Re-entry

I’ve been disconnected from computers and the internet for two weeks, which I spent in the mountains, hiking, worrying about vegan food and then saying fuck it I’ll be mostly vegan and throw in some eggs from pasture-raised chickens and some cheese from pasture-fed cows, sleeping, reading, and consuming a fair amount of wine. I finished two books and started a third (The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, Let’s Speak English by Mary Cagle, and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin, respectively), and found out my favorite time to wake up is actually 9am, not 5:15.

It has been a very wet spring and summer here in New York State, and in the Adirondacks that means mosquitoes. Devout and fanatical and swarming. Any venture out of doors, for even the smallest amount of time, drew an instant posse of bloodsucking vectors, which meant that I had a choice: either become their feast or submit to DEET. I did try the non-DEET, “natural” stuff, which smells almost as bad, but I had to spray it every hour or so, and there was always the feeling of being watched…they fly near enough for you to hear ’em, letting you know it’s only a matter of time before they land again.

So I am out in the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness, hiking miles and miles through mud and over stones and up steep inclines smelling like Deep Woods OFF and sweating through all my clothes and backpack too. More than once it occurred to me that many people would question why I want to do these things. What is the draw? In the midst of these hikes, I dreamed about showering and settling in for wine and a good read. I stumbled on tree roots and worried about getting caught out there, no phone reception and a broken ankle and one ibuprofen and a decent amount of water but not that decent….and I wondered why I do this. Why I keep coming back for more. And other than the beauty, and the peace I feel in the woods–the sense that my little self, with my little story and my little worries are, well, little in the grand scheme of things–I didn’t have an answer.

Then I took a hike–not a very long hike, not even ten miles–and I found out why.

When I opened the register to sign in (it might save your life!), two pictures of timber rattlesnakes greeted me: the yellow phase and the black phase. Timber rattlers are present in these here woods–stay on the trails and be careful when approaching rock ledges where they might be sunning themselves. I’m thinking, This is cool. Second time this summer I’ve been in a place where timber rattlers are supposed to reside. I’m thinking I’d like to see one. I sign in and Lucy, my intrepid Black Labrador, leads the way into the woods.

And we are merrily trotting along in the fullness of our early-hike energy. There is a grass that looks like bamboo, except it’s only a foot high. Curious. A long plank bridge takes us over a marsh, opening up a view of blue sky and massive cumulus clouds. Lucy manages to step through the cracks between the planks only a couple times. We walk alongside a large stand of white pines planted by the CCC back in the 1930s, when the American president gave a shit about the American people. The trail swings to the left and becomes darker, more foresty, and we dig in to our hike in earnest.

I get in a bit of a trance when I hike sometimes–one foot in front of the other, over and over, does that to me. I was falling into this trance as I pushed my legs to carry me up a hill when suddenly I heard, live for the first time, the unmistakable sound of a rattlesnake. It took me a fraction of a second to focus where it was coming from and there is my Lucy, nose to nose with a big, coiled rattler. She had obviously not seen it until that moment, and luckily had no Lucylike ideas about chasing it or barking at it–for once, for, I swear, the only time in our relationship, she let me slowly pull her back, drawing her in like an empty fishing lure on her leash, until she stood next to me. Still clueless. We stood there together for about two minutes looking at it. It was in yellow phase, but dark and very well camouflaged, and it was right on the trail. It was coiled, its triangle head held high, and as big as my forearm in the middle. It never stopped rattling, and this was spooking me, a lot, so I looked around for a way to continue onward. Because yes I thought about turning right around and heading back to the car, but that isn’t why I was here. Why was I here? To go hiking, dammit. So we picked our way carefully through deep leaf litter off trail, looking for more rattlesnakes the whole time, and came back to the trail a safe distance on the other side. I looked back once, still amazed and filled with adrenaline, then we went quickly on our way.

This has been a very difficult year. I don’t need to say this, really, because it has been a difficult year for a lot of people. But other than the massive dying off that occurred among the keepers of our culture during 2016, other than the gobsmacking political circus and the hope that flamed bright for Bernie and the defenders of our waters only to be doused by the same old bullshit: business as usual, power and money over life and love and all that really matters. Other than all that, and the ever-increasing evidence that yes, climate change is not only real, it is happening right now–other than these very big things, in my own little life, in my own little story, I have been having a difficult year. In fact, this vacation was deeply needed and looked-forward to for this reason. I needed a complete break from everything.

Hiking does this–it puts you back into your body. And the hiking had been doing its job well. Other than a couple of disturbing dreams, I had let go, for the most part, of everything that had been weighing on me since last October, and immersed myself in physicality, simplicity, and a bit of hedonism. Maybe it was the rattlesnake, or the adrenaline coursing through my body as a result of its appearance, but my mind soon picked up every worry and pain from the past year and worked me up into a full-blown panic attack. I was in the woods, with no possibility of contacting anyone, and I was sure my whole life was imploding at that very moment. That is how it felt.

To give an idea about how it is possible to believe something like this, even in the face of facts that prove otherwise, a little story. My kitty-corner neighbor at work, Alex, popped his head into my office a couple of weeks ago and asked, first, if I was OK (we’d had some hard news a few days earlier that hit me personally very hard), and then whether I am afraid of heights. To this I said yes, but I like to push my boundaries. So he excitedly took me into his classroom, where he and a couple of students had taped a wooden plank to the floor. They were there with another of our coworkers, Aaron (who has the same name as my son Aaron, so he gets mention here). Alex tells me I am to jump off a building in virtual reality. I put on a headset with goggles, which showed me a city street, with a car stopped at a light–I could see across the street to a tree, maybe a park. It was cartoony, like a video game. Alex gave me earbuds, and handed me two paddles to hold in my hands. I could now hear the sounds of the city, and birds. He told me to look down to the right and push the top button. I did this and doors closed on the city scene. Elevator music was playing as I watched light move in the line between the doors for a long time. A long time. When the doors finally opened again, I was on top of the building. A flock of pigeons flew by, giving me vertigo. Alex told me to step out onto the plank and jump off. Whoa. I knew this wasn’t real–I knew it. But it was all I could do to step out on that plank. When I did, wind started blowing (he had one of his students turn a fan on). So I’m standing there in the wind, looking down maybe 30 stories to the city street below, and all of it looks like a video game, but my senses are completely fooled. I edge my way out to the end of the plank, determined to do this because I know it isn’t real. I ask Alex, “Do you die in real life when you die in a dream?” Ha ha. After a few whiny moments, saying I don’t think I can do this, I stepped–not jumped–off the plank, and almost fell when my knees buckled in surprise, finding the floor just where I knew it would be. The scene around me still said I was falling from a building, but my body knew better–the illusion had popped.

On this hike, my mind conjured all the horrible scenarios waiting for me upon my return to normal life, and completely fooled me into believing that they actually were occurring at that very moment. And I was hiking, farther and farther out into the woods. I kept on, to finish what I’d started.

We stopped on the shore of Lake George, where the waves from boats and the rising wind drove Lucy crazy. I heard her make sounds I’d never heard her make–at first I thought she was hurt, but then I realized she had never seen waves and she kept trying to bite them and catch them but they eluded her. The more she tried to get those waves and couldn’t, the more frantically she tried, and it frightened me. Then, on top of everything–the snake, my mind-illusions, and the dog being freaky, those cumulus clouds had turned dark and threatening. Thunder rumbled close, and I knew we had to run for it but I knew we wouldn’t make it.

Lightning flashed, thunder boomed, and soon the rain came. I donned a poncho that kept the rain off me but made me sweat through everything twice over. I trudged along, watching Lucy ahead of me and knowing that we would eventually make it back to my car if I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. And as I clambered through the pouring rain, scared that a tree would fall on us, I clambered through the nightmare program my mind had cooked up for me, lived through scenarios I thought would kill me–mentally kill me and drive me to escape in some permanent way–and found that I could bear up as long as I kept low to the ground.

We kept going, steady and strong. We marked the place where we’d seen the snake–Lucy stopped and told me the exact spot, and I thanked my good girl. We made it across the plank bridge, where we startled a blue heron from its hiding place, past the white pines, and the bamboo grass, and the sign-in station. We walked out of the woods and onto the road, and to my car, and then, as if it were all a dream, I knew that everything I had been imagining wasn’t real. All was well, but if it wasn’t I knew I could handle it, as I had been handling it all these months, all these years, all my life.

Life is an ordeal. Hiking is an ordeal. They both push you to the limits of mental, emotional, and physical endurance, and through this you build in yourself the knowledge of your own strength. I love the beauty of the woods, I love communing with the trees and the wind and the animals. But I hike because it pushes me to know what I can bear. Going out is often joy and discovery, and sometimes difficult choices about whether to continue on a path, but it is the return that makes you burn, and shows you your true mettle. Even if you have no other choice but to keep on walking.

Lucy tilting at waves

A Taste of Wild Raspberries

August 2010.
For a long time I have largely avoided writing because I had done it so much I began to feel it got between me and experience, the way cameras and video recorders can get between you and watching your child grow up. The recorder, the reporter was always there, translating experience into simile and metaphor before I’d had a chance to taste, let alone digest, what was happening. But writing has been my main mode of digestion for most of my life—to make sense of the exchange between my inner world and the outer world, to extract nourishment from the meanest and the most expansive movements of these worlds.

Today I walked in the fields and woods of Thacher Park, the first time in many weeks because I have been so busy—busy-ness, busy-ness, busy-ness and I no longer have my sweet joyful dog expecting and needing me to take her for her weekend excursions. And myself, though I need these walks as much as she did, myself I can put off and deny in the face of work that must be done during the precious little time I am not at work, at The Job.
Every time I go to Thacher Park now, since Heidi died in May, I weep a little. Sometimes quiet, tears rolling down my face for brief moments before the wind in the trees or birdsong or the peace of the place soothes me and I walk on. Sometimes I stop and gasp with sobs, seeing her smiling face looking up at me with joy and adoration. Never for long, though. I think the disinterested benevolence of those woods has much to do with this, but I also know that it is because I am slowly digesting the enormity of her absence. Like a snake who has swallowed an elephant.

Heidi had been sick for a year and a half at least. She started throwing up after meals months before emergency surgery to remove her spleen and a tumor the size of a navel orange. We didn’t know whether it would be worth putting her through the pain at the time— the vet gave her two months tops post-surgery—but we could not bring ourselves to euthanize her then, when the last time she had seen us was in the examination room and I could not stop crying and holding her. So damn the expense, and the pain of recovery, and the dismal prospects. We gave the go ahead, and brought our doped-up girl home a day later, wincing at her slow movements and the twenty-seven shining staples along her shaved belly.

Two and a half weeks later, on a mild March Saturday morning, I coaxed her into the back of my old Ford Escort wagon and we went to get those staples taken out, picked up my friend Eileen, and went to Thacher Park to walk through sloppy mud and melting snow. It was a bit too much for her, those two miles or so of trails, and she lay down on the drive home instead of holding her pretty head up for me to see in the rearview mirror. Heidi spent the day sleeping and I felt guilty for having pushed her, but Sunday saw us back up there in the woods, for a shorter walk this time, and she was a little better. A little stronger.
Every weekend after that we walked in the woods, as we had been doing since autumn 2002, when I sought solace after an ill-conceived foray into law school. Every weekend I said good-bye, letting Heidi lead me wherever she wanted to go. We walked every trail we had ever walked, and even found new ones. Every step was precious, every time perhaps the last time we would walk this way together.

Spring bloomed, summer ripened, and August offered me wild raspberries for first breakfast three yards from Beaver Dam Road—the small ritual I had observed for years made sweeter now by the question of her presence, the ever-present last-ness of each ramble. But Heidi lasted. Longer than the vet’s prediction, longer than my most hopeful hopes. We walked through autumn, then winter, until I fractured my hip in January and was forced to stop for weeks, each one passing interminably as I let Heidi out to throw up in the backyard after every meal, wondering how much longer she would last, each weekend passing irretrievable.

We walked again, and again, and spring came again, and we passed the anniversary of Heidi’s surgery. She remained joyful and always willing, eager to go on our rambles though slowly starving to death, throwing up more and more often, until one Thursday night in early May she couldn’t stop. Every twenty minutes all night long we ran a slow race to the back door, and by dawn I knew the time had come. Even though I knew she could continue this way for weeks, or maybe months, longer, I didn’t want her final days to be lingering, didn’t want her to die when she could no longer go up to her Place, the woods.

Friday morning I called in sick, then called the vets and made the appointment for Monday evening. Dr. Jarvis would come to our home to spare Heidi from having to spend her last moments in fear. I allowed myself a few tears, a moment of tears, then vowed not to cry, not to mourn—not this weekend, not our last weekend—and then we went to Thacher.
Twice a day that weekend we went to Thacher, except Sunday, when I could not coax Heidi from her spot on our bedroom floor in the morning. I went alone, thinking I must get used to it. I walked fast along the trails, escaping the fact of her absence, which sat inside my heart like a great, heavy stone, and then I saw, sitting on top of a boulder, a large rock. It called to me. I lifted it and felt its weight as I walked back to the car. Heidi’s headstone.
Later that day my younger son accompanied us to Thacher, then Heidi and I went again on our own Monday morning, and Monday afternoon my older son, Heidi, and I climbed the Long Trail up the steep hillside across Beaver Dam Road. We stood and looked down at the valley as the wind gusted around us. And walking slowly down, down to the car it really was the last time.

Heidi died on her soft, red flannel sheet, in the grass under the old cedar tree back of our house, with birds singing and the westering sun shining in her golden red hair, all of us around her, petting her and telling her what a good girl she is.

And I did not dissolve into tears as I thought I would. All the holding back I had done that weekend really had turned my grief into a heavy stone that filled the whole of my trunk, both solid and cavernous at once.

Today it is August 28, and I have missed many weekends at Thacher Park. So much can get between you and life. I stopped writing because I wanted to experience without the reporter constantly interpreting. And this is really valid, except I think about how often I have been filled with gratitude to my former selves for setting down in words their experiences, so I could read them and taste those moments in their immediacy once again.

Today I passed by the wild raspberries, hoping to find a few lingering berries at the end of their season, but the clusters had been picked clean by birds and other hikers. I found a few broken berries on one cluster and picked them, held them in my hand for a moment then popped them into my mouth—more crunch than sweetness. Faint regret for allowing busy-ness to come between myself and this small, yearly ritual, but I swallowed and walked on. I started thinking about writing, about the taste of wild raspberries in August, and saw with reluctance that the reporter was back and the trees were passing by unnoticed as words strung themselves into sentences in my head.

Midstep in my thoughts I was arrested by the sight of a perfect cluster of raspberries just off the path, a long way from the bushes I usually visit. Red and fully formed they hung there before I reached out and gently pried the caps from their heads. I held them in the palm of my hand, wondering at their perfect forms as the reporter in my head said, “how like the faintly ridiculous bathing caps those lovely water-ballet ladies wear.” Then I ate them, one at a time, savoring their perfect sweetness as I walked slowly on.

Miss Heidi

Miss Heidi, the Fluffernutter

How I Became a Leftist: Phase I

I was born into privilege—from a long line of Republicans on both sides of the family. We hated the Democrats, we hated Jimmy Carter, and my brothers and I, on long car rides, would try to outdo one another finding the meanest, lowdown shacks and say, “That’s Jimmy Carter’s house!” We didn’t know anything, of course, about politics. It was just something we picked up, something our parents laughed at, thought was cute.

That was when we lived in Texas. I was 6 when we moved there from California—just that age when you get really good at your body—running, riding your bike, swimming. All that good body stuff. It was 1974 when we moved there, and we were encouraged, forced, to play outside unsupervised. One of my mother’s signature lines was, “Go outside and don’t come back in until dinner!” I had a mile-radius roaming ground easy, with my bike, and I did everything. I explored the woods, found an ancient burial ground, caught lizards with their long, toothless mouths and put them on green leaves to see them turn green, brown leaves to see them turn brown. I dug clay out of our yard and made pots to dry in the sun. I melted my Crayons onto leaves with a magnifying glass, loving the drops of color so much I just wanted to eat them or something…something I couldn’t quite imagine.

When I was ten we moved to a small town in Upstate New York. I was a sun-tanned, gawky kid with a Texas accent who wore sneakers with skirts so I could run around at recess. It started right away. “Yvonne is a pest! Kick her in the chest!” This was recess now. A group of girls would walk around behind me chanting this, and I had no clue how to deal with it. I limped through the end of fifth grade and entered summer, thinking they’d forget about me over the months.

But sixth grade was worse—more girls joined in the fun, including my new best friend. She was my friend, but also the other girls’ friend, and so I was tied to this group somehow and I couldn’t escape. I still look back on it and wonder at that. I had no power to leave, find other people to hang with.

Seventh grade was worse still, because we moved to junior high and boys joined in with the girls. It became very focused on my body, which they picked apart with precision, but mostly focused on my chest—my flat, pubescent chest. I remember once, standing in the hallway outside my English classroom, all of them sneering at me, picking at me with their words, until one of them said, “What you got there on your chest? Mosquito bites? Why don’t you put some Band-Aids on those mosquito bites?” Everyone laughed, and it was too much, I couldn’t hold it in anymore, and I started crying, right there in front of all of them, showing them how much they’d hurt me. Hot, shameful tears.

I endured this daily onslaught at school for 3 ½ years, from the time I was ten until the night before I turned fourteen, when me moved once more.

On the dark car ride to the new town, I swore I would never allow myself to be stepped on like that again. I asked to be put back into the 8th grade, even though I’d finished one quarter of 9th grade—just so I could hide my skinny, flat-chested body among a younger lot. When the prep-girls tried to make friends with me I withdrew from them—I didn’t trust groups. I made two good friends, Tracey and Mary, and went about building my life again, being a kid again.

One day, Mary and Tracey and I were marching arm-in-arm down the empty corridor after school, chanting some silly nonsense over and over at the top of our lungs to hear the echoes. We turned a corner and met the toughest girl in the school and two of her lackeys. Diane yelled at us to cut the crap, and without thinking I yelled, “No!” Diane said, “What did you say?” and I repeated, “No.” Tracey grabbed my arm and whispered, “Shut up!” Diane said, “Come over here and say that.” So I extricated myself from Mary’s and Tracey’s arms, walked over to Diane, and told her to her face, “NO.”

There was an instant of pause before Diane said, “You’re lucky I’m wearing a skirt today or I would beat the crap out of you.”

And in that instant I knew I’d won.

Return

The monarch winters in Mexico
After its autumn flight south from Canada and the upper States.

It takes three generations to fly north again, but they know the way.
Three journeys, three deaths, three births—
Before the fourth generation, born in the north, at the end of summer,

Makes its way along the belly of the world
To gather in ever-larger clouds of shimmering orange

And settle on the butterfly trees.

Milkweed at Lake Moreau, 2016

Milkweed at Lake Moreau, 2016

Ugly Duckling

Now I float upon the cool water,
My webbed feet gently keeping me true
As I breathe and come to.

Here I am upon the calm water~
The ungraceful dance,
Frantic footwork to be what I am not,
Is over.

In the distance swans take flight~
Recognition leaps in my heart
And my wings give a sympathetic shake.

Now, here, I am what I am.
My webbed feet paddle the cool water,
Moving me forward, swift and sure

Until yearning meets with knowing,
And I unfold large, beautiful wings
That carry the drumming of my heart
Across the years and vast deserts I have traveled.

In a moment,
Through a flurry of sun-kissed water,
I am airborne,
Flying to meet my mates.

Sherman

Sherman Treebeard

Waking

The fear of letting go sits on me like a yoke.
Head bowed forward I pull
The weight of our history through the earth;

Roots snap, rich soil is laid bare,
Exposed to seed it cannot refuse.

But my glazed eyes come alive again,
And again.

I see the world;
I breathe its scent into my nostrils—
It flowers in my brain, opens my heart.

And the yoke, it is a fly on my skin.
I twitch a muscle and it takes off, lands again.

All the while the world is there.
(All the while the world is there.)

0518141534b

October 10, 2016

There’s a foul wind blowing across the land–
Hold on to your good nature, my friends.

I felt it keenly this weekend, and all day Saturday the phrase, “a foul wind is blowing” kept repeating in my head, even as I walked through the woods. The peaceful woods, where I go every chance I get to wash myself clean of the things I pick up that I wish I hadn’t. A foul wind is blowing, a foul wind is blowing…an evil spell that has affected us all. The id of humanity has woken and is running amok. A meanness is in the air–has been building for years but it seems to have crescendoed in the past few months, dragging even the most mild-mannered, careful people into its maelstrom.

Other thoughts were tracing themselves in my head this weekend, too, though. The first-year burdock that had grown almost exactly in the middle of the path–spindly and beaten down but still there, spreading its leaves–made me think of the random nature of life. A burdock growing here is stepped on and struggles to survive, while a burdock sown a few feet over, off the path, thrives. No blame can be attached to the burdock on the path–it was born where it was born, and according to the law of nature does its best to live. No blame. Just the luck of the draw. The spindly burdock isn’t inferior, and the thriving burdock isn’t superior.

The thing is, science is finding that plants are part of a complex network, and will help one another through that network, sending out nutrients and warnings about danger, and even killing off invading plants. So I’m thinking about all this and talking to my husband, saying that since all of life is connected, it stands to reason that humans are part of this network just as much as trees and plants–except we’ve been doing our best to destroy it instead of participating in the give and take. And Bob says, “Yeah, how strange it would be if I got a cut on my hand and the cells around it said, ‘Oh well, too bad. Tough luck. You’re on your own.’ Then my hand got infected and became gangrenous and I had to amputate it.” (Well, he didn’t say anything about gangrene and amputation, but I like the effect.)

So the thought of “no blame” attached to those who are sown in difficult places–such as ghettos, or Syria–and the thought of the network of life–how the refusal to participate in the give and take of life breaks the network–came together in my head alongside the “a foul wind is blowing” mantra and produced the little almost-rhyme couplet above.

A foul wind is blowing across the land–
Hold on to your good nature, my friends.

It is time for a full-on War of Love. This war has been building for a very long time, too–you can read about it in the poetry of Walt Whitman and Homer, the prose of Maya Angelou and Emerson, the fiction of Philip Pullman and George Eliot; you can hear it in the music of Beethoven, the Beatles, the Wood Brothers; see it in the art of Van Gogh and O’Keefe; study it in the scholarship of Joseph Campbell. Of course this is far from an exhaustive list–just a taste, a taste of all the voices of humanity that have, over centuries, sung their souls for Thee Old Cause, the War of Love.

Don’t expect it to be easy. But take a step and another. Get through a moment and another, always turning toward love. Go home and be kind. Listen to your children when they talk. Watch them when they play. Cook wholesome, real food. Take care of yourself, love yourself, and love this beautiful world. Go outside and behold the beauty of sky, trees, wind, sun. Turn off the TV, throw away the fashion magazines and gossip rags and read again–really read. Read those you can trust and discard the rest. You’ll know who you can trust because it will nourish your soul. It will strengthen your bond with the goodness in yourself and others. Love may be roused to anger but it never counsels hatred. Ever.

For Father’s Day

My Dad

My dad making an awesome veggie quiche.

A few weeks ago I attended the Eastern New York Association of College & Research Libraries conference, and the vendors there were many. Perhaps you know the deal: you walk up and pretend to be interested in their product, and they shower you with swag. I am very uncomfortable with these exchanges, so I avoid them as a rule–even though Thomson-Reuters had a really neat canvas tote that I kept glancing at with a certain amount of desire. But no tote is worth what to me feels demeaning to both myself and the sales reps.

However, in my travels to and from the various talks and poster presentations, I kept passing a white-haired gentleman who looked like he wanted to be somewhere else, and my heart felt a tug whenever I passed. I smiled and said hello to him each time, and once he gave me one of the coveted bonus raffle tickets. Toward the end of the day I finally went over to speak with him, not because I was interested in his product or wanted swag, but because he looked so out of place and I know that feeling very well.

The Life and Legend of Sheridan R. Jones, by Joseph Hilko

The Life and Legend of Sheridan R. Jones, by Joseph Hilko

So we talked for a while about books, and we both agreed that hard-copy books are superior to electronic books. Then he started talking about his thirteen-year-old daughter and her smartphone. He said she has it with her constantly, that it is an addiction. When he was that age, he said, he was fishing, scouting, camping. Now all kids ever do is stay indoors with their electronic gadgets. I said yes, I had very much the same kind of childhood–Girl Scouts, camping, and even fishing. The man brightened and said, you went fishing? So I had to qualify and say, My dad used to be an avid fisherman and took me with him often. We talked for a bit longer about the sad state of childhood these days, and when I made my move to go he told me to wait a moment. He walked across the aisle to another display, grabbed a book and some literature, and came back to sit down. He opened the book and signed and dated it, then gave it to me. The Life and Legend of Sheridan R. Jones: America’s Pioneering Outdoor Writer and His Search for the Perfect Fishing Lure. Sure enough, when I opened it and started leafing through, there was a picture of this man, younger, with his little daughter holding two great big fish.

Since this conversation I have thought a lot about my father and the gifts he gave me while I was growing up. We disagree on many things, and sometimes drive each other crazy, but my dad gave me some priceless gifts that have allowed me to weather even the deadliest storms in my life.

Nature. I’ll list this one first because it is the greatest, most life-sustaining gift ever given to me, by anyone. Throughout my childhood, until I was 15 or so, vacation meant camping. And not just camping but traveling to different places, to see America and Canada. I’ll admit that many of these trips involved a great deal of fishing, which I did not particularly

First Fish

Me and my first fish.

enjoy, but camping was the best. My brothers and I got a new place to roam around in and explore, new kids to meet (sometimes), and to sleep in our own tents. My dad did things like carving out steps in the dirt using his camp shovel so that we could get into the camper easily. I loved stuff like that–it made me feel that his imagination was strong, and mine was, too. But it wasn’t just camping–during my formative years, from 6 to 14, we lived in places where I had easy access to nature and the freedom to go out in it anytime, for as long as I liked. In Houston, Texas, I rode my bike until it was a part of my being and it would never throw me off no matter how dangerous the stunt. I caught chameleons and watched them change color. I caught snakes and wrapped them around my neck to scare my mom. I dug clay in the front yard and made pots to bake in the sun. Later, in New York, while I endured a daily onslaught of bullying at school for three and a half years, a rock by a babbling brook in the woods was my safe place. I sat there for hours, while the nature around me planted ideas of fairy kingdoms that blossomed in my mind and enabled me to save one small spark of soul life for another time, in a future I could not imagine, away from the torment. And as an adult nature continues to nourish my spirit, continues to save me. I know that as long as I can behold the beauty of trees, sky, water, I will be OK.

Music. In 1974, when I was six years old, my father was moved temporarily to Chicago for his job. My parents took this opportunity to drive around the country, seeing sites such as the Mammoth Caves in Kentucky and the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, visiting my mom’s college friends in Delaware and Boston, and camping everywhere before finally arriving at our destination. The radio was on the whole time we were in the car, probably to keep their sanity up front from the bickering that came from the back. But since we were on the move, they had to keep searching for radio stations, and I got to hear all of the music FM and AM had to offer. Which, in 1974, was pretty damned good. Music became a big part of my life and continues to be–and it has saved my life/sanity many times.

Connection with strangers. With all the traveling around we did, I got to see how my father interacted with people we didn’t know. My father would talk with anyone. He started up conversations, and he never shied away from a conversation started by another person. This drove my mother crazy, but I liked it. I liked my dad, the guy who smiled and chatted and felt good talking with people he didn’t know. When we broke down once and had to go to a garage to get the station wagon fixed, he climbed under the car with the mechanic to help out. That was my dad, and I was proud of him. It took me a long time to come out of my shell after my disastrous teen years, but slowly I, too, have learned the joys of talking with strangers. We humans exchange love in many ways, and this is one of them. I am grateful to appreciate that.

It is difficult to say what a parent gives to his or her child, but because I took the time to talk with a stranger at that library conference in May, it became clear to me that these three gifts, for sure, my dad gave to me. Big, beautiful gifts. Thank you Dad. I love you.

Family camping, 1976

My brothers and me with my dad, camping, 1976.

I Wish I Knew Joe

September 26, 2010, a bit before midnight, day before the 6th anniversary of CS’s death and two days after leaving the job.

I am sitting on the porch with the few crickets left singing outside in the cool night, peaceful, after listening to all the cut conversations from Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten. I am so glad to be here…this little ramshackle house in Albany, NY, United States of America, Earth. I’m a person among many persons in an overcrowded world of persons and not nearly enough wilderness ~ but a lot of wilderness if you count our minds.

(God, that man’s hands. Have you ever really looked at hands? They are stars. They are magnificent and improbable and so fine. Like faces they have beauty that transcends any conventional beauty if you really LOOK.)

Look. There is beauty all around. What can you do? Smile at strangers. Bring some comfort. I am indebted to Joe Strummer and The Clash for giving me back my anger and my joy, my self-respect, my strength. I don’t know where I am going. I don’t know what will happen, but I am free. And I always could have been, if I had looked. Jumping into the next thing isn’t always the right path. Beware. Hold yourself steady and really look.

“Anger can be power—don’t you know that you can use it?”

Something I saw  when I was very young and resisted the gray life ahead, but when I got older it tore me apart because I finally bought into the notion that being free was something that could be attained by playing the game, by fitting in where I had no real connection.

Of course, you make connections….You make them wherever you are, to try to make a place feel like home even when you are screaming “Let me out!!” You can tell yourself all kinds of stories about duty and love and giving the benefit of the doubt—doubting your SELF all the time while you sicken and die trying to fit a mold.

And there are approximate fits. Where you think you could bear spending most of your waking hours, giving your soul for a fistful of dollars and dreaming of retirement when you will really be able to do what you want—but of course we’ve seen that story played out a hundred different ways, or maybe just one or two. People who no longer have any lodestar because they gave it up to work for IBM or some other sure bet, security and lifelessness in exchange for life, juice, adventure, reality. Enough money for a house, car, kids, and maybe a diamond or two at Christmas. (Filthy diamonds ripped out of the earth by people who have been enslaved by the diamond industry.)

It’s all connected. It’s all connected. The sparkle and the filth. And if you are on one side then you are most assuredly on the other. So what’s the middle ground? Where am I going? Where do I want to be? I wish I knew Joe.

Thing is, it’s all connected. The net of gems is cast out upon the universe and one strummer on six strings can reach millions of people and change the lives of many more than that. Ripple effect. Your smile today can make a great difference in a moment that will be remembered by one and maybe felt by many others who will never see you or know of your existence. Because you make one person feel better for one moment.

So in a way I do know Joe, because he has given of himself and that ripples out to me ~ those ripples found me as I was drowning and lifted me up, not just enough to get air but enough to see. To look around and know I was not where I wanted to be. And then gave me the courage to think that I could have the audacity to leave.

No one, none of us, is a saint. And who ever said our heroes must be? I’d rather learn face to face from a bum than at the feet of a holy roller.

I am grateful to be here on this porch in the cool night air, looking at the layers of peeling paint on a window that went out of production 80 years ago. I am grateful for The Clash, and Joe Strummer, and all those people who spoke about him in that movie. I am grateful for September, the month of endings and beginnings. I am grateful for the freedom to write into the night.

Incident at 5th and Main

Actually, it was at Thacher Park Road and Indian Ledge Road, but 5th and Main sounded more newsy. And this is Human Nation News–something I’ve been neglecting because I sort of lost my vision, and I sort of felt it was too big and unfocused.

Right now, I just want to tell a story about my drive up to Thacher Park this morning. I do this every Saturday and Sunday, usually in the morning but sometimes late afternoon, and I do it to escape from the pressures of day-to-day life. These  pressures include at least 80 minutes of commute every weekday on the Adirondack Northway–Interstate 87 for those who like numbers. It isn’t for the faint of heart, or if you are you’d better be in the right-hand lane and hope someone who can’t pass on the left to their liking doesn’t barrel down on your ass.

Accident N87 Exit 4-5

Image from the Times Union. Photo: Skip Dickstein

After commuting thus every day for over a year, and three days a week for 2.5 years before that, I have “had it” with being herded by aggressive drivers, being passed on the right (sometimes being passed on the right and left simultaneously–a tactic I call flanking), and watching cars weave over lane boundaries while their drivers text or eat complicated meals involving spoons or forks. I have had it with fatal crashes that send the rest of us lucky blokes who weren’t killed off the Northway and into congestion that delays arrival time by hours. I have had it with spending 80 minutes of my life every day just to get to work and home again, but I’m grateful I have a job. That’s what I’m supposed to say, and it is true, but….

Anyway, I back up to the end of my driveway this morning and nothing is going by on our usually very busy street–that is, until I actually get to the end of the driveway and all of a sudden there are three cars perfectly spaced so I have to wait what seems a long time just to back out and get going. And once I do get going, immediately it seems a big black truck is on my tail. I’m driving my usual 5 mph over the speed limit in a 30 mph zone, but it isn’t fast enough for this one and he’s right on my ass. I do my best to relax and simply drive, listen to music, enjoy the ride to the woods, but that big truck in my rearview mirror takes its toll. Precious life energy spent realigning myself away from a habitual feeling of being herded wherever I go.

These are winding roads, and I will pull over and invite people to pass when it is viable, but sometimes it is not. Today it was not. Finally the truck turns and I am free of the hulking presence behind me. I get through Voorheesville and on to 85A nicely. Just as I like it–dog with her head out the window, me singing to Badfinger or Mike Doughty, or Courtney Barnett or Ana Egge or oh, lots of things. Life is good, and then I see a motorcycle coming up fast from behind. He slows when he gets near and doesn’t ride up my ass, but I know I’m going slower than he wants to go. My 5 mph rule is too conservative for this busy world I know but I like driving slow, especially in the country and especially in the morning–the animals still are out on the pavement and it is hazardous to their welfare to drive fast in the country in the morning.

I pass a man jogging with his jogging stroller, making a sweeping arc into the other lane to avoid crowding them, and the motorcycle does the same. I slow and swerve to avoid hitting an already dead skunk. Turn onto 85 and lose the motorcycle for a while on the steep ascent, but then he’s back and my Fit just ain’t cutting it up to 55 on that hill. I turn on to Thacher Park Road and he does the same. I sigh and tell myself I’ll lose him when I turn on Indian Ledge, my secret winding long-cut to Thacher, but when I put my turn signal on I look in the mirror and see his go on, too. At this point, this instant, I lose my patience and pull over to the side of the road. He is still behind me because there are two cars coming the opposite direction and we have to wait before we can turn. When they pass he still waits behind me. I look at him in my sideview mirror: he’s an old-school motorcyclist–the way I imagined Robert Pirsig while reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He’s got a no-frills helmet, a brown leather jacket, and jeans. His motorcycle is just a motorcycle–not a crotch rocket or other overblown thing. He’s a guy out to enjoy the morning and I am angry and motion angrily for him to go-on-ahead-what-are-you-waiting-for? He looks at me, calmly nods, and does just that, and suddenly I am crying, knowing he meant no offense or even to make me drive faster than I wanted to drive. Just a man out enjoying the morning, as I had wanted to do before I let all the baggage I carry drag me down.

Hear ye, fellow traveler: Thank you for your gentle response to my anger today, for popping the boil of my day-to-day pressure and giving me a glimpse into my own insanity in this insane world. I’ll try to do better next time.