The Quiet Man

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I would like a quiet day. One. One quiet day without the residue of yesterday or headwinds of tomorrow. Just the day, one. A quiet one during which I could just let the river run past and feel the cool and heat of the sand and the sounds of gulls or osprey and, of course, waves; when I define quiet I include birds and waves.

I would like one of those days where I’m not waiting for a loan rejection or essay rejection to filter back, or when I’m not anticipating appointments or deadlines. A day where the phone doesn’t ring and no one knocks except family, ready with a joke or an old story to get us all laughing and remembering and planning. Usually quiet days include laughter and stories.

A day to myself like I used to do when I drove into Manhattan and walked from Herald Square all the way up and through part of the park, talking to the vendors or checking out the music along the way coming from the cafes and radios. When I explain “quiet day” I must include the sounds of the city as natural and organic as the osprey and waves since they are expected. Plus, they aren’t talking to me as much as for me so no response is expected or necessary, just my presence. Family is like that too.

My life is not unlike Thoreau’s in that my retreat is near the water in the woods where I am able to regroup, not to ignore civilization as much as be better prepared to face it. So I would like one day. One. One quiet day where I could live deliberately and be in absolute touch with the passing of time solely for the sake of the passing of time, to watch the seconds, to count the minutes. I could lean against a tree and hear the combine on the neighbor’s farm or the rigging on the boats on the river. There is a thin, very thin, line between quiet and the sound of rigging in the early morning hours.

I was thinking the other day about the quiet days in college when a bunch of us would walk into town just to get something to drink and everyone would be talking at once, and laughing at once at different things, and we were always like that and we were always going to be like that. If my mind wandered at all it was to exaggerate, to magnify, the sweet and passive activity of such permanent transience. If I am going to define “quiet days” I can’t leave off my friends. Or a drink or two.

I have had many days which I would “formally” call quiet by the Oxford definition. In Spain, at home on the river when it is early, or late. When I was young and hiked through Heckscher State Park. Sometimes when I am alone at home I fiddle around the house, working out on the property or on the porch, and can go from sunrise to sunset without a sound and it can be deafening. But those are literal, and I have come to understand that true peace is not the absence of noise but rather the presence of love.

I remember a beautiful, perfect, quiet evening a long time ago when a friend of mine and I went to an Italian restaurant in a run-down strip mall, and they were almost closed but they let us order some bread and a bottle of wine and we talked for hours, joking with the woman who worked there but mostly just laughing together about now and about thirty years ago. We finished each other’s sentences and the wine and then went our own ways quietly, content at such perfect time, but not really because it isn’t always that way, is it? No, it isn’t, though it should be.

I would like a quiet day like that again.

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STFU

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I know someone who can turn the most insignificant happy-thought into the most stroke-worthy bitch-session. If I say, “Hey check out the size of this Big Gulp of iced tea from 7-11. Eighty-nine cents.” I hear, “I HATE 7-11. What a dirty waste of people’s time going there. It is pathetic those places exist and they are filled with GMO food that is killing everyone anyway, AND you’re better off making icedtea at homeornot even having it becausethetea candehydrateyouandyoulljustendupneedingwaterandblahblahblah hmmmmmmmpukepuke….” And on it goes. What is the value in that? Where is the benefit in being around that?

Maybe I’m simply around too many people. By that I should say I am around too many people aware I’m around. When I travel, the crowds don’t bother me because then I’m no one, just another face on the street. But in my life here in the hallways of the college or other places where someone mistakes an innocent comment as an invitation to yet-again-bitch, everyone seems to have something to say to me. And more often lately it is negative.

The concept “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” which I grew up with, is gone. On the news, in the classroom, and even in seemingly innocent conversations about a frigging Big Gulp. Please.

So I’m on a mission to dial back the news to a need-to-know-only basis. Even—especially—the news on the television and internet and radio. It is essential to be well informed, but it is equally essential to be able to separate the news from the noise. My stress level has adjusted up during the last four months to some higher level of anxiety not at all compensated for by valuable information. Material gathered should be worth the anguish to obtain it. But that simply isn’t the case any longer. Now it is just static which causes stress, which doesn’t benefit me at all.

Excuse me while I step aside. It won’t bother anybody if I simply duck away for awhile. I can no longer handle the endless stream of garbage reported in media. Don’t pay any mind to me if I move out of the way while the convoy of criticism and manipulation passes . I’ll just sit and watch the water and wildlife do their thing, the perpetual movement of the tide. In fact, my health, my energy, and my stress level are all improved by the absence of the nightly news, which I once revered. And I’m better off without the one on one conversations with way too many negative people. I am more likely to live longer, less likely to have a negative disposition, and infinitely more likely to relax by turning away from the those discussions. No contest.

When I’m at the river and the sun is just changing tones behind clouds in the west, it doesn’t make a bit of difference who the president is, what the commentators had to say, which tweets came from which attention-deficit minds, and what happens next. My phone alert from the NY Times Breaking News doesn’t really catch my attention anymore, and I am far less interested in who said what than I am in keeping my blood pressure in double digits and my heart rate closer to my age than my golf score.

When the eagle glides from the tree tops, and the osprey teach their young to fly, and the clouds at dusk separate colors in prism-like perfection, it is hard to remember what the complaining was all about anyway. We carry our baggage way longer than we ever need to, if we ever really needed to at all. And the answers we seek in day to day life won’t be unearthed during some pointless pursuit of fair and balanced. Even if I listened more intently to all the facts and expert opinions and came to the correct conclusions agreed upon by Nobel laureates and Pulitzer Prize winning journalists, what then? So I might know the truth about A and the lies told by B and the injustice we see served to those in need. Again, what then?

I think my students would be better served if instead of watching presidential debates and finding the fallacies, we all spent some time in soup kitchens and the cancer ward at a children’s hospital and then came back and discussed respect and morality and fair and balanced. Maybe we could spend a class talking about the good there is.

When I returned from Spain I was on a mission to “simplify” my life. It didn’t take long on the Camino to discover how little I needed; how superfluous most concerns really turned out to be. As a professor of critical thinking courses I found it necessary, pre-trip, to discuss current events and breaking news. But afterwards I found philosophical discussions as relevant as any subject covered by some mass-com major graduate reporting from The Hill. I told my students that any fool can gather and argue immigration or trade; but it took real thought to discuss the “matter” of things, the bend of time. Which works better for you? I asked. “Ted Cruz said that we need to make decisions based upon faith” or “St Bernard said, “We need to learn to make excuses for other people.”  One is a proclamation of how he intends to govern; the other is an edict of how we should live our lives. This lead to discussions of driving and working, and we talked about getting along with relatives and partners. People like tangible applications. Those conversations spilled from the class to the hallway. That’s how it should be.

But time got away from me and Trump was elected and news became Reality Television and Reality Television became scripted and civil rights I thought were fought for when I was four were again issues and I just want to run away.

So I am.

When all I hear is the call of an osprey or the way the waves lap at the edge of the land, I could be in so many other places and so many other times. It is innocent, even ignorant some might say. And in a world where even a lesser-able phone than the primitive one I own can keep me up to date on news, attacks, rumors, memes, messages, appointments, and more, I’m turning off my data.

We live in the age of information, the age of blame, the age of instantaneous and simultaneous where the comment you posted ten minutes ago is now ancient news five screens in the past. It is the age of convenience and the age of emotion and the age of attention-getting-self-indulgent-everyone’s opinion matters and is valid and is equal and should be heard. And that’s just not true, it is wrong, it is defeatist, and it is destructive.

So I’m done jumping through hoops and trying to walk across coals in the classroom or other more personal conversations. I’ve finally “come ‘round right” and am simplifying my life. My theory is this: I will be healthier, happier, more efficient, more useful and focused, and infinitely more at peace.

I love the way the water feels cool on the soles of my feet on a hot afternoon, or how the salt water gets on my lips and seems to stay there all day, even after I shower. It is as if the movement of the waves exactly coincides with the movement of my blood, and that rhythm somehow settles my soul.

And it really was this simple: I just decided to. I’m going to sip my iced tea and let the river run by for awhile.

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Defying Gravity

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(with thanks to Jesse Winchester for the inspiration)

This morning I had breakfast on the pier probing out over the Atlantic in Virginia Beach. Ocean Eddies had long been an evening haunt, and despite that they’re slated for destruction, they remain open and now offer breakfast. This morning I had an omelet stuffed with scallops, crabmeat, shrimp and cheese, with toast and home fries. The sun skipped off the silvery, glass waves and the breezes kept the humidity at bay.

I was alone. It is still too early in the season—especially on a Thursday—for crowds, and I sat under an awning watching dolphins and pelicans work their way down the coast. I knew they’d reach the jetty at first street and circle back. They always do.

The pier is probably twenty feet off the sand offering more of a crow’s nest view of the horizon than a body-surfer’s vantage. And as quiet as the water was, I drifted off into the distance, circumnavigating the globe in my mind as I have for decades. This morning though I really sat and stared not so much at the water as the distance. Portugal is out there, Spain beyond. I looked just below the sun toward what I knew was the northwest coast of Galacia and pictured the people there right then, right at that moment, staring west across the Atlantic from Fisterra, where Michael and I stood just a few years ago. It never ceases to freak me out that right over the curve of the earth, just time away, are villages still, with small cafes where pilgrims right now rest, as we did. If I had better eyesight and the ability to bend vision, I could be looking right at them. I was looking right at them except for the physics of it all.

And further south is West Africa, where I had ceeb—a rice dish—for the first time and talked to friends over Flagg Beer several decades ago. It is so easy to fall into the trap of remembering the “time” it was instead of the “place” it is. I’m sure some of my favorite spots have changed while others, like the tiny chicken villages of northern Spain, are the same as they always have been. But all of them are still right there nonetheless.  It is profoundly easy to forget that when perception forces us into believing that things close by are larger and more significant than things far away. Often it is just that life blocks our view.

What a ride it has been on this spinning playground. I’ve been blessed to be able to see so much, and not by moving mountains or praying for miracles. I just decided to go. It is easy to forget that in the end the difference between when you dream about something and when you pursue that dream is a split second separated by the notion of simply deciding to do it.

These days the news has lost control and the information barrage is saturating existence; but on the pier this morning I remembered how fragile and fleeting our time is that we waste so much of it tangled up in the goings and comings of the small tentacles of anger and negativity. For example, while drinking orange juice I looked just to the north, across the other side of the bar about four thousand miles toward Norway, where early every morning our neighbor, the fisherman Magnus, came back with a cod, cut out the liver for himself, and gave us the rest. On the other side of the fjord outside the kitchen window of our cabin was nothing for thousands of miles to the north pole. I glanced that way this morning. The small town near is a fishing village, and the air is absolute. “Pure” doesn’t describe it.

I sat and looked toward the piers on Long Island, the docks on Martha’s Vineyard, the rivers and bays of New York. Sometimes I get tired and and give in to the shadows, but then I stumble upon a morning like this and I have no trouble buying into Emmanuel Kant’s insistence that “what’s next” is entirely up to us.

Have you ever sat quietly on a balcony and gazed out on the ocean? Two ideas emerge. First, it pushes part of us toward the possibilities which on a daily basis we are afraid to say out loud, and nearly simultaneously forces the lesser angels off of our shoulders, where we sweep them away with the ridiculous minutia we pretend we need on a daily basis.

Sometimes it seems as if society (allow me one paragraph of philosophical banter) is trying hard to crawl back into the cave. So many people in these days of political uncertainty and cultural dehydration seem to be staring at shadows again, looking away from the flames, obsessed with the flickering of residual data on the walls. The tragedy is the fire will burn out and the shadows are an illusion. The only course of action is to get out of the cave, see what’s out there, but too often we stand in the doorway, hesitant, terrified by terrorism and insecure about disconnection, scared we might miss something.

She refilled my coffee two times. The sun moved above a cloudbank and warmed the pier and the sand, and tourist kids from further north gathered along the waterline. I haven’t been that quiet in a long time. Sometimes at night, but never at that hour of the morning. I thought first about how at night my son and I love to get out the telescope and quietly gaze at the stars. (Warning: Trite writing ahead) The night sky stars make us feel small; they make the passing of time and the love of the people around us so much more important, and I wonder why, every single time we do this I wonder why everyone isn’t out looking at Cassiopeia or Orion’s belt. And then this morning I watched the silvery reflection on the waves and then glanced up at the sun, our very own star, no telescope necessary, and remembered all the times I watched the sunrise or set at various places fore and aft, from Arizona to the Sea of Japan.

It feels good to stop and remind myself sometimes that I couldn’t find my way back to the cave if I tried.

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May 23rd

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Joan Collins. Drew Carey. Rosemary Clooney. Douglas Fairbanks. Artie Shaw. And of course Nicole Jaffey, the voice of Velma on Scooby Doo.

All shared a birthday with my dad. Tomorrow he would have been ninety-two. 

King Philip the First of France and hypnotist Friedrich Mesmer. In fact, when I look at the list of people who shared Dad’s birthday—May 23rd—I really am mesmerized.

Franz Kline. Scatman Crothers. John Newcombe, who I once played tennis with on the courts at Timber Point on Long Island when he was out there practicing for the US Open. He showed me how to hold my racket.

It is the 143rd day of the year, making Dad a Gemini, and is World Turtle Day, which might be the coolest fact I uncovered. It is also National Taffy Day as well as World Colitis Day. And Dad’s “Birth Flower” is Lily of the Valley, which represents “humility”; perfect for such a humble man.

Those who died on the day of dad’s birth (though not the year) include John D Rockefeller, Kit Carson and Clyde Barrow; Bonnie is not listed, though I know she shared the barrage of bullets that day.

On May 23rd Joan of Arc was captured and sold, the Netherlands declared its independence from Spain, and Captain Kidd was hanged. Ben Franklin invented the bifocals and the New York Public Library was dedicated by Taft in 1911. On Dad’s 40th birthday, “Help me Rhonda” hit number one, and on his 54th birthday “We are Family” was certified platinum. On some May 23rd or another, the first Preakness was won, Joe DiMaggio hit three home runs, and Colin Wilson rode a surfboard 294 miles. Virginia succeeded from the Union on this day just two years to the day before Stonewall Jackson took Front Royal. On May 23rd in 1883 there was the first—and only—baseball game between one armed and one legged players, and William Love broke ground on his famous canal near Lockport, New York.  

And just three years to the day before Dad’s birth, Walt Disney incorporated his first motion picture company, “Laugh-O-Gram Films.” Just after Dad’s 50th birthday he and I walked through Walt Disney’s park in Anaheim and felt ill at a theater-in-the-round which made flying in a jet through Niagara Falls seem real. We held the bar in front of the row where we stood, but we still wobbled out with a loss of appetite. That was a great day. And about ten years earlier he brought me to Jolly Rogers, a small amusement park in Commack, Long Island, and we enjoyed ourselves even though I was too short for some of the rides.

On his sixtieth birthday we had a surprise party in the Virginia Beach home where my siblings and I all flew in to celebrate. He thought I was going whale-watching that weekend with friends in New England where I lived and when he saw me he almost seemed disappointed: He loved—absolutely loved—the idea I was going whale watching. A few years later he and I did just that off the Virginia coast and watched a humpback breach the water. That was a great day.

On Dad’s 90th we all went to Ruth’s Chris and Dad was in his glory with his favorite soup and steak. I had scallops and my son had a lot of alcohol not realizing the “Ruth’s Chris Coffee” wasn’t so much “coffee” as it was alcohol and he really enjoyed himself. Like we all did at that sixtieth surprise party when our mom’s brother Bob couldn’t make it so he sent a scantily clad woman to sing happy birthday. 

One thing is certain, we always—always—found time to enjoy the passing of time, with family, by ourselves, whenever we could. He made certain of that. I don’t need Google searches to discover significant events. My entire life is laced with significant events. Growing up it was golf with Dad and my brother at Timber Point, baseball games, and the five of us at quiet, low-lit restaurants where he warned us not to fill in on bread and crackers. In my teens I wanted to use his car so I’d drop him off at a local shopping center for him to catch a ride with a co-worker, but not before we stopped each time at Dunkin’ Donuts where he would buy me juice and a donut while he had coffee.

When my son was young we’d “run into him” at the mall, and years later I’d stop at a different shopping center where Dad liked to stretch his legs, and I walked with him, and we sat and talked. During those times every Tuesday we had Scotch at night, and once every three weeks or so my son and I would drive down and the three of us would go out to lunch, usually at the beach and usually he had oysters and beer, but it never seemed “usual.” Sometimes my brother joined us when he was in town and then we all laughed all afternoon.

After Dad retired but before Mom did, he and I went out to lunch about once a week—just him and me—trying different places.

My calendar is covered with significant dates.

Like the time Dad dropped me off at college and the entire drive up we talked about family in Brooklyn when he was growing up. That was a great day. Or when I used to travel throughout the country, especially out west in Arizona, and I could call him for free at his 800 number, and he always loved to hear what I was doing and where I was headed.

Or when Mom and Dad would come to my house and we’d sit on the porch. Or when he read one of my books and, with his sharp sense of humor, told me he didn’t get past page 46, so I read the page and found the line “years before my own aging father was born.” We all laughed hard. Or how we would always share books by John Grisham and talk about them, or how I discovered one of the last things he ever read, maybe the very last thing other than a newspaper he ever read was my essay, “Instructions for Walking with an Old Man at the Mall,” and he liked it. We had Scotch that night.

Or when my sister told him she was cancer free.

Or when he and my brother watched Notre Dame beat USC.

Or that last lucid conversation, that Thursday morning.

You can’t put the most important dates on a timeline; they exist in soft breezes on cool mornings or hazy evenings over Chivas Regal; they lie between holidays and celebrations when having a beer and a sandwich after a round of golf with Dad, my brother and my son. The important moments mark themselves in visuals of him watching golf on television, his hands folded before him, his gentle “tsk tsk” when someone missed an easy putt. Dad carving the turkey. Dad barbequing link sausages or steaks. Dad reading the newspaper on weekend mornings. He was old school; he was part of the “greatest generation,” and from where I stand, they earned the moniker.

Happy Birthday Dad. You made every day significant.

Brain Dump, one (3am)

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A Brain Dump after Reading Too Much of Czech Writer Hrabal Before Bed

note: sometimes I can’t sleep and just stare at the ceiling and type, getting thoughts out so I can go  back later and see what’s there…here is one example, unedited

Some Germans took Goethe way too seriously and those with will to live should avoid Schopenhauer completely, but it doesn’t matter. We find ourselves dying on a daily basis. We start complete and lose a little as we go, like that small bozzetti of the Visitation by Tagliapietra that started as a block of terra cotta clay and ended with Elizabeth and Mary, both with child. We blow through our teens until we’re twenty when we know we’ll live forever. At thirty we think we’ll die so we open the Book of Hours to the Office of the Dead at night when we’re alone to prepare ourselves for the hereafter. We try and rise above it. At least that’s the assumption.

So we leave our marks: carve our names, write our memoirs, sign the canvas, pee on trees. We look for spices and find new worlds, we avoid persecution and found religion, we speak our minds and lose our heads, we say what’s right and get left behind. We find out fast that Orwell knew in a “time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” We teach such a small portion of information it’s barely noticeable—but leave out that amount and the life crumbles, falls, and can’t be found; we take pictures to show to recall to immortalize; we can’t remember faces we forget to write it down, we lose our energy, our memory, our courage, our determination, our purpose, our identity, our drive, our car keys. We vow to do better next time. We take vows of chastity of obedience of poverty marriage vows we vow to improve get even to avenge. Instead we stand on the dock and mock our hesitation while foot soldiers garrison themselves and face death for an eggshell. 

We start slow. One channel, then two, off the air by 11:30 to the sound of fuzz, a long annoying beep a circle with an x across the white noise screen until six am when the flag flies and the National Anthem plays and the new broadcasting day begins. We pick up a few more channels, we add public broadcasting, we add some locals, then some nationals, then the sky cracks open and we spit out hundreds of possibilities from porn to pygmies on the Discovery channel which tricks us into believing we haven’t yet turned over every stone.

We dig up the bones to point to the obvious: that we’re not the first, not the last and not here long. We get dumped at sea, mummified, burned at the stake. Been going on forever. We pass through once. Some drink the poison, some lose their heads, some get trampled at coronations, millions die in battle, hundreds of thousands of hunger, many of disease, some assassinated, some crucified.

We pray. We say the rosary, go to mass, thank God for the bounty. We eat what’s on the plate because some are starving somewhere else and we keep our mouths closed as we eat and hope no one quotes Isaiah Chapter 49 Verse 10 proclaiming “they will not hunger or thirst_for he who has compassion on them will lead them” and we pick up our forks and swallow the damn peas. We follow St Mark’s quill to the Lion of the Tribe of Judah and hope He’ll help us through. Just in case, though, we pick up the toys because some kids must go without. We keep our lives neat for those who have no life. We want it to look perfect. We want to look right. We buy mirrors. We make mistakes, call the wrong number, bounce a check, steal a pen and run down stairs; we speed, we waste food, we waste time, we worry more about our waist than the serving size of rice in a village. They eat grain, millet, rice, wheat, ground in a bowl in the sun, they wait at the well for the women to haul the camel-skin bags and pour them into buckets, they wait at the truck for relief, they wait in line for bread, they wait for the allies to break the blockade, they wait for the sentence, they wait for the end. But they keep going.

They hike across deserts and seek something else, the were lost they were boys they were soldiers. They were Francos Bok who escaped a shed in Sudan, they were Socrates drinking an avoidable cup. Maybe they were born in Brooklyn not Baghdad, they went to school and ate custard. They played little league and went to summer camp where the local villagers put on a show at night near a fire; they moved to the suburbs and got a new car, they shot off fireworks and fired at pop bottles; they ate barbequed burgers and corn on the cob, boxes of clams and played with a little red Spalding ball. They swam in ponds, they hiked the hills and bought postcards; they stayed too long, it passed so fast, what year was that? Who is that in the picture? How did that song go? When did we own that Oldsmobile? Where did we get that painting? We forget to write it down, we’ll remember. We make the mistake of assuming it’ll be alright.

We like to laugh. For fun, of course, but just as much for survival, to blanket our fears, to extinguish our anxiety, to take away the hurt. It hurts anyway so we laugh and hope Buddha’s Vinaya was wrong when it called for ancient monks in India to go to confession for such an offense as laughing. But we laugh. We tickle we entice we ridicule we play the clown the fool. We work the mirror and tell jokes into mock mics to an imaginary crowd and wait for the laughter to subside before emerging at school the office the party to make others laugh, the ultimate in now, the definitive value of absolute present. Why did the chicken cross the road? A man walks into a bar. It’s Nietzsche’s need to call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh. We laugh and nothing hurts and no one is going to die. We laugh and we must stop eating, talking, drinking, even moving because it is time to laugh and no one worries when someone laughs. No one is plotting damage or pouring hemlock; no time when we are laughing and everyone lets enjoy the moment the joke the break from the cold reality of life where things fall apart but not when we let ourselves rejoice and be glad.

(then I fell back to sleep)

magtymguly pyragy sees you

Sound Off

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When I walk I don’t listen to music. I just walk and listen to whatever is out there. At home it is the small birds, osprey calls, and the river sounds; sometimes an early morning oyster boat not far from shore, and always the gulls. At the oceanfront it is the waves, of course, but also the plows moving sand around, the sweepers cleaning the boardwalk, radios, tourist chatter, children’s laughter. At the oceanfront the occasional fighter jet passes five hundred feet above heading to Oceana, and at home a Cessna, a Piper cub, or sometimes flight instructor Mike’s World War Two replica P-43 headed out over the Bay with a passenger who paid for a thirty minute tour.

A few months ago I asked my students about their listening habits. The average (way above average actually) routine is to get up and put on music, drive to school with music, at school have their ear buds in with music going except (not always “except”) when in class, and then the same the rest of the day. I asked how often they left the music off, left the buds out, and just sat and listened to life around them. They all said, “oh yeah, every day,” and one young woman in class called “bullshit” on them and an argument ensued. She won. By the end they admitted that “quiet time” simply does not exist anymore in their lives, if it ever did at all.

I remember growing up and when the television was on and we were all talking sometimes my mother would say, “Can you please be quiet I can’t even hear myself think!” Exactly.

When I walk I don’t usually like to walk with anyone. It is different when I travel and we are taking in the sights and sounds and people, but even then when we were walking all day downtime was common, and my son is a quiet person anyway. But at home I prefer to walk alone. I like to hear myself think. It is the only way I recognize my own voice.

It seems so many students are so accustomed to hearing other sounds—music, television, friends, games, teachers, parents, and on and on and on without a break even falling asleep with earbuds in—they don’t know the sound of their own voice.

I, of course, don’t mean that literally. When I walk I find my thoughts, my opinions, my rationalizations and motivations. When I walk I move from exhausted and mentally drained to calm and in perspective to hopeful with new ideas, different thoughts about old ideas; I figure out what to leave out there on the road and what to keep close for more thought. I solve problems, I talk myself out of making new problems. I remember and plan and organize and dismiss. It is a thorough cleansing of the mind. I never feel healthier than when I let my thoughts run free without bumping into earbuds on the way out, or competing with someone complaining or asking questions. I understand myself better and am able to make decisions without influence, or, more likely, make no decisions at all and just stand by and let it all be.

I have learned the sound of gulls when they circle looking for food compared to their call when confronted by something strange. I can close my eyes and know the direction of the tide and the pull of the current. I do not know most smaller bird calls—Michael has to tell me (over and over) which is which when home on the porch—but I well know the call of a hawk or osprey or eagle, especially when they teach their young to fly. It is a sight to behold, and more, it is a sound I will never forget.

There is nothing “silent” about nature. There is nothing quiet about night. On the river at night when the stars blanket the sky above the Chesapeake and up the Rappahannock, the most muffled of sounds carries across the water. It could be a car crossing the bridge, a late night fisherman dropping traps, rigging against a mast, the gentle, familiar, eternal lap of water on the sand. It always, absolutely always, seems calmer at night.

Paul Simon wrote, “Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance; everybody knows it’s true.” Yes, across the night, when everything seems silent and the distant call of a train comes across the space between. There is life out there carrying on. Likewise on a foggy morning and the call of the fog horns on the fishing boats comes across the reach.

I wish my students would listen. How often have I said that? But I really believe if they would pay closer attention to the quiet sounds around them, the natural pace of life, they would better understand their own thoughts and recognize their own voice. Then, perhaps, they would not simply hear what I say, but would listen to what they hear. At the end of the day there is nothing I can do but what I do at the end of the day: be still and listen to the intricate and miraculous passing of time.

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Planet mates

Mother-Teresa

An old dilapidated house near my home dates to the seventeen hundreds. It sits in the middle of what was once a slave plantation. Just across the land long ago gone were the slave quarters. Today the house is covered by vines and trees; some dying themselves after a century of life. Generations of neighbors have come and gone, and generations of foliage and storms and crops have come and gone and what’s left of the house crumbles into the earth.

Some say let it crumble; some say tear it down and build a new place on the land and give it to the slaves’ descendants, many of whom still live on the same road; oppressed people either stay close to home or never come back.

When I walk past I am painfully aware that I shared this space, separated only by time, with people who whipped men and women, others who were whipped and shackled. This isn’t a movie; it isn’t even history when you stand on the muddy lane at the end of the path and look toward the once-was porch and picture a fine-dressed overseer ordering humans to commit inhumane acts. This is where I live. We live. My friends freezing up in Buffalo and my family on the Gulf Coast all live here too; just beyond reach, a little off the calendar.

Mother Theresa. Malcolm X. Neil Armstrong. Jimi Hendrix. Pope Paul the Sixth. Lech Walesa. St. John Paul the Second. Thomas Merton. President Eisenhower. Elvis. Pablo Picasso. Albert Friggin’ Schweitzer.

Wait.

Rwandan Tutsi’s. The Lost Boys of Sudan. Steven Biko. Pol Pot and Bosnia. Treyvon Martin.

I did time with these people; I stood witness to these events. These saints and sinners brushed my sleeve simply by sharing the earth on my watch. We have a loose affiliation to miracles and massacres, and still we’re just guests here.

This world is at best a hotel, and every once in awhile I take a look at the register to remind myself who else stayed here. Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, Mohammed, Ivan the Terrible, Genghis Khan, all guests just over the slope of the horizon, just beyond some small slice of linear measure. On the same human trajectory as mine but before is Geronimo, Moses, Jesus, Christ think about the gentle bend of time, the careening swerve of place that separates me from the Disciples, the Visigoths, the founding fathers. All here but just before.

My swift life falls on the same graph as Richard Wright and Ernest Hemingway. And when that shack in the woods around the corner from my home was still in its prime, the walls still absorbing the shrieks of rape, the cries of bleeding men, Grandma Moses was a toddler. Grandma Moses, who painted her last work about the time I learned to swim. I was alive when someone was alive who was alive during the Civil War.

Closer to now, when I look inside the lines of my coming and going, between those two rays shooting off from my birth and my death, I can see the souls who at one time or another shared with me this spinning blue wad. Not short of miraculous, we claim the same particles of stardust, and that’s what keeps me looking around when I walk down some city street; I want to know who else is on earth with me.

Carl Jung lectured during my youth, and Ty Cobb watched the same Mets players as me. When I was still cutting new teeth and outgrowing my Keds, I could have headed downtown with my Dad and possibly been on the same train as William Faulkner, e.e. cumming or Marilyn Monroe. I might have passed them on the street, maybe stood in line at some drug store counter with my mom and behind us because of the blending of circumstance might have been Sylvia Plath or Sam Cooke; Nat King Cole; Otis Redding. We have overlapping lives. On a circle graph, we share the shaded space.

If my family had gone for a drive the summer I turned eight and stopped to get a room in Memphis instead of the Poconos, we would have heard the shot that killed King. And in ’63, I was the same age, same small height as John-John and could have stood next to him, shoulder to shoulder, to salute his father’s coffin.

Judy Garland and I watched the New York Jets in Super Bowl Three. When I was born, World War One vets weren’t yet senior citizens and World War Two Vets were in their thirties. Vietnam isn’t history to me; it is my childhood, my early teens. The fall of Saigon was announced over the loud speakers at my high school.

There are empty fields save monuments and markers where soldiers died defending this land against the British, against ourselves, and they stood where I stand and watched the hazy sun rise. Same sun; same beach. Don’t mistake history for “back then.” Those people just happened to check out before us. It could have been us. It is us now. And it won’t be long before our lives overlap with the crying call of a newborn Einstein. Did you see that boy running at the park? That girl climbing the tree at her home? Did I just pass by some senator, some Cicero or Socrates, some St Augustine? This is the only history we know firsthand.

I find it a crime we are not incessantly aware we were preceded by the likes of ancient civilizations, but also by evil. For God’s sake, Eichmann and I had common time, Hitler was my grandfather’s age; so was Stalin.  But so was Isak Dineson and Winston Churchill. My grandfather lived into my youth, yet was born before flight, about the time of the first automobile, before radio, and before long some sweet woman and man will find each other softly adding to who comes next.

Like strangers buying the same house decades before and after, like seeing the list of who owned the used car, like getting a job replacing some retiree. Like standing in line. Like sour-dough starter. Like a relay race.

I like knowing the people I know now, these brothers and sisters, whose overlapping lives linger just within my time frame; we share the same air, watch the same news and celebrate the same wins. In some divine book somewhere, these people and I are on the same page. My parents, my siblings, my children, my God what grace to have shared this passage from cradle to grave. We don’t associate with isolation, no matter how lonely life may sometimes seem.

shenandoah