Andrew Clammer reports from The Hero Path, reminding us of the teachers and teachings that have guided him as he makes his way deeper into the labyrinth where the time is always now.
The heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly known. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path, and where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god. And where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. Where we had thought to travel outward, we will come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world.”
– Joseph Campbell
The Road is Made by Walking
Fathoms beneath the surface of the earth, in tubes bored through bedrock, tunnels and tracks take me to platforms—people pushing past turnstiles. The human tide flows through the underground labyrinth, carrying me up escalators and stairwells towards streets and sidewalks, eventually surging out among taxis and traffic, into the throngs of Midtown. There, to my left are the Twin Towers, all the way downtown. I have my bearings and I am on my way. This is New York City, 1984. I am thirteen years old.
Now, three decades distanced from that daily descent, I sit atop a massive glacial erratic—a granite giant left in this spot by the melting Laurentide Ice Sheet eleven thousand years ago—in a field I pay taxes on here in the Green Mountains of Vermont. The same mile-high glacier that scoured the Manhattan Schist during its northward retreat, and paved the way for those skyscrapers in which I lived, whose foundations go deep, with steel piles driven straight down through bedrock toward the center of the earth.
Perched atop my boulder, the only honking I hear comes from the skeins of Canada geese winging their way back from their wintering grounds—Mother Nature’s own GPS guiding them home. I gaze towards the setting sun, the budding branches of the birch gathering the evening’s reddening rays— And if someone were to ask me to point out the cardinal directions, I would need to close my eyes and imagine New Jersey across the Hudson River—west. To my left and right downtown and uptown which I’ve since learned to call south and north respectively. The Lower Eastside would be behind me; a good place to get mugged.
This is my orientation, the compass in my core—yet I am starting to suspect that it no longer points true. The earth, like a spinning top, has a slight wobble to its axis—a twenty-six thousand year cycle of precession that takes us in and out of ice ages and other climatic modulation. Currently, Polaris is an established indicator of direction in the northern hemisphere, but in another two millennia, people wishing to steer their ships at night would become well lost if they tried to navigate by the North Star. I suspect we humans precess in some ways too – oscillating to some enigmatic quaver that takes us into ever-changing orientations. My interior climate, certainly, seems to undergo constant shift—maybe there is even some melting at the edges of my internal sheet of ice. And of course the Earth (like my easily confused ego) is not ultimately the center—our whole solar system carries through its own spinning circuit around the Milky Way. And so on…
Grid mapping worked for me in Manhattan. It got me where I needed to go and kept me from wandering into dangerous neighborhoods, naturally my inclination is to try to turn every other place I go into a rectangle; to impose a framework that I can navigate. But this system does not work so well in the places I currently find myself—this meadow is an indefinable shape in evolving relationship with the trees and woods surrounding it. Nature does not move in shortest distances and straight lines.
The elevators and subways that deposited me at different points in my Cartesian commute are no longer part of my circadian commune, that particular conversation with the world in which I engage. Yet those sunless spaces are still a part of me, (apart in me).
Descartes is famous—or perhaps it’s infamous—for positing the axiom “cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am.) Today, he is largely indicted as the operator of the guillotine that left western civilization with the so-called mind/body split. In my reading of the text I rather hear him saying, “I doubt therefore I am.” In my efforts toward personal “re-capitation,” I temper his cerebration by internalizing it as: “I nurture doubt, therefore I can embody faith.”
Experiences may have many interpretations, words multiple meanings. I’ve heard the term ‘liminal’ used to refer to those transitional spaces, like airport terminals, where no one really wants to abide for very long. Liminal is also used to describe the transformational dimension in rites of passage.
That I tend to associate positive or negative connotations to one or the other is just habit. It’s what the mind does. The word itself simply carries the neutral concept of “threshold.” My hope is that as I look back on the paths my life has taken—be they forced marches in step with expectation and fear, or daring forays into unknown realms—that I can begin to judge them less as good or bad, but simply acknowledge and own them as mine.
Machado, our caminante, says, “Upon glancing back one sees the road that must never be trod again. Wanderer, there is no road—Sino estellas en la mar (only wakes upon the sea).” Here, I think Machado is echoing Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) who said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”It is within my power that I can choose to take this as a blessing or as a curse—it is my inheritance either way. William Stafford asks, ““Who are you really, wanderer? “–/ and the answer you have to give/ no matter how dark and cold/ the world around you is:/ “Maybe I’m a king.””
Since Robert Bly imparts, in his poems and by his presence that “each of us deserves to be forgiven.” then perhaps I can begin to show a little more mercy toward my trail of faltering footsteps.
Maybe none of us came here with easy to follow instructions or indelible maps. If there really is no road to pursue, I am freed to explore the way I walk. Where is my attention? What are my intentions?
Bokonon tells us: “Life is a garden, not a road. We enter and exit through the same gate. Wandering, where we go matters less than what we notice.” Stephen Levine puts it this way:
In fact, if there is a single definition of healing, it may be to approach with mercy and awareness—to enter with loving kindness and a willingness to heal those places that we have constantly, actually compulsively, run from with fear and anger, ostracizing another part of the mind, suppressing another state, another thin sheet, another thin sheet, another thin sheet—until we’ve built up this layering over the heart diagnosable as a hardness in the belly…Someone asked me once, ‘how did I become loving?’ – and I heard myself say, it was true, ‘by watching how unloving I am.’
In his piece, The Three Movements, Francis Weller incisively states, “We are suffering from a disease called civilization.” Yes, I am ill-at-ease, and I do suffer. Fear presses down on me like a blanket of ice and snow. If immobilized, I am in Goethe’s words “only a troubled guest on the dark earth.” But, facing fear is called courage, literally, heart-full-ness. Investigating what causes suffering may be the road toward mercy, compassion, empathy, and love.
Miguel Hernandez speaks for me saying, “I am wounded: look at me”.
My heart is cemented over in concrete. It’s not my fault in any blameworthy way. We do what we need to do to survive, to try to get a little love in this world. But maybe it is my fault in the sense that this is a place inside me where two tectonic plates, or two stories, bump up against one another cataclysmically, regeneratively.
In geology, this type of perpetual collision, this conversation between our shifting island continents, is known as a transform fault. I long for that reckless abandon, the fortitude to cast myself into that vital crèche and to be transformed in the dynamic tension of our pulsating planet—that zoetic motion that makes life possible on this earth.
An unfolding process known as me inhabits a region of the Great Mystery in between birth and death—called my life. The task, Rilke claims is to “take your well disciplined strengths and stretch them between two opposing poles—because inside human beings is where God learns.”
My real story unfolds someplace betwixt tales I’ve been telling myself—that is the story that needs to be fed. Umberto Ak’abal says, “Roots tell us through the flowers what the earth is like on the inside.” The fruiting organism sprouts from the living rhizome—from what Robert Francis calls the “earth dark root” He says, “I am in love with what is mixed, impure, doubtful, dark, and hard to disencumber. I want a beauty I must dig for, search for. I am in love with what resists my loving, with what I have to labor to make live.”
Miguel Rivera has shared a process from his tradition called Desahogo—Un-drowning ourselves from the oceans of grief inside us. For me, un-paving is the avenue. I find my footing well enough in verdant glade or concrete jungle—again, what is under my feet matters less than the way I stand and walk upon it—but I do need to strip away the layers of rubber and asphalt that come between my sole and the earth on which I tread, the earth of which I am, the earth to which I belong. As Michael Meade puts it, “we are the earthlings: the children of the earth.” “I stand for what I stand on,” says Wendell Berry.
I can begin to let my heart thaw a bit, to allow the cement to start to crumble. And if I were to find myself in unfamiliar territory or on unsafe terrain, which happens, I just might dare to be brave.
You cannot always run away from a weakness; you must sometime fight it out or perish. And if that be so, why not now, and where you stand? – Robert Louis Stevenson
At the MMC, we lash together a village which we enter by way of a winding path – the heat of fire, the strength of our song, the beating of the drums anchoring our dance to the center, to the hub of our revolution. As the Great Stories are told, I continually find myself within them and witness them inside me as well. In the primordial womb of the sweat lodge, the grandfathers and all of my relations call me by my true name. These ancient traditions re-connect me to my birthright as a human being—they guide me along the path of my own and only authentic life. These sacred spaces frame the temple I’ve needed to begin to replace the template I’ve been using and start to soften the gridiron boilerplate of my formation.
To make something sacred means some sacrifice must be made—some comfort or contingency given up. David Whyte reminds us, “We’ve all got to give everything away at the end, so it makes sense to start apprenticing ourselves to the art as soon as possible.” We all must enter the lodge on our hands and knees re-remembering “Mitakuye Oyasin.”
The most southern reaching spur of the Canadian Shield, a particularly thick and ancient slab of the earth’s crust, dips down below the 45th Parallel to encompass northern Minnesota. Camp Du Nord, like its cousin, Camp Miller, rides atop this mass. It is solid ground on which to stand, from which to explore, floating on the earth’s molten mantle. In the Bible, God says to Moses: “Cast off thy sandals from thy feet, for the place on which thou art standing is holy ground.”
I have not been tuned to receive messages on that frequency, of that intensity. For me, “the voice of the conscience is so delicate that it is easy to stifle it; but it is also so clear that it is impossible to mistake it” (Madame de Stael). That mild voice nevertheless insists that every spot on the earth’s surface is directly above the center, and that we are all always standing on holy ground.
An oft-repeated invocation at the MMC is, “In beauty it’s begun.” Indigenous wisdom holds that our first words ought speak of gratitude.
I have spent many tears, in anger and regret, over my assertion that I was not taught this most basic human rite earlier in my life. I was not shown that “I was blessed and could bless” (Yeats). Blaming others and reproaching myself are the stuff of tarmac and steamrollers inside me. Again, the autobiography is mine, regardless of what genre I label it on any given day. “We tend to be fairly heavy editors of the texts of our lives,” Malidoma intones. The glaciers work great changes on those landscapes they visit.
Part of my grief in this is that I suspect that I actually have been given Original Instructions, but that they’ve been deviously hidden, buried inside me by those numinous story-carriers who are “walking beside me whom I do not see” (Jimenez). My own authority is so often obscured. I can sometimes witness it in others. “I think continually of those who were truly great, who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history through corridors of light” (Steven Spender). Maybe it’s a singular directive? “There is one thing in this world that you must never forget to do. If you forget everything else and not this, there is nothing to worry about—But if you remember everything else and not this, you will have done nothing at all with your life.” Rumi’s knife cuts both ways. Hafiz offers his key with a wine-soaked kiss, “All a sane man can ever care about is giving love.” In Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, he almost exclusively uses my native language’s oldest, most unadorned words; and his honesty burrows deeply, magic beans in the soil: “When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.” Who knows to what curious countries a giant peach or a prodigious beanstalk may take us? C.S. Lewis is the poetic prosaist I’ve wished most to be able to emulate. He writes, in The Problem of Pain,
If there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself – you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say, ‘Here at last is the thing I was made for.’ We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our death-beds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all.
So, I did not begin this piece with a Thanksgiving Address, my first words were intended to evoke feelings other than gratitude. But I did select a photo to be included with them. It is a picture of “Rat Rock” (yes, it earned its name from the rats that used to swarm there) and Heckscher Playground in Central Park. My mother, who still resides in the 31st floor apartment three blocks from Ground Zero where she raised my sister and me, faithfully took us there to picnic and play with friends. She is the most generous person I know—and that is a teaching to be grateful for. I’ve always been enchanted by the way the artifactual concrete structures flow into and from the igneous rock formations. In the tall buildings in the distance, Peregrine Falcons build their nests on ledges. The word peregrine is parent to pilgrim—far wandering travelers in search of freedom and service to the fellow pedestrians of our shared path. My course has been marked by the watch fires tended by mentors and the rock cairns left by teachers. I sincerely hope that the deep gratitude and respect with which I endeavor to broadcast is received, but this, of course, is just one more gulf I strive to span. The fierce countenance of the raptor captivates, commanding our attention. On her face and head grow the superfine capital feathers, whose scintillating sensitivity allows her to detect the subtlest changes in air currents, speed, direction. Would that I too could become keen and tender enough to divine “the wind that blows through me” (D.H. Lawrence). “If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!” Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that we humans are ultimately terrestrial beings: “The true miracle is not walking on water, or walking in air, but simply walking on this green earth.” “I learn by going where I have to go” says Roethke. By walking one makes the road.
– Andrew Clammer
I WISH IN THE CITY OF YOUR HEART
I wish in the city of your heart
you would let me be the street
where you walk when you are most
yourself. I imagine the houses:
It has been raining, but the rain
is done and the children kept home
have begun opening their doors.
– Robley Wilson