The Years Keep Rolling By

 

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It’s the last week of December, and the full moon of the early part of this week is on its way out with the old year. It is beautiful, and at this late night, early morning hour, it fills my soul, or quiets it down, thoughts which seem synonymous.  The air is chilly, but still, and quiet, and clear across the river to the north and the bay to the east is nothing but the same quiet. The few lights of Windmill Point are faint, and the stars fill the sky despite the bold, recessive moon. It’s hard to imagine anyone is awake, anywhere. I am alone, I imagine—or, that is, I pretend—just me and the waning Cold Moon in the final days of this tumultuous year.

I certainly hope the reported hostility and resulting frustration don’t hemorrhage into 2019. I don’t know how to describe my perception of the past twelve months, but it simply felt busy, like a bad play with a massive cast of characters all simultaneously packed on the stage delivering their lines, with a boatload of stage directors and casting directors all yelling their advice and criticism and corrections, while out in the audience a brawl broke out and everyone started beating the shit out of each other. And to recall Lao Tzu, “If we do not change directions, we may end up where we are heading.”

So, exit, stage left.

I wish we could design our own year, like some magical date book we get for Christmas that comes with a special pen, and we sit near the fire, pour some wine, a bowl of Cheese-it’s. and start with January marking away at how the year will go. And, whoosh, it just happens.

It used to feel that way, didn’t it?

I remember when Congress was on break and you knew they were all coming back renewed, refreshed, ready to work, even if not “together,” at the very least ready to do their jobs and act with conviction. And at offices everywhere, and in businesses everywhere, there was a sense of a clean slate, a chance to “give it another shot” as it were. There was a sense that everyone made some positive New Year’s resolutions, not this deep sigh of exhaustion. Maybe it is too much information; for certain there is too much varied and contrasting information. We live in a time of a kitchen filled with cooks, a ship with too many captains—you get the point. It used to be easy to find someone to trust and let everything fall to her or his examination before disseminating it all to us.

And now it is almost New Year’s, and like a first-time marathoner, we’re left with a feeling like we’re dragging our tired asses across the finish line only to find out we didn’t get the job done, so we have to try it again.

I don’t like feeling this way. 

So this morning, tonight, depending upon how I look at it, in this indescribable, beautiful stillness of peace, and with a calm soul, I’ve decided to open the magical date book and make note of what the next year will be, and what it won’t be. I’ve talked it over with my other selves, and we all agree—if we work together on this, 2019 can be phenomenal.

Sure, there are resolutions. There should be. Benevolent ones like volunteering more, giving things away, being nicest to those who are least nice. But small ones too, like writing more real letters to people, calling family instead of texting, and eating more fruit. 

And I do have high hopes for some specifics, but my hopeful changes this year are more difficult to list. It’s always taken me longer to figure things out in my life than just about anyone I’ve known. And I know perhaps way too often I have acted enthusiastically and somewhat foolishly when it might have been better to have kept things a bit quieter. But this year some of my hopes are based less upon what I want to happen and more focused on what I don’t want to happen anymore. For me, some simple ambitions, such as no more explanations, no more worries about being misunderstood as has happened in the past, resulting in disparaging misjudgments. I’m done with that, but how does one express in a resolution what one will no longer care about? How does one make note of something that won’t happen anymore?

Honestly, some ambitions can’t be verbalized or measured. It isn’t a matter of distance or self-control, or even ability. It is a question of nuance. It is also a matter of faith. Not faith in a Supreme Being, though that certainly doesn’t hurt, but faith in ourselves to be able to bare our souls, or in some cases, not expose them at all. Sometimes we stand outside in the middle of the night surrounded only by the ghosts that keep us awake to begin with, and we’re terrified at our own truths, our own brief reach across the approaching distance, and something more subtle than a resolution finally follows, something difficult to define.

This is the last blog of the year, and this is the third full year of blogs. I’ll start volume four next week. But I’m ending volume three with the realization that A View from this Wilderness wasn’t for the readers–of whom, according to the tracking method which comes with WordPress, there are roughly between 750-945 a week. It was for me. This is my diary to remind myself of what brings peace to my soul while simultaneously reminding myself of what sets my soul on fire. A year ago my primary resolution felt more like a plea or a prayer–and it was answered, fulfilled, however one wants to label it for those who think labels are necessary. This year is different. 

When I was working for Richard Simmons, we talked about how the most promising members of the club–that is, the ones most likely to stick with it and go the distance–were the ones who came with what we called “a quiet resolve.” We didn’t know what drove them, and they didn’t post signs or make announcements; they didn’t have mini-celebrations along the way; they didn’t make it something separate from their life that needed to be tackled or climbed or conquered. They came in, did their thing–sometimes a little more each time–wiped off the sweat and went about their business. 

That is not a resolution. That is resolve. There is a difference. One is a statement, the other is way of being. 

It’s a beautiful early morning and the stars reach beyond my imagination. Maybe everyone should come out here with a pad and pen to make their list for the New Year, here under a blanket of stars, so that goals are kept in perspective. We simply don’t know who we’re going to run into along the road and we don’t know what life might toss in the way. And way too often we forget the decision to do something–or not do something anymore–is only ours. This pilgrimage we’re on is a circle, and whether we measure by the day, by the decade, or, as we do this week, by the year, it’s coming around again. 

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There’s Time Enough, and Love

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I really can’t watch the news anymore. I’m not burying my head in the sand, though there’s an argument to be made. I just need to keep my blood pressure in check and concern myself more with the joys of today rather than simmer in the ploys of those leading our country astray.

It is raining out, and foggy. I can’t see more than twenty feet into the river, though I can hear the geese out across the reach, and a few bufflehead ducks keep popping under the water and out again just ten feet away. The water is mirrorlike, so the rain on the surface is steady and peaceful and is the loudest sound I can hear; even the geese are far enough away now. It is a good day when the rain is the loudest sound. A few weeks ago I found similar peace walking on Antelope Island in Utah. The sense that there are no cities, no towns, no marketplaces anywhere, and no one is arguing about political matters.

I am fortunate to be able to spend a vast majority of my time in such surroundings. Most aren’t so lucky. The thing is, I don’t think you need to live like this to find balance; in fact, I’d probably go nuts if I couldn’t get to town sometimes to hear the beautiful noise of civilization doing its thing. But the opposite has become the norm; people don’t take the time, just sometimes, to hear the beautiful quiet of a starry night, or a foggy morning along the river. Even to just sit somewhere with no electronics, eyes closed, and listen to the passing of now would probably be a narcotic not available at pharmacies for those tethered to the trying struggle of life. But they don’t do it. Heart disease is up, stress-related illnesses are up, logic is down, ration is declining, the Golden Rule is just about gone, and basic human kindness has become as rare as the Great Blue Heron that just landed along the water’s edge. Seriously, how hard can it possibly be to just turn off the phone and the monitor and the broadcasting day and be silent for five minutes, find peace, make it the foundation of the day, make it the common denominator of all other activities?

When I was a child, my dad would end Christmas Day with a gift of books specifically for each of us picked out specifically by him. I can most certainly trace much of the influences in my life to those pages of adventure and travel, though now I realize those traits were something my beautiful father must have recognized in me which instigated his choices of reading material. In either case, it was the same for my siblings, and when my son was born I continued that tradition with him. It isn’t easy, particularly as he got older and older and became such a voracious reader and now works in a library; well, finding a book he hasn’t become aware of is difficult, but I love the challenge. Tomorrow I’m heading to a nautical gift shop in the village which has an excellent selection of difficult-to-find books about—go figure—adventure and travel. I’m not worried he will read this and know where I’m shopping; he probably already knows, and I don’t think he reads this blog.

But that’s just part of the benefit of the shopping trip to Nauti Nells in Deltaville. There’s also the peace that comes from leaving the phone at home and listening to the music, sampling the inevitable spread of food and drink Renelle usually puts out this time of year, traveling the world again each time I pick up a new book, and separating myself from the counter-productive, anti-relaxing, illness-inducing barrage of banter angrily occupying the world as it is. It isn’t my world. It isn’t how I choose to be.

Oh, I’ll stick my head up once in a while, fire off some blistering editorial to the paper about the need to recognize the essential neutrality of the Fourth Estate, or the cause of all this turmoil being firmly grounded in a crappy education system that needs to teach people to be better than this. Sure. But for the most part, the sand is fine, and the buffleheads, and the gentle sound of rain on the river.

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Nothing is Written in Stone

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Recently, my brother-in-law made an online comment referencing research of historical subject matter. He indicated that if he is going to reuse an article he wrote twenty-years ago, he will meticulously review the details before releasing the revised edition to insure all information is up-to-date. I am not an historian, but I have spent some years teaching research methods and immediately appreciated his thoughts on the matter. The need to review the material might be obvious to him, one of the most respected historians in the country, but the work is too often seen as redundant to the average student or reader. I’ve had students say to me, “Well if he died over a hundred years ago, and this article was written fifteen years ago, what difference does it make?”

Here’s one example which instigated my concern about finding the most recent expertly researched information available:

Every month for quite some time now I find an extra thirty of forty dollars in my checking account from an ebook I wrote about Vincent van Gogh. This seemingly small amount of money adds up, but more importantly the sales have drawn the attention of bookstores and some libraries and this spring my publisher in Tallahassee, Florida is reissuing the paperback edition. The original book came out fifteen or so years ago, and the Kindle edition about eight years ago. After the first few printings, and certainly after the online version was released, the printed version went out-of-print. Sad, but normal. But recently, interest in the actual book version has drastically increased, so, reissue. Yay for me. Yay for Vincent. Poor guy; he’s been dead 128 years now.

So here’s the thing: The book is a first person account from Vincent’s own letters to his brother, Theo, and other artists. I edited them down from 2000 pages to about 160, but the words are his. The only subjective interjection I did was in brief transitions throughout the text to help the narrative flow and have some semblance of a standard rising action, crisis, climax progression.

It was the resolution which is more troubling. The prologue to the book covers the time between Vincent’s gunshot wound and his dying a day and a half later. I wrote the prologue based upon documented accounts from his brother, two doctors on the scene at the time, and many of the most respected art historians and experts on van Gogh’s life, including a curator at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. When I did this research, thirty-years ago or so now, I was confident in writing as Vincent as to the details from the gunshot (considered suicide at the time) to his death. But since my original research and writing of the prologue, new information has come to light. Without spending too much time here going into detail, let’s just say it is not probable that he killed himself, the mortal shot more likely coming from an intellectually-challenged teenage friend of his from the local town. Where they found the gun, what was and wasn’t found at the scene of the shooting, and Vincent’s own vagueness all became clear only a century later, though doubt of the original account arose from the start. Most startling is the suggestion in a found document of one of the two doctors that the wound itself could not have been self-inflicted.

Well, what is one to do? He wanted to die, he did say that.

So in preparation for press, I had to readdress the prologue and create a more neutral voice from our protagonist. Also, in most of his letters when referencing people who, in one way or another, were not accepted in society very well—much like his teenage friend outside Auvers, France—he showed rare moments of sympathy and concern for them. I brought slight more attention to those moments than he did in his letters so we might better appreciate his keeping the probable cause of death to himself.

In any case, it got me thinking about something completely unrelated: what did I once consider to be true about myself, my life, my path, which now, with new information and age and experience, could be considered obsolete?

Oh how I was decades ago is clearly not how I am now, but along with that are the decisions I made then which affect me now. They must be analyzed and contemplated, and, if necessary, abandoned. At least altered some. It is okay, I believe, if I am going to be true to my own brief narrative and create the best protagonist I possibly can out of this too, too sullied flesh, to do some more research and see if I might need to update my information. Maybe I can make me more decisive now than I used to be; maybe more mature; certainly less insecure.

I’m well aware of the truth that I cannot relive the past, and I am not even trying to change my course at all. No. I’m simply suggesting that at some point in the past my methodology set me on a course toward now, toward tomorrow, and if I take a brief pause to evaluate that past with the new information I have about life, I might be able to proceed more successfully than I would have still riding on the information gathered from a textbook I have been using since my youth.

I can remember times my mental history would record I was weak, paranoid, and even felt hopeless. But now, sometime later, it is clear revision is required. I know now the weakness was exhaustion, the sense of helplessness was a cleansing of false realities and misunderstood truths.  I wasn’t falling apart; I was shedding the parts of me I didn’t yet realize had died. Every dynamic character goes through an epiphany, none realizes it at the time.

I might change the character trait which up until recently was impatience. I’d add a few more details I recently discovered about confidence and instinct. I can’t change how I was in the past, and certainly not what anyone else knows or perceives me to be. But the me yet to come has not yet been written, and after close scrutiny to the facts of my life up until now, I can guide the character development somewhat.

After all, everything until now has just been a prologue anyway to whatever comes next.

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Present Tense

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Lecture time:

Before we slip into the nature and the nurture of now, a quick lecture from an aging professor turned pilgrim:

What if one day you left your phone at home and went for a long walk? Would you wonder if everything is okay? Would you keep touching your pockets, looking behind you? At the very least would you wonder the time? How long, I wonder, before you turned and went home to check your texts, your messages. You’re hooked—we all are.

But what if, if, one day you just keep walking. Not many people anymore remember what it was like to have no ability to call home anytime they wanted. We looked for payphones at gas stations. And when we finished plugging it with coins for the three minutes we bought to talk, it was barely long enough to say, “Great, everything’s going great! How is everyone? Good! Okay, I’ll talk to you next week!”

Next week. Sometimes, next month. It is in part how we grew up, and it most definitely is how we matured. But those three minutes, then, was enough to know everyone was fine and we could focus on what was happening around us. We were fully aware of place. We kept no records. We didn’t update anyone. No texts. No tweets. No snapshots. We were that rare state of being which is slipping into the past: solely and completely in the moment.

No phone, no internet, no messages, no voice mail, no apps, no games, no kidding—just conversation with whomever you’re with or whoever happens along. If you wanted a picture of yourself at some site, or with a friend, you stopped someone walking by and asked that person to take it—we didn’t have long sticks to hold the 35mm. But that person would be friendly, and conversations would ensue, and information about local places to eat or drink could be discovered. We don’t do that now—we are in such a meme world we don’t risk much beyond the length of our arms. Am I the only one who misses the long talks and laughter after not seeing someone for a few days and “catching up”?

I do understand the obsession with taking pictures. When I looked at a photo, two things happen. It makes me miss that time and wish we had hundreds of more pictures of then, of the endless laughter of then, of the immeasurable hope of then. Yet it also helps me realize how we were in that moment, then, when the camera caught us; too much in the present, in fact, leaving us with only a few shots. But that’s fine. We were too busy living it.

But back to that long walk: At the end of that long day if you did just keep walking, by bedtime, phoneless, you might miss your normal routine to lie on your back, phone in hand, and seek out information for a while. You can’t, though, because you’re tech-less, and you can’t imagine that you ever couldn’t, but you do. No worries, the world keeps spinning, friends are not diligently waiting to hear from you or have anything to report, and the news is not going away.

The next morning is harder still. You ache to know what happened over night about which you have no information all these hours later. Did someone text? Call? It’s killing you, but you can’t go back now. You’ve walked too far. The anxiety, withdrawal, is real and stressful, and like giving up a blanket or a bottle each step seems endless, the day an eternity. You want to borrow someone’s phone. You want to just check real fast—find out everything is fine. And what if you did? Everything is fine, benign, most likely predictable and familiar. We crave the familiar and predictable; it falsely makes us feel safer. It is why we stay in bad relationships which become routine; it is why we stay in bad jobs which have no future but which we’ve mastered and manipulated.  

I know the arguments. The advances in this world have made much of our lives infinitely more convenient than then. No contest, and I am often thrilled that I can be a part of “what’s next” as we bullet toward tomorrow. But there is a price to pay—there is always a trade-off—and as far as some technology is concerned that price is how you spend your time. Thirty years will pass faster than you can fathom, trust me. Don’t spend it looking down.

Here’s a test to see if your priorities are in order: Plan to travel for a week and tell everyone you know you will be out of touch the entire time—no calls, no texts, no emails, no matter what happens. Tell them you’ll check in when you’re back to make sure your loved ones are alive; otherwise, you’ll be meeting new people, finding cafes and maybe a motel where you’ll spend nights drinking wine and laughing with new friends from new places, and you’ll catch the sunrise without capturing it on camera. No one needs to know what’s going on; they’ll ask when you return. No one needs to be updated, see pictures, videos, receive OMG texts at every mountain and mystery along the way. They’ll ask when you get home.

You’re without your umbilical, untethered, freefalling into yourself absent of the consistent clicks and taps of that certain cell. We grow anxious when faced with our own thoughts without possible deflection, no technological tangent. But the anxiousness erodes, and new conversations linger like lace curtains, sometimes lifting, often drifting down and raised only by the occasional wistful comment, and it is peaceful. You had forgotten “peaceful.” You maybe never learned just how to be full of peace.

But it isn’t so silent, is it, this peacefulness? This ironic disconnection links you to those nearby, connects you with others who make eye contact, talk about the places they’ve been, talk about the possibilities. Talk about unplugged! Most of the time you talk about life and how far you might reach, and the truth is you can’t reach out and grasp something if you’re holding anything. We do that though, we want to reach for more but not let go of what we’ve got. “If I put this down,” we say, “I might lose touch with what I know.” We haven’t yet realized Shakespeare’s decree that “one touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”

Take a deep breath. Take a moment. Take, for instance, that time you sat by the water at the north end of the beach and a couple caught you staring at the trees near the houses and they told you of an area filled with Spanish moss over walking trails just a few miles off the ocean. “Lived here for eighteen years,” you say, “And never knew that.” If you were looking down, they never would have said a thing. You know they wouldn’t. But the absence of such a small device can dial up the most spontaneous connections.

Really, you get used to this simplicity, this absence of noise, of interruption, of course you do. Find out what it is like to walk with empty hands and touch the world, what it is like to listen to nothing at all. At night those hands hold wine and bread and you hear tales of the day. We tell stories out loud, and we listen to stories and share moments, out loud, and we live, as much as possible, out loud. In this way, every single conversation is different. Every single shared sunset is different. And we come to have a sense of the senses.

I recently spent time in the wilderness out west, walking, being quiet, talking, just being there, and something unique happened in this age of all ages: I didn’t want to be anywhere else, I wasn’t thinking about any other time or place. 

And we learn, eventually we learn, the most important moments cannot be captured by the most efficient technology. Sometimes you need to be away from what you’ve become to understand who you are.

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