Naming names

Life is a funny thing. Now that can have all kinds of meanings. Each of those words is pretty vague as to the particulars, with the intentionally vague word ‘thing’ probably the least so. So, rather than leave the comment at that, offering an imprecise phrase as a convenient aphorism that any one can nod in agreement with, I’m going to have to say more. Which means beginning with an aphorism like that is pretty much a waste of words.

Life. Not the life I’ve lived or the events I’m anticipating on encountering today. Life as in life, that which lives. Things that breathe and grow and reproduce. Life. It’s funny.

Not funny ha-ha. Though, it’s often that too. It’s funny as in unexpected, surprising, curious.

I used to live in the forest, or at least in a forested suburb that was surrounded by national forest. There was a lot of life there. That’s the reason I moved there, for the most part. To drink deeply of the presence of all that life, to be reminded of trees, and birds, and beasts. To name them, or at least discover their names, which isn’t necessarily about matching a picture in a book with a set of established letters. Those are, one might say, titles more than names, categories of being. To know a name is to know a presence, an identity, a personality. Not only people have personalities, after all. Life, in its various myriad of forms, expresses a multitude of personalities. Some are harder to get to know. Well, not as much hard as inconvenient. We have to watch. Listen. Wait.

Places have names too, as well as the titles and categories that are put on maps. Sometimes these are the same, often not.

In the movie Rivers and Tides, Andy Goldsworthy says it takes about ten years to start to know a place. One has to experience the various rhythms of the life there, watching and listening and waiting not only for the four seasons but also the longer seasons that the seasons participate in. The rhythms of a three year cycle or a five year process. The growing and moving and sharing that happens in the processes of that funny life making its way together in that place.

I’m thinking about this now a lot. As I peek back into the room of regular writing, I consider my recently posted daily journals—which were written late at night or early morning, generally while sitting outside amidst the trees, and shrubs, and birds, and beasts. Sitting for a little while, quieting my soul in the midst of a particular nature-filled place, opened up my thoughts, steering me gently to and through new words. Each of those essays, in a way, is a name for the day and place I was at. That’s why I went up to that place. The life was a balm to my church-parched soul.

The fruit, my fruit at least, came in some profound personal interactions that ministered outside of the usual church structures. The fruit, my fruit at least, was the writings of that time. Like most new growth a great deal of that fruit wasn’t fit for consumption. But some was, I think, even as the tilling, and sowing, and watering taught me how much better it could and should become. That was never my place—God made that clear—but it was a place I was at for five years. Not enough to really know it, according to Goldworthy’s standard, but maybe enough to become acquainted.

Now I’m in the city. A block south of a major Interstate. Apartment complexes surround me. People are busy, and noisy, throughout the day and into the evening. Soil is sparse, concrete is common. There are trees and plants, but these are maintained, groomed for the particular human purpose. There are a few beasts, but not too many, and not too many at all during the day. There are birds. Birds tend to be a lot more adaptable, making their way in a place much flexibly than other forms of life. Birds make do. Which is why, maybe, I like to watch them. Birds speak of the place more than most things. Birds, I might say, can be trusted. They’re here because this is where they are and have been. They are the true natives—well, maybe not the flock of noisy parrots who fly about this area, who might not be native, but certainly help give personality to this place. Birds are often funny—funny surprising, funny unexpected, funny curious, and sometimes even, especially ravens, funny ha-ha.

In the forest I was constantly confronted with nature in all its native forms. Here, on my second story balcony in Pasadena, I’m not. I don’t see a single beast. I don’t see a single bird. I take out my earplugs—put in to block the mechanical interjections of urban humanity—and strain to hear a bird song. Dawn is not long past. There should be many birds singing. And there are. Just not near me.

I miss the life. I miss the cues that give me thoughts. I stare at the single tree next to me, rising up from between two apartment complexes, and treasure its lonely presence. I look out the front door and see the feeder—in the shape of a beflowered hot air balloon—and watch for a hummer to visit. I provide sugared water. They provide occasional treats of life to enrich my day.

I hear the man across the way blow his nose, as he does every morning when he wakes up. I put my earplugs back in.

Life is still curious here in the city. Only it’s disguised life, hidden life, life without a name. Even the people, most of whom live their lives unnamed. And certainly I do not know most of their names. And am impoverished for it.

The richness of the forest I once lived in has been replaced by the poverty of the city. Life is still curious, but I have to poke around for it, listen with plugged ears, watch with distracted eyes, wait with people honking their horns all around me, hurrying me past a moment, rushing me past a place. I don’t like that. But the city is not going to change. So I must find my way of being, of naming, of watching and listening even in this setting. Naming names and finding the unexpected nature of life even here. In that, I think, might be a tiny balm for my worry-weary soul.

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