A Permanent Change

aerie one

 

Back to this wilderness.

It occurred to me one day on my porch while staring at the surrounding woods, that at some point less than one hundred years ago none of those trees were there. The land has beautiful eighty foot oaks, some maples, tall thin pines and various other hardwoods including black walnut trees, which I am told can provide the ingredient necessary in the liqueur, Wild Spiced Nocino.

The branches protect birds as diverse as red-tailed hawks, downy woodpeckers, and countless chickadees, and they are habitat to other wildlife including one flying squirrel we spotted a few years ago when his tree fell. The squirrel was fine and found a new home in a white oak.

But a hundred years ago this was just land, sandy land, edged by the running Rappahannock River and backed by equally treeless farmland. A century before that these nearby plantations provided food for the region at the expense of slavery, and some slave descendants remain, selling vegetables at food carts out on the main road, or working the bay as watermen, telling stories about how the Chesapeake is just about farmed clean every season by crabbers at the mouth or the headwaters leaving nothing left for those working the midland shoals.

This area hasn’t changed much in one hundred years.

It is like this everywhere, the coming and going of things. In Manhattan a few hundred years before the wild construction on bedrock, coyote and deer were common. It was hilly (Manhattan means land of hills), and where the United Nations stands once stood grand oaks. The Lower West side was a sandy beach, and ecologists say if left to do what it wanted, most of the upper west side would be covered in trees and vines, shrubbery and wildflowers inside twenty years.

I can’t imagine what my house would look like if left untouched. When I don’t mow the lawn for a few weeks it looks like a refuge for timber wolves.

But these trees weren’t here a century ago and I sat on my porch and wondered if there had been other trees or if this land was barren, or was it used by the Powhatans, or was it home to some former slave family, or just a dumping ground. Evidence is scarce, buried beneath the roots of this small forest.

This happens to me everywhere I lived; I like to imagine what was on that spot one hundred, two hundred, a millennium earlier. The house I rented in Pennsylvania was used as a hospital during the civil war. Before that it was a farm. Now it is a Real Estate office. The maples which lined the road and shaded the living room are gone. Someone planted new ones but it will be decades before they mature. My house in Massachusetts was a fish market a century earlier. Purpose moves on with time. Maybe that’s why I’m so mesmerized by the Prague hotel I always stay at. It was the same building seven hundred years ago that it is now. But here on my porch I realize this house is the only place in my life I’ve lived for twenty years, and I was curious if five times that score of years ago I could sit on this spot and see right out on the water, or were there trees then as well, different ones which died or were timbered to make room for crops.

The house is made from western pine forested on land which I assume is either now empty of trees or filled with young pines waiting to become log homes. What will be left a hundred years from now? Will someone sit on this same porch and look right out toward the bay once these oaks have long fallen? I know this house, this land, is a “hotel at best” as Jackson Browne despondently points out. “We’re here as a guest.”

Wow. Wrote myself into some sad corner there. Thanks Jackson.

I know nothing is as permanent as nature, despite the constant changes. It simply isn’t going anywhere. We are. So I like to remember that a century ago farmers sat here and talked about the bounty in the soil, or talked to 19th century watermen about the changing tides. And I like to realize that a hundred years before that the nearby swampland, now home to so many osprey and egrets, was a major route for runaway slaves. They’d have been safe in these woods, if there were woods then.

I like to do that because it reminds me a hundred years from now perhaps I will have left some sort of evidence of my passing through; even if just in the cultivation of language, the farming of words.

So I sit on the porch and listen to the wind through the leaves. It is now; it is right here, now. Sometimes at night we stand in the driveway with the telescope and study Saturn, or contemplate the craters on the moon—both here long before us and in some comforting way, long after we’re gone.

In spring and fall the bay breezes bring music even Vivaldi would envy, and I’ll listen to his Four Seasons, written nearly four hundred years ago, and listen to the wind through the leaves of these majestic, young trees reaching eighty feet high, and be completely, perfectly in the moment.

Despite the warming trends, the extreme tendencies of weather, the fragile ecosystem which sustains life, nature is still the only place I have found that really doesn’t change. It never has. Ice ages and dust bowls will alter it, but eventually some seed will take root.

aerie two

 

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Six Months

pendulum

How long is six months? Well, obviously, logically speaking it is simple math. But we have philosophy to consider, and that just messes everything up.

Six months is, in this case, 182 days, or 4368 hours. I can prove this; I counted. But it is not how I have perceived these six months. When a child moves from one year to eighteen months old, we are excited by the new date: “He is eighteen months old today!” we exclaim to questioning gawkers. But at fifty-five I don’t say, “Well, actually I’m fifty-five and a half today.” Six months means so much more on the edges of life than it does in the middle.

When I am entirely in the moment–focused and engaged–time is irrelevant. I couldn’t tell you if an hour passed or a week. It is only when I think about it that the laws of relativity engage. I would like a life where I remain completely in each moment. My “String Theory” is to have a string of those moments, from cradle to grave. If you think about  it, though, you can’t do it. Perception is an unfriendly conspirator in linear time.

It was a Wednesday night, six months ago, about eight thirty, and I just had finished teaching creative writing. The winter which passed since that Wednesday seemed to be milder than previous years. There were some cold days, and I remember a stretch in January when we needed to let the faucet drip upstairs, but mostly it was fine, the ground never too frozen.

And now looking around, it occurs to me the trees are not much different now than they were six months ago, the borders of two seasons, one going and one coming back, separated by mostly bare branches and plowed fields. Even the fairways at the golf course are the same half-brown, half-green as back then; this time the green is on the way in instead of on the way out, and life is returning in the rough. October and April are first cousins.

Six months in my professional world is more than one entire semester, which collegiately is akin to a completed project. We start, we meet everyone, we develop relationships, we advise and have meetings, grade and test, encourage and withdraw, come to a climax of exams and projects culminating in final grades and, for some, graduation; and then we start again—all within six months.

Excuse me for this but I “wikied” Time. Here’s what it said: “Time is the indefinite continued progression of existence and events that occur in apparently irreversible succession from the past through the present to the future.”

“Apparently.”

As usual, Wikipedia is only partly right. That’s a fine explanation of linear time. Thanks. But it doesn’t account for emotion or recollection. I’m talking about perception. I learned much about our perception of time  just by spending some with my father. A round of golf, for instance, went much faster when we played well than when we didn’t. Watching  baseball games on television wasn’t unlike being held hostage; they seemed to last so long. But when we showed up at Shea, the game passed in minutes. And two fingers of Scotch can somehow simultaneously last forever and disappear without noticing. It all depends, and that is what’s cool about time–it is much less scientific than it appears.

“All our sweetest hours fly fastest,” wrote Virgil. No kidding.

I didn’t see someone for twenty-three years and then one day I did, and it was as if no time at all had passed. This morning I spoke to a colleague and I thought I aged a decade just standing there. Perception.

If someone gives up cigarettes or alcohol for six months, it is a major achievement.

If someone has a new job for six months he or she is still suspect.

And in love: “They only knew each other six months” is diametrically opposed to “You mean you’ve not spoken for six months?!”

Six months isn’t always six months. Sometimes measurement is pointless.

The Mets won the National League pennant that night, 182 days ago, that Wednesday. Six months later we are well into the opening month of the baseball season, which six months from now will be over and we will have a new World Series champion. The half year to the next World Series seems so much further away than the six months since the last one, or is that just me?

It was 76 degrees that day with an evening low of 45. Fall was holding off as long as possible. I taught creative writing that night, finishing about eight-thirty.

A student commented it was too early to end, and I agreed, then left.

A doctor I know said the passing of time is also relative to experience. For an elderly person whose schedule has changed drastically due to retirement, less sleep, fewer or more frequent visits from friends or family, the perception of time fluctuates. If someone needs to use the bathroom more often, to that person it is not understood to be more frequent but instead the “time between trips to the bathroom” passed so much faster. If someone’s eyesight is diminishing along with slower brain function, it isn’t the eyes that have trouble with twilight, but how much faster night arrived than it used to.

Add to that the absolute reality that when we miss someone it seems so much longer since we have seen him. It is all perception. That’s what sucks about time: as an objective process it is relatively persistent and dependable. Relentless, in fact. I can tell you the definitive truth about how long it will take for six months to pass. But I can’t begin to measure what it will feel like.

Why does six months from now seem so much further away than six months ago? I suppose time recedes quicker than it approaches. Anticipation has a lot to do with that, and regret. They so work against each other. “I wish I could have” implies something happened, still fresh and recent, and we missed the chance to say or do or try something. However, “I can’t wait until” implies some event seems like it will never get here.

Maybe time isn’t linear after all. We can manipulate time by recalling just the right moment, smelling some fragrance, hearing the right song—they bring us right back, right there. You can’t slap that into an equation. Measuring how we experience time means allowing for some x-factor, be it love, or fear, or loss, which renders the numbers pointless.

Six months? It was yesterday. It was a lifetime ago.

“The secret of life is enjoying the passing of time” –James Taylor

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Changing Gears

monza

 

I owned an ’85 burgundy, 5-speed, fuel-injected, three-door, turbo charged Dodge Lancer. We called it the POS. It was the car I used to bring garbage to the dump, carry bricks and wood, and haul crap without caring. I kept it clean but didn’t worry if it wasn’t. We’d find driftwood and toss it in the back, sand and shells and all. We spent countless hours driving to the beach, the ice cream parlor, the auto repair shop. My son practically grew up in that car, learned music from its cassette deck, held up the felt on the falling roof so I could see where we were going. I drove him to school in that thing well into third grade.

We all remember our cars.

My first was my dad’s ’72 Nova, which wasn’t mine but I racked up the miles on it for him as good sons do. My first car I drove when I lived on my own was a 1980 light blue, Chevy Monza. That little thing and I saw the United States a few times, smuggled blankets out of Mexico and Molson’s out of Canada. We spun out down an icy hillside in Massachusetts and I ended up junking it in Pennsylvania when the engine blew out. I was driving all of a friend’s belongings from my house to her mom’s when that happened. I think that’s when I started understanding metaphor. In fact, to this day metaphor drives my writing life. It comes from cars.

My favorite was a red Jeep Cherokee five speed. I abused that car the way jeeps should be abused, and it lasted far longer than I treated it. It is the car I think of when I hear Paul Simon singing, “If more of my homes had been more like my cars, I probably wouldn’t have traveled so far.” Those were good times, windows open, radio blasting. There was the time I was stranded in the desert with a dead battery a hundred miles from a tree. Or when for several years the gas gauge on the Jeep was backwards. In forty years I went from fitting everything I own in the trunk to needing a U-Haul just to go away for the weekend. I can think of very few objects I’ve owned that symbolized “freedom” more than my cars.

One day when Michael was small and we were in the POS we drove over a pothole at a sub shop parking lot. The chassis slammed hard and made a crumbling sound like folding metal. I tried to back up and it refused. A friend pushed me out and I drove home thinking whatever was wrong righted itself.

No. In fact, I couldn’t go backwards for the next eighteen months.

I learned to look for a pull through. I’d park far away at the mall, grocery stores or work. I learned to anticipate what was next so as not to corner myself, or worse, find myself with my face against the wall. I learned patience. Only three times in a year and a half I found myself trapped. The first was at Old Dominion University when arriving for a night class and the parking lot was full save one spot against a pole. I paused and asked my friend if he wanted to push me in then or push me out later.

I learned what roads I couldn’t turn down, what tight situations might be waiting, when to find a slope to roll back down, when to walk. A cop once pulled me over for pushing a yellow light. He let me go but stood and waited for me to leave first, but I had stopped in front of a sign and for the second time I couldn’t back up when I needed to. He waited. I waited. Finally, I said, “Wow Officer, my heart is still racing and I’m tired. I think I’ll sit here a minute and compose myself.” He left.

It was after the third time that I junked the car—excuse me—donated it to Good Will. I had to get it inspected and went to a shop where I know the mechanic, Tuna. Honest to God his name is Tuna. I didn’t want to tell Tuna about my inability to back up, obviously, since I refused to buy a new transmission, and I realized I was screwed when he pointed me into the one car bay with no way out but back.

In Virginia, an inspector’s first task is to scrape the old sticker off the windshield, so while he scraped I called, “Hey Tuna, it’s the last day of the month so I know you’ll be swamped, go ahead and put the lights on while you’re in there.”

“Good idea, Bob!”

I called out. “Okay. Brakes? Good. Left signal? Good. Right signal? Good,” and found myself doing my own state inspection. “Reverse” No white lights lit up, of course. “Good!” We finished that part and he finished the rest, put on a new sticker and asked for ten dollars. I gave him a twenty and said, “Tuna, I need a five, four ones, three quarters, two dimes, and five pennies.”

“Sure Bob,” he said and headed to the store in the front of the shop. When the shop door slammed I got in the car, threw it in neutral, got out, heaved it over the red tire lifts onto the gravel lot, jumped on the brakes until the POS was far enough back to go forward. Tuna came out and I held my side gasping for breath. “You must be in a hurry!” he said handing me my change. I drove off wondering what was next.

Seems like back then I was always wondering what was next.

The following day I drove Michael to school. We listened to music while he held up the roof. He grabbed his bag, got out and waved as I rolled forward, moving on, and realized the truth is we rarely have a reason to go backwards anyway.

hitchhiker-88746-530-644

 

 

Peace Management

shenandoah

A friend of mine is a Franciscan priest who remains calm no matter what happens.

We are not alike.

He is compassionate, understanding, patient, and saint-like. He is perfect for his job and does it 24/7; that is, he is one of those rare souls that couldn’t be anything but some sort of man of God. If he gets stuck in traffic, for instance, he keeps it all in perspective. If someone cuts him off, his response remains, “They really must be in a hurry. I hope they’re careful.” Or, “Wow, God bless them and watch over them, they really must be anxious about some appointment.” His is a peaceful soul.

This contrasts directly with my “Use a frigging turn signal, butthead!” approach. When entering a tunnel and the traffic decelerates from sixty to forty, the good Father cares: “Oh, thank our Lord they are all being careful going into this tunnel. It really must be frightening to so many people.” I handle it with my own style: “It’s a tunnel. IT IS A TUNNEL! It is not a brick wall! The Road did NOT shrink! It’s a damn TUNNEL!”

We obviously address frustration differently, which makes me wonder how we ended up this way. Would Monastery-Bob and Professor-priest keep their temperaments in tack? If I lived on a mountain in prayer would I be less likely to want to kill the cashier for not being able to multi-task?

I was like him once, my friend the peaceful priest.

When we met during college we talked a long time about peace and where it comes from. To search for peace in the world is a fruitless act. Even if we find it, it can disappear with war, with stress, with distractions and interruptions. It is like turning to others to find what you want to do with your life; it must come from within. And peace, too, must be a spring, not a shower. I always liked that thought.

I once went to Father’s room and found dozens of people drinking beer and laughing as they told stories about their lives. Afterwards, I said I had a great time and found it strange that I could feel so lost among friends on one day and on another feel so connected and centered. He said, “Bobby—tonight you brought the peace with you.”

Man, he made it sound so simple: Bring the peace with you.

So when some dirtbag student of mine called me an asshole in class, I thought of Father, and how it is never the situation but how we handle it. I could picture him with his wide smile and deep laugh and huge hands on my shoulders telling me I’m going to be just fine. Last week I brought the student into the division office and sat the little bastard’s ass in a chair while I filled out a withdrawal form. Before I could finish the paperwork, however, and before he stopped crying, I decided to give this “peace” thing a shot.

“Are you scared?” He looked at me. “College, I mean, the assignments? Are you worried?”

“I suppose,” he said, calming down.

“Why?”

It took him a long time to answer something other than the moronic, I don’t know. “I’m not a good student. I was never good at school.”

“You get confused?”

“Yeah,” he said, nodding, knowing I hit on his fear.

“Yeah,” I said. “A lot of people do. I know I did. What you might try doing is stepping back a bit. Sit to the side and watch everything from a distance for awhile—get some perspective. Instead of calling me an asshole, ask me some questions.”

“Right,” he said, with not just a little indignation.

Bring the peace, Bob. Bring the peace.

“Sometimes we need to see things from a different point of view.”

He was quiet a long time and I believed I got through to him, and I wondered what he pictured as I recalled sitting in Father’s room listening to stories of scared and lost students like myself still trying to get a handle on our place in the world.

“Wow, thanks for your psycho-babble bullshit, Dude,” he said.

I took a breath, thought of Father, and told the little prick to get out of my site; that Hardees is hiring and someone has to clean the toilets.

It’s a gift, really, knowing one’s place in the world.

I headed home thinking about peace and frustration, fear and anxiety. He’s where he should be, this former student of mine. He’s out in the real world where he can seek out only those challenges he knows he can conquer. He is part of the masses that only face what they’re not afraid of.

Bringing peace to an otherwise hostile environment is a difficult task. Maybe that’s why I, too, often avoid the challenge and wander down country roads, watch the water ebb and flow rather than the anxiety. It’s why I don’t drive during rush hour, avoid fast food restaurants and box store checkout lines. Hell, maybe I’ll just start giving everyone A’s so less people will call me bad names.

Yes. Let there be peace and let it begin with me, Bob the Asshole. I’m going for a walk and I’m bringing my peace with me.

the rapp