Notes in Nature

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This is my new book inspired by the writings from this blog. This morning I received a note that the pre-order at Amazon ranks the book in the top 100 for all books about nature. Yay!

Here’s what happened: 

When my father died in the fall of 2015, my writings turned inward, and I began this weekly blog in January, 2016, to discuss the need to be alive “now,” to appreciate all that is around us “now.” and to celebrate the time we have, whether with our loved ones or alone. I followed some study of relativity and time, and the value of simplicity. 

Plus, coincidentally, the world became more stressful, and I found that the need to retreat increased with every news story. This “Thoreauvian” approach to dealing with life–stepping back from it to gather my thoughts and appreciate what is truly important, became the theme of the blog. Listening to a lot of the late Dan Fogelberg helped. Because of publicity for some of my other articles in various locations, including Blue Planet Journal and the Washington Post, the readership of this blog exploded, and it has been a pleasure to keep it up. But the weekly posts were mere outlines to what I really wanted to express, so I returned to the start and expounded upon my more personal pieces, and A Third Place was born. In it are several dozen short essays about this need, this deep need, for all of us to step back.

I honestly do not believe there has been a more important time for this. It is a very simple book–no narrative arc, no suspenseful transitions. Just characters in a dynamic world. I hope you’ll order it, and I hope you find something in these pages to inspire you to go for a walk, and hopefully call your father. 

The View from this Wilderness really is beautiful. 

But fleeting.

Thank you for reading and for ordering. Here is the Link: 

A THIRD PLACE: NOTES IN NATURE

 

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It’s in my Blood, I suppose

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The Great South Bay

When you get to the end of the Southern State Parkway, the last exit before the entrance to Heckscher State Park was ours. You can take that to the west to East Islip or to the east to Great River—that’s us. There’s a fork in the road heading east, the right fork remains Timber Point Road and ran back to the stables, and the left fork which was River Road. That’s us.

The first left is Leeside Drive, then the first left on Leeside is Church Road, and we were all the way around the curve at 142. It was a beautiful, shingled, two-story colonial on about an acre of grass but a significant amount of woods in the back left to satisfy a nine-year-old whose hobby was building forts when he wasn’t playing baseball with Steve and Todd or hiking along the Great South Bay and through the woods of Heckscher with Eddie.

Like it was yesterday.

I’d ride my bike out to the bay, and in the winter when no one was playing, I’d head up the golf course cart path to the holes along the water and sit on the high green looking out toward the east, and I’d daydream, or leave my bike near a sand trap and I’d walk along the water. Early on it would still be foggy and I could hear the foghorns out on the reach. I assume it is the same. I hope it is the same.

Later in the day I’d meet Eddie and we’d hike through the paths of the park through woods and marshland, often hopping from bog to bog, once finding the abandoned and broken down beach cabana house. We knew every inch of that place, every path, many of which we named so we could meet there—“Hey, let’s meet tomorrow at the Four Corners Creek.” Yes.

It is DNA or atmosphere? I wonder as I walk along the Rappahannock and the Chesapeake (and in days past, along the Allegheny, the Susquehanna, the Rillito….) if there was something in my blood that connected me to rivers and woods, or was it simply that’s where Mom and Dad moved so that’s what I did, and I find there some sense of familiarity.

It really doesn’t matter in the end; I’m good with it.

It’s hot today, upper nineties, and humid, 80 percent or more. I’ve given up on the lawn, and I’ve moved my vegetables into the shadier areas, no longer believing that “Six hours of direct sunlight” is the same today as it was fifty years ago when those instructions appeared on plant labels.

The heat, though, has never bothered me; I like the sweat and the heat on my neck and arms, and if I don’t have sun stripes where I wear my flip flops, I’m not outside enough.

But I never thanked my dad for making this possible. The greatest gift my parents ever gave me was proximity to water, to woods, to nature and the earthly ingredients which run through my system and keep me alive; keep me tethered enough to reality to not go crazy with the world as it is.

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The Chesapeake Bay

Havana Daydreaming

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Michael and I sat at the bar at the club this afternoon talking about tomorrow, what he packed and what he has planned. He leaves for Cuba in the morning for about ten days.

He’s not inexperienced at traveling. At fifteen he spent ten days in Ireland; at twenty we trained across Siberia, and the following year we walked across Spain. He’s been around the block (well, not really because my road is on the water and we don’t really have a “block” per se—but go with the metaphor). An avid reader and researcher for all things which come into his interest parameters, he is well prepared.

But, you know, I’m the dad. So I’ve been reading articles about Cuba, its crime and tourism, and how Americans are faring with djt in office. I Google-Earthed the place where he’s staying with seven other artists for his residency, I forwarded to him several articles about the currency fraud down there, the petty crime—you know, all happy articles. At my sister’s suggestion he wrote our niece who spent a few days there. “That’s two days more than you’ve been there” I told him. He knows several people who have been there and talks to them regularly, and his Spanish is pretty decent, though I suggested he learn the phrase, “Please don’t speak so fast.”

This morning at the Y while on the treadmill, I thought long about the past couple of decades—more—and all we’ve been through, and I tried to figure out from where he got this drive to wander the world and see as much as he can. Particularly as an artist to catch it in his own way. Anyone who knows my son will back me up when I say he is the kindest person you will ever meet, patient and very quiet. He immerses himself in whatever he is involved in, and is generally more ready for what comes his way than I ever was. Perhaps it is his generation, I thought. They’re clearly more savvy with technology to figure out what needs to be done to get where they want to go.

The son of close friends of mine climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. When the young man’s father told me of the plans, I reminded him that at his son’s age he took off for a summer to cycle around Ireland, followed by cycling around the United States. Another friend’s daughter is right now on the meseta of the Camino de Santiago, alone, bearing the heat and distance, having the time of her life. When my friend was his daughter’s age he was driving into Mexican villages and hiking past rattlesnakes in the Sonoran Desert.

How easily we forget.

My niece is shuffling off to New Zealand for a year, and doing so with the grace and confidence of a New Yorker popping over to Jersey for the day. This is how small the world is now; as a result, this is how neurotic parents have become, reaching for the anti-anxiety meds while at the same time trying to show our children it is no big deal, we absolutely know they’ll be safe, and see you when you get back. Gulp.

So we had a going away drink at the club and talked about Cuba, about his readiness, of which he was vague and quiet, though he talked with an air of someone who had triple-checked his list and truly was ready. I told him he only needed to put up with my questioning another few hours and then he’d be on his way to Miami to the “Cuba-Ready” desk, and on to Havana. At that exact time tomorrow he’ll be landing in Havana.

I’m excited for him. We watched some golf, talked to the pro, had a drink and some odd flat-pretzel mix, and I thought to myself, twenty-six years old. Unbelievable what our children’s generation is doing.

Twenty-six.

My plane landed in Dakar in the late afternoon, and I had no idea if my friend to whom I had written that I’d be coming even received my mail, let alone crossed Senegal to meet me.  Well, she had and she did, and that night when she went back to stay at the Peace Corps house I checked into a hotel near the ocean and listened to the blending of French and Wolof and Pulaar drifting up from the courtyard outside my room. I ended up going for a walk and passed shops open late where music filtered through the streets and everyone, I mean absolutely everyone, stared at me. I went back to my room after midnight and lay on the bed with the smell of the salt air coming from the Atlantic.

I was terrified. I was twenty-six. It was the first day of a long trip that included just three weeks in eastern Senegal, a return to Dakar, and then some time drifting down through the continent, alone. It was exciting; it was stupid. I was alive, truly alive, and nothing about my life would be the same.

I was just a few months older than Michael is now. That was my job then—to terrorize my parents by following my songlines into God knows where, and it is my son’s job now. He does it well, by the way. A few days ago a friend asked me if I was more nervous about Michael headed to Cuba for nine days or to Ireland in October for a month. That was no contest:

“Ireland,” I said.

“Really?” he said, thinking the opposite would be more likely.

“Absolutely. I was just in Ireland for nine days and the roads suck there—people die! They drive like maniacs and the hedges come right to the edge of the road—I know! I walked them! Give me a good communist regime for nine days anytime.”

I know this for certain about him going: If he didn’t, he’d regret it forever.

Geez, the regrets: I never worked in a castle in Austria, never rode to Coos Bay, Oregon. I never went horseback-riding in the Rockies, and I never made it out to Monterrey.

I never canoed the length of the Chesapeake Bay, and I never…

and I never…

The list of ambitions we wanted to do and didn’t could fill volumes. Perhaps that is what makes the few times we get the chance to actually go so much more memorable. I have no complaints about my life, and I’m pretty confident neither does my son, so far.

“So you’re going there to take pictures?” I asked him when he told me he was going.

“Yes.”

“Well, son,” I said, looking around his work room in the house where all of his photographs and canvases lean against the walls. “You take abstract photos. Of water.”

“Yes.”

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for you. But, can’t you take those pictures here along the Bay—I mean, they’re abstract. It’s water, for God’s sake. Just tell everyone it is Cuban water and you can save a lot of money.”

He laughed. “I’ll take a few of my Cuban neighbors, and maybe some colorful buildings.”

“Ah, well then of course.” I was joking, naturally, but it wasn’t until today when leaving the club that I knew he was ready to go and that he would do it right, he would do it his way.

“Honestly, I have no agenda at all for when I’m there. I’ll play it by ear,” he told me.

Perfect. I mean, really, what kind of damn-fool amateur traveler would say such a thing?!

Vaya con Dios mi hijo.

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This is about humanity. Enough.

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Where Do The Children Play
                                    –Cat Stevens
Well I think it’s fine, building jumbo planes
Or taking a ride on a cosmic train
Switch on summer from a slot machine
Yes, get what you want to if you want
Cause you can get anything
I know we’ve come a long way
We’re changing day to day
But tell me, where do the children play?
Well you roll on roads over fresh green grass
For your lorry loads pumping petrol gas
And you make them long, and you make them tough
But they just go on and on, and it seems that you can’t get off
Oh, I know we’ve come a long way
We’re changing day to day
But tell me, where do the children play?
Well you’ve cracked the sky, scrapers fill the air
But will you keep on building higher
‘Til there’s no more room up there?
Will you make us laugh, will you make us cry?
Will you tell us when to live, will you tell us when to die?
I know we’ve come a long way
We’re changing day to day
But tell me, where do the children play?

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Coasting

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One couple pulled and pushed a cooler, presumably filled with ice and drinks and some food, across the sand to their blanket on the beach while their kids ran on ahead, tossing their plastic pails near their umbrella and then kicked into the surf about knee high.

The lifeguard stood and whistled for someone to come closer to shore, but I couldn’t see who he was calling from where I sat on the deck of the restaurant. We took a table under the overhang to stay out of the direct sun in the nearly 100 degree heat.

From 14th Street clear to the inlet at First, this same scene played out; umbrellas and beach chairs, blankets and radios, kids in the surf, surfers further out, jet skis and parasailers beyond them. A plane passed with a banner pushing the food at Rockefellers.

Since I’m a kid, this has been my summers: the sounds of the surf, of gulls, of tourists, and of music drifting down from the boardwalk; vendors, bikers, hawkers selling key chains, teenage girls selling ice cream, and guys sweet-talking middle-aged couples into touring some time-sharing place at Fifth Street. Get a free gift they say; no obligation they say.

This has never been a vacation for me; I’ve never traveled to find a hotel at the beach, anymore than some of my New York cousins would think about taking four or five days off from work to head to the city. It is daily life, it is normal routine. Most of my friends from high school, and the vast majority of non-tourist-shop business people I know in the area, prefer winter, celebrate the departure of the crowds, the “See You in April” signs on hotel marquees, and plywood on the windows at Dairy Queen. But I’m okay with it. This is a window back and forward, my youth and my foreseeable future, and the beautiful blending of sounds, the cold drinks, the hot sun on my shoulders, the two guys tossing a football or throwing a Frisbee, the sun-worshipers stretched out in just the right direction and angle to get an even tan, the older woman reading one of the Bronte sisters, the guy listening to the baseball game, all of it remains some sort of soundtrack of my summers, and I feel at peace with it all, including for what I don’t hear.

There’s an absence of politics, an absence of any sense of argument other than the couple who forgot the towels in their hotel room and one of them has to go back—but that one plays out all summer long every summer.

This is as much America to me as the farmer in the field or the family barbecue on the Fourth of July.

I have never been able to sit on the beach and absorb the sun, however. I prefer to walk, and when I’m at the right beach, I look for shells, and when with friends I toss a Frisbee or just walk along the beach ankle deep in the water and talk. So many of my memories are along this coast.

Like the time my friend Jonmark finished a concert for some dance at the Old Cavalier Hotel, he and I walked for awhile and talked until well into the small hours. We were teenagers, both about to move away. Or when one hot summer day my friend Kathy and I swam out beyond the pier on the Bay only to swim too far, and spent the next hour or so taking turns dragging each other back to the sand. Or when Michele looked away for a second, just one lousy second, and we could no longer see her little sister Carrie anywhere, and we called and yelled and walked both ways and waded out into the Atlantic, only to see her bobbing along with her red hair down from the boardwalk eating an ice cream cone.

Or earlier. Long Island. Point Lookout, and my siblings and I would carry our towels and walk down the middle of Freeport Avenue pushing our toes into the soft strip of tar which separated the two sides of the road, all the way to the beach where we’d walk around the red sand-fence and settle down for the day.

For now though, I come back here like an astronaut between space-walks. Usually I am alone, and I walk the length of the boardwalk and just think. Sometimes about something I’m working on, other times about people I miss, and there are many of them. Usually though, this becomes the one place I am not spending too much precious time remembering or planning, but simply being, letting the five senses take over and translate my life to me through the sounds and sights of the coast. And the saltwater sits on my lips, and the smell of the salty air mixes with somebody’s sun lotion, and I dig my toes into the sand to cool them off from the blistering surface. And it feels right. It feels like I’m doing fine; as if no matter what else is not going well in my life, I’ve got this right.

And I’ve learned to see a riptide or how bad the undertow is, and I’ve learned to read the sky for an afternoon storm, and I’ve learned to let it all just be.

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Idle-izing

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I look around and see so much that needs to be done, so much I want experience, that I just get brain-lock. I still have my eyes set on walking across Spain again, maybe Siberia, leaning toward the Continental Divide Trail, definitely the Canadian Rail, and even biking to Coos Bay, Oregon, isn’t out of my peripheral vision just yet. Also, hiking 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. But sometimes I sit on my porch and look out at the property and end up walking along the water thinking about sailing. Or once in a while we drive around taking pictures and we 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 tires me thinking of it all and I can’t even write because there are so many words and I know I should just chose one to get going, but 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.

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. Or as in the words of my friend and adviser, Pete Barrecchia, “Just write the fucking thing.” 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.

Okay, so this was all brought on because I was listening to very old James Taylor, which isn’t always a good idea. This time it reminded me, as music is apt to do, of times in my life I sat staring at so many possibilities I couldn’t focus so instead lost my direction. Some call this situation a “First World Problem.” They laugh and say to stop complaining when there are so many unfortunate souls who’d give anything to have even one of those opportunities.

No, they don’t get it. This isn’t about “appreciating position” or any sense of privilege. Indecision is a sign of depression, borne of the inability to express something inexplicable: the razor-thin line between the beauty and grace of existence and the torment in knowing we can never experience it all, and so many don’t even try. Some suicidal people don’t think about killing themselves because they don’t want to live, but because they can never live enough.

(note to readers: I’m not suicidal)

I’m getting better at simply choosing one direction and committing. I do it in my writing, my daily walks, and my mental wanderings through the vague world of “what’s next.” Tomorrow I’ll work on one specific chapter of a project and remind myself that while there were fifteen other projects I really wanted to get to, I will end the day having made significant progress on “this” one.

My idleness is not indifference, most certainly not. It is the same reaction when a server brings a tray of fifteen delicious-looking desserts and I turn them down. I don’t want to make a choice only to regret it later because “as it turns out I would have rather had the raspberry torte after all.” I need to just point to the triple-berry pie and forget the other options ever existed at all (which is, unfortunately, getting easier).

It reminds me of a method of advice we used at the club when I worked for Richard. I told people I had no intention of helping them lose 50 pounds, but I’ll be thrilled to help them lose 3 pounds this week. And it worked.

The world has more choices now than ever before, and for each nuance of life the decision-making options have increased exponentially. So if I’m sitting on the porch starting at the trees, or on the sand looking out over the bay, it isn’t idleness, it is…

Okay, well, sometimes it is idleness, but it is an idleness I have chosen, a specific quiet motionless moment which I have hand-picked to work on.

Things I No Longer Need to Remember

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Phone Numbers (programmed).

Birthdays (Facebook).

Appointments (Calendar alarm).

Medicine (Seven-day container).

Due dates (autopay);

Students’ names (though I rarely remembered them to begin with); meetings, sub-committee duties, office hours. Where I was in my notes the last time I lectured.

I don’t need to know directions anymore, or the names of the best restaurants someone told me about when I asked directions somewhere, because I have GPS, so I didn’t stop to ask directions to begin with, and the same device guides me to the five-star diners.

We are apt to forget all the minutia we remembered from friends and helpful local residents because there is an app for that now; we are programmed to forget.

The world has changed; technology has distanced us, we know this, we’ve written and talked and studied and argued this for a long time; it has made more things possible but has sidelined the braincells we flexed on an almost hourly basis, even when we simply wanted to call home.

And the people have changed, no longer asking others to take their picture in front of some monument, preferring instead the vantage of a six-feet long pole. We don’t call to make reservations, we don’t even talk to the cashier at the fast food counter, opting instead for computer screen six feet away so we don’t have to interact.

We don’t need to remember anymore how to interact.

Except in political discussions. Then we interact, argue, fight, dismiss, infuriate. Infuriate. From what I remember on the news last night, we no longer need to remember how to be gracious, understanding, kind, human. We no longer have any need to recall common courtesy, respect, accepting of differences, or be politically correct.

We can forget about what others believe in, what others worship, what others find beautiful. We can disregard the golden rule; we might have long ago forgotten the golden rule.

I started to talk about this with my students one night two years ago after the election; they just stared at me waiting for me to get to some point. I forget what one of them said that made me give up.

I brushed my hand in the air: “Forget it,” I said.

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