Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Adirondack Philosophy: In Search of a Dwelling

My mind is full of questions and my heart follows, seeking in its own way.  Fortunately, the consolation of philosophy lies in the convergence of heart and mind deep within this process of inquiry born of struggle.  Coffee in hand to fortify me in the process and with a July mountain morning on the rise, my gaze wandered in the direction of a painting that my mother made many years ago.

Despite being obscured by the turned angle of his body and the quietly bent head, the subject of the painting would likely be known to anyone familiar enough to be in my home to see it.  The figure’s posture gives him away, more than the distinctive curve of the Lake Colden helipad, more than the maps jutting out of a pack lying at his feet and more than the wooden axe handle gripped and made small in his hand.

Even some twenty years later, the moment captured in oils long past, his stance is immediately recognizable.  It is more set these days, the way grooves deepen in an exposed landscape over time, but the beginnings of a character are there.

Recently I’ve been thinking about the process of a life and about decisions concerning what and whom we love, where we go, whether we stay and why we leave.  It seems to me that all of these forces work on us (literally work themselves into us) and become visible in our posture, in the shape of an arm when it moves to encircle someone dear, in the line of a face at rest and in the content of the eyes.  Always, the eyes.  These are the signatures and the markings of a life that reveal how we have allowed the world to hold us and in turn, how we hold ourselves in the world.

This question of whether our bodies reveal a kind of muscle memory that is evidence of the life we have lived, of the preferences we hold and the attitudes we keep has been on my mind as I have had to consider the related subject of home and of the necessity sometimes to leave in search of it.  These related acts of holding and beholding mirror the degree to which we allow ourselves to dwell twofold: in the shelter of our bodies and in relationship to the world.

Martin Heidegger has argued that the way we are on the earth, how we attend to the relationship between our bodies and our landscapes determines (whether and) how we dwell.  This dwelling is the behavior of attunement between body, mind and world and it liberates us from the fundamental homelessness that the unthinking, disconnected person is subject to.  We achieve this condition by tending to the connections between self and world “to preserve and care for, specifically to till the soil, to cultivate the vine.”  Heidegger argues that we must learn this art of dwelling as a way to achieve a kind of fullness.  In short, existing (or living) and dwelling are not the same.

Accordingly, when we push past existence through mere living and into dwelling the world does its work on the body.  We take on the shape of our relationships and our physical contours are drawn over time as a result of how we behave in the world, how we love and tend towards self and other.  I understand and I even agree and yet I have followed this thought (well beyond the margins of this column to be sure) in order to understand why we sometimes need to leave the home-place in order to dwell or inhabit our bodies and the world in this more mindful way.

I have resolved nothing but that it requires a certain kind of innocence (and good fortune) to believe that the arc of a life might be lived happily within the small radius of a single place.  If the quality of our dwelling is inscribed on our bodies, if it influences our happiness and whether we successfully pursue our lifework then I can hardly argue against leaving “home” to learn (or re-learn) how to attain it.  For those of us staying behind, we can take comfort that “As soon as man gives thought to his homelessness, it is a misery no longer … kept well in mind, it is the sole summons that calls mortals into their dwelling.”

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Marianne Patinelli-Dubay leads the Environmental Philosophy Program at SUNY-ESF’s Newcomb Campus on the Huntington Wildlife Forest. In addition to teaching and writing, Marianne chairs the Adirondack Chapter of the Society of American Foresters and is an active member of the Forest Stewards Guild.   Please send comments to mpatinelli@esf.edu.

3 Responses

  1. Pete Klein says:

    When it comes to dwelling, I think I am mostly a person who believes home is where I hang my hat.
    There are, as always, advantages and disadvantages with any philosophy.
    The advantage to “home is where I hang my hat” is to never feeling lost or out of place. The disadvantage is never being grounded and always a bit of a tourist even when at home.

  2. catharus says:

    Thank-you for the reflective essay! Leaves me much to think on, particularly what shapes and forms me, how I relate to others, and what it means to be grounded.

  3. Marianne says:

    Thank you Pete and catharsus for your thoughtful responses.

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