid of encountering others that are not me yet more like me than I. Finally I came to Pond in the hope of finding someone who would be able to help me understand. I cannot get the experiences out of my mind. They keep replaying over and over again.”
“This morning was peace and tranquility – certainty and satisfaction,” Thrush continued. “But now I am torn into shreds that seem to be scattered all over the land. Is it ghosts of me there or am I a ghost of those shreds?”
“So, I sit here before you uncertain of the answer to an impossible question – ‘Who is the ‘I’ in ‘I am’?”
“Creator, I thought for a long time,” Wolverine added. “No matter how I tired, I could not see the question clearly – let alone have any hope of providing an answer. So I told Thrush that she must seek counsel wiser than me. Surely you have better to ask than me,” I suggested?
“None that I dare approach,” replied Thrush. “I am deathly afraid of Creator. Our relations do not allow conversation. Perhaps I irritate him with who I am.”
I Have a Question
Wolverine looked at Raven and Raven’s deep, dark eyes stared back. “I realized that I could not help Thrush. The question is beyond me. In fact, it had never occurred to me. I am not even sure that it is really a question at all. But I knew that, if anybody could unravel this riddle, it would be you. And so I put the question to you, who is the ‘I’ in I am?
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