These writing mornings, which mirror my writing mornings at home, off to myself, day after day, have been wonderful. I didn't expect them. Last year as we traveled in Ireland I did not write at all, except a couple of poems. I was there wordlessly, and gladly; it all was entering me bodily, and I have spent the last year writing the many-layered story of that journey. This time, I decided not to bring my laptop, thinking it would be the same. Still, in Anchorage, I found a tech store and bought a wireless keyboard for my little iPad mini. How great it's been, wondrous really, to write at this little screen. One feels less overwhelmed by technology somehow (or perhaps that is just a mirage.) Jean walked out to the hotel lobby a couple of days ago as I was writing-I'd been out there for two hours tapping away-and she thought, Yes, she's doing what writers do. She's writing.
For a very long time, and again in the midst of this past year, I have carved out this habit. Here in Alaska, I find that it has shaped me. I get up in the morning, and I write. Instead of a focused discipline, this past year it it has felt more like stolen, joyful hours. From my practice of many years, the early morning (6 to 8 am) is mine (halleluia!), but over the past months the writing has often continues towards 10 and 11 am. By then, many mornings there were things calling, appointments, emails, other work for teaching or retreats, Capitola, etc. But the river still flowed and I wanted to see the paragraphs come towards completion. So I stole the hours. It crunched some of the days; it meant I was sometimes behind on other things, and I didn't care. It was the fabulous river, and I didn’t want to leave.
Sitting with my little screen and keyboard in this elegant resort lobby, I ponder the fact that this morning and tomorrow will be our last here in Alaska. As often happens when our souls come to understand that we are nearing home again, it feels right. Last night I said to Jean that I was ready. That is because yesterday we did the last large event of our time here. We went out on a catamaran boat into the Kenai Fjords. What can be said about this majestic day? Was it the black bear, so black as to have a bluish sheen, alone out on a rocky beach, walking slowly, meandering, looking perhaps for traces of the salmon? Or the bright white head of the bald eagle, a massive creature sitting on a far high branch on a far high rocky mountain? Was it the unexpected sighting of mountain goats from a boat on the water, large white creatures on the steepest ledges on high rocky islands, gazing out easily at the sky and the open sea? Was it the rusty-red harbor seals in the Bearing Strait, floating among bits of ice at the edge of a glacier, as comfortable as if they were sunning on a beach? Or the many luminous rainbows that emerged from the day of sunlight and rain? Was it the calm, otherworldy sheen of Resurrection Bay, the slate blue that mirrored the land and the mountains and the white glaciers like a double-painting? Or was it the glaciers themselves, the great white beings, the pure majesty and honor of seeing them?
It was all of it-and it was the glaciers. The glaciers. When we first arrived in Denali and they told us that the entire place had been formed by glaciers, that it had all once been ice and that the mountains and valleys were formed when the might of glaciers receded, shifted and pushed and formed the earth, I looked around in wonder. These were things I'd heard before, but realized I simply did not understand. Why did the glacier move? I found myself asking Jean. Lucky me, I have my own sixth-grade teacher at the ready, who has answers to many basic science questions at her fingertips. In truth, I do not remember her answer. Probably something about the earth warming and the glaciers melting over millennia. I probably nodded, but my brow was still a little furrowed.
But as of yesterday, I got it. I got it because of what I heard. Captain Steve brought our boat with about 50 people very close to Ailiki Glacier, which is part the massive Harding Icefield that covers miles of Alaska. And I saw something that I've only seen on film: great shards of ice breaking off from a glacier and falling into the sea. A woman next to me sucked in her breath, and said she didn't know if we'd see anything like that, her voice full-throated. As it happened, we saw the ice calving several times as we stayed moored for some time near the massive glacier. It was like seeing the Northern Lights. There was something familiar, but the experience was at essence foreign, and new. The falling ice rumbled from within. It groaned and thundered, and moved. What we saw was whole bits of ice falling, but what we heard was a living thing being its living self. To hear that sound was to hear the earth.
Perhaps this is why I came here: to hear the living earth. As we drove back up from Seward to Girdwood yesterday as the evening sun was setting, the sky cleared like a wild message from the divine, the earth aglow, rivers, glaciers mountains all around. The horizontal light infused an already glowing glacier and revealed it to be a pearl, a blue-white living thing. Jean said that this was what she wanted for me. She's been to Alaska once. I wanted you to see this, she said as we drove our little car and our little lives through wild, big majesty. Everywhere, everywhere, blue white beauty.
Another rumble, another crash. Like thunder before lightening, it was heard first and then seen. The glacier groaned from deep within. We stood by in our little boat and looked up at its massive shape. All of these glaciers are remnants of the great sheets of ice that covered about one-third of the planet until 10,000 years ago. In natural cycles, ice forms and then recedes over long eons on our watery earth. When the most recent ice age ended, and the ice melted, great glaciers heaved and moaned in ways I can hardly imagine. They melted and slowly broke apart with great and overwhelming force. The noise would have been deafening at times. A wild roar, massive, dense and with force beyond the strength of granite.
A glacier occurs when so much snow falls that some of it never melts. The snow compacts even further on the already compact ice. Deep within, under the massive weight of all the ice, glaciers become incredibly dense, as more and more snow is added to its weight. 10,000 years ago, when the temperature warmed, great sheets of this most dense material broke apart and fell into waters. They dug scoured out great valleys of stone, earth and granite, pushing these lighter materials along their path.
A friend once told me that insight alone doesn't create change. She is a counselor who has worked with addicts for years. Then, what does create change? I asked. Action, she said. Action creates change. She had seen this again and again, she said, in the hard-won lives of those who had been able to free themselves of addiction. Those who had not were not without insight, she said. Many understood exactly their situation. But that alone was not enough. It is a mysterious thing that brings someone to take that small action, whatever it is, towards healing. For me, among many things, that action was my daily walk--often an uneventful twenty minute ritual. For someone else, it would be to go to a meeting. To write something. To walk at the ocean. Yoga. Tai chi. Daily meditation. Connect with another person. The possible actions are endless. In my own recovery I saw that it was in my actions that I slowly moved myself, very slowly, into a different way of seeing and healing. None of these actions were quick, heroic or epic. Each action was small. We like to think of action as great and mighty, and sometimes it is. But in truth most healing actions are small, often invisible, daily, incremental, tiresome, tedious, boring. But it is consistent; it becomes habit, it becomes practice, and these things make the self.
As we watch our human world, my friend's insight about what makes change seems frighteningly true. We know all of this about the loss of the glaciers, the melting of the arctic ice and the frightening warming of the earth. We have been told many times. But what creates change? Action. It is this I take home with me now, like the inner rumble of the glacier. Action, it says to me. It is what we do. It is what I do. I do not know how all of this will speak to me, change me, and act upon me in the coming months and years. Only that action, movement, devotion to life moment by moment, provides some key.
What will we leave our descendants? The possibility, first of all, that they exist–that they have survived. And then, evidence somehow that we listened, cared, acted, and in our quintessentially human way, made Beauty. May we, may I, make Beauty. May we find ways to leave something behind for them, the way our ancestors at Newgrange in Ireland left the carved stones for us. Those stones tell us that they saw the mystery, just as we do now. That they lived and marveled and made Beauty. I don't imagine I will make a megalithic stone mound that will live for eons. But together, perhaps, we can build something that will tell them of our Love. Which is overwhelming, magical, mystical, one of the densest forces on earth. It, too, can move mountains.