There is a gap in the cold. Tomorrow the Ice Age returns, but today I’m going walking. I once read that Thoreaux liked to walk three hours a day to feel balanced and connected to life. I may not be out three hours but I will take a good long walk. I am such a slow walker that my daughter refuses to ever take a walking trip with me, which is a dream of mine. But I don’t care. Walking helps me feel connected to nature and the ancestors. Everything is misty and wet and I know I will marvel at those who came before us, who came to know what it takes to keep the fires lit, no matter what the conditions.
Years ago, many years after I imagined that brave prehistoric tribe of Nordic Indian Yogis I wrote about in “Fierce Warriors,” I sent a scraping of cells from inside my cheek to the National Geographic “Genographic Project.” This genetic population study is attempting to chart the migrations of earliest humanity based on the marking that sometimes get notched onto our DNA as it gets copied and passed down through generations. How astonishing it was to receive a world map of one’s matrilineal DNA and see a red line that begins in East Africa and a human being who lived about 150,000 years ago, our common genetic Eve. Incomplete and flawed as this study may be, it is still rich evidence that each one of us–everyone everywhere, in every possible condition of life–is related. It turns out that our sense of separation from one another is as Albert Einstein said “a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.”
Einstein knew that we are inextricably part not just of each other but of the whole universe and that urged people to free themselves from the prison of separation “by widening our circle of compassion, to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” I used to think that compassion was a matter of allowing the heart to open (not that this is simple). But I’m beginning to learn that this practice of compassion–this practice of allowing the sense of connection in–takes letting go–moment by moment–of all that we identify with and cling to as “me” and “mine.” We have to be willing to know nothing, to be no one, to begin to know how inseparable we are from the whole that is.
The very same map contained another surprise. It turned out that my grandmother,who was born and raised in Denmark, had DNA that had a rare “X” maker found in only two percent of the European population–but in many more Lakota Sioux, Ojibwa, Navajo and other indigenous North Americans. This seemed to be tantalizing proof that my wild imaginings had, well, a cellular basis. My map contained a red line that left Africa and crossed Siberia, the Bering Strait, the Great Plains and…trailed off. The notes included with my map said my “X” type was controversial. Much was still unknown. For example, how did that “X” turned up in Denmark? I had my own theory. I pictured fierce Lakota warriors sailing across the storm-tossed Atlantic waters in open boats, teaching prehistoric Vikings how to build great long ships and sail back to North America. I confided to friends that I may actually be a missing link in our understanding of the evolution of our humanity– “me” personally. “You’re not a missing link,” quipped one friend. “That lovable little monkey face of yours just makes you think so.”
The day after my mother died, I dreamed of a Viking funeral. I watched a ship containing her body glide out into still water at sunset as I stood on the shore. This became more evidence that something in me that came from the deep past, from those who have crossed great waters. In cold weather, and at all times I have had to weather adversity and fear, when I have had to face the unknown, I think of my mother and Danish grandmother and a long line of human beings who had faced the unknown and found a way to keep the fires lit.
Sometimes I think of those among them who came to know more. I think of those who painted the Paleolithic paintings found in a series of interconnected caves in Lascaux in southwestern France. I remember reading that great spiritual teacher Gurdjieff visited Lascaux and reportedly looked up in wonder at the figure of a great stag with many antlers and other figures of bisons, horses, cows, and at least one Sphinx or unicorn-like imaginary figure–figures layered on top of one another as if by succeeding generations. Gurdjieff reportedly said that the depiction of an imaginary looking creature was the emblem of a sacred brotherhood of seekers of truth that appeared seven or eight thousand years ago, and that the stag with many antlers was a way of depicting attainments in consciousness and being. Gurdjieff strongly disagreed with the commonly accepted claim that the art was possibly 20,000 to 18,000 years old (a Metropolitan Museum essay dates them at possibly 15,000 B.C.E.). The quibble about dates meant nothing to me. What stayed was the impression that the prehistoric cave painters were humans who knew something extraordinary about our human possibilities.
Ever since humans arose, there have been those who knew and could express our connectedness with life, who sensed that something Greater that animates life. Does that come to us as a genetic legacy also? By now, I realize it can’t be realized through the imagination alone. I know that clinging and attachment to any map is a way to miss the wild unknown of the present moment. The truth really is a pathless land. More and more, I think of human beings in circles rather than lines. When I sit or walk or pray, I feel the presence of those who have come before.