Monday, March 16, 2020 • Dispatches from Pioneer Road
Day 1: A Walk
Today I took a walk in the apple orchards near my home. Winter hasn’t yet left us here in the Hudson Valley, so I was bundled in coats and gloves, and wore insulated socks just to be sure. I left Milo inside, his paws on the windowsill, his furry mug watching me through the window with a look of concern. He was still wet from a bath and didn’t need an excuse to play in the mud. Besides, I was the one in need of clarity; he already had it. So I waved farewell and set off–the sky cloudy and gray, the world upside down–gone looking for the small hope that one can sometimes find right before Spring bursts asunder.
Through the gnarled apple tree trunks I chose a path, until I reached a high point and looked out on the world. Mount Beacon, which burned three nights ago with brush fire, now stood strong in purple silhouette against the eastern sky. Storm King, Bull Hill, the shoulders of the land stood up against the cold sky and I thought of the people there below, those people I know: my friends, my family, my father- and mother-in-law sequestered in their home, not allowing visitors, not even us. Suddenly I felt a great agenda well up inside me, as if I should tell the world and all the people what it is they should do, and I grew anxious and troubled by thought. For a long while I wrestled with myself, until finally it passed, and I was content to watch the tall winter grass rattle and lean against the wind.
Mostly I do not know what to say, or, more likely, I do not trust my words. Silence seems prudent. I have spoken for the good of all people-kind before, only afterward feeling the pangs of “oh-shit-what-did-I-say,” realizing once again that I had trawled the depths of my ego. We speak for connection and understanding, but some of us, if you’re at all like me, haven’t quite mastered the attempt. These days the precipice we tread is even more treacherous. We seek understanding ever more strongly and yet feel ever more sensitively, as we bang the walls of our shared padded room. I feel alone and am scared—that is the truth.
I thought of Alan Watts on my little hill today. Watts was a minister turned Zen philosopher, an academic who wrote books with titles like “The Age of Insecurity” and spoke at universities in the Sixties. He was British, and when he laughed everything felt okay. He laughed freely and loudly, and he laughed a lot, even when he spoke of things like death. His laugh didn’t demean, patronize, or feel unsympathetic. His voice was reassuring and rang with the recognition that we were in this Grand Ole’ Opry together. I don’t hear laughs or voices like his these days. I look everywhere.
If he were alive, I can imagine what Watts would say today. He’d say, “Wowza, what a ride! We are creators of a world with such beauty, such tragedy, such light, such darkness, and we are the makers, containers and experiencers of all the multitudes. What a play this life, so grab hold and get with it, man! Or resist it, if that be your jazz!” And then he’d laugh and you could almost see him smiling with the joy and lightness of it all. He’d remind us how death isn’t inherently bad, but we color it bad with our fears of the unknown. He always had a lot to say about fears. About how humans loved to play epic games of peek-a-boo, scaring ourselves silly, always trying to sneak up behind ourselves and yell Boo! He’d have a great, comforting chuckle for all of us today. He’d have this great metaphor for the unseen bugs that haunt us through the shapes of our fellows. He’d have this great clarifying perspective that would allow us to see ourselves as the invincible aspects of the Universe that we are. He’d have us singing Hallelujah in our solitude. Here’s to good ol’ Watts and his giant laugh. I was never there with him, those years of his own reckoning when the world tried to pull itself apart by the seams, but I miss him dearly and call to him.
All the people are me. As Whitman would write, each of you is the Song of Myself. I forget this daily. In all the ways I envy you, in all the ways you upset me, in all the ways I judge you, I also contain those very ways within me. Every voice in the world that stands opposed against one another, the voices of each man and woman along both edges of the canyon we collectively dig–I also carry your tune. Every potential that exists, left or right, also exists within myself. What I see so clearly in you, all the ugly and all the beauty, these things lay secret within my own heart, pulling my strings. When I transcribe an ugly mark upon you, I am most certainly judging the same mark within me. Perhaps this is why social media churns such anger, because there are so many examples of myself everywhere I look, and I do not want to see. I am no better than you, I am no worse–that is the truth.
Yes, I am scared, though I might pretend I am not. To minimize the danger and judge the crazies is my way to avoid vulnerability, and maybe that is the way for other people you see. I do not pretend to go through this life gracefully, but I look for grace, and I pray that grace falls upon your head as well.
The light faded. I looked down upon the valley and saw the little house puffing steam into the universe. Laura’s car was now parked in the drive, home from the store. Inside I imagined Milo circling her, hunting affection, getting it in spades. All the days, whether it be this week or next, or all the weeks of our lives, the non-essential elements decay, and yet the heart of us thrums on. With a sigh I pulled on my gloves, climbed down from the wooden apple crate upon which I’d sat, and went home to start supper for the ones I love.