When I was twenty one, I began a meditation practice. I began it because I saw that life was full of things I could not control. I wanted to learn how not to be overwhelmed by circumstance.
Buddhists call this dukkha, which is variously translated as pain, dissatisfactoriness, or suffering. There are many types of dukkha. The idea of a meditation practice attracted me because it seemed if I found a centered place I could more easily deal with things not turning out the way I expected them to. Or illness/injury. Or loss. Or any of the things that will always inextricably be part of living a human life.
During the first year and a half of keeping a practice, I managed to meditate twice a day. In the first year I missed only a few days. The process of all that focused time, focusing usually on my breath, or a simple visualization, permanently changed the way my mind worked. Meditation, as has been shown in studies, changes brain function. And it resulted in a change in my personality too. I became more objective. Things became clearer. I was less spontaneous. But habits take a long time to establish, and even after years of practice they can resurface or stick around in subtle ways.
I wanted to do these things to improve myself, because I believed becoming the best version of myself would be the best thing I could offer the world. In other words, I had thought about it a lot and concluded that self improvement is the highest moral path. A person who has done a lot of work on themselves, towards patience, compassion, understanding, clarity, and objectivity will naturally function well in society. So the work done inside will naturally radiate out into the world around them.
Almost nine years have passed since then. My wandering, odd life has led me many places, and I’ve met many people, and I have learned a lot. And while that core idea of self improvement still rings true to me, and I still feel like a lot of good has come from it, I’ve been thinking lately that I need to do more, and do it now. As I grow older, the chance that I will die increases. And all of these deeply considered preparations of becoming a better person will disappear the instant I die. Since I have left no legacy of work, no cohesive writing, no books—just disjointed writing piling up in my Google Docs account, and 12,000 photos on a hard drive—I feel like if I were to die or become incapacitated tomorrow, I don’t feel like I’ve given back enough.
For the last four years I have been looking for a place, a community, somewhere I fit in and can settle down and do this Work that I feel is so important. Along the way I have done my best to live presently, inhabiting the lives of people and places I’ve come across in a good way, with a positive affect. I have lived lightly on the land, found beauty and inspiration, and have shared some of the beauty I have seen and felt. I feel like I have a unique view of the world because I have given myself permission to be a human, and that’s all. I am nothing more, nothing less than a human on earth. And I feel free to pursue what I love, and to consider deeply the impact of the way I live.
However, I haven’t yet found “that place,” Home. A place to call home is vitally important in many ways. You can store things there, and not worry about them. It is a little piece of sanity, of stability, that allows a corner of one’s mind to be at ease. There have been massive immigrant crises in the last four years, and with my own peripatetic journey I feel like I can know maybe 1/1000 of what it’s like to be forced out of your home, to wander forever more, or to find a new home.
I am not the only one, and in that I take comfort. I am not alone. For some reason, knowing only that I am not alone helps.
But I still feel a responsibility to give back. Part of that is this project. Though it hasn’t been amazing, though I am keeping my best work for a book I’m currently working on, I feel like it is something. At least I am doing something that goes beyond my tiny circle of reality. I feel drawn to doing this because a law of reality is that what has been taken must be given again, sooner or later. It all comes back in a circle. I would prefer to keep my circle small, and not let my debts, to the land, to people, get ahead of me.
I have something to say, and I am knowing more every day what it is. I know what I have to contribute, and I will work untiringly for the places and people that I love and care for. And it turns out, through my wandering life of the last four years, there are a lot of places and a lot of people I feel love for. So how do I pick just one place? Just one person? I am a human on earth, and I feel a responsibility to everyone on earth and to every place.
Yet we can only focus on so much, it’s just a fact. And in our small way, all working together, there can be a huge impact.
I am living on an island. Before we came here, before Anna & I left Oregon, I had written Maine on the side of the car in the dust. And when we got to the ferry in Maine that would take us 13 miles across Penobscot Bay, onto North Haven island, one of the Maine DOT men at the terminal said “I like your sign,” and he laughed. “You’re gonna have to write America* on there when you come back.”
And in a strange way I feel like I will. Because when I return to America, I hope I will have learned something by being away from it, from the land and the waters and the people, the only place that I could begin to call home, even though it’s too big for me to even know, or ever understand. It may not be the best place and it may have a lot of problems. There may be clear cutting in the coast range of Oregon, mining in Utah, dams along the Columbia River, hungry people in the cities while people fly to Iceland in private jets. There may be a vast wall of dukkha, an overwhelming amount of sadness—but there is the same amount and more of beauty, and goodness. We live in an incredible time. In both senses of the word.
And then I am reminded
of things people have said
who lived alone
who watched water drip
who heard birdsong, and the sound of rivers
who listened to things deeper, stranger than words
old whispers coming up
from cracks in the ground
no matter what you do
there is only right now
and only right here
to do it in
So I’ll do my best. I know my best is a lot.
And maybe someplace will become home, or I will make a home somewhere.
In the meantime, as I look for that place, I will do as little harm and as much good as I can.
Thanks for reading, and stay well