“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Friday, May 18, 2012

Part II, Day 38: A Check-up, Two Rivers, Zen lessons from John Daniel and Mike Petroni

photo by Tara Freeman
Friday morning, May 18, 2012
Zoe and I rise early and spend some time together looking at the river.  It’s how we start most days around here.  The river is a constant for us—always flowing, never the same, a place where we both find stillness.

Today my husband is taking her to Ottawa for her monthly check-up at the oncologist’s. I have gone every time since September, and it’s hard for me to let go today, to be the one at home waiting for news, but it’s good for me to try. 
The Grasse River that Zoe and I watch from the balcony

For today’s post, I’ve invited Mike Petroni, a talented graduating senior who won our annual Joan Donovan speech contest at St. Lawrence University (which means he is speaking at our commencement celebration this weekend, along with our valedictorian, Erin Siracusa, who has also guest-posted for this blog) to share a short essay he wrote this fall in my class.  It was inspired by a memoir we read, Rogue River Journal, by John Daniel.  John Daniel spent five months in 2000 to 2001 by himself in the Rogue River Wilderness in Oregon, and the result is one of the most moving, insightful, lyrical, meditative memoirs I have ever read and taught.  It’s about many things: Thoreau, the natural world, Daniel’s relationship with his father, and Daniel's coming of age during the Vietnam war.  In the book he often visits the Rogue River, his steady companion in his season of solitude.  Daniel struggles with the Zen notion of detachment.  In the chapter Petroni references below Daniel explores a central paradox of life, as he sees it: that we are here on this earth to learn love, and we are on this earth to learn to let go of what we love.

Mike Petroni is third from the right, back row

Rogue River Meditation
by Mike Petroni

The day I turned 10 years old, March 3, 2000, John Daniel walked down to the Rogue River. Fitting, that on this day he finds time to reflect on rivers as we did just a week ago at the Grasse. In the Rogue’s flowing, he saw life, he saw death, he saw music, he saw love. His essay gripped me. For a while I had been thinking about Thoreau, about social hierarchies, about resistance, the Occupy hysteria, about “being men first and Americans only in the late and convenient hour.” But then I slipped into this day, this magical day 3/3 and into the river.
The Rogue gave Daniel mysterious and searching thoughts. Its murky going, its whispers, and its changing consistency probe the deepest and most private essence of his poetic mind. As he watches the river, all the social histories and conventional worries are stripped away from Daniel’s thoughts and what’s left is a conversation about what it means to exist with expiration. He puts his rod down and just listens to the water, which is “absorbed in its own enactment” and for a while he tunes in to the spiritual metaphor that is the Rogue River.
“Here is a creature of mystery, voicing rumors of distant places known to it and not to me,” he muses, accepting the mystical power of the unknown and entering into a mood and voice of fluid uncertainty. He mentions the river as the symbol of the boundary between the living and the dead. He admits to being afraid of death. He is in love. What honest person is not afraid of losing that? From this platform forged with a weave of heartstrings and a sense of a connection so deep with life, he dares call it love, Daniel describes, “the trouble I have with Buddhism is that I resist the notion of detachment” (243). He asks, “Why would I want to detach myself from these verdant boulders, this flowing river, this mild rain? From my wife and friends, my work? What good could be greater than this” (243)?
In asking these questions, Daniel rejects the religious projections of an afterlife and criticizes them for not placing emphasis on what’s right in front of us. Then he quotes Robert Frost for any who are still skeptical of the importance of this world: “Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better” (243). It’s a simple quote, but it says a lot. Perhaps there is nothing else, perhaps what’s here is all we will ever have, so why not get attached, why not suffer in the moment for love, or become elated, why not take chances, go on adventures, and not leave all your enthusiasm for what comes next?
Daniel’s rejection of the detachment practice reminded me of one of my freshman year revelations. We studied the Kantian conception of beauty and learned, according to Kant, that beauty hinges on two things. First the observed thing must produce in the viewer, a harmony of the senses, a sort of “awwwhh” feeling which could in turn be equated with sublimity, being hypnotized, and being absorbed uncontrollably. Secondly this feeling must happen without any attachment from the subject, so that no preconceived notions or feelings will get in the way of the viewer’s response. I agree with Kant’s brilliant observations on how the mind and body can react to physical forms to determine their importance and beauty, but I was a bit skeptical on the second premise.
Why must viewers release their past conceptions? Yes I know that these attachments make it difficult to determine what we “all” think is beautiful, but I believe that they are needed, because this harmony of the senses, the tingles, and awe inspired feelings must originate somewhere and it’s hard for me to believe that they come from a pre-wired human conception of what is beautiful.
Yes, I am hardwired to think women are attractive, but a woman’s beauty comes from my own experiences interacting with her. Without a past attachment, the beauty is hallowed. I refuse to go by this rule. I want like Daniel, like Edward Abbey and like all the other writers we have read, to feel attached, to feel kindred, to find home in this world, not some conceived, or heavenly one. Our attachments come from our past, our actions, our feelings, and they create our identity. Without them we are shells, and the dramas and triumphs of life disappear, the story loses its tension and the vibrant energy connecting it all shuts off. 
“The crossing is life itself,” Daniel writes, “The crossing is the whole of living and dying, and that means, it has to mean, that I am already in the river” (244). This is a revelation; it is good to be reminded of this every single day. This is a personal testament, to the self, to life as a whole, the bigger picture and the tiniest of emotions. Here I am, living, and this is all I will ever know. His last lines parallel my own musings from last week and they somehow hit me and held me at the same time.
“Slip or stand, I want to be aware of the crossing. To reach the other shore with each step, I must realize each step I am taking. And somehow, to truly have known this familiar shore, to truly have loved it, to truly have been here at all, with every step I must let it go” (244).