Something From Everything
There are nearly 500 explorable caves at Lava Beds National Monument in the U.S. On a recent visit, my family managed to see six of them.
The caves are helpfully divided up into categories based on the caver’s experience and comfort with risk and narrow spaces:
Category A—You can stand and walk fully upright at all times.
Category B—You have to duck your head or bend your body around occasionally low ceilings.
Category C—You will have to crawl or ‘slither’ on your stomach for considerable sections.
Category D—There is no category D. There is no category C for me either.
Lava Beds National Monument is located just across the Oregon/California border, a National Park of nearly 47,000 acres of rolling hills and desolate plains. On the long winding drive into the park, you can see fields littered with igneous rock from the eruption of nearby Medicine Lake volcano thousands of years ago. Beneath the ground, lava tubes created most of these hidden caverns, including Valentine Cave.
“Valentine Cave is a must see” said the very passionate, uniformed ranger as he handed us a map and our massive, indestructible and un-pocketable flashlights. There was no deposit taken, only our solemn promise to return them at the end of day.
The entrance into Valentine was a short winding path with a handful of switchback stairs leading to its gaping mouth. Immediately the passage splits into two arching tunnels which later join together as the cavern narrows, descending deeper into the earth. You might imagine that the cave’s heart-like shape with bifurcating arching paths and slowly narrowing corridor might be the reason for its naming. But the cave was simply discovered on Valentine's Day in the 1930s, it’s heart like shape completely serendipitous.
Nearly a century later, It certainly had my heart beating faster.
As the corridor continued to turn and descend, the darkness became unfathomably hungry, completely devouring the light of both our dollar store headlamps and the flash of our phones. Only our loaned lanterns were able to shine a thin beam that reached the narrowing walls.
Our family of five walked forward slowly, shoulder to shoulder. Out of necessity we focused one flashlight beam above our heads, and one at the ground directly in front of our feet. The slow uneven drip of water gathered at the end of stalactites, and occasionally would drip onto our outstretched arm or down our neck. In sections the stalactites hung low enough to threaten to comb our hair, or strike a careless forehead. Below our feet the ground was wet, uneven, and littered with piles of rock from where sections of the roof had given way.
The cave walls continued to narrow as we delved deeper still, until the walls beside us were nearly in reach. We stared unseeingly into the distance ahead, and the sloping floor and impenetrable darkness made it appear as if we stood on the edge of a chasm. As if just ahead of us, the ground simply dropped away. Perhaps it did. We never found out. One of our children asked to turn around, and I gratefully conceded to their request.
While each step into the cave had been apprehensive and cautious, our return steps were markedly lighter, buoyed with the security of a known and previously explored path. Soon enough we could see the faint glow of reflected sunlight illuminating the edges of the narrow cave walls.
As we exited the cave, our eyes blinking blindly in the daylight, I breathed in deeply, stretched my arms wide, and sunk into the deep relief of a wide open space.
The whole road trip had been a stretch, a long, slow exhale after months of holding our breath. Despite the hours spent in a cramped minivan, despite the five of us tripping over each other in hotel and motel rooms in different locations each night, it felt expansive, luxurious. It felt wide open, after a long time living in a narrow space.
Along the considerable journey we brought along Brene Brown’s newest (audio)book, “Atlas of the Heart”. I have been a fan of Brene’s research, presentations and writings for a long time now, and this might be my favourite work of her’s yet.
Through mountain passes and desert plains we listened to Brene compare and contrast 87 distinct and common emotions, and the context in which we experience them. The work is thoroughly researched and easy to understand and relate to. But for me, the most interesting aspect of the book remains the ‘why’. Why write a compendium of 87 distinct emotions? Because most can only identify and reach for three— happy, sad and angry.
It doesn’t take long for Brown to argue her case. If we can only identify three emotions, it limits not only our vocabulary, but our experiences as well.
In my last column, I related Jonathan Merrit’s concern that “sacred words” were disappearing from our common vocabulary. His concern is the same as Brown's, that a diminished vocabulary results in a diminished life and that even if we are not religious, we need words like “forgiveness” on our tongues, or we forget the very human need to regularly forgive each other.
The way we think and speak changes us, and our world. Language is not only descriptive, but prescriptive as well.
I think a lot of us have been feeling like we have been living in a narrow space for a while now, corralled into these tight spaces by forces completely beyond our control. A pandemic, a threat of war, a climate emergency, an uncertain economic future.
No one could fault us for feeling lost in this current darkness. For feeling claustrophobic with those walls closing in around us.
In face of this helplessness, Brown and Merrit’s work reminds me that language is agency, for good, or for ill. It is a double edged sword in each of our hands. Inadequate language and poor mental constructs have the potential to close us in just as much as external realities or a physical space. But thoughtful, precise language can open us up, lead us out of darkness and show us realities that we were previously ignorant to.
Some language makes the world bigger, while some makes it smaller. Some language reduces others into tidy groups of “us” and “them”, while some reveal everyone has a complex and hidden story. Some language peddles certainty, while some invites curiosity.
As the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously wrote, “words create worlds”. We have a crucial role in deciding what type of worlds we are creating.
It’s worth asking what language we are listening to, reading and repeating. Are we smaller or larger for it? Are we confining ourselves or freeing ourselves? Are we staying in any narrow spaces that we don’t have to?
The space we find ourselves in is narrow enough. Let’s open it up a little.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.
"So Jesus is kind of like a zombie?”
I bite my lip a little at the unintentional irreverence and honest curiosity of my youngest child, who has his puzzled head cocked slightly to the side.
“Um... it’s a little different than that”.
It’s been a long while since we’ve been to church. Still, when my youngest asks me how Easter came to be a holiday, or what bunnies and eggs have to do with it Good Friday, I attempt to give him a (mostly) complete (and age appropriate) explanation of both the Christian story of the death and resurrection of Jesus and the amalgamation of various pagan and ethnic traditions, such as Ishtar and Eoster, that celebrate such spring themes as light, new life and fertility.
(Interestingly, the incorporation of chocolate is never questioned. Even my youngest knows better than to look that particular gift bunny horse in the mouth.)
The zombie comment makes me think I may have missed the mark on my explanation, but the resurrection is hardly a standard or commonplace concept. I’m often intrigued by the strange and inconsistent marriage of western civilizations’ post-Christian culture. We are surrounded by words of great religious significance that have entered our collective lexicon, but often with specific, incomplete or completely absent context. Perhaps because of this, these words are becoming less and less common.
The writer and theologian Jonathan Merritt has noted that as secularization has increased, the use of “sacred words” have dropped off precipitously. Language, Merritt argues, is always being reinterpreted and recontextualized. The only languages that stay static and unchanging are dead ones.
Understandably, those within a religious tradition are also the most concerned with safeguarding sacred language, and therefore the least willing to reinterpret and recontextualize these words and ideas. Meanwhile, outside of that tradition, these terms grow more and more irrelevant.
These days if you asked someone what a specifically religious term like ‘resurrection’ meant to them, you would likely find a striking contrast: either it holds a very specific religious meaning of great importance, or they would view it as my son did, as irrelevant, confusing, and inconceivable.
To my point, I am writing these words during the midst of Holy Week, where Christians the world over mark the betrayal, state-sanctioned torture and execution of Jesus, and his unexpected and miraculous reappearance to his friends and disciples (who do not recognize him!) three days later. I am guessing that this event means either something very specific and significant to you, or nothing at all.
I am concerned by this, because I find myself in a third category.
During many years of Holy Weeks, I’ve grown up with this story, considered it, watched theatrical versions of it, sang songs about it, felt swells of emotion towards it and attended countless services about it. Specific meaning and interpretation was presented along with these stories. It was not simply remembering the betrayal of Jesus, but all of mankinds’ betrayal of God. Not just the death of Jesus, but that death as a sacrifice and payment for the wickedness of all. Not just the resurrection of Jesus but the promise of resurrection and unending life for everyone who believes this particular story, for everyone who holds to this particular faith.
And then, I lost my old faith.
It was less as a defiant act of unbelief, and more an unintended consequence of abruptly seeing the world differently. After a series of personal tragedies in my immediate family, my notions of God and goodness were unexpectedly upended. All those cherished stories and their given meanings seemed suddenly incompatible with reality. Church as I knew it certainly seemed incompatible with my new grief and seething anger. The cognitive dissonance became too great to bear. I would have to deny my reality, or my old faith. Both could not survive.
I was never an ardent atheist. I never admitted the death of my faith to myself. One day years later, a good friend was describing a “hopeful agnostic” that he knew, and then he laughed at my own ignorance. I was completely unaware that he was talking about me.
It has been years since those losses that sent my world raveling. In that time, I’ve accepted and made a home for my grief. No one would ever willingly ask for such a wound, but I know that it has helped me see the wounds in so many others. Time doesn’t heal all, but perhaps it allows all.
Surprisingly, time has even allowed those old stories as well. Time and space away from the religious world I knew has decoupled those ancient stories from their specific meanings and dogmas. But instead of rendering them meaningless, I find them more interesting than ever before, and occasionally, strikingly true. Removed from the pressures of judging these stories as literally true or false, precious or worthless, these stories get to breathe.
Now, when I consider the betrayal of Jesus, I think about how often people misunderstand goodness and only want power. When I think of the death of Jesus, I think about the violence we are willing to incur in the name of sanctity (and the fact that power structures do not like to be questioned). When I think about resurrection, I think about the fact that new growth includes the death of the new. That the new comes from the old, but it is not the same, and many will not recognize it.
I think about resurrection when I see plants that looked nothing like the seeds I buried in the ground weeks earlier. They are the same, and they are different. I think about it when I look at old pictures of my children. Some characteristics never change, a sly smile or a glint in the eye, and yet they’ve grown and changed dramatically. They are not who they were before, and never will be again. I think about it when I look into the eyes of my love, and see a person who both is, and is not the person I married so many years ago. I think of resurrection whenever I meet an old friend whose life has changed forever. The ending of a marriage, a new career, the death of a family member, these things change a person forever. They are no longer the person they were before the event, but they are still them.
And of course, I think of the unexpected resurrection of my own faith, as well. I think of the stories and meanings that guided and formed me, that served me well, until they didn’t. About how they really did die, and stayed dead for a long while. About how unexpected and precious and strange their reappearance was to me. I think of the words and ideas that are complex and beautiful and worth reintroducing, reinterpreting and recontextualizing.
I know from some vantage points, this faith looks drastically different, or even unrecognizable. That many expect the new to look exactly like the old. But they shouldn’t. Not one living thing stays stagnant or static forever.
As I said, it’s less like a zombie and more like every living thing.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.
I start the day hurried, leaving the house to walk my son to school at 8 a.m. It is one foot in front of the other, as we walk single file by the side of the road towards his school. He is jabbering on about something he saw on YouTube, but I’m not really listening.
I nod and say “uh huh” at the right moments. We reach the edge of the schoolyard. I hug him tight, wish him a great day and watch for a long while as he ascends the steps towards his class.
I begin back down the hill, intending to return home quickly. I have only taken a few steps before the entire scene seems strange. I am suddenly aware of all that was previously hidden—the scurry of movement in the bushes beside me, as a family of nervous quails takes flight into the gully below, the call and answer of two lone redwing blackbirds amidst the half frozen pond, a cluster of wild crocus peeking out between fallen grass, the sound of the thaw, more than the sight of it, as if mother nature had left a tap running somewhere, everywhere and hue of the light. The sky appears the same, but everything below is illuminated differently.
A better writer could tell you how it’s different, I can only tell you that it is.
This is the advantage of repetition, a practice or familiarity with something, someone, or somewhere. My son’s school bell draws me to the same path, at the same time, daily for years. I have seen this exact landscape hundreds of times. Today, something has shifted. Today there is running water, the chirping of birds, and the play of the light. It is the beginning of spring, just as it is every single year, and somehow I still find myself caught off guard by its coming.
Of course, I haven’t been looking very closely lately.
Lately I’ve been walking only the minimum before returning quickly to home and closing the door to the outside world. I’ve been shirking the work of silence and long walks to clear my head. I’ve felt more irritable and despondent than usual, especially when I sit down and attempt to write. I feel like I am hiding from myself, endlessly wanting to turn to anything that numbs or distracts. Anything that moves the clock forward to a better time, where we are okay. It has been a while since I have felt that we are.
I don’t know why this is so important to me, this concept of our communal health. The tension that is currently in the air has found its way into my bones. We are not okay, and so neither am I. I have been mourning the ways we talk over one another and deliberately misunderstand and diminish each other. I am haunted by the truth that we live among each other in separate and incompatible realities. That the collective “we” has never been so divided and hostile, as we sneer down our nose at our neighbour. That I am sneering and hostile, and so easily angered.
Writing, for better or worse, has always been a personal and collective assessment. How am I doing? How are we all doing? What do I need? What do we all need? For a long while I haven’t liked the answer to the first two questions, and I have had no firm answers on the last two. I have felt as frozen in place as the winter that surrounds me.
But suddenly that which was frozen all around me is beginning to thaw.
The thaw and promise of the days ahead loosens something within me as well. I reach the bottom of the hill and choose to walk a little further as I take in the sights and sounds of the path before me.
Despite the promise of oncoming spring, the scene before me is anything but picturesque. The snow and ice is patchy, receding from the edge of the path and revealing all that was hidden beneath. Decomposing leaves stick together in every hue of brown, thick mud sticks to the bottom of my boots like tar, and along this particular stretch of path, endless potholes in the snow reveal deteriorating dog feces long left unattended by their owners.
In time, the path before me will be bursting with with new life. Pale pink wild roses, golden balsam root flowers, and endless stalks of tall grass will shoot up near the small stream. More birds will come, more quail hiding under bushes, more redwing blackbirds calling to each other amongst the dense cattails. The trail will be a mosaic of green.
I know we don’t get to that idyllic scene in April or May without the mud and feces and decomposing leaves of March. The one includes the other.
What nature offers me, especially in times of crisis or great personal unrest, is a reminder that everything can belong. In time, nature reveals and includes all. The freezing as well as the melt, the rot as well as the new shoots of grass. The death of one season to give birth to the next.
I wonder how much of my distress has been due to my unwillingness to accept things as they are right now. To accept that even the parts of our communal life which seem as repulsive as rotting dog feces must be included in the life we make together. I don’t have to condone or excuse behaviour that I believe is destructive or unhelpful, but I do have to accept that it exists.
One of my teachers, Richard Rohr often remarks that “we must forgive reality for it being what it is”. Nothing remains hidden forever. Perhaps the revealing of things long hidden is always a part of the process.
Nature reminds me to be patient. Patient with myself, with others, and with these times of transition. Each of us is indisputably in process right now. Nothing stays frozen forever.
Because the season is shifting, and so will we.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.
It had been a great day. A day off of work, uneventful and filled with nothing but sunlight, a good audiobook and an extended walk with my dog. And it was a Friday.
Friday nights are usually ones of celebration. The marking of the end of the work and school week with pizza and a movie, as we consider what possibilities the weekend might have in store. This weekend had seemed like an especially long time coming.
But this Friday felt off from the moment I stepped through the door. Each child seemed both agitated, annoyed and simultaneously incapable of leaving each other alone.
By the time we moved to the couch to start the movie, each seemed completely ignorant to the borders of their designated couch cushions, their limbs spilling over their respective area, arms draped across siblings heads or feet jutted into one another’s sides.
It was the general restless energy that always seems to result in sibling wrestling (or it’s more accurate nomenclature, “wrastling”).
Of course, couch wrestling only ever ends one of two ways—when the parents shut it down or in tears. It was to be tears this Friday, as the goofing around became violent and resulted in my boy crying out and repeatedly punching an arm that had held him too long.
I ordered him away from the chaos of the couch to the hallway. To tell him that he needs to be careful of how he acts when he’s angry, about how he can’t physically lash out when he’s upset and about how he was growing, and those spindly limbs would soon be thicker and stronger.
Those punching fists could start to do some real damage soon and he needed to be in control of them. But it was no good, his heart was racing, his face was flushed and he wasn’t hearing any of it.
A wiser person might have considered the emotional state of his audience and the ever-growing impatience and anger inside myself. Unfortunately, I did not. And so, in moments he was yelling, and unexpectedly, so was I.
There’s 30 years between us but both of us were shouting at the top of our lungs at each other in our narrow hallway.
My partner recognized that I had lost all semblance of control and quickly tagged me out to cool off on the patio, but the night was ruined. After that moment, all the serene beauty of the day evaporated, as did the wide open possibility of the weekend before me. Gone, in an instant.
The lesson was a little too on point. I was telling my son we need to be careful in our anger – mere seconds before I simultaneously made my point and lost all credibility.
It was a big failure, one that betrayed who I wanted to be, and revealed something deep inside myself.
I’m always embarrassed for those who can’t hold their emotions together in public—the couple that doesn’t mind if the neighbours hear them yelling at each other on the patio, the hothead in the car behind you who lays on the horn and flips you the bird for driving the speed limit or slowing down for a yellow light, the restaurant patron who needs to berate the waitstaff for the food taking so long at lunch hour. These have always looked to me like weakness.
It’s not strength that caused me to raise me to engage in a yelling match with my son, it was weakness. The need to be powerful, heard and (seemingly) in control. It’s strange, you puff up and yell to feel bigger, but the moment after you know that you are smaller than ever before.
The most bewildering thing about the outburst was that immediately before it, I thought I was about to engage in some next level, judo move parenting. I was going to remain calm and collected in the face of chaos. I was going to take advantage of this incredible teaching moment.
I thought I was further along than I was.
I had been a student of compassionate parenting and self-regulation for a long time. We’re always talking with our friends about how to be better parents. I felt like I had been listening to the right people and reading the right things for years, but if ever I was beginning to believe the delusion that I had reached some plateau, some new level of enlightenment and wisdom, my outburst that Friday cured me of that pretty quickly. Because all the big ideas in the world don’t have the least bit of value if you can’t take them home with you.
The only thing worse than the person who flips you the bird as they pass you, is seeing their bumper sticker promoting tolerance (or unity). The only thing worse than the person laying into their waitstaff is that assailant being a spiritual guru or church elder. I’ve always noted the pastor who leads a group of hundreds at church and whose immediate family resents him at home. The therapist who can engage thoughtfully with anyone, as long as they aren’t family.
They say that we often show the greatest disdain for others when they exhibit our own weaknesses. When my conversation devolved to a yelling match with my kid, it revealed both what little control I actually have, and the fraudulence of my enlightenment.
But enlightenment is a strange term.
We may think of it as waking up, becoming woke, reaching that next spiritual or conscious level. But taken literally, to enlighten simply means to have a light cast on something. To reveal the truth of a matter. To see what actually is.
Having a yelling match with your child does not sound like enlightenment. But it absolutely is. If we have any desire to learn, grow, “wake up” or become “enlightened”, we had best prepare for the possibility that we will not like what it illuminates in our self. Truly knowing yourself includes the good, the bad and the ugly. Because it’s all in there.
We can ignore those dark and angry and embarrassing places inside of us, but that’s not enlightenment, that’s just posturing and repressing. And posturing and repression may look good on the outside, but it certainly won’t bring us any peace.
And that’s the goal, right? Fewer yelling matches with our kids? Less taking it out on the waiter? Less road rage? “Enlightenment,” “waking up,” “evolution,” these are all grand and idealistic terms, but working them out is endlessly practical.
After our blowout, when we had both cooled down, I sat my son down next to me, held him tight and asked him to forgive me for losing my temper. Then, in a slightly more enlightened context, I tried once again to discuss the importance of controlling our behaviour when we’re angry.
It doesn’t negate everything that came before it, but it was a nice moment.
In the days and weeks that followed, I’ve been thankful that our closest relationships are cumulative. The strength of my relationship with my son is not absolved by one misstep, any more than it is secured by one success.
So it is with our own enlightenment. It’s less our arrival and more our continual, staggered march forward. It is a long obedience in the same direction. It of course includes our successes, but it graciously includes our failures as well.
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- The price of love Nov 23
- Truly terrifying Oct 21
- 'The work I show up for' Sep 21
- Wrong answers only Aug 19
- Fire in the sky Jul 27
- Beautiful, terrible and fragile Jun 18
- Going 'just' beyond May 17
- You get to choose Apr 19
- Flawed exteriors, interiors Mar 21
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