I came across this brief essay today while sifting through my archive of writing over the past 25 years. Reading it felt fresh, and it still resonates with my current ways of understanding my journey in bringing this work to you.
I was born into a black-and-white household, ruled by one who knew which was right and which was wrong beyond all doubt, my father, the cop. I was the firstborn, and the only son of five children, so expectations were high. When I was only a few months old, my father bragged to his friends about the large size of my fists: “He’s gonna be a fighter,” he said, proud, “like me.”
Perhaps it shall turn out that my father will be right after all, but not in the way he meant. My talent turned out to be not in the manly arts, but in intellect and sensitivity, and I was so strongly endowed with mind and perception that by the time I was five, I had recognized that neither of my parents could be trusted to provide an accurate accounting of reality, and that I would have to figure things out on my own.
Figuring things out took the shape over my formative years of long hours of contemplation, alone in nature or submerged in a book. I learned early that the boundaries of self can dissolve in two ways, by surrendering to the oceanic whole or merging with a particular other. Surrendering to the whole was most often mediated by flowing water, darkening skies or blustering wind. Surrendering to an other came through focusing on a rabbit, a leaf, or a tool.
The particular tool through which I learned the most about extending my self beyond its normal boundaries was my axe. I learned the art of chopping wood with a sturdy, single-bladed axe purchased from the hardware store, and I began chopping as a duty, because we had some fallen trees which needed to be cut up for firewood. But my love came when I found an old, rust-pitted, double-edge head buried in the loam in the basement of the barn. I cleaned it up, sharpened it, and attached a new handle, carving the end to fit the narrow head, driving a wedge into the cap, and soaking it for a while in water to securely anchor it.
The axe and I spent many long hours together in my final years of high school, spring, summer and fall, cutting apple, locust, pine, walnut and oak. By this time, I lived three separate lives, and the axe became my most satisfying means of creating an intersection for them. One life was at school, where my intellect was acknowledged and honored and where because of it I could do no wrong. The opposite life was at home, where my lack of manliness and discipline was focus for a great amount of abuse, and I could do no right. Transcendence came through my contemplative life in the woods and fields, in the tops of trees, by the cool springhouse pool watching crayfish and salamanders, or inside the quiet barn where rats went about their domestic business and the horses gently chewed.
When I picked up an axe, these three converged: I used my mind to continually refine my stroke and to plan my cutting strategy; I accomplished useful work to the satisfaction of my father; and I lost myself in a cosmic union, my feet rooted in the ground, a breeze blowing through my hair, logs giving themselves over to me, chips whizzing off in every direction, and the axe carving its smooth arc through the air, hefty in my hands.
The axe, a cutting tool, went with me when I left home for the last time after college. For years I kept it under my bed or in the closet, not knowing why for I had no use for it in the city, just feeling better having it with me. Perhaps it was a reminder of the braid woven of the three strands of my life, an injunction to continue to seek that unity. Or perhaps it had more to do with the sharpness of the two edges facing opposite directions as if to cut with one straight stroke through the heart of paradox.
When I think now about my life during this period, I can see the three strands weaving separately through the years. The manic, all-powerful intellect exchanging positions with the depressive, powerless sensitivity, back and forth every few months or so with an occasional appearance by the the third strand, the transcendent, which enveloped the other two and kept the cutting edges of mania and depression from inflicting their deep wounds upon the soma of my life. I see the handle of the axe, the strong, straight, organic handle, smooth and polished by thousands of strokes, plunging directly between the opposing faces, uniting them, making them useful, and I wonder if in fact the axe did not hold within itself all three strands of my life, the transcendent handle binding and giving meaning to the opposing forces of the blades. I wonder if that were not the deeper reason I kept the axe with me for so long.
This insight into the deeper symbolism of the axe in my psyche leads me one step deeper still. I am realizing now that the handle has two ends, two poles, just as my contemplative life had two ways of being, two entrances into the transcendent. At one pole lay the deep earth, the concrete, the specific, the experience of merging with an other, whether that were a living being or the variegated beauty of a piece of granite in my hand. The other pole reached to the sky, and represented the oceanic bliss of oneness with all the universe, the mystical transcendent. Earth and heaven, heaven and earth, the vertical axis splitting the horizontal one of fire and water, passion and withdrawal, light and dark. These two elements, the twin blade and the handle, form a cross, one of the most ancient symbols of humanity, and I wonder if this is its nature.
A moment is brought to mind, a moment in which these two axes (!!) were powerfully embodied for me. I lay on my back on a balmy sunset evening at the top of a hill on my family’s farm, my head to the north – for some reason unknown to me that was the “right” direction to be aligned – and my crossed feet pointed south. Today, more than twenty years later, I can still feel my mother the earth supporting me in her immense goodness, I can feel her deep strength at my back, can sense myself hurling through space while at the same time being fully supported, held, and cared for. My outstretched left arm pointed to the darkening east, the direction of oncoming blue, deep and infinite, the invitation to the distant welcome stars to make their appearance. I can still feel the mystery of the darkness drawing its blanket over the quieting landscape. My right arm pointed west toward the light, the red sun disappearing for a time, making its graceful exit in the full confidence that its day would soon come again. I can still feel its purity, its gentle flaming intensity as it slips beneath the horizon. And my face, my gaze, was upward into the divine chamber of being which encompassed all things. I can still recall the way the sky drew me far out into itself, beyond the orbit of earth around sun, beyond the local space of our galaxy into worlds beyond worlds. In that moment, heaven and earth, fire and water intersected right here – I can touch the spot – in my chest, and I knew that life was all of this. Life was all of this or it was nothing at all.
This kind of moment, when it happens, does not come fully equipped with an interpretive text. It is only now from this distant perspective that I can begin to understand the meaning of moments like these in my life. I can see from here how profound experiences like this one established within me a foundation of dissatisfaction with life as it is in modern culture. I didn’t have the words to describe my knowing, only a lived, felt sense of what oneness and rightness and fullness of being feels like. I knew I wanted more of that, and I knew that the prescriptions and proscriptions of our society did not support or even acknowledge this way of being. I could see no examples of individuals living this fullness, could identify no systems or communities which embodied this.
Further, I felt that this kind of profound aliveness, if it were to actually exist in a form lived and taught by some group of people, could not help but to spread by example and experience to all of humankind. It was obvious that this was not happening, that in fact the world at large was, if anything, deteriorating in its approach to this fullness of being. Consequently, I concluded that no such understanding of this fullness existed anywhere on the planet, and that I would have to seek this understanding on my own.