I’m sitting just above the surging waters of a post-storm creek that flows through a canyon outside of the town of Ojai, California. I splurged on a two-day vacation for myself, a self-imposed retreat immersed in nature (from the glamping comfort of an RV) where I could practice a bit more presence, and perhaps chip away at some of the residue left by a constant buildup of internal dialogue. The creek, currently a river, is swift, navigating around rocks, boulders, and an abundance of vegetative debris. After several minutes, I begin to lose myself in the mesmerizing hiss of the whitewater, just a little. I try to follow the flow of water in real-time with my eyes, but the speed is too fast for my brain to keep up with.
I envy those innumerable droplets of water, journeying at high speed without a thought about where their path might lead. How freeing it would be, to flow like a single droplet, smashing confidently against rocks without fear, no pain, breaking apart and reforming in each moment, in each millimeter of canyon traveled. I want to be a droplet carried in the weightless flood of billions of other droplets, gushing forth without reserve, the pace set by nature and fate and a million little previous happenings that led to this moment. And this moment. And this moment. A clear, indiscriminate droplet, that any second might evaporate into atmospheric nothingness—not disappeared, but merged with a universal flow of energy.
Meanwhile, the battered oak trees creak gently overhead, heavy with lifetimes of knowledge. Their branches sway slowly, with a resolved patience to observe the world without judgment. One day of listening to a roaring stream, or of lying beneath oaks, will not clear me of my silly human worries and expectations. I know this. I can only hope that giving myself this little bit of time and space (and forking over the money to do so) will make some minor impression on my soul that will unfold over time, and gently guide me down my own canyon journey, to an open plain where clarity and purpose unfold more clearly. I don’t expect a miracle. And yet, I realize that every moment is miraculous, even when I can’t emotionally grasp what that means just quite yet. I’m somewhere in the middle of the canyon, I think.
As I let my mind fall into the rhythm of the river, I recall an experience from several months ago.
One evening, during an autumn visit to Seattle, I was introduced to the stirring musical prayers of the Compline Choir. This group of devotional singers unites each Sunday night at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, elegantly perched on a hill overlooking Seattle’s Lake Union. Soft light gently illuminates the chapel from chandeliers overhead, welcoming people from all walks of life to pour gently into the somber quietness and placate their souls. Some sit upright in the traditional pews, others in cushioned chairs, and a few bold individuals make their way to the raised stage at the front of the chapel, where they are free to lay upon yoga mats, blankets, and pillows, even to prop their legs up on one of the large, white pillars framing the chapel, if that’s what they desire, to fully imbibe in the musical offering to come.
I sat upon one of the chairs, not brave enough to sprawl out in repose. The chairs were also closest to where the choir performs, in the back right corner of the chapel, positioned so that our backs were to the choir; I imagine this is to encourage listeners to let go of their visual senses and more fully immerse in the aural experience. The group of men entered from the front of the room, slightly after 9:30pm, and made their way single file across the chapel. A respectful hush fell across the waiting crowd of spectators. The singers seemed to float beneath their robes as they arranged themselves a semi-circle formation around the choir director. I closed my eyes as the voices began to chant. The liturgical, somewhat Gregorian incantations evoked a deep sorrow, an aching to know God—or whatever higher power one might want to embrace—a pleading to be released from mortal woes in exchange for spiritual bliss.
I do not conform to any structured religion, but the unified voices of those God-seeking souls pulled at my throat, at my chest, raised the hair on my arms, made my head tingle. With each solemn harmony, I merged more deeply with the music and my anguish flowed like a river through every corner of my body. The river swept debris from my heart, where it found a deep desire for love, many pebbles of regret, and countless questions, like grains of sand, searching for answers. Eventually, I couldn’t even feel my body anymore. I wanted to completely dissolve into nothingness and everythingness so that I could no longer identify myself as separate from anything. It was as if I was under a spell. My eyes still closed, I began to feel as if I had stretched and flattened. I was a disc sliding into the infinitesimally small space between each haunting note. In my flattened state, there could be no room for Ego, no room for doubts or fears. Just a harmonious blend of beingness, above, below, and all sides.
The spell faded too soon, and the choir departed after completing their musical offering, leaving the chapel visitors in a semi-dazed afterglow. My body re-inflated, my soul precipitated back into its human form, and I was left to contemplate the ache of being on the precipice of rapture. It’s a feeling I’ve only been able to experience a few times in my life. I vowed to savor the experience however I could, tucking the feeling away like a shell placed in one’s pocket to remember the beach.
Today, the only choir I’m an audience to is the one voiced by the synchronized hum of water, snapping of branches, chittering of squirrels, and chirping of songbirds. I gently extract a small pebble from beside the creek, and place it in my pocket, a memento of nature’s performance.
This blog is dedicated to my bonus mom, Tina, who introduced my father and I to the magic of the Compline Choir during my last visit.
I came across this poem by the ever eloquent poet Rainer Maria Rilke after writing this blog. It so beautifully captures my state of emotion when staring into those murky, flowing waters. So I share it now:
LET THIS DARKNESS BE A BELL TOWER
by Rainer Maria Rilke
Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.
In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.