This study I am undertaking now, the study of how we construct the mental worlds in which we think and breathe and act, the study of how to listen, the study of being creative, the study of being human: it seems to unite all that I have learned before and cast that knowledge into a new light. It seems to remind me why I have learned all that I have learned, how to braid it all together even. Above all it asks me to stop and observe, to notice patterns.
One of my favorite books when I was studying permaculture design was A Pattern Language. It’s a study on architecture and community livability that encompasses all of life, really: the engagement of one’s intelligence with the building of one’s world. Long ago in my permaculture design course my teacher, Toby Hemenway, strongly emphasized desire lines, the routes we want to take to something. These show up in the beaten-down dirt tracks that cut diagonally between carefully poured sidewalks; they show in the places people bump into each other as they move about the house. They show in the way people’s eyes lift to a focal plant in the landscape and in the places we have to cross our own trail too often to get things efficiently done.
They show also, I am learning, in the places one returns to again and again in life, the mental and spiritual ground worn bare by repeated landings. I have circled around to touch some places so often that the learning there is down to bedrock.
One such place in my life is the learning around my own energetic patterns. I push myself far and fast, I fall down. I circulate giddily in a whirl of social activity, I shut myself away, shy and wary. I paint and write and build feverishly for a few days, then limp along on old, dry ideas for months. I stretch my arms out to the sun of my own joyful beauty, I huddle in under the weight of my faults. Year after year, almost, now, decade after decade, I return to this learning and examine it.
At first my thought was that it was wrong somehow. I tried to even myself out with discipline and martial arts and meditation and herbal tonics. Then my thought was that I had unresolved issues, and I plunged deep into analysis of my own shortcomings and mistakes. Later still I circled back around and thought it might be something to do with the cycles of the moon and hormonal changes; I built red tents and bled onto the ground and took clover tea. Then I thought perhaps it was mania, and studied serotonin and dopamine and neurological networks.
This time around I have gathered in the fruits of my energetic phase and watched in amazement as that energy waned exactly in sync with the moon. I watched as the retreating time nourished me with art and writing and deep, quiet listening. I lifted my gaze from my navel for a few short moments and noticed the patterns of ebb and flow in those around me, too. I listened, eyes closed, to the messages spoken from the silence in quaker Meeting this week: messages of sorrow for the loss of loved ones, concern over sins of omission, prayers for strength and meaning through the lonely times.
And now, in the mountains, I watch as leaves fall and days darken. I gathered up an armful of maple leaves this morning, shocked at their extravagant beauty. Where I lived in California, the most colorful trees of the autumn were the sweet gums. These maples—oh, I had forgotten! They are like fire! I plaited them together and let them hang in a ribbon of color where the rising sun could catch them. They’ll dry and wither in a few days, but right now they are too beautiful to leave there on the ground.
I learn this again and again. The desire lines of my life crisscross this ground: I want to know this, deeply. I want to know about cycles of change and transformation. I keep coming back.
Toby told us—I read in A Pattern Language—that the design follows the desire. If people are crossing the lawn diagonally, put the path there. If everyone stops to look at the maple, clear a sight-line to it from the house. If people bump into each other on the way to the kitchen, knock down a wall and widen the way.
If I return again and again to this study of cycles, make it my life path. Make it my learning. Make it the story I tell, over and over if necessary, until it feels sweet and finished.
All of these things that I thought were darknesses have led me here. I return to them for a reason. The lessons we learn–our desire lines–we all return to them again and again. May we be soft enough to understand why, and to clear the sight-lines, and to follow the diagonal paths before us.