Monday, November 28, 2011

Risk -- eh?

Risk can be an erotic experience. Risk is a thread that runs through many of my narratives about my home in the mountains, my pioneering upbringing, of eating stewed porcupine from Limoges plates or defending the firewood with a shotgun. Today’s story draws from that same well, knowing that, to a great extent, the place where our life energy pools is where we can find ourselves and our myths most accurately reflected.

One of the best features of the house where I live is that the eastern and southern walls of the bedroom are floor-to-ceiling glass, giving a panoramic view of a 200-mile stretch of the Sierra Nevada crest.

One night, several decades ago, as I was sitting in my chair by the woodstove in the living room, I had a thought: all that stood between me and that magnificent view was one wall which created both the back of my bedroom and one half of a narrow constraining hallway. If I could remove that wall, I could enjoy the view and stay warm by the stove, at the same time.

This idea attacked me with ferocity and would not let me go. Even though the hour was late, I found myself becoming more and more energized, until I realized the inevitable: I must remove that hateful wall NOW! I leapt from my chair, went out to the shed and returned with my chainsaw.

I started up the saw, laid the tip of the blade to the place where the wall met the ceiling and began cutting. Periodically, I would take breaks to pack the freed lumber out of the house onto the porch. By 2:00 AM, the wall was gone. I swept up the sawdust and went to bed.

In the morning, just as I had imagined, I brewed coffee, started a fire in the stove and sat in almost unbearable joy and satisfaction, with the splendor of the Sierras before me.

Later that morning, my father happened to drive by and, spotting the boards on the front porch, came in to investigate. Proudly, I showed him my night’s handiwork, the resulting spaciousness of my abode and the grandeur of the now-revealed panorama.

He viewed everything with respectful approval. He made murmurs over the improvements to his real property. It was, he conceded, just what the house had needed. Then, there was a small pause and I watched his tongue sorting over words, looking for just the right ones.

“Of course,” he said at last, a bit wistfully, “that was the bearing wall.”

My joy crumbled. Immediate visions arose of the entire two-story structure collapsing around me, complete with groaning timbers and clouds of smothering dust. Historically, people like me graced castle great rooms, wearing pointed caps sewn with bells. I was a ruinous Fool.

But my father assured me not to worry. He left and returned a few hours later with 8X12 beams. With these he created a post and lintel construction to replace the missing wall. The house is still standing today, these many years after my father no longer is, its view of the Sierras intact.

This was not the first time that I had made sudden decisions that radically altered the direction of my life. Why do I perform these seemingly self-defeating behaviors, again and again? Each time, it is because my psyche demands an expanded vista, and the risk involved in achieving it is exceeded only by the absolute inner necessity to have it.

So, once a metaphoric wall is down, what exactly can I see from here?

Partly, it’s a fleeting glimpse of the wild Muse who is a family familiar. When a small mountain range stood between the family ranch, La Panza, and the closest town, San Luis Obispo, my great-grandfather built a road over the top of it, to get there. When my father needed a house for his growing family, he built one, despite having no money, from hand-hewn timbers and nails salvaged from a burned cabin. No one consults engineers or architects, goes through planning reviews or takes out a permit. The Muse tap dances on top of their heads for a day or two, and that’s all it takes.

Having inherited my family’s house and grounds, along with this unruly Muse, I find the place is a portal through which dangerous ideas like removing the bearing wall come flooding irresistibly. Dangerous, because inspiration is like radium – it’s a high energy source and must be handled with caution and delicacy. It can open huge vistas but can also bring down the house.

For me, as a writer and artist, to follow inspiration is often to give up all manner of security, all semblance of a settled life and any hope of approval from the so-called normal world and its official representatives -- like the Building Department, for example. But it also opens the portal to the most marvelous things!

It also dredges up new and often alarming and seemingly indigestible material. Therefore a life lived in continual proximity to the Muse, whose dwelling place is the unconscious, is a life of risk and even of danger. There are no easy answers nor guaranteed solutions, only the ethical responsibility to attempt integration of the new. One courts disaster, madness, legal entanglement and even death. Poet Carolyn Forché says of this, “All art is the result of one’s having been in danger.”

Yet to live this way is enormously freeing. Traditional boundaries are surpassed. One ventures into the field of possibility and potentiality. Rumi says of this:

         Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing
         There is a field. I’ll meet you there.

         When the soul lies down in that grass,
         The world is too full to talk about.
         Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
         Doesn’t make any sense.

I adore that field where nothing makes sense. It’s erotic and risqué, there. One senses oneself to be palpably naked. I will risk everything, again and again, to arrive there. T.S.Eliot says of such a journey that it involves a detachment from expectation, a willingness to forego guaranteed outcomes, “A condition of complete simplicity/ (Costing not less than everything).”

The travel to that field is hard travel. The ego will never undertake such a journey of its own accord. Rather, one is called by a power and a love which cannot be ignored: an encounter with the Self which, as Jung noted, is always a defeat to the ego.

One is drawn out of familiar routines and territories, “through the unknown, remembered gate,” through the portal between the mundane and the extraordinary and,

         With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
         We shall not cease from exploration
         And the end of all our exploring
         Will be to arrive where we started
         And know the place for the first time. (Eliot, Four Quartets)

This knowing for the first time is the return to our original state of wisdom. It is a walk through the blooming field of the potentialities of the Self. So, let’s reach to embrace our wild Muses and enjoy the risk – eh?

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