This I call God

We decided to work in one last camping trip for the year. Our destination was the end of a logging road on Bunchgrass Mountain. When we arrived, the sky was clear, the weather warm. Within minutes, chilly clouds had descended to just above our heads, hiding Fuji, Diamond, Verdun, Wolf, Judd, and David Douglas. Then the sky cleared, and we were warm again. Then clouds rolled up from below and surrounded us completely. Then we went to bed. Baxter and I aren’t half the men Peggy and Bonnie are, so we slept in our coats while they passed the night au naturel.

Fourteen hours later it was light enough—and, we hoped, warm enough—to get out of bed. Then it snowed, and the wind came up. Peggy set out to climb Fuji (7,144’) while I biked some nearby roads. My hands and feet were cold even with chemical warmers, so I soon went back to bed and read, alternating the hand that was holding the book while I warmed the other against my legs. Peggy returned triumphant with photos of clouds two feet from her face and hoar frost on shrubbery. “Fuji fed my soul,” she exclaimed, and I remembered that the one in Japan is also said to do that.

Later, we biked together in the little warmth that splotches of afternoon sun provided. Skeleton trees from a forest long since destroyed by fire stood ghostly white against writhing gray clouds. Vine maples consoled glacier-scarred andesite with leaves of red, yellow, orange, and purple. A coyote crossed the road in search of a chipmunk. A red-tailed hawk hung motionless on an updraft. Pinnacles too steep to hold snow pierced high clouds. Sunbeams illuminated patches of trees in a u-shaped valley that rose thousands of feet above the rapids of Black Creek. Purple asters, yellow St. John’s wort, and white pearly everlastings gladdened the roadside. Thickets of snowbrush made the air heavenly with honey-flavored balm.

I grieved that twinflower, prince’s pine, and vanilla leaf, are about to go underground for more months than I can well endure. The star-burst sprays of mountain hemlock made my heart leap for joy, and the haughty limbs of young noble firs reminded me of Bonnie when she was a cocky pup and thought it would be great sport to attack a city bus. I ate a choke cherry from one of numerous fragrant groves, choked, and ate another so as to hold tight to that which God has spared from pruning snips and selective-breeding.

God. Three weeks ago, we camped near Windy Pass. I had been there twice but only knew it as a warm and sunny place where five logging roads converge. It is not high (3,800’), not barren, not surrounded by precipices, and not the least bit windy. Mediocre Pass, Nothing-Much-Happening Pass, You’ll Not Remember Being Here Pass; such names as these seemed more fitting.

The wind came up that night. It did not touch the van, but I could hear it overhead, waxing and waning as it flung itself out of Winberry Canyon and vaulted far into the sky. I imagined it as a great beast that was inhaling and exhaling, and gaining strength with every breath. It continued for hours under the clear sky, maybe all night. I don’t know because I drifted in and out. I just know that when I awakened, Windy Pass was warm, and sunny, and still, and not at all imposing.

During the night an interesting thing happened. The wind stopped waning. It reached a very high speed—there above the van—and it never slowed. Bonnie became so frightened that she did something she would never presume to do in ordinary times, she got into bed with us. I have camped above timberline when winds rocked the van as if it were a boat on a lake, but this wind was greater than that. To be so close to something that vast, powerful, and unwavering, and yet to be untouched by it! I felt as though I could have spread a map on the ground without it being disturbed, yet there, just a little way above me, the sound was such that God might have been passing by.

I think that to die in such a place would not be death at all. I would hope to lie in a snowbrush thicket and become a feast for the hungry. No crematory flames would waste my substance or formaldehyde poison my tissues. I would feed the earth that has so generously fed me, and I would count it as a worthy end to the narrow life that I have known thus far, for it is without excuse that I have lived nearly three score years, yet required a mighty wind to awaken me to the majesty of a mountain pass.

“The Lord said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper…. And it said, ‘Why are you here?’”
1 Kings 19:11-13

Why indeed, except it be to praise that which created me and sustains me, yet which has no awareness of me and no desire for anything I might offer. This I call God.

The religious requirements of Masonry

I’ve been busting my butt memorizing Masonic ritual, which isn’t easy at best since only the first letter of every word is printed. To see the actual words, I would have to drive to Portland and ask the Grand Master to unlock his safe. By the time I got back to Eugene, I probably would have found another word I didn’t know, and would have to do the drive over. Instead, I call local Masons on the phone, and tell them I’m stuck on Page 52, Line 18, etc.
It’s a “Masonic offence” to make even a tiny pencil mark in a ritual, much less write the ritual out. A “Masonic offense” is even worse in Masonry than a mortal sin is in the Catholic Church, because Catholics aren’t ordinarily excommunicated for mortal sins, whereas Masons really are kicked-out for Masonic offenses.

Be that as it may, I learned my degree work from two wonderful men, and at least one of them had at least some of the ritual written down. I know this because when he couldn’t remember a word, he would turn his back to me and refer to a book that he kept in a drawer. I suspect the practice is common, and I interpret it this way. If you take a stretch of highway on which motorists can safely go fifty, and you post a twenty mile per hour speed limit, most people will ignore the law. They might not go fifty, but they will go over twenty simply because the law makes no sense. In the case of the Masonic ritual, you can find it on the Internet in a few seconds, and hardly anyone would want to read it anyway, because it would be—to use another Catholic comparison—like reading a mass. It’s an interactive affair—you have to be there to appreciate it.

Yet its attempt at secrecy does make Masonry more appealing. It’s not that Masons are hiding things because they are shameful or sinister, but because they are intimate and sacred. If just anyone could drift into a Masonic lodge, I would not be a Mason. There are no social connections, there are only private connections within a social context, and the secrecy of Masonry (along with its accompanying vows) facilitates that.

Masonry claims not to care what your religion is just so long as you have one, yet it requires its members to believe in one God, personal immortality, and the holiness of John the Apostle and John the Baptist. Well, so much for Hindus and Buddhists. Aside from this blatant hypocrisy on the part of Masonry’s Christian majority, I had to think hard about what these requirements mean to me. Could I in good faith affirm them so I wouldn’t be like my friend who got around Alcoholics Anonymous requirement that she believe in a Supreme Being by promoting her teddy bear.

I don’t believe in the supernatural, but I have no qualms about defining God as that which causes my heart to open—Peggy’s loyalty; Pachebel’s Canon in D; Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince; alpenglow on Diamond Peak; the kindness of strangers. These things I worship (and what a person worships is properly said to be his God). They’re as good as it gets, and they’re as real as it gets. When I pray, it is to the goodness within my own heart—a goodness that such things elicit. God is love and beauty. Love and beauty are God. Such is my religion.

Personal immortality posed a greater challenge. As with God, Masonry requires you to believe in it, but they don’t tell you what it is. Here is my problem. I am no longer the person I was when I was two, or ten, or even fifty. I even like to think that I am not the person I was yesterday, because yesterday was a lousy day. I ate nothing, drank too much coffee, and was pretty near psychotic by late afternoon. But being a tad psychotic from time to time is not always bad. Like LSD, it can show you the world through new eyes. Therefore the me who awakened this morning was, in a way, a different me than the one who awakened yesterday morning.

If Masonry meant by personal immortality that, if I died today, I would awaken in another realm as a white man with all his relationships intact, I would think them rather silly, but since they leave it to me to define personal immortality, I have to say that the personal (who I am at my deepest level) is unlimited in time or space. There is my ultimate reality, and there is my present incarnation, and the two are one. I am not a being but a passageway, within an indivisible whole.

Most Masons would shake their heads if they were to read this. Many might say that they can’t tell what the hell I’m talking about, and they doubt that I do. “But do you know what you’re talking about?” I might counter. “Do you know what you are talking about when you refer to personal immortality as if the next life were a perpetual family reunion with God carving the turkey? Do you truly believe that your existence is like concrete? Why even concrete is not like concrete; it contains atoms that are forever moving like an extremely slow river and, as Heraclitus said, ‘You can’t jump in the same river twice.’”

Personal immortality can only mean that we possess an inner core that is unchanging, and in this I believe. I just don’t believe that this core is synonymous with how I perceive of myself now/today/this minute or even this lifetime. “I” am bigger and older than that. So big that I see no end to me, and I am indebted to the Masons—and the Odd Fellows—for making me think about such things.

Seneca versus Wall Street

I’ve been doing some complementary reading. On one side, Wall Street Shoeshine Boy, which is about greed, depravity, competition, materialism, and drug abuse. On the other, the writings of Seneca and Epictetus. Wall Street looks even worse when compared so closely to the Stoic belief that virtue is the only good.

When Seneca was ordered to commit suicide by Nero, he first cut arteries in his arms and legs, but he had a clotting disorder, so that didn’t kill him. Then he drank poison, but that didn’t do the trick either, so he finally had himself carried to a steam room where he died of a heatstroke. All the while, he was exhorting his followers to remember the things he had taught them. Admiral James Stockdale spent eight years in the “Hanoi Hilton” after breaking his leg when he parachuted from a plane. He was nearly starved, often tortured, and kept in solitary confinement for four years. The writings of Epictetus enabled him to survive.

At 58, with all the mistakes of the past, how might I live better? How might I take life more seriously, not in a morose way but an intelligent way. First, I could be more polite. Am I rude then? No, I’m not rude, but I could go to greater pains to be nice. I could open more doors for more people. I could stand aside and let others go first. I could talk less about me, and ask people more about themselves. I could judge less harshly. I could try harder to see the other person’s viewpoint. I could show respect even when I’m not being treated respectfully.

Road clearing

We camped over the weekend for possibly the last time this year due to the shortening days. As we lay in the van reading on Saturday afternoon, something caught my eye, and I looked out to see a large owl observing Baxter from a nearby tree. This was the third time I’ve saved him from a predator. The first was a bobcat and the second a hawk. The bobcat was clearly on the verge of attacking, but the plans of the hawk and the owl were less clear to me, and maybe to themselves. Baxter is too heavy to fly away with, yet he is so enticingly helpless. A person doesn’t realize how many predators there are in the woods until he goes there in the company of something they would like to eat.

This was our fifth trip to the same abandoned roadbed. On the first, we biked as far as we could, often having to carry our bikes over logs and around brush. We got it into our heads that it would be fun to clear the roadway with the exception of a downed tree at the very beginning that we hoped would discourage ATVers. According to our map, the road went maybe two or three miles (crooked distances are hard to judge) and gained 800 feet before abruptly ending on the side of a nameless mountain. The map also showed a few spur roads and several creeks. None of the creeks were running, although some contained small pools for the dogs.

Some of the spur roads were still marked by plasticized signposts. The forest service really has a winner with these as they look almost new even after three decades. Our best map is supposed to show all the roads, even the abandoned ones, but some of the spurs were simply too old to be included. Yet, these faithful signposts continue to announce their existence.

Weeks later, we returned with a bucksaw and set to work. It was a lousy job for a man with a bad knee, but I enjoy few things better than tidying up the woods. As is often the case with abandoned roadbeds, the first part was easily discernible, but the latter completely covered by leaf litter and fallen trees. On an exploratory trip, Peggy actually became lost and had to follow the dogs out. Although she questioned their choice of direction, she had no ideas of her own, and was pleasantly surprised by how fast they found me.

The woods being shadowy, sword ferns had taken root in the leaf litter. They were huge, but so shallowly anchored that they could be easily peeled from the earth, exposing glimpses of the old roadbed. I hesitantly uprooted enough of them to create a passage. I often ponder ways to reduce the number of creatures that must die so that I might live, but my responsibility is unclear. For example, I’ve no doubt but what I often run over snakes sunning themselves on mountain roads, but what am I to do? I could drive fewer miles or even stay home altogether, yet it would be a terrific loss to me.

In their struggle to reach the light, quite a few big-leaf maples and western red cedars had grown so tall that their trunks couldn’t support them, and many had bent completely across the road creating an arbor effect. Maples can survive several years in this condition, and we let them be except when they were too low to bike under. Cutting cedars conjured memories of sharpening pencils in grade school. I felt guilty about killing even such stunted trees, but I consoled myself with the thought that they were doomed anyway.

Our work consumed a significant part of four days, and we did not expect to reach the end of the road even then, but the last few hundred feet turned out to be less challenging than anticipated, so at four o’clock Sunday we arrived at a spot beyond which no more gravel could be found. Some old growth logs awaited us there in company with a beer can, an oilcan and a Prestone anti-freeze container—all made of steel and requiring an opener. Since I didn’t remember anti-freeze coming in such a container, I assumed it must date from the early sixties if not sooner. A log had protected it from the elements.

Peggy wondered halfway through our work if we were breaking the law. I said that we probably could be charged with something, although I couldn’t imagine that we would be even in the unlikely event that anyone caught us. Then too, I offered, it is only a matter of time before the dozers return to reopen the area for another round of logging, so, in all fairness, we should be paid for our work. Without us, the forest service would have to send in surveyors to find the roadbed. Of course, they will probably send in surveyors anyway—as a matter of course—but those surveyors will be pleasantly surprised to find that someone did their work for them. As for us, our private treasure will be lost. Not just the road but the forest itself.

Lightning flashes

I saw lightning flashes in both eyes last night. The right eye got so bad that I couldn’t see anything on that side of my nose. I was biking with the dogs at the time, and we had to pass through several narrow gates to get home. I couldn’t even tell if a gate was open until I was upon it. When I got home, I found that I couldn’t read. I could recognize individual letters, but I couldn’t make them into words. I thought that, well, okay, I will separate the letters into syllables, but since individual syllables can be pronounced in different ways, I had to go through various combinations in order to figure out each word, and this made sentences impossible.

I hesitated to tell Peggy for fear she would freak out, but I did, and she did. “We’ve got to get you to urgent care,” she insisted. “No, no, no,” I insisted back. “I don’t know what this is, but I don’t think it’s serious. That migraine I had two years ago started with flashing lights, so I think this might be a repeat.” I reminded her of the time I had shingles around my eye, and, at her insistence, went to urgent care at 5:30 in the morning. I said this to convince her that I would be not only willing but eager to go to the hospital if I thought it necessary.

In this situation, I figured that, okay, if I go, they’re probably going to scan my head with some enormous machine. Then they’re going to run all kinds of other tests, and the bill is going to be a thousand dollars after insurance, and nothing will show up on any of the tests, and I will get well on my own after having spent hours lying around on cold gurneys waiting for people to do things.
Two hours later I could read but had a slight headache. Today, I am fine.