A Meditation on Wind and Space and Fire
I came home for the shutdown--the scheduled weeklong holiday from work. Home is the Beidleman Ranch; for all intents and purposes, it's a place where I lived for less than a year. But it's where my father lives, so it's more "home" than most places to me.
The Beidleman Ranch has been a ranch, a farm, a homestead. Before that, it was Comanche land. That was less than 200 years ago. Even the Spanish didn't bother with it much. Now it's an empty section of land, crossed with scars of its former lives but otherwise it teems with a return to its natural state, now vacant from human employ.
On my first day back on the ranch, I did nothing.
Or rather, I tried my hardest to do nothing.
Oftentimes when we say we did nothing, we mean that we accomplished nothing. Instead of doing nothing, we empty our minds and occupy the void with entertainment and diversions--a creamy caulk of digital Novocaine to numb our senses and distance us from ourselves--while the darknesses we hold fester in the back of our consciousness. We aren't doing nothing then; we are only sedating.
I sat on the porch with a cup of matcha and gazed into the vast emptiness of the land. So much space rushed over me, a stark difference from the city.
I found that instead of hearing the birds or seeing the trees or feeling the wind, I was only captivated by a single thing: the total collapse of the concrete walls within my mind. These walls are there for a purpose: so I can compartmentalize and push back darkness and continue to function in a day-to-day reality that has very little nothing in it.
My consciousness was flooded with all I had locked away. Bad encounters with coworkers. Projects I needed to handle. Politics. That guy that got road rage and tried to kill me on my commute home last week. Bills. Messages I hadn't returned. Messages that hadn't been returned to me.
I started to relive them one by one until I realized what I was doing: filling the void with these darknesses.
Being busy in our culture is almost a point of honor. Keeping our minds busy is a habit: always connected to our email(s) and to our tribes of hundreds at all hours. I appreciate the culture of hard work, but when we start to associate our egos with our overwhelming stress levels, it's not hard to wonder why we're all so filled with busy-ness...why we sedate ourselves, why we can't sit still and truly do nothing.
Several days after I returned home, my father and I left the Beidleman Ranch on a whim, for a "change of scenery." We drove to Cloudcroft, New Mexico--where we used to go on holiday before my mom died. The three of us would rent a small cabin in the mountains, tucked away in the pines. It was an enchanted, magical sanctuary for me.
The last time we had been there was a few months before she got seriously ill, 15 years ago.
To get to Cloudcroft, you have to drive for eight hours through large expanses of desert: cacti, stunted mesquite, sand dunes, nothingness. You also have to drive through the town where I grew up, a small gathering of oilfield workers and gas stations and cattle ranchers in the middle of the desert. I left that town 10 years ago and hadn't even passed through it in eight.
So there were hundreds of miles to cross and a lot of space between those places and myself.
Driving through the desert, I was reminded of the good things there but mostly of why I left. I turned 16, packed my bags and moved to some unknown country in South America, without knowing anyone or anything of the language--and I never lived in the desert again.
We camped in a valley in the Lincoln National Forest. No water, no electricity, no cell phone signal.
The area was mostly populated by elk, with the occasional buck deer and smaller forest creatures like chipmunks. There was also an impressive array of songbirds and spiders. I preferred the songbirds. The spiders preferred by boots.
It is good to work with your body and hands and back. Especially if you earn your living with your mind, as I do, it's essential to reconnect with the rest of yourself. I gathered firewood from the forest, carried water in our tin buckets, hiked up steep mountainsides to watch elk at sunset. We made a fire and cooked our food--ears of fresh corn and beans and rice.
And when my body was exhausted, I lay beneath the stars, beside the fire, and watched the constellations of my childhood slowly turn in space above me. The cool wind cut through the pines, sweeping down their scent and their energy over me. The song of dozen coyotes sliced through the night--long and vertical cries that illuminated the valley like tall candles burning forsaken in an empty cathedral. Their voices harmonized like flames flowing together. When their chorus was done, a long blue shadow of silence was cast down the dark mountain corridor.
The first night, there was a storm. It rolled over the valley about three in the morning and shook the forest with such strength that I was abruptly shaken from sleep. Lightning struck nearby and spread throughout the sky; thunder drummed through the trees and rocks with such energy that I felt the earth rumble. The wind gusted with bitter chill and the rain crashed down for three hours--but the tent held. Eventually I slept, carried by the storm's billows far away.
When I awoke three hours later, the sun had not yet crested over the mountains, but dawn had broke. Large owl wings sounded directly above my head. Two magnificent owls landed in the pine just a few feet away, unconcerned with my presence below. I stared into the canopy and thought of ways to describe the whoosh of their wings and the screech of their call--no doubt the last sound that would echo through the minds of many rodents--in all the languages I could conjure. Zas! Une plongée! Um farfalhar. Een laatste gekrijs. L'eco delle ali. All the same, all both the last cry from Earth and a morning alarm for the living.
With the exception of excursions into Cloudcroft, the small magical village of my childhood, real things occupied my time: gather more firewood, carry more water, breathe mountain air, sit on a fallen tree and do nothing, real nothing.
Of course, when we did venture into Cloudcroft, there was cell phone signal and I wrote my monchu. it would have been easy to superimpose the importance of my meditation in the mountains, so I made a point to write. But in the mountains, the imaginary constructs of men that fill so much of our mindspace were inaccessible. The forest was a densely woven tapestry of order and entropy: life. It filled me so that my mind did not wander. In the density of the forest, there was space for Nothing.
After three days in the forest, we crossed the desert and returned to the Beidleman Ranch, hot and windswept, another nature. This is where I am now, caught like a kite in the wind, soaring over the waves of grass and bands of trees, tethered to the porch.
I spent the majority of the decade that has passed since I left my hometown in the desert in an effort towards the Truth. I have fasted alone and with holy men; I have read the texts and translated many books of them; I have lived in Buddhist communes deep in the jungle and I have traveled with flamethrowers that believed nothing at all. I have joined cults, unwittingly, and I have been kicked out of cults, intentionally. I have prayed in a language I didn't understand in a Hindu temple and in tongues in no language at all. I have washed indigenous hair when no one else would touch them, worked to save orphans in India, and given toothpaste to drug lords in South American slums, alone, at night. In that decade, I ran from my life and fought for my life--and no single, brilliant higher Truth was delivered to me.
And while I was away, six of those ten years without even visiting the US, the Beidleman Ranch changed. I only lived there for a year because I had to finish school in America (I did both high school and university in three years and it got complicated). My father had remarried right before I left for South America; he moved from my hometown in the desert to the Beidleman Ranch in Central Texas.
At that time, it was a bustling enterprise of people and cattle and life. I don't know exactly how large it is, but it takes several hours to walk across it, even on horseback. A creek runs through it. At many points, the Beidleman Ranch extends as far as you can see, through the valley and into the distance. There were pastures for cattle and fields filled with corn or cotton or peas or sunflowers.
There were ponds full of fish; three houses for relatives and guests; barns, stables, and coops for goats, horses, and chickens. There were dogs and cats as pets, and herds of wild deer that lived their entire lives on the ranch.
That's how I left it.
I returned last October, when the peak of the monarch migration should have turned the fall foliage at the creek into waving pillars of fiery orange.
While I was away, my grandmother died, and then my father's wife died suddenly too. An uncle had a heart attack (also Taylor Swift's uncle); my aunt got cancer. Pets died, animals died; the chickens were decimated by coyotes one night.
That summer, a drought swept over Texas. Cattle were sold, animals given away, dogs taken to new homes. The well at the farmhouse went dry. The ponds went dry too and hundreds of fish baked in the sun. Grasshoppers came like a plague and destroyed the crops. Then my great aunt died, who owned the ranch. And my father was left alone, just like that. The last person on the great wide land.
All of this happened within the space of a year while I was living in Canada and could not come home.
Burros, cats, and innumerable deer still roam the ranch freely. There in no rain, so we don't plow or buy cattle--because there are no investors to pay ranch hands when there in no rain.
While I was away, I did not find the Truth I was seeking. I found instead Nothing, peace. And at last I returned, but to a very different place.
My dad tends the buildings that remain as they were, like monuments without visitors. We walk past the places our relatives died. The deer, the rolling hills and waving grasses, the oaks and cacti and yucca--they tend themselves under the great blue sky.
It is now a place of silence, as the yellow memories of cowboys and farmers and saints return to the fields. The patient stars crest the night sky above empty hands. I am still. My mind is empty. My heart is full.