Landscape, personal place

I’ve been enjoying Rachel Solnit’s prose lately, most recently her book As Eve Said to the Serpent, some of which derives from art criticism but which is also the kind of multidisciplinary approach to observing the relationships between things that intrigues me. What she notices about the environment, about art that engages with or alters place/landscape, and about environmentalists themselves piques my own inquisitiveness and gets me asking questions I might not otherwise have come up with. Place, particularly the personal “environment” that shelters, inspires, or calms me, is something I consider frequently.

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[one of my happy places]

Perhaps that’s because I am by nature an introvert; perhaps it has to do with being a poet. The personal aesthetics of place–a room or a landscape–exert significant effects upon my frame of mind and mode of thinking.

Why is that?

Maybe there is an evolutionary reason for the need to find a favorite spot, a hide-away, a happy place. We may still possess that ancient urge for security, the cave or treehouse we can use to hide from predators or from the weather.

And landscape itself can be a secret place, or a sacred place. A wide expanse of openness means it is easier to observe predators prowling in the distance, giving the prey animal time to flee. Or to explore, to survey, to run embracing what is far away and only imaginable.

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Neolithic stone circle, Castlerigg, Cumbria, UK

~

C.D. Wright: “What landscape is: not a closed space, not in fact capable of closure. With each survey the corners shift. Distance is the goal; groping the means.”

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Safety

I work, and sometimes teach, at a college campus–a small, quiet, safe university surrounded by cornfields and lightly-wooded slopes. The institution has a manual of protocols to ensure the safety of staff and students: lockdown procedures, early alerts, advising on harassment, threat, and signs of various types of needs along with preventive measures, communication protocol, background screening, and referrals. The administration has taken pains to assure the safety of students, faculty, and staff.

It seems that one of the most urgent desires of U.S. citizens is to be safe. We spend millions of hours and dollars on the quest to protect ourselves and our communities. We argue over whose responsibility that should be, though most of us recognize the responsibility–as in any social group–must be a shared one. After last week’s mass shooting tragedy, one Oregon college professor posted an open letter to her legislators (click here for story). Her situation parallels my own except that I have been at my college for many years and am aware of the protocols. But those procedures would be just as useless in my classroom as she envisions they would be in hers.

From a June 2015 New York Times article reporting on the Texas campus-carry legislation: “Opponents say the notion that armed students would make a campus safer is an illusion that will have a chilling effect on campus life. Professors said they worry about inviting a student into their offices to talk about a failing grade if they think that student is armed.” Most lawmakers have never been teachers. I think it unlikely they are aware of the stress and apprehension most of us feel in addition to our interest, concern, and compassion when dealing with a “difficult,” angry, or excessively anxious student. Yet we do not let our fears keep us from doing the jobs we love, disseminating what we have learned through study and experience to others and (usually) actively seeking their engagement in the discipline. That means taking intellectual risks. Occasionally, it means making oneself vulnerable to physical risks as well.

I am not suggesting there is something wrong-headed about wanting to feel secure; certainly that need is basic among human beings, keeping us in groups banded together for safety. But I do wonder whether the craving for safety distracts people from exploring and implementing other, perhaps more helpful, methods of operating as a society. To do so would require rejecting the norm, stepping away from the way we generally tend to do things (the way they’ve “always been done”) and endeavoring to create new approaches to our social maladies.

What might that look like, from the professor’s point of view? Or from the politician’s perspective, or a parental viewpoint? And are we, collectively, ready to take those risks?

photo by Patrick Target

photo, Patrick Target. Mary Mother of God statue above the campus.

Wisdom of insecurity

My mother pointed me to a short piece on mindfulness meditation excerpted from Jack Kornfield‘s work (it probably came from one of his books, such as The Path of Insight Meditation).

He spends several paragraphs writing about the dharma of wisdom and about impermanence, quoting a Buddhist sutra “Thus shall you think of this fleeting world.” He notes that when meditating, one is more likely to realize that everything around us is in a state of change. It’s more noticeable, this changing, because the person meditating has become still and is observing closely.

Change is dharma’s first law: uncertainty and impermanence. The laws of science bear this out; entropy, evolution, constant change and motion everywhere.

Kornfield then does a good job of explaining to Westerners what Buddhists mean when they say “all life is suffering.”

“This brings us to dharma’s second law. If we want things that are always changing to stay the same and to get attached to them, we get disappointed, we suffer. Not because we should suffer–this is not something created to punish us. It is the very way things are, as basic as gravity. If we get attached to something the way it is, it does not stop changing, Trying to hold onto ‘how it was’ will only create suffering and disappointment.”

What could be clearer? We know we cannot wrestle a person or a place to the ground and pin it in place and have it remain unchanging for us. Without change, nothing can live.

What upsets people is that they are uncomfortable with the insecure feelings change tends to bring. Also, there’s that tendency to look for cause and effect, for blame, for control and certainty.

Thinking about thinking–as I have been lately–and consciousness and, to some extent, fear, I recognize I need to “relax with uncertainty.” That’s how Kornfield puts it. he says there is wisdom in insecurity because it is natural.

“Letting go does not mean not caring about things. It means caring for them in a flexible and wise way,” Kornfield writes. Sometimes, when I feel content and relaxed and able to “let go” of nagging and difficult and scary and challenging things, loved ones ask me whether I care or not. I do care. I recognize, though, that there are times no amount of caring can “fix” a problem. Sometimes, acceptance and encouragement and letting go work much better than controlling intervention.

A great deal of my poetry begins in a flexible, accepting “space” that recognizes, and embraces, uncertainty. I wish I could find myself in this Way more often.

Impermanence (thanks to David Sloan)

Impermanence (thanks to David Sloan)