The First Question

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?

~Mary Oliver, The Summer’s Day

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When you come to a print on a muddy streambank, the first thing you say is not “This bobcat was thirsty.” The first thing you ask is not, “What should we do about all the thirsty bobcats we now know exist in this woods?” The first thing you think, on a good day in your walloping, galloping mind, is not even “Hey, a bobcat track.”

The first question is: Who is it?

And the first answer is: No answer.

It doesn’t matter if you think you know. If you are as certain as your own left foot. Because the truth is, there is nothing certain, nothing given about even your own left foot.

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The trick here, the hard hard tightrope dance, is that there is space between noticing and meaning-making. And in fact, there is a space before noticing as well. For most of my life, nobody taught me this. I thought curiosity had to with voracious, rampant questions, answer-driven or aimed at taking down assumptions somewhat sharply (“critical thinking”). No one mentioned that I was skipping two major steps, steps that, if skipped, tend to leave certain mental and physical muscles atrophied and stagnant, until your starving spirit or soil-working hands suddenly need them decades later, and you feel the awkward, unfamiliar strain.

Welcome back to your animal.

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The two steps, the two muscles I largely missed from age 6 to age twenty-whatever (what age was I yesterday?), were the slowness of noticing, and the capacity to stay inside of not-knowing, to tolerate curiosity and multiple possibilities.

Have you ever noticed how unconscious we have made our noticing? Wait, there’s a catch-22 in there somewhere…

We perceive first with our senses, in mutual subjectivity, as ecologist and magician David Abram tells us, with the matter around us. Our sensory perception happens so quickly, in these animal bodies we live from. It makes sense that a lot of this noticing would go uncatalouged in the conscious mind- if we had to take time to consciously list every color we perceive in order to move through our day, it would take a very long time to get anything done (conversely this is why sitting and listing every color you see is a great way to get out of an addictive pattern to getting things done). And even our almost insantaneous meaning-making from the things we notice makes good animal sense- if something is dangerous or there is a very short opportunity to take advantage of a food source, our body-mind needs to be able to go without a ton of articulated, analytical conscious thought.

But we have created a strange world of billboards and car horns and sirens, of rooms without wind or water or food where we spend our days, all these sensory spaces that our animal bodies might very well perceive as extremely threatening. Starvation spaces. On top of this, though we create beautiful music and tender things, we also fill these worlds with extreme injustice, oppression, cruelty, and torture. And then we ask each other, in our jobs and transit and home spaces and waiting rooms, to move through these worlds at breakneck speed. No time or safe container to deal with all that truly perceiving these things would imply for us. No wonder the noticing muscle goes not just under the conscious radar, but under-used altogether.

Noticing, presence, whatever you want to call it, asks us to stay in relationship with a bigger body, a larger organism or ecosystem. The meaning-making that follows, in this world we’ve woven, can bring with it extreme grief, stress, and pain. For many of us then, it has become a survival tactic to turn down or shut down most of our perception.

The problem with this tactic is that it leaves us out of relationship with the bigger body. Suddenly, we are stuck in starvation mode, alone, without the “family of things,” as Mary Oliver puts it, to hold us if any of that pain or joy from perception does get through to our lanky, rough, tender hearts.

So simply walking up to something, a track or a feeling or a knot, walking towards it instead of immediately assuming meaning or danger (“it’s a bobcat!”), and asking, Who are you? brings us instantly back into relationship with our ecosystem body. Suddenly, we’re not alone anymore. Then, too, this practice relieves us of the intense secret pressure so many of us carry around to already know what’s going on. In this way, too, the practice releases a bit of the hubris that “knowing” and certainty bring with them, a hubris that often becomes cultural structures of harm for our world-body.

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The relief, the delight, the humility, of not knowing, of wondering and therefore walking towards, of suddenly being in curious relationship again with the matter and body around us, in direct defiance of a world that says we are separate individual isolated entities living on top of matter- I believe this is a radical act. For our own development, yes, but also for the way we live with this planet. I’ll return to this at the end.

First, though, let’s talk about how uncomfortable it is not to know! At least for me, it’s almost intolerably painful, even as I recognize its value. This is the second step, the capacity to stay inside of not knowing. To ask that first question, Who is it? To notice, and draw no conclusions yet, letting the first answer be: no answer yet. Instead of the drive to find out the answer, curiosity in tracking for me is the increasing ability to stay and play around in the space where I don’t know.

Tracking teachers Scott D. and Jon B. are amazing at modeling and guiding this process. The first time we stood and looked at a hole dug by an animal (probably) and were not allowed to decide whose it was, I lost focus immediately and started planning what to cook for dinner. The next time I tried to stay inside the question and possibilities while looking at a nimal sign, noticing more and more details and considering options without narrowing to any answers, I almost started crying. I was so uncomfortable with the physical experience in my body of sitting with the unknown. All of the other unkowns in my life rose around me like a flood, a deluge.

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For those of us whose sense of value and personal stake in the world have been built around performance, competence, whose education has encouraged us to be clever, to know answers, to volunteer in a group only when we have something concrete and correct to offer, whose sense of ability to receive gender equality has perhaps depended on maintaining an outer appearance of extreme independent competence, it is really, really hard to trust that your teachers want you to have the space to be wrong out loud. A lot. But as Jon and Scott so artfully and compassionately demonstrate, trying to be right immediately decreases the likelihood that you will actually perceive as much of the story in the landscape as possible.

To be in widely perceiving, expansive, deep relationship with the world I am a part of, to learn at a pace and with a humility that allows for my delight and deep learning, epistemologies (ways of knowing) that depend on proof, defense of ideas, and certainty must fade, in order to be balanced by a deep trust that information is present in my inner and outer landscapes, and I will meet it with the gentle, slow question, Who are you? And I will stay with what I notice, and I will wonder, and I will generate possibilities, not because I need to prove that there is something here worth looking at- that I can already trust- but because I want to track who it is and how they are moving, because I want to explore. The only agenda is not to have one. And to show up. And to ask.

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Then, when I’ve noticed things, and questioned, and made humble meaning, I can point to the trails of my knowing as a story or a root system. Rigor is still present here- the threshing out of a track-maker’s possible identities, and the continual noticing of details that support particular possibilities- this is a rigor of deep systems observation, rather than of isolated, replicable experiments. We still say, this is why I know what I know. But it is not a thesis defense. It is a story rooted in deep observation, and it arises out of not-knowing, and noticing, and then following the threads, bringing past observations and intergenerational teachings to bear on the curiosity play.

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These practices apply equally to a bird in the sky, a track on the ground, or a deep sense of knowing or experience in the self. I came to write this not because I am looking at tracks or birds (well actually as I write this a bunch of crows or ravens are dive-bombing what I think might be a raptor because of its shape and flight pattern and the way it’s being treated by the neighborhood birds), nor because I am anything but a novice tracker. Rather, I am embarking on two years of deep learning in a school setting, albeit an extremely unconventional one. I can feel my old ways of learning, of needing to defend and prove and protect my curiosities and sense of thread, attempting to sneak in. And they were delightfully harsh and rigorous and left me with a lot of distrust and atrophied inner muscles.

The last time I was a full-time student, I expended an incredible amount of fear and exhaustion trying to prove academically that all the things I thought were connected and important- poetry, education, ecological literacy, radical reclamation of voice in spaces under attack- were, in fact, connected and important. And I did it. But my sense of trust was shattered. And this has deeply affected my ability to stay in relationship with my own education. It has inspired self-directed learning, and transformed the way I teach and lesson-plan. But in my own relationship to academia, there is still this sense of being under attack, of a thesis defense, of the possibility that everything I believe is worthy could just be wrong. A hundred times while writing this, I have, in fact, stood up and walked away, because of the fear that it will be unclear, that the arguments or the writing will not hold up. Expression modulated by fear of outcome has become a disastrous energy-suck. It is not really freedom. It takes away a crucial part of learning: messiness, voice-ownership, testing, trying, curiosity, self-trust. Empowerment.

Last week at Goddard College, where I now have the immense blessing of being a graduate student, I made a commitment. In the past, I have had to defend and prove the very idea that the ideas I see and feel are connected are, in fact, connected. This is a warlike way to relate to my own knowing and curiosity, and to the world in relation with it. How can the act of my learning model the world-change I am trying to learn about/into? I commit to trusting that these threads are connected, that these prints form a trail. This is not in question. My task, my gift-burden (TRANSLATE?), is to approach with this trust and ask the threads, Who are you? To track, knowing that they are connected. To, with curiosity and an increasing tolerance for staying in this roiling, dark, strange river of not-knowing, begin to find out how they are connected, and what that might grow into in the world.

So I ask, Who is it?

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In the case of my study queries, who is talking about systems and eco-social resilience? Who are the people proposing applicable frameworks of changemaking, and what are they saying? Who has something to say about grief and cultural story in the context of structural revolution? What about art and individual action/expression? Who is here? Who am I in this conversation?

I'll let you know whose tracks I find  think I've found based on noticing and presence and staying with questions...

I am still in the dark on how this first question, this noticing and tolerating curiosity, leaning towards, lives its way through us into bigger systemic change. I don’t know. It is difficult to trust that this is a “good” or “correct” thing to do. That it serves. My impulse is to turn away, towards rational, critical cynicism- Who is this helping? If I don’t know, if I can’t prove it, I should abandon the track. We only have so much time here, and the seas are already rising.

This is all true, in one sense. But/and, to tend this world without knowing in my body how to be in relationship with the shadow, with the unknown, how to stay engaged in perception and openness to interrelationship- without these things, I might very well replicate the very structures I hope to change. Avoidance of interrelationship and shadow are one of the threads I want to track, in fact- how are these fears at the heart of the harms we’ve built? I don’t know yet. And so the question is simply, Who is this? Who is moving here? And, as part of that, Who am I? My body wants to follow and so I follow. Back into relationship, messy, shaking, unknown, with the body of the world.

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