At Twilight

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Location: Midwest, United States

Friday, April 27, 2007

Dear Dr. Willey

Please excuse this errant correspondent. This letter is long overdue. So long overdue, in fact, that your eyes have long since grown dark. You are far beyond the reach of this, or any, letter...far beyond my words, my gratitude. I should have thanked you decades ago.
I should have thanked you in person, wrapped my arms around you, and expressed my gratitude with the heartfelt fervor you so richly earned and deserved.

Forgive me…I was so young, then. Too young to understand the effect you would have on me. Too absorbed in the dramas of adolescence to comprehend what you did to me…how you transformed me. Too vacuous and fatuous to appreciate just how much you meant to me.

What I’ve come to know is this: you, of all my teachers, are the
only one I vividly remember. There were others, to be sure, who illuminated my heart and soul; I revere them all. Your name is the only one that I remember, though. Your teachings stood the test of time; your lessons resonate within me still.

We affectionately named you “Wolfman” in honor of your unruly white hair and scraggly beard. Perhaps you’ll smile knowing that I’ve since come to resemble you. My hair has grown long and gray. My mustache is white and bushy, too. I tend to walk the earth with a similar, absent-minded air. You made me so.

Your greatest gift to me? You blessed me with new eyes.

You gave me vision.

* * *

My pen is poised above my notebook. A slide of a multi-cellular invertebrate (a rotifer, I believe) fills the wall-sized screen in front of me. I wait to jot the species, genus, phylum…to note this creature’s place on the taxonomic scale. I wait. Silence. And then I hear:

“Isn’t it beautiful?”

And so it always was with you. Oh sure, you taught me invertebrate zoology and taxonomy. You taught me well. But you taught me so much more. So much more. You opened my eyes to the beauty and mystery of all life. You were a poet/philosopher first, a distinguished entomologist/professor second.

You left me pondering the soul of the ant -
a creation encased in a suit of armor, with a brain orders of magnitude more efficient than my own. And, as it is with any knight whose true face is hidden behind steel or keratin, you asked me to contemplate what dreams may shimmer behind the mask.

And to this day, I ponder.

You introduced me to the mysteries of the species of mite that feeds on pools of oil miles inside the earth…and the life forms found within the frigid Arctic ice.

You presented me with the mind-blowing postulate that, if all insects were to fall dead to the ground at once, they would form a layer one-foot thick over this verdant planet of ours.

You marveled at the innate genius of the playful octopods. You left me marveling, too.

Of all the creatures you loved so passionately, you loved dragonflies the most. We, your students, chuckled at the vision of a mad scientist lying on his belly in a flowered field, finger poised on the trigger of an ultra-high speed camera. You spent hours, weeks, months and years, trying to capture the flight of the dragonfly on film. Oh sure, we understood the ostensible rationale…that there were scientific and engineering benefits to be gleaned by understanding the mechanics of four-winged flight systems. But we knew better…

You had fallen in love with dragonflies.

You unveiled the breadth and majesty of life to me, and left me with the phrase and the grandeur of “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” to enchant and inspire me to this very day.

* * *

Oh, Doctor Willey! I loved you then. I love you FAR more now.

I have no idea where poet entomologists go when their time here on earth is done. I bet I’ll find you someday, though…

I’ll simply follow the dragonflies...

* * *

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Makes Sense

(5th century B.C.E.)

If there is to be peace in the world, there must be peace
in the nations.

If there is to be peace in the nations, there must be peace in the cities.

If there is to be peace in the cities, there must be peace between neighbors.

If there is to be peace between neighbors, there must be peace in the home.

If there is to be peace in the home, there must be peace
in the heart.

* * *

Gratuitous non-sequitor: Smoking Loon's 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon is a
decent $8 bottle of wine. Hmmm...maybe this isn't a non-sequitor after all.

Peace in the heart and all that...

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Whale's Song

I’ve been pondering quite a bit, lately, my spirituality. I’m turning Buddhist without any conscious effort on my part. This transformation, this “conversion,” if you will, feels as if dark clouds are parting (as dark clouds are wont to do). I’ve simply come to understand. Very little thought has been involved. It has been a growing awareness…an acceptance…an enlightenment.

I’ve wanted to write about this…this growing certainty within me, but I am easily distracted (Oh, look! A squirrel!). I find it difficult to express my thoughts about my spirituality because reveries, such as the one that follows, keep sidetracking me.

* * *

Several years ago, I came across a science journal article about the work of a young cetologist studying pods of whales migrating along the Pacific coast.

I’ve forgotten all the details, but not the essence, of the article. This young academic spent years recording the vocalizations of discrete pods of whales. He then digitized, folded, spindled and mutilated years and years of audio recordings of whale vocalizations.

What he discovered was this: It appears that the vocalizations are something akin to songs…or an oral history. Each pod seems to sing its unique song, with a new “verse” added each year. That’s right. Whales sing their “tribe’s” story…year after year…millennium after millennium.

The very idea blows my mind.

* * *

The preacher hurls fire and brimstone from the pulpit. The imam rocks the mosque. The televangelist thrusts his hand towards me…palm up. All claim to know the “Mind of God.”

Spare me.

Don’t you dare tell me you understand the Mind of God before you sing me the whale’s song. Teach me the verses. Explain to me what a whale dreams, what the whale feels as he glides miles deep within the sunless, frigid sea. Sing to me the whale’s song. Reveal to me the mind of the leviathan. Then, and only then, will I kneel at your feet to learn the Mind of God.

* * *

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Traveling In Circles

This blog entry proved far more challenging to write than most others. It’s not that I lacked the words; no, it’s that I have too many. The subject is travel. My wanderlust is an ineradicable, essential impulse within me. My travels have shaped me, informed me and transformed me. There is simply too much to say…too much ground to cover, if you will. I tried to distill my thoughts to a pithy few.

I merely confused myself.

* * *

It all started with a poem. Strike that. It started during a number of late night conversations with friends, both old and new. Our conversations roamed far and wide; matters of the heart, mostly, and…invariably…talk turned to tales of travels.

I have a restless heart, as do my closest friends. We’ve all been known to range far from home, often alone. As a consequence of these twilight reminiscences, I began pondering my wanderlust. This particular poem immediately sprang to mind. It’s another one of my personal favorites. It’s accompanied me from monument to monument, museum to museum, cathedral to cathedral. It’s truth grows ever more luminous with age and experience.

By Kathleen Raine

They more than we are what we are:
Serenity and joy
We lost or never found,
The forms of heart’s desire,
We gave them what we could not keep;
We made them what we cannot be.

Their kingdom is our dream, but who can say
If they or we
Are dream or dreamer, signet or clay?
If the most perfect be most true,
These faces pure, these bodies posed in thought
Are substance of our form
And we the confused shadows cast.

Growing toward their prime they take our years away,
And from our deaths they rise
Immortal in the life we lose.
The gods consume us, but restore
More than we were:
We love, that they may be,
They are, that we may know.

* * *

As I wrote at the outset, I was prepared to riff at great length about what traveling means to me…what it has done to me. I then went searching for T.S. Elliot’s famous quote as the intended capstone to my “poetic eloquence” (I’m smiling…and, yes…it’s a self-deprecating smile) and discovered the wise words of many. Therefore, this indolent philosopher has decided to take a much-needed short cut.
I think these quotes cover the subject quite nicely. Consider them koans for the foot-weary:

"There is one voyage, the first, the last, the only one." Thomas Wolf

“All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost.”
J. R. R. Tolkien

“I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” Susan Sontag

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”
St. Augustine

“Don't tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you traveled.” Mohammed

“Without new experiences, something inside of us sleeps. The sleeper must awaken.” Frank Herbert

”Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Mark Twain

"Unusual travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God."
Kurt Vonnegut

“I can't think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything.” Bill Bryson

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
Mark Twain

“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” Aldous Huxley

“A good traveler is one who does not know where he is going to, and a perfect traveler does not know where he came from.” Lin Yutang

“The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see. The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one's own country as a foreign land.”
Gilbert K. Chesterton

“A traveler. I love his title. A traveler is to be reverenced as such. His profession is the best symbol of our life. Going from - toward; it is the history of every one of us. It is a great art to saunter.”
Henry David Thoreau

"Traveling is almost like talking with those of other centuries."
René Descartes

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” Martin Buber

“ is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” Miriam Beard

“Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me.”
Sigmund Freud

"Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not." Ralph Waldo Emerson

“A man travels the world over in search of what he needs, and returns home to find it.” George Moore

“The wise man travels to discover himself.” James Russell Lowell

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Marcel Proust

"He gave the impression that very many cities had rubbed him smooth." Graham Greene

"Through travel I first became aware of the outside world; it was through travel that I found my own introspective way into becoming a part of it." Eudora Welty

"We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." T.S. Elliot

"It is not down in any map; true places never are." Herman Melville

* * *

No doubt, you, the Astute Reader, noticed that the quotes funneled from the general to the specific, from the world at large to a single heart. And that’s how it is with travel, isn’t it? We sail off into the great unknown, learning about life via the “immersion method.” All our travels come full circle. All that we see, touch, taste, hear, experience and feel changes us.

I travel to be awed, humbled, educated, challenged, sated and awakened. This personal trek grows ever more rich and meaningful with the passing of the years. I journey to discover my self.

* * *

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Whirling Dervish

I had cut the grass earlier in the morning. It was sunset, now. I stood in the open field, the smell of grass and fertile earth…the smell of summer…filling my nose.

I stood alone in the center of that field, a boy around eight or nine years old; just a scrawny-tall little kid in a tee shirt, shorts and sneakers. Just a small boy with head thrust backwards, staring at the twilight stars.

I don’t remember a specific thought. Perhaps I was standing there, staring and thinking. Maybe I was. Maybe I wasn't. I simply can’t remember. What I remember is that I stretched my arms out wide and began to spin. I remember spinning counter-clockwise. All the while, my head is flung back, eyes peering at the emerging constellations. I spun and I spun until my head was spinning faster than my feet…and I keeled over in a swoon. I was happy. More than that, really. I was ecstatic.

I had come to play...and the Cosmos appeared…to play with me.

* * *

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