In Decision

Multiple-Paths

Ever been home and looked around only to see so much that needs to be done that it is impossible to get started? It can be overwhelming, with gardening, weeding, mowing, dishes, dinner, dusting, and laundry. The lists go on and are as varied as we are, despite so many common tasks to which to tend (moved that preposition there, I did).

Yeah, that to me is life. I look around and see so much more that needs to be done and seen and experienced than I couldn’t possibly do in ten times ten lifetimes that I just get brain-lock. I still have my eyes set on Spain again, Siberia, the Continental Divide Trail, the Canadian Rail, biking to Coos Bay, Oregon, and around Ireland. I want to grow a bountiful garden and I’d love to raise a goat. I have books to write and old friends and family to visit. The list goes on and on and the time does not, it simply does not. It took me decades to realize I just need to pick a direction and go, see what happens and then bounce from there. Still, sometimes I sit on my porch and look out at the property and end up instead walking the docks looking at sailboats, thinking about cruising around the bay or down the inter-coastal waterway someday, or we drive around taking pictures and we always end up at this abandoned building on a bluff over the river and I think how I’d love to open a pub there. It makes me tired thinking of it all and I can’t even write because there are so many words and I can only chose one to get going, so instead I sit on the porch and look out, tired, but not really.

I often wonder if seemingly lazy people aren’t unambitious as much as they are simply overwhelmed with possibility without firm decision-making skills.

Artists can be like that. Writers and musicians too. I remember a line from a song written by Alan and Marilyn Bergman—“I pity the poor one, the shy and unsure one, who wanted it perfect but waited too long.” Love that.

Just yesterday I read an article by a writer who said he shoots for no less than 100 rejections a year. That is his goal, he wrote, adding that if he doesn’t get at least 100 rejections a year it means he wasn’t working hard enough. I know what he means. Often we sit on possibility not because we are afraid of failure—rejections are more than welcome and way more than common—but because we are never quite sure if it is the “right” place to send something, or to return to the life example, the right place to go, the right person to ask out, the right plan for the weekend. It isn’t that we don’t want to get it wrong as much as we want to make sure it is right. There is a fine difference and it feeds our idleness.

Idleness leads to chronic immobility, both physically and mentally. In writing classes I tell my students to just go, pick a direction and go, and it might not be the right way but I swear somewhere in paragraph three you will make a left turn into exactly where you want to be next. And so in all things, just go. Sometimes we are afraid we might miss something if we go, or stay, or change or remain idle. That’s funny since no matter what happens we’re going to miss something. The list of things we’ll never do will always be infinitely longer than the things we attempt.

So this was all brought on because I was listening to very old James Taylor, which isn’t always a good idea because it reminded me, as music is apt to do, of times in my life I sat staring at possibility, and today it was a very particular time I recalled during which I hesitated because I was overwhelmed. Well, I’m not feeling overwhelmed anymore, just much older. I’ll be fifty-six in a few days and I don’t much care about that. Age really never has and still doesn’t bother me in the least. The only thing, the one thing, which bothers me is if I become indifferent to the passing of time and incapable of getting up and jumping off into whatever might be next.

And so I will do so. Tomorrow.

pilgrim bob 

 

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“I’ve Run Away from Politics; it’s Too Bizarre at Home”

–with apologies to Jimmy Buffett

There are going to be riots in Baltimore, more refugees from Syria to Greece. England will stay in the European Union because independence costs money. There is a sit-in by our elected officials because some of their colleagues think it is an infringement of rights to withhold the ability to get a gun from people suspected of being terrorists; people SO suspected of being terrorists, it is against the law for them to fly. Putin will flex his strength in Murmansk later this summer and Assad is going to be “displaced.” The Cubs will lose, the Mets will lose less, and David Wright is not coming back. Neither is Tiger. And Sharapova; she isn’t coming back also. Too. Either.

Student enrollment in college will continue to tumble, not because of financial aid and not because of a growing economy providing better jobs out of high school, but because students just don’t see any benefit to being here over not being here. That valley of “hope” and “possibility” we climbed toward in decades past is now saturated with insecurity, pointlessness, redundancy, and impatience.

This morning I went for a walk at the boardwalk like I do every Tuesday and Thursday morning. On Mondays and Wednesdays I walk four of five miles near the amphitheater near the college. On weekends I walk along the river. I love to walk. Sometimes I see fascinating sights, like the eagle on my house, or the deer always gathering in a neighbor’s field, or pelicans—dozens of them—flying single file just inches off the ocean, following each other like tethered hikers heading up a slope. I have finally passed the point where I care how far I walk; distance is no longer an issue and my endurance is fine. Just the other day I walked a dozen miles without really thinking about it. Now I am limited only by time, or like this morning, storms.

And while I’m out there my thought process had been very predictable. The news would still be swimming in my head and I’d go from being pissed off at the hypocrisy and simple-mindedness of both parties dealing with basic issues they’ve politicized, to deciding I’m going to write about it. Yes, dammit! I would say to myself, “I’m going to go home and get out an editorial to some relevant paper or magazine. I’ve done that before with my essay “Sliced Bread,” or “Apology to the Citizens of the World” during W’s days, to a right-leaning rant about the lack of responsibility in a Dutch newspaper and how sometimes “freedom of speech” is a burden some can’t handle, to slamming the network which aired the first season of Survivor and calling them on their claim it wasn’t scripted. Bullshit! You can’t tell me that…sigh…well, anyway…that’s what I did years past, hence the morning doses of Lisinopril.

And I walked along the boardwalk this morning and thought how in times past I would be formulating a letter about this and that, when it started to rain. I walked out to the water and took in the vast Atlantic and thought about George Carlin’s famous quip in retort to those who say the government doesn’t know what it is doing and the planet is dying. He said, “The planet will be fine! Humanity is fucked.”

Nature wins, and that is why I stopped reading editorials and listening to political pundits and watching West Wing, and instead started walking more, reading Thoreau and Muir. I think I’ve finally reached the point where I don’t need to know what is going on and I certainly don’t need to comment on it—I am no one at all with no qualifications, and I am simply one simple opinion of three hundred and thirty million in this country. Further, who would disagree with me at how majestic the ocean is?

It isn’t an attempt to remain ignorant, and it isn’t bowing out of the political process. It is finally finding my place in this writing world. It is a small world, by the way; we run into each other time and time again in various places, and it feels so much less stressful to show up and talk about dolphins rather than immigration problems. I don’t have the energy or stamina for unsolvable battles. With nature, however, I concede, and as a result we get along just fine, thank you.

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That Sounds About Right

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We don’t usually hear or see geese on the bay this late in spring, but the other day they were there. Canada geese fly over my house every night in winter. From late afternoon until after midnight flocks of geese pass or land or take off from the wealth of local waterways. Some settle in small ponds, but most gather in the harvested fields. Usually they commute in groups of fifteen or twenty, but I’ve heard their honking and stepped onto the porch to see upwards of two hundred fly by. One time they were so loud in the field I went out to find thousands of geese settling in before continuing to who-knows-where. Their stay is swift, albeit perennial.

And last week they uncharacteristically crossed the twilight sky. It is that sound, though, the whoosh of wings in a methodical push along with their familiar call, which remains as true and consistent in my life as the sounds of birds in the morning. Here along the Chesapeake some geese nest all year, but it is in winter when migration routes from the St. Lawrence Seaway to all points south steer them into the area after dusk. I have laid in bed well into the evening and listened to them move past in the cold, clear sky. Sometimes I sit on the porch expecting, hoping, knowing they’ll be back.

But the migration of geese in and of itself is not what keeps my attention in this narrative, even in June when they’re more abundant in January. It is their sound and the way it always calls to me, like so many sounds in our lives.

When I was young the foghorns in the early hours called out from the boats on the Great South Bay. I remember waking to their long, singular tone, warning other fishing vessels headed out or coming in across the reach. Foghorns will always remind me of my adolescence and riding bikes out on early spring weekend mornings with my friends, a band of twelve-year-olds biking it to the bay through the fog and up to the docks. On clear days we could see Fire Island, but some mornings we couldn’t even see each other, and being that close to the water so early meant feeling the booming vibrations from foghorns. I can still smell the marsh on the nearby river and feel the cool wetness of the salty air on my skin.

And I know as long as I find my way to the water in winter I can count on the geese overhead, calling across the river. I am not sure why they honk as they do but I like to think it is the same reason as the boat’s foghorns on the bay: they don’t want to bang into each other. If I was to head back to the Island and one night went to the docks at Timber Point, I am certain I’d not recognize the area for how much has changed. There might be more traffic nearby, and the number of leisure boats has most likely increased. But all these decades later I am equally certain the sound of foghorns would drift toward shore in the morning as certain as a flock of geese migrate through these local fields, even now on the front edge of summer.

Twenty years ago I built this house frequented by hawks, the occasional eagle, countless osprey, and on winter evenings, geese. In recent years the number of bald eagles has increased. I have never been complacent watching such majestic birds of prey in flight. One move of her wings and an eagle can glide on a draft clear across the river before turning east across the bay. Still, they make no sounds. Oh, sometimes hawks call out to each other in a very distinct high pitch caw. But mostly they perch in silence. Their lack of sound creates a distance between us like strangers in a waiting room. Once I walked back from the river and saw an adult bald eagle atop the house. But because of the raptor’s silence and blank stare, we lacked connection, some sort of shared space.

Despite my own random migrations, I find comfort in the familiar. The sounds of those I have loved and lost talk to me sometimes when I sit at night on the porch and recall long-ago conversations.

We can be haunted by sound. 

In a world where we often seek silence to escape the noise, it is the laughter of friends and companions that call to us through the fog of daily life and steer us home. Pavlov wasn’t far off, but the bells which I respond to are the sounds of friends laughing, family telling stories, a football game on television on Thanksgiving Day with the smell of turkey filling the house, an old western on a rainy summer Saturday afternoon. I love the daily calls of life, the drifting sounds on a summer evening, the persistence of the ocean waves, the relentless ranting of house wrens in the morning.

Wine glasses. Dice on a game board in the other room. The quiet wisp of golf on television. Steaks on a hot grill.

Bacon in a pan in the morning. New friends drinking wine, laughing. 

Children.

a a a

An Uninvited Guest

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Recently I became much more aware of a significant difference before my classes from years past. When I first started teaching more than twenty-five years ago, after the first few weeks I’d approach the classroom and could hear the noise drifting down the hallway. Students would be talking about the night before or the weekend before, they’d be laughing about something on television or something I said last class. They’d be asking for updates about projects, vacations, families, kids; asking about the new car or talking about some bar on the bay.

Talking.

They’d ask each other out, some got married, some had kids. They noticed when someone didn’t show up and could tell if someone was upset. They knew each other’s names, jobs, hobbies, backgrounds and plans. At eighteen or twenty-five or even forty, these new students started brand new friendships they’d have for the rest of their lives. There’s nothing like friends you meet in college. As adults they move in new directions, and the complexity of life becomes more manageable because of new relationships with people in the same boat.

You get the point. And I’m sure you see where this is going.

The other day I walked down the hallway toward my one o’clock class, now three weeks into the summer semester, and it was absolutely silent. There might have been no one in the room for the deafening quiet. I turned into the doorway and saw twenty-three students sitting next to each other for no less than six classes by this point, all completely silent looking down at their phones, texting the same friends they’ve been talking to since seventh grade. No one—not a single person—was talking to anyone else in the room.

It is the same all over campus. I walked by the bus stop and no one talked except the homeless guy who is always there to talk to people, but no one was listening. The student center was quieter than the library, and the only noise I found on one of my walks was in the hallways between classes where people were talking on their phones to the people they were texting during class. I am not exaggerating.

So I went into my class and students slowly came out of their Cell-Trance and noticed I was sitting quietly, waiting. Eventually most of them blinked their eyes and shook their heads to break the spell and stretched their bent necks. I asked a young woman the name of the guy next to her. She didn’t know, of course. I asked others. Nothing. I asked if anyone knew what the tall man in the front row did for a living. I asked if anyone knew where the girl with strong foreign accent is from. I asked if anyone knew why the guy in the third row had his arm in a cast. I asked if anyone knew what anyone else’s major is.

I left for a minute and ordered some pizzas. I showed part of Leo Buscaglia’s “The Art of Being Fully Human” lecture, the part where he reads the Haim Ginott letter listing what he saw in a concentration camp. They wanted more.

The pizzas came and we all grabbed a slice and settled down. After a few minutes I asked a guy in the front row to stand up. He wasn’t afraid to answer questions during lessons so I figured he’d be a good start. I asked his name, where he was from, if he worked and where, if he had a family and who. I asked if he had hobbies. I asked his major and why he chose this school and not another in the area. I asked what music was on his radio on the way in. I asked if he drank coffee, if he prefers winter or summer, if he is a morning person or a night owl, what his favorite tv show is, sports team, Peanuts character, Simpson’s episode. It didn’t take long and we moved to the next person. After only ten people it was hard to hear what the “spotlighted” person was saying because everyone else was talking to the already deposed student about things they had in common, places they shared. We were laughing at the noise, but we got through it, finished the pizzas and they left.

It was the best class I ever had. And I figured a few things out: I don’t listen enough. I don’t pay attention enough to those around me. I used to. At one time I was the uninvited guest who overheard their conversations before class and knew which ones were parents, which ones were widowed from war. I used to hear what they were scared of or excited about, and now I really don’t know my students because they’re not talking anymore. But really, I could have asked I suppose. I was probably sitting in my office checking my Facebook posts. Now, every class I teach after the first week or two, this is what we’re going to do. Someone else is going to have to spring for the pizza, though.

I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness. Gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot and killed by high school and college graduates. So I’m suspicious of education. My request is: help your students to be human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, or educated Eichmanns. Reading and Writing and spelling and history and arithmetic are only important if they serve to make our students more human.             –Haim Ginott

students laughing

Life Imitates Art

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My high school prom theme was “Breakaway” by Art Garfunkel. I remember a lot of friends found it cynical, and maybe a bit uncool for the times. We had just snuck past disco and Manilow, so we were really hoping for something edgy, but we ended up with a non-Simon Garfunkel. In fact I might have been the only one who couldn’t get the song out of my head, not in a “tune won’t go away” fashion, but the sentiment. It captured exactly what I was feeling at the time.

I watch the distant lights on the runway, Disappear into the evening sky

Well, yeah. Everyone was thinking about partying at the beach and my mind was already out of there. I was always a bit strange. Truly. I was the one you find in every crowd that kept thinking I should be somewhere else. Any song or poem or movie or work of art or conversation which steered toward distant places and beyond the horizon instantly attached themselves to my psyche.

Even then I could feel time like drips of water on the back of my neck.

It’s not the sun you’re trying to find; Something else is on your mind. You need a little space and time to break away

I love that line.

I took a gap year. It wasn’t called a gap year back then; it was called the not-go-to-college-and-be-lazy-for-a-year year. I just figured sometime during those twelve months before I headed to the hills of western New York for college, something amazing would fall in my lap. I kept thinking if I kept looking around I’d find something that would have changed everything. So I looked around. Nothing changed.

You ever feel like you’re just one thought away from exactly what you want to say? That was what that whole year felt like. Like I was onto something but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. A year passed and one of my friends headed to Nashville, another pursued local media, another married and had a child, another started sliding away. I left.

Break away, fly across your ocean. Break away, time has come for you. Break away, fly across your ocean. Break away, time has come…

New York. Arizona. Mexico. New England. Pennsylvania. Virginia. A bunch of foreign lands.

…and I’m back. Got a job teaching at the local college none of us ever wanted to attend to begin with. I broke away several dozen times through the years since then to places all over the world, but I kept coming back.

Turns out there were a few things from high school I’m glad I left behind, a few I wish I had never abandoned, and one or two I’m glad I took with me, the most important being that sense of standing on that edge, the sense of leaning forward and jumping off, the sense of possibility and hope. When I returned all those years later all those years ago  I discovered I wasn’t like any of the people I knew in high school save two, both of whom had also left. It isn’t the “leaving” that connects us, or even the coming back; it is the idea that we are still trying to break away from complacency, from predictability and lack of passion. I still don’t feel like I’ve done it, so I keep thinking it is time for me…

To awaken in another country. Greet the morning under foreign skies

And then it hit me. It is the “looking” that I was after. It was the pursuit of what’s next that I wanted to pursue, not some place or event or career—but the actual act of simply looking around, as if somewhere back in 1960 God said, “Hey I’m just going to drop you off here for a while so you can check everything out” and simply not sitting around would be my measure of success.

So this morning I was on the pier at the oceanfront. It was foggy and I couldn’t see beyond where the surf was breaking. I stared at the fog for quite some time, the mist, and how it beautifully shrouded the fishermen on the pier, the workers setting up for an event on the beach, the sculptures up and down the boardwalk. I watched a young boy try and bait his hook, and I talked to an old man about how the selection of fish has changed through the decades. I watched a lone surfer let lesser waves roll by. At some point I thought about what it was like a bit further out to sea. It was brighter beyond the fog and I knew that out on the horizon the sun was inevitably pushing through, we just couldn’t see it. I turned and watched walkers and joggers pause at the rail waiting for the sun to come through and I turned back and had this overwhelming desire to borrow the man’s surfboard and push out beyond the fog and go looking for the sun. I thought how cool it must be for the fishing boats already out past the shelf searching the deep waters to be able to feel the sun on their faces, pulling in their catch while gulls dive nearby, and back on shore people wait for that morning light to come to them.

And, of course, like some trite metaphor just waiting to pounce, I stood at the end of the pier and realized: It’s not the sun I’m trying to find, it’s something else that’s on my mind. I just need a little space and time to breakaway.

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