Trajectory

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Maybe I have wanted, at times, to be undone, to retreat to the eternal before, the ethereal space of not-yet. I have wished. I have. For instance, I have wondered how a flower emerges into a field of colors and pedals and fragrance, and anyway opts to stay, be one of multitudes, unpicked, unnoticed. Or how a seedling in the brush appears, never noticed, until eventually, soon, the roots wither, ever unnoticed.

I have known people like this. I have been like this.

Perhaps it is the duty of the stars to shine in spite of the brighter light of other stars, which, anyway, doesn’t reach its destination for billions of years, just as its source fades. And maybe there is a natural, unavoidable imbalance, an imperfection, and the perceived harmony only works when no one questions, no one recoils into the earth, ashamed but instead, emerges, one color among millions—maybe unnoticed, certainly, but one whose absence is indeed observed and mourned.

Maybe I have wanted to be undone, which is, after all, not death, precisely. And so instead I choose, now, in my afternoon of being, to consider all my life up until this moment a pre-existence of sorts, an ante-life, if you will, like the seedling of a giant oak, which itself has not yet broken ground.

*****

I told a friend last year when I was moving-on professionally that I had decided to reinvent myself. That is, I was at the quite unusual place of being able, with thought, to wipe the slate clean and scribble something entirely fresh; something with not even the thinnest filament reaching back to the previous promontory. No, no tethers, none. And he said, he who was also moving on at the same time, he said he had decided the same thing, the same.

We laughed over a table covered with metaphors we had conceived by the time dinner was complete, but like all good conversations planted in hope and watered with Cabernet, we brought it back to reality: I can, I said, and in that case I knew I was using Whitman’s I, the universal I, since he was also thinking, “I”, I can, I said, fulfill that laughable rant we lay on young people: I wish I was your age and knew the things I know now. Well, I said, and then we said together, “We are that age again, and we know what we know.” Maybe not the same age chronologically, but certainly in spirit.

And I left the restaurant and walked in the clear air to my car.

I have known people—kind, deeply kind and beautiful people—who chose to be undone but did not understand it cannot happen physically, only in spirit, though not spiritually, but, instead, in spirit. I wish they understood that once something is done, it cannot be undone, but if it is understood and embraced with honesty, can be done again, but differently, and, as Maya Angelou made clear, with hope.

I would like to think again in terms of “new,” “fresh,” “beginner.” I would love to, again, be frightened at the unknown, embarrass myself, expose my naivete. I would handle rejection better, not take it so personally; I would handle success better, not take it so personally, and all of the other “If I had the chance to live my life over again” cataloging we do in our minds, I will do them, and then they will be done.

And should I, once again, emerge as a flower into a field of colors and pedals and fragrance, one among multitudes, unpicked, unnoticed, I will be, this time, decidedly alive, as only a solitary, unpicked, unnoticed flower might be.

 

****

If I had my life to live over again,
I’d dare to make more mistakes next time.
I’d relax.
I’d limber up.
I’d be sillier than I’ve been this trip.
I would take fewer things seriously.
I would take more chances,
I would eat more ice cream and less beans.

I would, perhaps, have more actual troubles but fewer imaginary ones.
you see, I’m one of those people who was sensible and sane,
hour after hour,
day after day.

Oh, I’ve had my moments.
If I had to do it over again,
I’d have more of them.
In fact, I’d try to have nothing else- just moments,
one after another, instead of living so many years ahead of each day.

I’ve been one of those persons who never goes anywhere without a thermometer, a hot-water bottle, a raincoat, and a parachute.
If I could do it again, I would travel lighter than I have.

If I had to live my life over,
I would start barefoot earlier in the spring
and stay that way later in the fall.
I would go to more dances,
I would ride more merry-go-rounds,
I would pick more daisies.

– Nadine Stairdownload (1)

 

This

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This morning I walked out of an office and thought about the year it has been. When I was a younger writer I fell into the trap of thinking a great piece would be if thirty-year-old me would run into ten-year-old me and they had a conversation. It is a cheap idea done ad nauseam, but back then I was cheap and nauseous.

Now I’m expensive and nauseous. So it again crossed my mind, this theme of antiquity.  But no, I decided against once again falling into the trap of writing or talking to myself from a different time in my life. I stood on a corner drinking a bottle of water feeling pretty good and relieved and new, and I thought, again, what a year it has been. Just about every aspect of life from a year ago has changed, and here I am at what one group of people might call the exit of a long career, but which I have determined is the starting point of something new, be it life itself. Reboot, if you will. 

But there’s no way to write about that without tapping deep into the marrow of triteness and predictability. So I went back into my books to find someone who did a much better job of it. It comes from a paper called, “On Public Knowledge and Personal Revelation,” by Joseph Zinker. It is one of those rare pieces of writing I can read and then shout, “Man, I wish I had written that. But I thank God I read it.”

It meant a lot when I first came across it in a Leo Buscaglia book, Love, forty years ago this fall, and it means as much to me today. I pass it along with gratitude for sharing these small observations and digressions with me from this View:

***

“If a man in the street were to pursue his self, what kind of guiding thoughts would he come up with about changing his existence?   He would perhaps discover that his brain is not yet dead, that his body is not dried up, and that no matter where he is right now, he is still the creator of his destiny. 

He can change this destiny by taking his one decision to change seriously, by fighting his petty resistance against change and fear, by learning more about his mind, by trying out behavior which fills his real need, by carrying out concrete acts rather than conceptualizing about them, by practicing to see and hear and touch and feel as he has never before used these senses, by creating something with his own hands without demanding perfection, by thinking out ways in which he behaves in a self-defeating manner, by listening to the words that he utters to his wife, his kids, and his friends, by listening to himself, by listening to the words and looking into the eyes of those who speak to him, by learning to respect the process of his own creative encounters and by having faith that they will get him somewhere soon. 

We must remind ourselves, however, that no change takes place without working hard and without getting your hands dirty.  There are no formulae and no books to memorize on becoming.  I only know this:  I exist.  I am.  I am here.  I am becoming.  I make my life and no one else makes it for me.  I must face my own shortcomings, mistakes, and transgressions.  No one can suffer my non-being as I do, but tomorrow is another day, and I must decide to leave my bed and live again.  And if I fail, I don’t have the comfort of blaming you or life or God.”

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Keep the Fire Burning

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This morning I walked along the beach just before dawn. The water was glassy; if I had a kayak with me, I could have gone a fair distance without a wave so much as lifting or pulling away. Gulls on the beach scattered in front and gathered behind and a solitary dolphin breached just about fifty feet off shore. We were alone together, the porpoise and me. Except for the occasional fighter yet ripping past it was perfectly peaceful, as was I.

I walked to Big Sam’s, a local side-street joint that’s been there forever, right on the inlet where fishing and tour boats already departed and will return in a few hours, and I sat absolutely alone looking out across the docks and had breakfast. It is such a safe routine, predictable in it’s pacing. I walk the beach a lot but don’t often add breakfast, so this last minute turn was a great start to the day. It only works for me though if I’m up before the sun. Sleeping late (after 6:30 or so) is a waste of the morning. By the time most people I know were getting up I was halfway through my egg and crab burrito.

Yesterday my son turned twenty-six and this morning I thought about when I was that age. Back then I woke to the sound of cows outside the old country house I lived in, and went for walks or hiked through a nearby state park. Back then I was happy—completely in the moment, feeling more myself than perhaps I had until then, maybe since, who knows, but I had also “paused” for a while. After living around the country, working jobs as diverse as managing a health club to smuggling blankets out of Mexico, I found my forward motion wasn’t, so I stopped and worked a few dead end jobs in hotel restaurants and city bars. I didn’t know then that “taking a break” and “forward motion” are not separate; they are, in fact, very much dependent upon each other. But for me, then, I stalled. The only two things I knew then were I was completely happy because of circumstance, and that I knew I didn’t want to throw out my anchor just yet.

It took the tough love of someone else back then to light a fire under my ass. And during this past eight months I once again “paused,” stepped to the side and let it all be after thirty years of trying to stay one step ahead of the flames. This time, however, that old me came back around and found some purpose in that pause, and I feel myself again. Now I see my son who I’m so proud of, picking up momentum, building a reputation as an artist, and reminding me daily of my dad for his instinctive kindness.

And this morning I walked the beach, stopped for breakfast, watched the gulls scatter and return, and then that dolphin moved past. Maybe it’s because I’ve been walking beaches since I’m a child that I found the metaphor so moving. Or it could be because with each dramatic change in my life I reach up a bit more and try to see what’s next, but I’ve only started to discover that the times I’ve breached the surface, just briefly, have been driven by love. I suspected decades ago my path was not going to be without left turns and even the occasional detour and u-turn, but that’s okay.

It turns out some of the dreams I had at twenty-six simply needed time, maturity, and experience to come to fruition. A little fire behind me didn’t hurt either. But it also turns out I’m the same person I was when I was my son’s age. Maybe moreso.

I wondered this morning half way through my burrito what these two times in my life have in common. Nature, of course, thinking about what’s next, starting a new path in my life. There are even a few cows still near my house. But there’s something else I can’t put my finger on, though I suppose it has something to do with being in the moment, appreciating the present, understanding that “thin, thin, the moment is thin, ever so narrow the now,” as James Taylor sings.

Or maybe I can feel the fire burning, keeping me from sitting still for too long.

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Being Alone, Sometimes

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Over the course of three decades working at a community college I had some interesting and, well, scary moments. There was the time a student threw a desk at me (I caught it, but he didn’t know it really shook me up); or the one who ran around the room screaming in Russian (I screamed back at him in Russian, and he froze, then ran out of the room, out of the building, and was never seen on campus again), or the one who wasn’t even a student of mine but I happened to venture into the dean’s office just as the provost was confronting him, but the student was so high he thought I was his professor and slammed the door shut and yelled at the two of us until security showed up. Yes, moments to remember, indeed.  

But there was one night that left me stone-cold scared.  

I got up to pee about ten pm. I’d been in my cinder block, windowless office for several hours, and everyone had gone home, the last class most likely filing out no later than nine. I stayed though; I wanted to clear my head after the incident in my college comp course at four thirty.  

A student in the back mouthed off at me then stood to leave. He cursed at me on the way out, muttering, “I’m coming back, asshole. You’re so fucked,” and he kicked open the door to the outside. Gone.

I normally didn’t worry about punks like this. They had my attention; it was the quiet creeps in the corner buried under a black raincoat who gave me pause. But this time he got under my skin, this student, the way he didn’t yell, just mouthed it to himself more than me. The way he didn’t make eye contact as if he wasn’t threatening me but instead already making plans, running through some list in his head of what he needed. When class ended everyone left, acting extra nice as they did, seemingly trying to compensate for their psychotic colleague who scared us all. “Have a good weekend, Professor,” most of them said, even the ones who never talked before. “See you Tuesday,” they all said. It was very nice. Calm. Borderline creepy.  

So I went back to my office and fiddled around and calmed down by listening to music and making a note which mentioned the guy’s name and said, “Threatened to kill me in my 4:30 course—22 witnesses.”  I figured the police would need a lead. When I emerged from my cinder block cell at about ten, I found the hallways to be vacant and even the classrooms and other offices to be empty. I saw the guard walking away from the building on his rounds, and I stretched, thought about heading right to my car and going home, but decided to head to the bathroom first. I had to pee.

I stood facing the wall, the overwhelming smell of cleansers filled the air reminding me that the cleaning crew had done their thing and left for the night. After drinking several bottles of water I figured this might take a bit, and I stood facing the tiles when the door slowly opened. I tried to turn my head but the position of the urinal kept me from seeing the door, which was anyway behind another wall, and I couldn’t see who came in. I was quiet a moment, trying to empty myself a bit faster, and then called out, “Tom, you back?” Nothing. Not even the sound of shoes, no reply, no clap of books or a backpack being tossed on the shelf near the door. Just the door closing on its own and a soft cough. I wasn’t alone.

***

Curiously, I spend a lot of time alone—walking, driving—and I like it. I can clear my head and do a lot of “writing” while by myself. I am rarely intimidated or scared when in the car or on a trail, not the least of all because I tend to pay attention wherever I am. Plus, most people, and animals for that matter, leave me alone. The irony of today’s way of life with technology and social media is well known: we are more connected than ever but increasingly isolated. I get that. When I spent time alone prior to cell phones and computers, I was simply out of reach. My imagination could run wild with who might have tried to call me but, alas, I wasn’t home, and they didn’t leave a message (or message machines were not yet available). But today we can be faced with multiple ways for people to get in touch with us, and when they don’t, when we lose friends, when we don’t hear from family anymore, it is obvious, it is blatant, and it is sad. Then, we spend even more time alone, as depression is such a spiraling disease.

But my solo walks and humanless wanderings are by choice. I can almost always dial up a down mood to something almost manic at the end of a long walk. Part of it is chemistry, part is meditation, and part of it is feeling more comfortable away from people than around them. Since I was nineteen-years-old I’ve been to some degree in front of groups of people, from coffeehouses, to exercise classes, to readings, to college teaching. But very rarely in those instances is one-on-one required. As such, I never had much practice at it. I’m crappy at small talk, and with the exception of a few people, I choose nature (or a full room, of course—one or the other).  

I read somewhere one of the signs of depression is the desire to be alone; and I believe this is true, for me at least. When I’m around too many people for too long (which isn’t long at all) I get depressed—but when I retreat to the river or hike somewhere, I can turn my mood around, feel possible, feel somewhat myself again. Technically, I’m not “clinically” depressed, and I’m generally always in a pretty decent mood. But when I’m around too many people, I want to flee. 

I never tire of walking, sitting along some waterway, sitting with an understanding friend talking, having a glass of wine, driving, stepping out of a busy building and finding a bench or a picnic table. A corner in a coffee shop. A trail through pines, or oaks. A train through forests of birch trees. A path through the Pyrenees. One or two people who understand and a moment or two in nature, and suddenly despair can quite easily slide to hope.

And hope is always worth getting to know, even searching for.

I finished peeing, zipped up, and turned around slowly, and the punk was standing against the far wall. My heart raced to an immeasurable pace and I tried to move to the sink to wash my hands without any visible shaking. I was going to bypass the washing but wanted to appear in control.

I soaped up wondering if a handful of this would sting his eyes enough for me to make a getaway. “What?!” I said, as if I knew he was there the whole time and I was tired and wanted to go home. I did want to go home but I was certainly no longer tired; at the moment I felt I could stay awake for a very long time.

“I just wanted to apologize. Please don’t drop me from your class. My mom will kill me.”

The blood ran out of my head and torso and gathered at my ankles. If I had to run at that moment I would not have been able to. I took a paper towel and dried my hands. “Are you apologizing because your mom will kill you or because you shouldn’t have mouthed off at me for giving you a failing grade on a paper that didn’t meet a single requirement?”

“Both, I guess.”

“You ever mouth off at your friends like that?”

He laughed a bit. “Yeah, I suppose, but listen, I really…”

“How come you can find all the words you need when mouthing off but none when writing?”

He stared at me. I was waiting for the Universal Collegiate “I don’t know,” but he was quiet and stared at me.

I walked out the door and he followed. “I’m going home,” I said. “See you Tuesday.”

“Okay,” he said, and walked out as I went to my office to get my stuff and perhaps throw up in my garbage can.

When I walked out to the car he was sitting on the bench. “Do you need a ride?” I asked, and he shook his head.

“No. I just don’t want to head home yet.” I didn’t ask why. I kind of figured why.

“See you Tuesday,” I said again, and he said the same.

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