Life: Mysterious or Mystical?

The Beginning

Life, for me, began rather precariously and very nearly ended as soon as it began. As I entered the world, all of the normal techniques for encouraging a baby to breathe were not succeeding. I was, in the terminology of the day, a “blue baby.” According to my parents, in a last desperate attempt to stimulate breathing, the doctor struck me on the back of the head, which (thankfully) was sufficient to urge the first cry to fill my lungs with the necessary oxygen. From that day forward, many of my finest moments, as well as movements in new directions, have come about as a result of similarly abrupt events.

As each of us begins life, we aren’t exactly a blank slate. We are programmed to an extent by our human DNA, constructed of genetic material contributed by our parents, commingled in the dance of conception, created in a confluence of chromosomes, and we inherit a variety of characteristics as a member of our species. For some, this represents a formidable source of predisposal to all sorts of inclinations, and constitutes an overwhelming tendency toward an irrevocable human nature. However, neuronal development in the human brain from before birth to adolescence involves an amazingly complex process, which ultimately results in the writing of our essential mental record. Assuming generally good health and a sufficient degree of nurturing by our circumstances after birth (and providing that we are not deliberately manipulated), in general terms, we are essentially an unwritten record.

Nature has equipped us to survive and thrive by perpetuating a marvelous and rare evolutionary flexibility. We are, under most circumstances, purely and simply, a bundle of potentiality, unencumbered at birth by deliberate or malicious influences. Much depends on what happens after we are born. In spite of an array of inherited obstacles over the millennia, humans have displayed an exceptional capacity for innovation and may follow any number of paths.

There are both daunting limitations and extraordinary possibilities inherent in the evolutionary process, and in spite of powerful genetic predisposition, humans have demonstrated time and again the ability to overcome these limitations and take advantage of the possibilities that result from our adaptive nature. No one may violate the laws of physics, of course, but determined effort and persistence have led humanity through some of the most daunting challenges that nature can conjure.

Wholly separate from the science of life–biology, evolution, and cosmology–lies the underlying source of life–some sort of primal causality. Somewhere over the hundreds of thousands of years since the first inklings of conscious awareness stirred within us as a species, we eventually reached a level of cognitive ability that permitted us to wonder about the nature of phenomenal existence. As we evolved, we sought to understand what it is that animates the living of a phenomenal life. With the advent of civilization and symbolic writing, we began to record our ideas and images, eventually creating everything from ancient rituals to virtual reality, from astrology to astrophysics, from pharaohs to philosophy.

Is life simply just mysterious, or are there transcendent aspects of perception, or ineffable components to consciousness, or certain undiscovered capacities within us, that leave open the possibility of an essential and fundamental mystical element? One need only review their most profound experiences, their most intuitive responses to the unexpected events in their lives, and become acquainted with the whole range of inscrutable human experience through history, to begin to suspect that there may be more to life than meets the eye. Whether this equates to something that defies explanation, or to a mystery that simply hasn’t been unraveled as yet, the full exploration of our very human nature sometimes requires us to reach beyond what is definitive, and ponder the possible in whatever direction our hearts and minds and spirits lead us. To do anything else is to limit our search and our selves.

A Grandmother’s Love

Vase of Irises, c.1890 By Vincent van Gogh

Recently, for personal reasons, I have been digging through the memory archives in search of some understanding of my formative experiences, and the search brought me upon a written recollection of my experiences of my maternal grandmother. Many of my memories of visits with her are shared by my siblings, but in this instance, I was describing them to someone who did not share those memories. In many families, the figure of the grandparent is not viewed as particularly important or relevant, for a number of reasons, but growing up in my family, our grandparents were revered and cherished.

As I look back over the years, and consider the many times we visited in my early childhood, I recall many moments of simple pleasures at her side, and remember well the feeling of wonder and awe I felt as one of a handful of grandchildren sharing those visits on many lazy summer afternoons. In those days, our lives were relatively carefree, and life seemed joyful whenever we arrived at her doorstep. Many such afternoons were spent in her yard, playing ball or a game of hide and seek, and as the day approached night, one of us would periodically go inside, travel down the long hallway with the rubber mats, and stand outside of the kitchen, in order to find out which heavenly aroma was detected for the evening meal. No matter how hard we played, or how involved we were in our games, the sound of her call to dinner was always the stronger.

Artist: Hugues Merle

While my parents would go visiting other relatives in the evening, we would sit on the floor around her favorite chair, while she held us in rapt attention, telling stories of my grandfather who, in his youth and through the years he lived, worked as a railroad laborer, coupling and uncoupling the cars, repairing this or that broken piece, somehow saving the day or keeping the train on time. We never seemed to tire of her recollections from those days, and she was always patient with our child-like questions, which would cross over into stories of her own youth at times.

The image above was taken when my grandparents were engaged to be married in the early 1900’s, looking impossibly young, and existing in an era I could not even imagine when I knew her. She was always an elderly woman in my memory, and discovering the photo years after she was gone was startling. I never imagined her so young or so distant in the past.

How many mornings I remember waking to her gentle nudge, sipping on orange juice which each of us would always receive in our favorite glass. How often we would play out on her “sun porch” on the side of the house, next to the old fashioned sewing machine that was powered by a large metal foot rest which turned the spindle when you rocked it back and forth. If we were visiting on a Sunday, we all would be gathered up and brought to church where she played the pipe organ for more than fifty years. She would often sing the hymns alone, if there was no one else available. At home, we would sit around her grand piano while she played for us the songs we came to love so well.

Jacobus Vrel’s Woman at a Window

How clear in my mind, the tearful goodbye’s that she somehow made alright, and the memory we all have of her solitary hand, waving from the kitchen window as we sped away, waving until we were far out of sight.

In her final days, as I sat by her bedside, she was still completely with us, and I was able to tell her all these things as a grown man. The very last time we spoke, I held her face in my hands and told her I loved her.

Another Bowl of Cherries

The cherries in the bowl above were picked just outside the kitchen window in the back of my apartment in Germany years ago, but for me they have come to symbolize a great deal more than just a pleasing subject for photography. It was during this period of my life that I truly began to open to the world within me, and as I look back now, I can appreciate more fully the true importance of this beginning. While serving as an intelligence specialist in the sleepy little town of Kaiserslautern, I began a series of writings, originally intended to document my experiences during the course of my service in Europe. As the writing progressed, an awareness of the profound changes and events that were shaping my personal life prompted me to examine more closely the “why” of what was happening to me. This concern led not only to a more in-depth analysis of my inner experience, but was also responsible for influencing my interactions with those closest to me.

Having spent most of my tenure with the military in a variety of barracks and military housing, as a senior analyst in my section, I finally became eligible for housing off-base. This arrangement turned out to be one of the most valuable experiences of my service, and I was determined to make the best possible use out of the time. On a quiet street in the suburbs, I was surrounded by the native citizens, and as a German linguist, I was able to communicate well with my landlord and my neighbors. When I would return home at the end of the day, along the short walk from the bus stop, I would often find myself engaged in conversations right out on the street, as many of my neighbors would be leaning out of their front windows and say hello. My presence there was a novelty at first, but when it became apparent that I could converse reasonably well in German, it eventually became an accepted part of life in my neighborhood.

About that same time, a burgeoning interest in 35mm photography had begun to bear fruit (pun intended). With much the same enthusiasm which was manifested in my writing, it was not altogether surprising that my photographs began to reflect the growth and development characterized in the writings. The view out the kitchen window was spectacular when the cherry tree was in full bloom, and I enjoyed many hours in my kitchen, in a variety of ways.

Normally, there’s nothing quite as isolating as the solitude which can result from living alone in a strange city, but in this case, it seemed only to provide just the right degree of solitude as I needed it, and offered plentiful opportunities for socializing and a sense of community as well. The cherries were a little tart, but absolutely stunning in their redness and ripeness as the photo reveals.

There were quiet mornings in the kitchen with my favorite music, and freshly ground German coffee that accompanied me in my moments of solitude, and I doubt seriously if I ever enjoyed morning coffee quite as much as I did while residing there. Writing became an essential aspect of my days, and on this particular morning, after settling down on a rare day off, I decided to attempt to write about what was weighing on my mind and living inside my heart:

“My awareness of a higher level of consciousness becoming available to me has brought me to sense an awakening to a world I can scarcely believe exists within me. My entire being seems to be undergoing a transformation. Although it is subtle in nature, it creeps up on me silently, occasionally stirring me gently into a state of heightened awareness, but still seeming to assimilate itself into my daily waking state. I have become more contemplative, reflecting more often on what is transpiring within me. Urgent matters which used to occupy my mind seem less significant, and every thought becomes a candidate for reevaluation. Though not obsessive, I balance each effort with concern for how it might assist me in achieving an even greater level of consciousness, and in doing so, I continually encounter a curious resistance, as these evaluations often conflict with some of my long-standing attitudes and beliefs.”

After a long day of duty, I would often return home and spend some time after dinner reading and writing in my living room. Living in the United States had always seemed easier by comparison to living overseas. There were no concerns about finding the right way to say what I was thinking, and my familiarity with life in America made me take so much for granted. In Germany, the circumstances were quite different. My knowledge of the language and the culture in which I was living in was very helpful, and it took me some time to really become comfortable sharing my familiarity, but I enjoyed a much more receptive attitude in my interactions whenever I did.

One of my favorite rooms in the apartment was the little greenhouse porch that led out to the back of the apartment where the cherry tree stood. A narrow hallway led to a brightly lit space filled with a variety of plants and flowers that constantly changed throughout the year. I would occasionally tend to the plants when the landlord was away, and enjoyed standing there surrounded by green leaves and colorful plants with the sun streaming through. It was as nearly perfect a place as I could have hoped for, and when I stop to think of all the places I’ve been, this little corner of Germany is near the top of the list.

Living in Germany was one of the most well documented phases of my life, and it was there that many of my documentary habits were formed. The time spent overseas was a bonanza for my writing, and I spent much of the available time I had recording my thoughts and feelings and emotions in a way that led to years of growth and expansion of my skills in expressing them. In the days to come, I hope to share some of those early efforts in my struggle to make sense out of what has been transpiring within me all these years. I hope you will all follow along with me as I explore the path once more.

….more to come….