On the Edge

 

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It’s late and I’m a stone’s throw from the ocean listening to the crashing waves. It’s a warm night, and the tide is low so a walk at the water’s edge keeps me far from the busy boardwalk and music-filled cafes. No one else is out here, and the light from the moon makes it easy to see where I’m going. I’ve been walking an hour. Some nights it takes longer than others to slow down my mind and clear my head.

I heard once that if you spend enough time near the ocean you can hear it as far away as Nebraska. This must be true. Even in college, six-hundred miles and thirty-five years away I seemed to sense when the water was like glass or choppy, or, like tonight, smooth with four foot waves coming to shore in sets of three. There’s a light wind.

Over the years it has become for me a safe place to be. Ironic, really, when I stand at night close enough for my feet to get wet and face east, and the dark and distant horizon seems unforgiving. When I was seventeen I stood here looking out toward Spain, thinking about the reach, contemplating the journey. I’m not smart enough, as James Taylor writes, for this life I’ve been living, but I know all I need to know when I’m near water. I don’t have the science to explain the currents and I can’t remember the names of the seabirds. But when a dolphin breaches the surface I have all the information necessary to satisfy why I’m out here to begin with: to slow down my mind and clear my head.

I have just over a month left at the college. It occurred to me tonight that I knew more people when I started thirty years ago than I do now. We used to stand in the hallway or someone’s office between classes and talk, tell stories, or go for coffee. My office mate and I went out for lunch on a regular basis, and sometimes we’d walk to the local grocery store. Over the years some have left, some died, but most simply retreated to their offices to work at their computers. Really, even when you do happen by someone’s office, that person more often than not carries on the conversation without ever looking up from the screen. We always had a sense of growth, of the spark which led to the conversation which led to action; now, it’s as if everyone has hit their pace and decided to coast. I don’t understand that.

I’m ready to go. It’s too lonely there, too isolating. It lacks passion and possibility. Some years ago the best ideas came when hanging out in groups, interrupting each other and building upon each person’s thoughts, and students knew each other’s life stories by the third week of class. Now they don’t even know each other’s names and we have less than a month left in the semester.

It makes no sense to have busy hallways that are as silent as this empty evening along the eastern edge of the continent. In fact, I feel less isolated here than I do on campus. That’s just wrong.

People need to shake hands more, ask each other where they’re from, where they’re going. We need to stand in hallways laughing, building possibilities on the backs of anecdotes. It should take a while to get the room to quiet down. I shouldn’t have to suggest people look up from their laps. We are on the edge of a dangerous change, and I fear if we’re not careful, our efforts to be connected will cut us off completely.

Isolation is killing growth and suffocating ideas. And this great migration toward absolute individualism is rampant. People along the boardwalk take selfies instead of asking someone to take a picture, and in the process talk about where to eat, where to explore. Students sit before class in deep online conversations with friends they’ve known since seventh grade instead of finding out how the people around them might be part of their future, part of changing what’s next and what can be. I have lost interest in this regressive approach to life—I hesitate to call it life.

Life is the way we make eye contact and understand each other; life is the stories we share of the times we laughed so hard it hurt. Life has depth and can’t be communicated in memes or posts. It is about character, not characters; it is about making connections, not being connected.

So I come here and walk in seeming complete contradiction to my disdain for such growing isolation. But out here life is entirely visceral. The sand and the mist and the quiet distant call of a gull is primal and ancient and eternal.  

The waves are gaining strength and the tide has turned. By morning the water will be choppy and the gulls will feed on schools of fish being chased by dolphins, and it will fill my mind with such peace I long to share it, to gather my friends and sit on blankets and watch the daily repetition of miraculous life, but I can’t find a soul.

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Enough/Never Enough

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I watched a hawk sweep down and pulverize a dove. The hawk perched on an oak branch and the dove, distracted by the wind and some seed on the lawn, stopped paying attention. It happens. The hawk isn’t fast as much as he is silent, just a simple cliff dive, stepping off the branch, and, wings out, sweeps in with perfect form with his claws out front to grab the dove at the neck. A sudden puff of feathers busts into the air, and the raptor is gone. So is the dove.

This time the dove simply stood on the grass. She had been facing the direction of the hawk and when she turned around the hawk flew into action. The dove seemed to hunch down like she knew what was about to happen. Gone.

I wondered if she just gave in, like she’d had enough. Sometimes the natural instinct to survive is not as strong as simple resignation.

When I was in high school some friends and I went to the beach on the bay. At some point one friend and I decided to swim out to the end of a very long pier. We made it but we were exhausted and ended up helping each other back, each of us taking a turn at holding the other until we were at the breakers and could ride in. She and I just collapsed on the beach, spent. It isn’t like we weren’t in shape. We had stamina; we just swam too far out. I wonder when it is that people decide to give up? I wonder if we had been another hundred feet would it have been too far or would we have found the strength and determination to push it. I mean, did we collapse on the beach because we couldn’t go another yard or because we didn’t have to?

I wonder how often I’ve given up because I thought I found the shore when the truth was I could have probably held out for more, pushed it a bit, opted to swim a bit further.

It’s cold today, but sunny, and the hawk is around—I can hear him, though the doves are feeding on the porch rail where it is safe and out of sight. Earlier out on the river osprey found food for their new offspring, and the cormorants have returned. Sometimes some river dolphins swim under the Rappahannock Bridge, but not yet this season. I like it here. I find peace here. I think mostly though I like the area because of the water and the sand. Ironically, the first time I was in this area was exactly ten years before I bought the land to build the house. Just across the river is The Tides Inn, a quiet resort right on the Rappahannock. For my parents’ thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, my father invited us all to stay at the Inn. It was an excellent time, and we went for a river cruise on the Miss Anne, a riverboat which went under the bridge, and we followed the south shore and returned to the Inn along the north shore, turning around at the mouth of the river into the Chesapeake. I had no clue we passed close enough to my eventual home to be able to cast a line to shore and pull us in.

Thirty-one years later I’m watching osprey out across the same bridge feeding their young, while hawks stand watch in oak trees waiting for doves to stand still.

I was born a moving target; I’m not sure I ever learned when was the right time to collapse on the beach. The hawks have for the most part missed me up until now. When I do settle down it is usually to look at a map. Ironically, since I moved into this house I have traveled more than I ever dreamed I would—Russia, Prague, Amsterdam, Spain, France, Norway, and plenty of states. And at night in the darkness we use the telescope to travel through the heavens out across the waters and find planets and meteors. We often joke about one of the meteors ripping through the atmosphere and hitting us in the back of the head while we’re facing the other way.

When I was in college a friend had a poster on his wall promoting Nike. It was a long shot of a winding road through open country with one solitary runner, and the tag line said, “There is no finish line.” I like that. If we didn’t know when to stop I wonder how often we would keep moving. I’m not an advocate of indecision. But I’m a staunch opponent to settling for something when there’s still more options for the ones willing to wander a bit more. It is, to be sure, a delicate balance.

Certainly I get tired as I move forward, especially on the days when I’m not sure where I’m going or how long it will take to get there. But when I think about that swim to the end of the pier and back, I don’t often recall the collapse on the sand; I remember how quiet and peaceful it was taking turns helping each other back to shore. It was hard to tell if we were helping each other or saving ourselves.

The journey doesn’t necessarily end because we found a safe place to rest. Really, there is no finish line.

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The Physics of Basketball

Devereux Hall (detail, roof), St. Bonaventure University

Last night two things happened:

First, St Bonaventure University beat UCLA in the NCAA Tournament. This was their first win in the tournament since before my older sister attended the college. And during the game I was part of a spontaneous, online reunion with friends I haven’t seen in exactly thirty-five years. I graduated, in fact, 35 years ago May 15th.

It was fun interacting like college kids, our hearts racing at the turnovers, the excitement growing at the lead, boiling at the missed shots and fouls. The interaction via text and social media was so constant, we could have been all together at the Reilly Center, sitting with our floormates, cheering them on as the band played off to the side not long after “Lou” famously sang the National Anthem.

But we are much older now, closer to ninety than graduation day. Some of us have stayed close to others, some have drifted, and some are, tragically, gone too soon and missed even more on nights like this. These are not people I “kind of” knew; we lived together, ate together, sat in classes and in bars together, hitchhiked together, and, of course, lost our voices together at basketball games behind Coach Jim O’Brien and stars like Mark Jones and Eric Stover. Afterwards we walked together to the skellar and wiped clean our foggy glasses as we ordered three dollar pitchers of beer and talked over the blaring music of Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen.

Last night was a 21st version of a family reunion. I don’t want to again be the immature, overtly innocent particle I was in the early eighties; but it was fun to hang out again, from Ohio to Florida to Albany to Allegany (and yes, for you non-Bona people and spellcheck ghosts, “Allegany” is spelled correctly).

The second event of the day is desperately more tragic: Stephen Hawking died. One of the books which made a big impression on the population in the late eighties was A Brief History of Time. I remember first understanding who Hawking was when he received an honorary degree at my brother’s graduation from the University of Notre Dame. This man, who could not talk without aids, could not walk or function in just about any traditional manner, and whose diagnosis predicted his death even before that graduation day in 1978, pushed the envelope of possibility, bent time away from him as he made his mark not only on physics but on thought itself for another forty years.

Hawking once wrote, “We are now all connected by the internet, like neurons in a giant brain.” Last night was quite the example of that.

Hawking also implored us to, “Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”

As I walk into my classrooms I am confronted by students with a desperate lack of curiosity, a dangerous lack of eye contact, a pathetically unmotivated group of teens. I don’t remember life this way. When I was my students’ age—and yes this is going to sound like an old man complaining about how things were better—things were better. We interacted, knew each other, laughed OUT LOUD, not LOL, we held each other’s hands and had each other’s backs. We formed bonds so tight they lasted three and a half decades so that for a few brief hours it was as if we were all together again, like neurons in a giant brain. I see the irony; but could we have remained so close, or reignited so quickly online had we only been connected by technology when we were young? I think it is probable the absolute raw interaction of our hearts and souls four decades ago is the only reason our friendships survived. I understand these friends today because we understood the sorrow and joy behind each other’s eyes so long ago, without the border wall of technology, without the ravine dug by platforms and gigabites. 

Hawking wrote, “The past is indefinite and, like the future, exists only as a spectrum of possibilities.” Everything changes. Everything. Even the past as we move forward on this pilgrimage. Things change, of course, and for some all the changes come at once and often unexpectedly, but physics has proven that we keep moving forward, no matter what, and if we are lucky, the best parts of our lives, the deepest roots of our lives, remain. Last night I knew that was true.

And tomorrow night, it happens again, against Florida. Gulp. What a beautiful time to be alive. Yes, 

“What a glorious time to be alive” –Stephen Hawking

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Clarity

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This morning a heavy mist settled on the ocean, turning the sky and horizon and breakers right up to the sand all one color, one dimension, like the façade on a movie set or some impressionistic painting. At the water’s edge, I could see maybe thirty or forty feet before the wall of blue blocked my view. A group of pelicans flew by, inches above the calm ocean, not far from where I stood, and about six or so dolphins moved past, their backs rising out; only one, just once, breached the water. Had she been another ten feet beyond I probably wouldn’t have been able to watch.

It is winter, but it is warm, and no one was around, not even the normal runners, not the scattered homeless. It was simply quiet, and I walked at the water’s edge a long time in the salty air enjoying the peace. There is such a difference between the solitude through the day when I go for a walk or sit on a porch, and the peace found in nature where certain sounds, like gentle waves lapping the shore or an occasional call of a gull, remind me of the silence, forces me to focus on what I’m not hearing. It reminds me of John Cage’s, “4’33” which is that length of time of complete silence—a cd with a more-than-four-minute track of absolute nothingness; he makes the listener completely aware of the absence of sound. Walking along an empty coast early before the sun comes up, or, like this morning, when there simply is no sun to speak of, reminds me first of the peace I find there that I can count on, and second of the noise I encounter when I leave the beach.

I am tired. I have been quite tired for a long time now, and some people I could count on to talk about it have disappeared; they formulate their own opinions and vanish, preferring the silence of distance to any peace of mind that comes from conversation. Isn’t there such a disturbing difference between quiet and peace? When I find myself like this, when I catch myself falling into some semblance of depression or confusion, I know I can clear my head. It is empowering to truly understand that when things are not going well I can walk to the water’s edge, to the one spot I have found which has never changed and has never abandoned me, and let the salty air and ocean breezes clear away the confusion.

The problem, of course, is the ocean is not a cure; it is a bandage. After a while, the only remedy would be to abandon society completely and camp out just this side of the high-water mark. No, one must address the cause of the need for escape. Ah, what an easy, Psych 101 response! Yes, the cause—it is an argument, a misunderstanding, a failure, a crossroads, a judgement, a realization, a loss too unbearable to contemplate. Yes, okay, it is one of those or maybe something else, it really doesn’t matter. Because what so many do not understand about “escape” is that the “cause,” no matter how solvable, no matter how seemingly simple, is often a permanent presence in one’s soul created by a sense of abandonment and indifference, and it seems like there is no remedy.

I have known people like this; I have been close to people who found no recourse, could not negotiate the shadows, the parts of life without a clear and obvious path. One friend from high school killed himself (and his dog) in his garage. A close colleague of mine hung herself in her kitchen. We all have a story; we all know some poor soul who never understood a way out.

We should have high school classes designed to help students find peace. We should give college credit for lessons in perspective and escape.

Some people seek therapy to talk it through, some medicate for balance, and some simply live in the middle, safe, where they never experience extremes, where highs and lows all wash out.

And some go for walks, discover the beauty inside which cannot be shrouded by others’ dismissal, by others’ judgments. They put on some John Cage and escape to the water’s edge where they can find themselves at peace somewhere out past the horizon.

“Do not let the behavior of others destroy your inner peace”

–Dalai Lama

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