We sat by the bedside of our departed loved one. Moments before dawn, quiet stillness all around, we listened for the spirit’s touch before it crossed the river.
Hours later in the granite cathedral of the spirit that is Yosemite, I sat before the falls along the Merced River and listened. The recent rains brought needed snow to the mountains, birthplace of the watershed, singing a welcome song of falling water to the Valley. In Siddhartha, Herman Hesse wrote “the river taught me how to listen…..the river knows everything; everything can be learned from it…..how to listen with a still heart, with an expectant, open soul, without passion, without desire, without judgment, without opinion.” Along the river, I heard the touch of farewell.
Cycling in the rain, while a bit hairy has great rewards. Riding the bike path on the Bay Bridge approach from Oakland to Yerba Buena Island suspends one in time and space. Rushing past, the wind filling my ears, I swear that was a glimpse of the great void in the corner of my eye. Perhaps, because of the recent deaths of cherished artists Alan Rickman and David Bowie, and the impending departure of a loved one, time and the measurement of our impact here on earth has been much on my mind. Western Civilization has bequeathed paradoxes to ponder and motivate us: reverence for eternity and a fascination with yesterday and yonder. Measuring, measuring, measuring, always measuring; how will we be judged by our peers or by heaven? Ungrounded measuring can mean endless suffering.
Lewis Mumford compared these paradoxes in The Golden Day. Describing the Middle Ages, Mumford wrote “medieval culture lived in the dreams of eternity: within that dream the visible world of cities and castles and caravans was little more than a forestage on which the prologue was spoken.” Characterizing the Renaissance, Mumford wrote “the first hint of change came in the Thirteenth Century, with the ringing of the bells…..as soon as the mariner could calculate his position in time and space, the whole ocean was open to him…..time and space took possession of the European’s mind. Why dream of heaven or eternity?…..outside the tight little world of Here and Eternity, they were interested in Yonder and Yesterday…..”
Reaching the end of the bike path, I dismounted and looked at the southwest vista. Thanks to Descartes‘ Cartesian coordinates, my position in time and space could be plotted, but where was I? Late afternoon, hundreds of cars rushed by, racing time, creating a thunderous enveloping sound. The grey twilight descended. Mortality, ageing and death are inescapable. All is impermanence, but acknowledgement is the first step on the Middle Way.
Rainy days are magical. Swaddled by the silvery mist, the grey-like sound of the hoot owl haunted the coastal live oak and eucalyptus forest of the East Bay hills near Oakland. Enchanted by the muted colors and subdued sounds we hiked the muddy Laurel Canyon trail. Twelve hundred feet above the sea promises a fair prospect. But reaching the hilltop, we found Wildcat Peak cloaked in a thick woolly rain cloud. Playfully, I imagined the peaks marking the compass points obscured by inclemency: Mount St. Helena (North), Mount Diablo (East), Mountain Hamilton (South), and Mount Tamalpais (West). Few hikers joined us on this cold, leaden day, but we found great warmth in our companionship and the grey solitude.
The artist and writer David Batchelor in The Luminous and the Grey surfaced the painter Vincent Van Gogh’s thoughts about the colour grey. Writing to his brother Theo in the 1880s, Van Gogh came to grey’s defence pointing to the “endless variations of greys, red-grey, yellow-grey, blue-grey, green-grey, orange grey, and purple grey…..it is impossible to say, for instance, how many green greys there are, it varies endlessly.” Continuing on this theme, Batchelor quotes the Bauhaus painter and color theorist Johannes Itten “[grey] is mute, but easily excited to thrilling resonances.” Batchelor opines “a small amount of any colour can and does transform grey…..into something subtle, complex and even thrilling.”
The Japanese poet Matsuo Basho describes this atmosphere – the solitude of grey – best with his haiku: