The Day After Tomorrow

At the store in the village this morning, Mark, a waterman I know, told me he didn’t head out today. “Waves are five to seven, wind chill out toward Tangier at best below zero, close anyway,” he said.

It’s been cold here, single digit wind chills two nights ago. The weather is a dominant force in the employment of most of the people here at the end of the peninsula. Watermen, farmers; even my friend Mike’s flying enterprise over at the field is airborne or grounded based upon the weather.

Mt Washington had wind chills of nearly 100 below yesterday. I remember in Massachusetts one January when the pipes at the health club froze. Another time I sat in the bleachers at Rich Stadium in Buffalo as some Lake effect took off layers of my face for three hours.

For weather, I have better stories about the heat than the cold; the Sonoran Desert in ’83 when my car broke down near the mission toward Mexico. In Senegal where the temps were in the 110’s in the shade and the air was heavy. When I collapsed from heat exhaustion while building a brick wall here at Aerie twenty something years ago. Yet for some reason I don’t mind it. I can do sweat.

But for cold days (literally, not metaphorically) in my life, there is only one story:

My friend Joe and I arrived in northern Norway to spend a month teaching at a university. We lived in a cabin owned by an American there, John. It had three bedrooms, views of a fjord, a neighbor, Magnus, who brought over codfish, and a massive fireplace always burning. It might be one of my fondest memories. And while the cabin had a beautiful, normal, modern bathroom, John had it shut down and we were all to use the outhouse, fifty feet behind the cabin, just up a path with snow piled to the side higher than our heads.

The first night I sat up at 3 am and had to go. It was serious, so simply peeing out the window was not an option. The temps were pushing twenty below outside, and I sat contemplating whether or not I could make it to the University the next afternoon.

No, I could not. And I was going to be there a month so I knew I simply had to get this over with. I spent fifteen minutes getting dressed in six layers of clothes, lacing up my boots, strapping on my neck covering and hat, gloves, and moved up the path like a polar bear, pulled on the handle—locked. Then from inside, Joe called, “I’ll be out in a minute.”

I waited inside, he came out, I went in, discovered the origin of the phrase, “Froze my ass off,” and returned to the mudroom just inside the cabin.

So here’s the thing: When you are fully dressed to go out at 3am in negative temperatures, you are awake—blood awake, no-going-back-to-sleep awake. Behind the cabin were woods and a wide, snow-covered path running well up the hills overlooking a lake.

“We’re dressed anyway,” Joe said. So we went back out, heading up the path.

This is what happened, though my prose falls desperately short of the experience:

Green bands of light bounced down the fjord and across the lake, touching the hills and rolling off like a green curtain in the wind, lifting, holding, then falling and bouncing again. I had heard of the beauty of the aurora borealis but never saw it. Better said, never imagined I’d be under it, literally under the green bands of northern lights, so that a few times we almost ducked.

We walked further when further up the hill two moose slowly walked out of the woods on the right and stood in the path staring down at us. They moved slowly to the left, into the woods, and a few more followed.

And the stars, the carpet of endless stars, a shooting meteor, all breaking through the northern lights. It was like standing on the moon. We seemed suspended in space, in absolute, deep canyon, liquid silence.

By the time we returned about four thirty, our neighbor, seventy-five year old Magnus, a fisherman his entire life, pushed his skiff into the water to motor out into the bay for cod. His small engine sounds filled the canyon and echoed well into the fjord, and later he would return—red face, red hands—to give us the cod. He will have already cut out what he wanted; namely, the liver. And I’d stand in the warmth of the kitchen to clean and filet the fish for dinner.

When we got back it took ten minutes to get all the outer wear off, and as I moved up the stairs to my room I noticed, was completely conscious of the fact, that I never thought once about the cold. It was not even “the price you pay for the experience.” It simply wasn’t part of the evening’s vocabulary.

When I think of Norway, now almost thirty years ago, I think of that night, and of the next day and a ferry ride out to the Lofoton Islands, of teaching at the college and walking the fishing piers of Bodo, of Joe and I starting a fire in the snow to cook some red potatoes we brought on a hike, of falling through the day-melt layer of ice on the lake to my calves one evening, of playing guitars with a Russian musician, Max, of so much, so very much.

But I don’t think of cold. I don’t remember that part of it.

Norway, 1995

Future Present

It occurred to me one day on my porch while staring at the surrounding woods, that at some point less than one hundred years ago none of those trees were there. The land has beautiful eighty foot oaks, some maples, tall thin pines and various other hardwoods including black walnut trees, which I am told can provide the ingredient necessary in the liqueur, Wild Spiced Nocino.

The branches protect birds as diverse as red-tailed hawks, downy woodpeckers, and countless chickadees, and they are habitat to other wildlife including one flying squirrel we spotted a few years ago when his tree fell. The squirrel was fine and found a new home in a white oak.

But a hundred years ago this was just land, sandy land, edged by the running Rappahannock River and backed by equally treeless farmland. A century before that these nearby plantations provided food for the region at the expense of slavery, and some slave descendants remain, selling vegetables at food carts out on the main road, or working the bay as watermen, telling stories about how the Chesapeake is just about farmed clean every season by crabbers at the mouth or the headwaters leaving nothing left for those working the midland shoals.

This area hasn’t changed much in one hundred years.

It is like this everywhere, the coming and going of things. In Manhattan a few hundred years before the wild construction on bedrock, coyote and deer were common. It was hilly (Manhattan means land of hills), and where the United Nations stands once stood grand oaks. The Lower West side was a sandy beach, and ecologists say if left to do what it wanted, most of the upper west side would be covered in trees and vines, shrubbery and wildflowers inside twenty years.

I can’t imagine what my house would look like if left untouched. When I don’t mow the lawn for a few weeks it looks like a refuge for timber wolves.

But these trees weren’t here a century ago and I sat on my porch and wondered if there had been other trees or if this land was barren, or was it used by the Powhatans, or was it home to some former slave family, or just a dumping ground. Evidence is scarce, buried beneath the roots of this small forest.

This happens to me everywhere I lived; I like to imagine what was on that spot one hundred, two hundred, a millennium earlier. The house I rented in Pennsylvania was used as a hospital during the civil war. Before that it was a farm. Now it is a Real Estate office. The maples which lined the road and shaded the living room are gone. Someone planted new ones but it will be decades before they mature. My house in Massachusetts was a fish market a century earlier. Purpose moves on with time. Maybe that’s why I’m so mesmerized by the Prague hotel I always stay at. It was the same building seven hundred years ago that it is now. But here on my porch I realize this house is the only place in my life I’ve lived for twenty years, and I was curious if five times that score of years ago I could sit on this spot and see right out on the water, or were there trees then as well, different ones which died or were timbered to make room for crops.

The house is made from western pine forested on land which I assume is either now empty of trees or filled with young pines waiting to become log homes. What will be left a hundred years from now? Will someone sit on this same porch and look right out toward the bay once these oaks have long fallen? I know this house, this land, is a “hotel at best” as Jackson Browne despondently points out. “We’re here as a guest.”

Wow. Wrote myself into some sad corner there. Thanks Jackson.

I know nothing is as permanent as nature, despite the constant changes. It simply isn’t going anywhere. We are. So I like to remember that a century ago farmers sat here and talked about the bounty in the soil, or talked to 19th century watermen about the changing tides. And I like to realize that a hundred years before that the nearby swampland, now home to so many osprey and egrets, was a major route for runaway slaves. They’d have been safe in these woods, if there were woods then.

I like to do that because it reminds me a hundred years from now perhaps I will have left some sort of evidence of my passing through; even if just in the cultivation of language, the farming of words.

So I sit on the porch and listen to the wind through the leaves. It is now; it is right here, now. Sometimes at night we stand in the driveway with the telescope and study Saturn, or contemplate the craters on the moon—both here long before us and in some comforting way, long after we’re gone.

In spring and fall the bay breezes bring music even Vivaldi would envy, and I’ll listen to his Four Seasons, written nearly four hundred years ago, and listen to the wind through the leaves of these majestic, young trees reaching eighty feet high, and be completely, perfectly in the moment.

Despite the warming trends, the extreme tendencies of weather, the fragile ecosystem which sustains life, nature is still the only place I have found that really doesn’t change. It never has. Ice ages and dust bowls will alter it, but eventually some seed will take root.

aerie two

SAD

Sometimes you can sense some sort of lethargy this time of year revealing itself in blatant ways, like not wanting to go to work, not filling out some forms or editing some article, not bothering to return important calls completely out of a sense of avoidance, as if you might be able to wait long enough and all of this will pass—this stuff that brings you down, and to be honest, you’re not really sure what that stuff is. The idleness of society maybe, the constant sense of impending doom reported in all forms of media about democracy, about pandemics, about weather, about climate, about the economy, about depression and isolation. You have no reason to take any of it personally, but some people can’t let it go, and it weighs heavy, so you aim for avoidance, which unfortunately ends up a heavier burden.  

Sometimes the withdrawal is subtle. You can sense yourself not trying as hard or caring as much, like eating whatever is around instead of thinking it through, not going for a walk because you don’t want to be bothered putting on a coat or dealing with any sensory change. You’re sitting; you’re comfortable, and you’re numb. It works. 

Numb is good.

In both situations you are absolutely aware of it. Going for a walk helps. Filing out the forms, returning calls, all help by providing a sense of accomplishment and forward motion, like checking things off the to-do list, it leaves you with the hint that if you keep going there’s something worthwhile on the other side.

There’s the rub. It seems you keep reaching the other side and there’s still nothing there to lift the spirits, not this season anyway—more hostility in the east, more pessimism in our government, more variants on deck ready to step to the plate after Omicron smacks a triple into right field. So you try a little less at one task, and it spirals from there. You realize your handwashing time has dropped to about 12 seconds. It’s not depression; it’s, well, yeah, it’s depression, but not in the deeply caving sense; in the “whatever” sense.

The problem with this type of malaise is it can be debilitating to you without being scary to others if you are not suicidal. The truth is, the vast majority of people who deal with depression are not contemplating suicide and will never kill themselves, which is what most friends fear most, and when those friends learn that is not part of the equation, they feel better. But that can often make it worse since the objective is for you to feel better, not them. But that’s fair since you know what they don’t: that a different suicide exists, a slow erosion of sorts, which anonymously eats away at ambition and accomplishment, takes the edge off of energy and momentum. It’s the guy sitting at a bar nursing a beer, nowhere to go despite having a million things to do. It’s the one on the park bench watching people walk by but not noticing a single one of them; it’s the inability to concentrate, the disinterest in listening, the short responses to questions, the inability to make it through the most basic of activities. It’s writing endless emails about nothing to others in some attempt to reach out; but that just backfires. Rational thought has nothing to do with it. “Knowing” what to do is not relevant. Your mind is suspended, your thought process withdraws into some elementary state.  

On the one hand it’s situational—financial problems, relationship problems, blizzards. But it can also be chemical if you don’t have medical help. It’s addiction without restraint. It’s a combination of these, and it is unpredictable because the same thing that leaves you in bed staring at the ceiling feeling hopeless can drive you to your feet to tackle whatever it is that left you prostrate to begin with. It is a conundrum that plays handball in your brain.

The guy at the bar with the beer, the woman in the park, the man at the river watching the tide roll out, all know exactly what the problem is. But their brains are aflush with fog, their anxiety has disabled their decision-making capabilities, and their strongest assets and most celebrated talents that normally keep them going the rest of the year, are no longer applicable since they carry a sense that those traits are probably what brought them to this place to begin with. They sit and wonder what if. They sit.

“Maybe if I had just…”

“Perhaps I should have…”

“Fuck it.”

At some point it seems you stop fighting altogether and are either not afraid to hit bottom, or you hope to use that bottom to bounce back, not afraid to fail since it can’t be worse than this. It is extreme but that is part of the diagnosis—extremes, polar reactions—sometimes both in one day. Sometimes within one hour.

More often than not, the guy on the corner holding the cardboard sign didn’t “decide” to quit, didn’t give up, but “felt” a pressure that he no longer could handle or define, caught in some stream of disconnect and hopeless confusion. Sometimes the one who does, in fact, tragically go that last fatal step didn’t “decide” to do anything at all, and that is the point. Suicide is not a decision. It is one step beyond decision making. The vast majority of people who deal with depression have that in check, less so in the dead of winter, of course.

But that’s not you. Truly. And that is the problem; you really aren’t suicidal at all. And when suicide is not part of the equation, others feel that you must be “okay,” or “going through something right now.”

Yeah, winter, you’re going through a snow bank. This is the worst time of year for many people with depressive issues. Seasonal Affective Disorder is real and feels like all of the above. Nothing helps but time, but time to some people sounds like the slow drip of icicle melt. Others say you’ll get over it, it will pass, hang in there, talk to someone. Yes, all of the above, but right now–right this minute–you need help and you don’t know it.

Other people try to help so they talk about the weather or sports or anything at all with enthusiasm and a sense of caring, but it often makes it worse, only emphasizes that others get excited about the minutia while you can no longer find value in a sunrise.

And the disguises are nothing short of cunning. I’ve known people fighting depression who on the outside resonate as the very poster image of Carpe Diem. I’ve been friends with people who contemplated overdosing on Monday while making plans for Tuesday, who loved others more than the average soul but only wanted their puppy nearby at checkout time, and people who fought depressive ways by pushing adventure to the limit, and beyond. “What a lust for life!” people exclaimed. They had no idea.

It isn’t exactly depression, by the way, though it is easier to simply call it that because it certainly wears the same eyeshadow as depression. It is indifference; it is a vague inability to muster the energy to lift your spirits enough to give a damn about anything. It’s not like you woke up depressed so you decided to stay on the couch all day; you simply don’t care that you’re on the couch to begin with. Complete apathy. You’re not down about anything; you answer “fine” because you really are fine; fine’s a fine word; vague and indifferent. It has the definitive weight of a horse shoe and the value of fog. “I’m fine, really,” should never be left alone with a person who fights depression.

Ironically, for most of these afflicted people, life is amazing, every half-beat is a moment of “miracles and wonder” which is why you cannot comprehend the misuse of time. The abuse of time in so short a life, you think, is as suicidal as the abuse of substances, and that can be depressing as well.

It is the time of year when you wake at three am knowing nothing is going to work, and you’re going to lose your house and your sense of security and no answer makes sense, no way forward seems rational. Equally, the dawn can come with new ideas and hope, and if you push those moments far enough into the morning, you just might be able to make a day of it. But January has 285 days. And February is several months long. March? Well you well know that March is merely a tease. April comes and breathing is easier. May, and nothing stands in your way. But in January it is safe to say yet difficult for others to understand that May hasn’t even been invented yet. It doesn’t exist and neither will you by then.

On the outside you seem to be fine. On the inside you’re grasping the thin rope of enthusiasm with clenched fists, pretending all will be well, but your insides—much against your will—are shredding at the thought of what to do next.

You “hang in there.” You “get through it.” You suffer the trite suggestions of others who simply can’t understand what the big deal is. That’s okay though, you think. Really. There are no solutions, per se. Just more questions. And “hang in there” is at the very least an acknowledgement you really aren’t trying to dismiss your very existence; it just happens sometimes. Depressed people do not feign depression; they feign contentment.

This afternoon I went to the river where a bitter breeze is pushing down from the west. There’ll be ice tonight somewhere, and snow, but I sat reminding myself I have been there, touched that ring of undefinable despair, and I’ve moved through it, sometimes with difficulty, often with ease, always with the knowledge that I’ve had one freaking incredible life so far, and time enough left, I hope, to continue my pilgrimage well into the next mood swing. But there are moments, collisions with frustration at the gap between the way things are and the way things should be, that catch some people off guard. “You’ve been like this before,” a dear friend told me not long ago when things were less than fine. “And you’ll be like this again.” And all you can think is, “Yes I will, like right now.” But what she meant was this is you, this is part of your DNA, this is as much you as your skin. What she meant was there is no “fighting” the tigers that come at night. Better to sit and dine with them, and wait. Just wait.

And Eventually you remember that the seasons, like everything else, change. And love, despite its bad reputation, is holding the other end of that thin line you’re grasping.

Because nothing else matters but love. Nothing.

I’ve been released
And I’ve been regained
And I’ve been this way before
And I’m sure to be this way again
Once more time again

–N. Diamond

First the COVID-19 pandemic, now winter….is seasonal depression coming my  way? — Dear Pandemic

The Moon and My Own Private Ghosts

My moon, today

It’s not easy finding the constant in life. You think—or at least you hope—it will be people, and sometimes, but rarely, a particular person, but that doesn’t always hold to be true. People change, they come and go, they die, they just die, and while that’s not unexpected or even unusual, it still creates that ripple, that slight adjustment which a constant helps steer you through.

The constants in life mean everything.

Today while out for a long walk to clear my head, to figure out where yet again I most likely screwed up, I looked up at the moon and understood there is my constant. The moon, yes, but all of it—the water and the marsh, the woods, the sounds of the rest, and all the rest included.

From the start it was always nature. When I was still in the single digits we moved to a house in walking distance to a state park, the Great South Bay, a river, and an arboretum. Even behind the houses before the highway, which anyway ended right there, were woods and a mysterious trail leading to “the creek.”

When we moved my constant came along. We lived on a river and I could canoe clear out to the Chesapeake right from my own yard. I’d ride my bike all over the city, but in particular along the boardwalk and clear back through a new state park to a smaller but beautiful different bay. It was always nature that saved me from loneliness, from anxiety, from the awkwardness of me.

It simply never changed. At college I never felt either mature enough or hip enough to engage much with others, except if separated by a mic, but the river—that river running along New York’s Southern Tier saved me more than a few times, and my hikes up to the Heart where Thomas Merton used to sit and write in his journal, or overnighters out in the National Park not far west.

And Niagara. Canada. And my go-to safety net, Letchworth State Park.

Bring on Arizona and the Sonoran Desert, the Catalinas, the canyons with waterfalls and paths. I’d head up to Kitt Peak and watch the stars, or up Mt Lemon and watch the snow just miles from friends in shorts. I was safe there.

In many ways I never matured. Some might say my constant is immaturity then. Okay, perhaps. I admit I am more interested in hiking through woods watching birds than I am just about anything else. I moved to New England and hiked Mt Wachusett most weekends; I lived on a reservoir and walked out to the Old Stone Church and sat for hours playing my guitar hoping no one could hear, praying someone would listen.

Africa.

The trails at the small but memorable Pinchot State Park in Pennsylvania.

Here. Aerie, where hawks and eagles nest, and osprey teach their young to fly, and deer, opossums, fox and countless birds make themselves at home, because it is their home. I’m a guest.

Nature has no concerns. It is its own constant. It has no financial obligations; it does not have to ask anyone for help again and again; it does not answer to differing opinions or lie about its past. Nature does not judge, it does not question, or answer for that matter.

I know these trees, like I still know the ones Eddie and I climbed in Hechscher, like I still know the ones bending over like “girls throwing their hair over their heads to dry in the sun” along the Allegheny where my friend Joe and I used to wade for hours, dry fish on the rocks, and talk about wilderness and time.

Everyone above is gone. They’re just gone. But the nature of us is there, as well as nature itself. I wander for hours with my ghosts, talking about back then, talking about what’s next.

Today through the branches the half moon stood stark in the dark blue sky, and I swear not one other human could see it. Sure, you have a moon to admire in your world, but it’s not this one. Because this one knows Eddie and how he warned me one night when walking through the trails just after sunset to lookout for lunatics. I didn’t know what that was so I asked what a lunatic is and he said never mind. When I thought he had left to go home, I walked further past some grove and he jumped out and screamed, and I screamed, loud, and I called him crazy. And he laughed and said, “That’s a lunatic.”

My moon knows that story.

The trees here know about the time my dad and I sat on the porch and he couldn’t remember the names of some loved ones and he couldn’t see how sad I was. And they know about the time he let my son tie him up in a lasso and put a small cowboy hat on his head, and my father and my son laughed. That’s in the air; that’s out there, waiting for me to cut through the path on the west side of the property.

I have much on my mind, and a great deal of it I would rather not discuss with many people. And that’s not healthy—keeping it in like that. So I go outside and share it with the waiting trees and the ghosts I bring along. Certainly it is all internal monologue, but it’s always been that way, when Eddie and I wandered the woods singing Harry Chapin songs, or Karen and I canoed the Lynnhaven talking about how far the river reached to the south, through the marshes. I was always in conversation, connecting to the wilderness.

A friend of mine in Colon, Germany, but who is from Poland, calls me “the Man from the Country.”

“I was born in Brooklyn,” I told him.

He looked around when he was here and we walked to the river many years ago, and said, “This is not Brooklyn, Bob. This is a jungle. You live in a jungle.”

So it is. But it’s an honest jungle, with a river and a bay and a moon.

Nature lets me off the hook. Nature holds me responsible. It teaches me to be honest with myself and, in turn, with others. It teaches me to be quiet, to let others think what they want.

I have lived, lived very much “out loud” as it is fashionable to say. Oh, I have certainly lived. But it is in nature I am alive. There’s a difference. You know what I mean. There is a difference. You know exactly what I mean.

The Great South Bat at Hechscher State Park

Trial and Error

Today worked out okay. I mean, if we could have trial runs of our days before we actually lived them, today would pass. I did a lot outside, worked on some things in here, had a decent acceptance for an essay, got ahead on another project, and listened to the rain on the skylight above my head while working; it’s better than background music. It is background music.

At the river earlier some gulls huddled together against the wind and they walked before me aimlessly up the sand before the jetty. The tide is exceptionally low and I could walk well out to the end of the rocks for my best view both up river and out across the bay.

I saw a deer near the shed. Another at the point this morning.

I stopped at 711 for a Slurpee and a man contemplated the various size hot dogs, some with extra spices and some stuffed with cheese. Another guy noticed that gas went back up but he didn’t seem to mind. Not nearly as much as the one buying kerosene at almost seven dollars a gallon. This is a boater’s world though, where there are three times more boats than people in the village, and more often than not the conversation is about diesel engines, traps, shrink wrap (yes, many boats get shrink wrapped for the winter), and a fire at one of the live-aboard marinas a few weeks ago where no one got hurt and where a friend of mine lives aboard his 27-footer and only woke because someone smashed the glass to get the fire extinguisher next to his slip.

The manager Sue said she liked the old breakfast empenadas better than the new ones. Jimmy bought his case of Bud and Lee his iced coffee. Michelle bought cigarettes and wondered what she would do after she brought her little girl to school. Curtis complained because Curtis complains.

I was awake. Not caffeine awake; new-birth awake, each sound, each comment and action I picked up and held for a moment, as if everyone else was moving just slightly behind me, like I had the edge today. I have no idea how to explain it. I was really awake. Like I could hear every rain drop, individually, hit the surface of the bay.

Some lady with two kids who screamed out every item in the candy aisle demanding she buy it for them and to which she screamed back at them before, of course, buying it for them, has got to be guilty of some sort of child abuse. Should it be legal to let your four year old eat two snickers bars and a donut with her chocolate milk at 6:30 am and then scream at her for dropping an Ipad which she brought in from the car, on the floor? All the while this woman managed to drop the F-bomb—TO HER KIDS—in every sentence, often several times per sentence. The fact she came into the store the same morning I was crack aware of everything around me is just bad luck.

So I left and went to the bay and sat there for an hour, more, sat there and thought about my brother and sister and how much I admire them, their integrity and example, and my mother and her perseverance through everything, and I mean everything. I thought about my friends like Laura and Letty who are fighting the battle of their lives, and others like Sean and Mike, the other Sean and Rick, who have more kindness and compassion than seems normal, yet is instinctive to them.

I thought about Michael, my son, who—no kidding here—is kinder and more genuine than anyone I’ve ever met, and how much he reminds me of my father in so many ways. I wondered if he has any clue that his art is masterful, and I know art.

What would I do if we could have had trial runs of our days? Which ones would I have cancelled entirely, which ones would I have made slight adjustments, and which ones would I look at and say, “Yes, good, that seems right.”

And as I watched two buffleheads land in the bay and immediately dive for breakfast, I realized I’d not change many at all.

Certainly I would have x-ed out a few: that one with that one phone conversation. Gone. And when Mike called to tell me about Dave. When I called Mike about Roberta. I would have stopped a friend of mine from getting in a taxi; told him it was a bad idea. I would have asked another friend of mine to get in a taxi; told her it was a really good idea.

But for the most part I wouldn’t change anything. It has been one hell of a ride, and even some of the seemingly bad events that others might look at and say, “Come on! How can you NOT change that?” I’d leave alone.

I’m glad I whacked my ankle.

I’m glad I got lost and ended up on this dead end road.

I’m glad I left that job.

I’m glad for the times I have struggled because they made me stronger.

I’m glad for the times I was hurt and I cried because they made me more aware.

I’m glad for the times I was rejected because they made me better at what I do.

I’m glad for the times I asked for help because it showed me the kindness of others.

I keep thinking of Alanis Morrissette: “Thank you clarity.” That was today. The most like this I’ve ever been was when we were on the Camino de Santiago from France across Spain. Today was unique, but over there this was a constant state of being, from the time we woke until the time we slept again we remained aware, in the moment, in conversation with everyone around us, listening to everyone.

Today was very Camino-like. Only I was in 711 walking down the aisles, which is a kind of pilgrimage of its own, depending upon how hungry you are.

Everyone has a story, a struggle, a dream, a disappointment. Everyone survived something that should have killed them, has been rejected, has known deep-to-the-soul pain.

And apparently everyone ends up at 711 to tell everyone else about it.

I wouldn’t change a thing about my life. I really wouldn’t.

Except that mom with the two kids; I’d kick her and her filthy mouth the f**k out of there.

You want to get in touch with every single slice of American culture? Every economic level, every race, religion, every pain-stricken and passion-filled tortured and celebratory soul? Go buy a Slurpee.

A Special Request

Letty Stone and me a few weeks ago

My friends and family, 

I have raised money before for various projects, but this is very personal and very urgent. I’m sending this to everyone and posting it at this blog which has a weekly readership of roughly 1200 people. If you are not in a position to donate, perhaps you can forward this to someone who can. 

In a nutshell, my dearest friend of 33 years ran marathons, worked out daily at 5:30 am, and is as fit as one can be. One day she called me and we laughed about how old we will be when her six month old granddaughter graduates high school. A few days later she went to the gym to workout but was slurring her words. They brought her to the hospital thinking it a stroke. It was a tumor. The operation determined it a very aggressive one, and it will win the battle. The chemo is to try and slow it down and make Letty more comfortable, but the prognosis is very poor and the battle will be unmercifully swift.

When I put this campaign online I had hoped to reach $5000 to assist with the ridiculous amount of expenses she faces. In the long run, insurance, grant programs for cancer patients, etc, will all be beneficial to her and her husband, Billy. But right now the expenses are unbearable, and this is to help with that inconceivable transition from what was to the horror that awaits. It is a tough time when life itself should mean more and have more significance than ever. This is to assist them now–right now—with the unbearable transition they are trying to negotiate to an entirely new existence. 

Every small amount helps, and what means more to her is that people want to help her, including–or perhaps especially–people she never met. Last night I told her where the campaign was at, and she was beside herself. She is grateful, and while Letty is horrible at accepting compliments or help of any kind, she humbly said thank you. I’ll be sending her the names of those who did not wish to be kept anonymous, but the truth is, I know what is needed and I’m trying to get this to another $1200. Make no mistakes, Letty is filled with gratitude just for the idea that we want to help. But it would change how they can move forward. That is not a small thing.

I know this woman!:

Letty and I worked together, and I’ve known her since–and I can confirm the day–August 16th, 1989,  and we have saved each other emotionally for three decades–long walks, late night conversations, lunches, dinners, breakfasts, long car rides talking forever about humanities, literature, philosophy, Europe, food, and nature–you can imagine the tears but more so the laughter. Not a day went by in those decades we weren’t laughing. She was born in Italy, raised by parents of Spanish and Italian origin, went to high school in Algiers, is fluent in English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese, taught French and Humanities for nearly four decades, is a humanities scholar, runs marathons, raised two beautiful children, laughs all the time, will help anyone who needs help, and loves long walks. She dresses to the nines and after some years of prodding, I got her to stop wearing high heels everywhere. She and her husband, Billy, battled health issues of his some years ago, and they survived. This is a different battle against an undefeatable enemy.

In 2005 she went with me to Russia for nine days. A few weeks ago when her daughter got married, she sent me a picture of her holding her son’s daughter, Sophia. What these donations will do is to relieve the immediate unbearable financial stress so the time is easier. It doesn’t take much when combined it adds up so fast.  

It takes some time to understand you cannot save someone, but you can bring them peace by showing how much you care. In the end that is all that matters.  

So thank you everyone, and if you can still donate, please follow one of the methods below. She returned to a week of “comfort chemo” as she calls it, yesterday and says she will not be up to much pretty quickly. This will certainly lift her spirits, which right now is literally life-saving.

You have made a difference in her life. That phrase is used often, but in this case, it is absolutely true. 

Peace, 

Bob

the links: 

Venmo: @robert-kunzinger

Zelle: kunzingerb@gmail.com

If you mail a check, make it to “Letty Stone” c/o Bob Kunzinger, PO BOx 70 Deltaville, VA 23043

Or Paypal the donation page:

https://www.paypal.com/pools/c/8QDP6wDA7n?fbclid=IwAR2IWtTagpOeMfmqYRUr7KRL6Y7XAjHR1LU05QxCCVkRmnAd2v3QcNeWKd8

Letty and Sophia

Beautiful Beautiful Boy

Today is one of those chilly, rainy Sundays I’ve always loved. There’s something immediate about them—I feel present. A mist is moving down river toward the bay and a Great Blue Heron has perched on a branch across the swamp, her head pulled down like a cold child. The air is calm and the tide high.

Like everyone else these days, I have a lot on my mind. I’m worried about a few friends, some projects I’m working on, some commitments I must stick to, some issues I’ve been dragging around for a few years. To push the tired metaphor that NPR guests cannot seem to use enough, it often feels like playing a game of Whack-a-Mole; just when one issue has been dealt with, another rises, and it goes on and on, and I feel like running away.

Instead I walk to the river dressed in seven layers and a raincoat, a hat, my hood up, hands shoved deep in my pockets. I can hear buffleheads in the fog diving under the surface, rising. Some gulls call from a nearby pier, and the diesel engine of some boat pushes it along the channel toward the bay.

Another typical rainy morning.

I remember a rainy Sunday morning forty-two years ago. Half the guys on my floor at the dorm were asleep, the other half just getting home from passing out somewhere. I had been up in Niagara all day Saturday and while the details aren’t important, it took me twelve hours to get home. I slept a few hours, noted the cold rain, and decided to walk to my friend’s painting studio under Francis Hall on the far side of the campus. It had been a seminary years earlier, and in an old library beneath the hall he set up his paintings. On the walk over I couldn’t even see the hills just behind campus across the Allegany River, and it was deafening quiet on campus. Quiet like today, misty too, and chilly like today.

I descended the stairs and could hear John Lennon’s “Double Fantasy” album; an album that artist Cole Young played non-stop for a few months that year. I was deathly tired, and Cole looked up from the canvas just briefly. “Kunzinger! Listen to this!” Then a minute later, “What the hell happened to you?”

“I walked home from Niagara Falls. Well, a good deal of it. I’m tired.”

Cole put his brush down and sat down, crossed his legs and picked up his coffee mug. “Go on.”

I told him how a friend and I hitchhiked to Niagara Falls the previous day and the hour and a half drive only took us an hour and a half—someone picked us up immediately and brought us right to a donut shop at the falls and bought us donuts and coffee. Then we ran into some other Bona people and hung out all day, and around four she said, “Bob if we leave now we can be back to the dining hall for dinner by 5:30.” Cole laughed hard because, of course, we were idiots.

“So you guys just decided you’d get a ride right away from someone who happened to be headed to this town that isn’t on the way anywhere?”

“Sure.”

“And you didn’t get a ride.”

“You’re a genius Cole.”

I told him we walked until nearly three in the morning then huddled together in the overhang of a hardware store in the small village of Machias, and after ten minutes I saw a payphone and convinced my friend to call her boyfriend, who is still a very close friend of mine despite that night, and ask if he can borrow someone’s car and come pick us up. He did. We got home. I slept, woke to the rain, walked to the studio.

“That is excellent, Kunzinger! Wow!!”

“I like your painting. What’s it called? ‘More trees somewhere’?”

He laughed. “Homage to Cole.”

“Oh but we don’t have an ego!” I quipped.

“Thomas Cole, Kunzinger.” Of course, the Hudson Valley School founder was a major influence in my friend’s craft. “Seriously! What a great night!” he said.

“I’m exhausted. That was frustrating because I KNOW that people we know passed us on Route 16!”

“But then you would have gotten home and done what? Gone to the skellar? The Club? Are you kidding?! You walked to Machias from Niagara Falls!”

“I know but…”

“Shhhh. Listen.”

Lennon played.    

“Before you cross the street, take my hand.

Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

Cole was a beautiful man. He died young. But that day at that moment he nodded his head in a definitive manner as if to say “if you don’t agree with me you’re too stupid to live.” “Don’t you get it?” he asked me.

I got it.

“You would have had another unmemorable night in a long stream of unmemorable nights surrounded by drunks and loud music! You’ll be talking about last night for the rest of your life!”

That was more than four decades ago.

I’ve done really well. I have. I have a beautiful place, been around the world dozens of times, written books, and laughed hard—really really hard—with friends. But I’ve been down too, scraping by, not able to pull my own weight without help, living in the extremes—life at perfection that if you died then you’d be happy with it, and life so decidedly bad that if you died right then you’d be happy with it.

But in both cases, I was not busy making other plans. I was decidedly alive. Maybe I should have been more restrained, I don’t know. I’d do a lot differently, especially in the past few years. Even now I want to call a few people up and tell them to shut up while I apologize and explain myself, but there’s no point. There’s only now and next. That’s it.

It’s raining harder now, though I’m at my desk looking out at the woods where a fog has settled with the holly, and it is beautiful.

Sure, I could sit here, get some work done, prepare some lessons for my writing class Tuesday night, maybe finish an essay I’m working on about—no kidding—weather.

But life is happening, and I want to go be a part of it. I’m not irresponsible. Well, okay, I’m sometimes not irresponsible. But sometimes when the world “is too much with me” and I feel unable to think rationally, I get the attention span of a lightning bolt and need to get outside, and walk slowly, taking it in, sitting watching the heron on the branch perched watching me, and spend hours at a walker’s pace instead of seeing it all like a drive-by.

I don’t mind the rain or the cold. It is the nothingness of life that chills me to the bone.

The painting Cole Young was just starting that night, “Homage to Cole,” hung in the second floor lobby of the South Tower of the World Trade Center, and when they came down, I called him at his studio in Brooklyn at the time, and said I had read in the New York Times about the artwork in the towers, and how his was among them.

He laughed. “Yeah!” Then he moved on quickly. “Hey Kunzinger! When are you coming up here! We can hit some studios and some bars, listen to some live guitar music. Bring yours!” he said.

“It’s not around the corner,” I told him.

“I just assumed you’d hitchhike.”

The thing about the hills behind campus was I knew they were there even though on misty Sunday mornings you couldn’t see them at all. But they were there. I’m heading out to the river, walk in the morning fog and clear my head.

Carpe Diem

More than a few people I am very close to are facing troubles–real troubles–far worse than I’ve ever had to deal with.

This is about perspective.

Today was a very good day for me. But even the worst of days is more about how I handle the situation than the situation itself. Life is swift and life is fragile, even for the healthiest, even for the youngest.

I would do a lot of things differently, especially over the course of the more recent years. But I can’t. The best I can do is start now, and keep starting. As many times as it takes.

Life is beautiful.

Much peace my friends.

If I had my life to live over …by Nadine Stair

*****************************************
If I had my life to live over,
I’d dare to make more mistakes next time.
I’d relax, I would limber up.

I would be sillier than I have been this trip.
I would take fewer things seriously.
I would take more chances.
I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers.
I would eat more ice cream and less beans.
I would perhaps have more actual troubles,
but I’d have fewer imaginary ones.

You see, I’m one of those people who live
sensibly and sanely hour after hour,
day after day.

Oh, I’ve had my moments,
And if I had it to do 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 people who never goes anywhere
without a thermometer, a hot water bottle, a raincoat
and a parachute.
If I had to do it again, I would travel lighter than I have.

If I had my life to live 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.

So Far Away

When I came up here to Aerie to mark off the corners for the contractor to dig the footings for the house, my father and son both came with me. Michael was just three at the time and climbed the stacks of logs and other materials, using the brand-new shed as a fort. My father and I held opposite ends of a long measuring tape and put pre-marked sticks in the ground.

We talked about the drive up—it was a Saturday—noting how it wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be from Virginia Beach.

“This place really is centrally located,” I reminded him. “About an hour and a half to the beach, about an hour to Richmond, two fifteen to DC, and two and a half to the mountains. Plus a river and a bay.” We had a great time that day and had lunch in Deltaville before driving back across three bridges, one tunnel, and two interstates to his house.

A few weeks later I was fiddling around the property while waiting for a delivery of stones, and a neighbor walked up the long, winding driveway to introduce himself. Roland and I talked for hours about where we were from, and he filled me in on some of the local places to eat. Then he said, “You know, Bob, I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but we’re really centrally located here.”

“Yes, I know,” I said. “My father and I were just talking about that not long ago.”

He nodded and said, “Yep, the village is only three miles from here, and there’s an Exxon/711 about two miles the other way next to a bank. And if you don’t mind a really good, pretty drive when gas isn’t that high, Urbanna has some nice shops and is about fifteen miles from here. I head over there once a month or so.”

Perspective.

Here’s how I deal with the “So where do you live?” question:

When I’m in Deltaville: “Down Mill Creek toward the river and duck pond.”

When I’m in Virginia Beach: “Deltaville” (technically, “Wake,” but most people understand the much larger though still miniscule Deltaville).

When I’m in western Virginia: “Where the Rappahannock River meets the Chesapeake.”

When I’m in New York or Florida: “Virginia,” but if they’re also from Virginia, “Middlesex County, half hour northeast of Gloucester out near the Bay.”

When I’m in Europe: “the United States.” If they know the States, then I’ll add “Virginia.” Once, an annoying Russian salesman kept asking, “Where are you from specifically?” So I said, “Down the end of Mill Creek near the river.” He said he didn’t know where that was, and my friend Mike said, “Are you kidding?? Everyone else around here in the market knew exactly where that is!”

But usually, just “The States.”

I suppose if I were on the International Space Station I could say, “Down there. Now. No, wait….Now.”

This relative form of measurement works beyond geography. A dear friend of mine died at twenty-seven. Did he know that at twenty-six he was already, relatively speaking, an old man? When my father was my age he still had nearly thirty years left. More often than not I feel closer to ninety than sixty, but then I haven’t looked at my medical map in a while, so I could just be near a rest stop still as close to my thirty-year-old son’s birth as my own death.  

The farther away from a place we are, the more abstract it seems. If I look at my house from the sky, I might notice a swirl of trees with endless green all year from the pines and holly. Then a brown roof on the house at the end of a long scar through the woods to the road. But when I’m standing on the front porch, I see how badly I need to re-stain the logs, how much I have neglected the driveway turns, and how much fallen debris remains in the woods. I am more engulfed by the property and the home when I’m here, of course. It floods me, making it hard to see much else. I don’t mind—it is one of the reasons I live here.

But lately I’ve been realizing that my mind needs to be more centrally located. I can drift too close sometimes to melancholy or even bouts of depression—I don’t necessarily mind as they remind me of what a beautiful journey it has been so far and help keep people who I have loved and lost close to my heart. Likewise, being so engulfed in nature here as I am, I often find myself not too far from some state of presence—in the moment and appreciating every aspect of nature. The river and the bay are my companions, the woods too. This brings me peace and often I can come quite close to some euphoric state.

But if I move too close to one or the other for too long, or too far away, I find myself in a state of confusion and worry. Lost. My balance is thrown off and I can easily fall into the terrain of regret and sorrow, or the Oz-like, false sense of safety that comes from a mind at peace. I need both, but I would like them equally at arm’s length—close enough to find, far enough away to avoid.

When I’m here on the river for too long, I need to go. I get restless and I need to head out—see more, discover more. It is simply my DNA and I don’t know how else to explain it. Florida, Prague, Spain, the Rockies. But after being on the road a bit I almost can’t breathe right until I’m sitting on the rocks on the Rappahannock, watching the sun slide away again, listening to the geese or the osprey.

When I was young, we moved from our home in one county on the Island to another. We returned a few times to visit friends on the block, but rarely. It was so far away that it might as well have been in Topeka. Geez, it was only twenty-one miles away! When I leave my driveway now, I drive further than that just to get to the first stoplight. But back then, distance was measured in necessity, and if we didn’t have a need to go back, we didn’t.

Me, well, I always have a need to go back, even just for a little while. It’s only dangerous if you go back and stay there, unable to cut the tethers. But I’m careful enough to make sure I’m looking ahead as well, appreciating the anticipation, spying as much on hope as what was.

Therapy

I saw my therapist today. My son and I went to a local nature trail, and as we walked I mentally conversed with the crisp air and bare trees, the occasional birds, and the creeks running alongside. This is my proverbial couch, and today (as well as last week at Westmoreland State Park on the Potomac River) was my weekly session. I have always found perspective in nature, an understanding of the need to focus on now, on today, on the moment at hand, as well as a deep appreciation for the pace and tempo of time when we are in nature. With so much going on in my life, today, and every time we go for hikes or when I just wander to the river and sit on the stones to watch cars pass on the distant bridge, I manage to slip those bonds of stress and anxiety.

I have walked in nature since I’m nine years old, and I always innately managed to allow “nature’s peace to flow into me as sunshine flows into the trees,” as John Muir suggested, and I’m certain everyone out there understands this as well.

E.O. Wilson wrote that, “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.” I think better in nature. I mentally write and revise, I connect dots between seemingly unrelated themes. I can sit and contemplate the way geese land on the pond and suddenly recognize the relationship between them and a discussion I had about some folk song or compelling art. I don’t do this on purpose; I just walk, then I recall that piece I’m working on about the Torture Museum in Prague, and after awhile I note the patience and focus a Great Blue Heron uses in seeking out small fish in the duck pond, and, ouila, clear as a bell. I’m off and running.

I have been to churches all over the world and remain close friends with priests I’ve known since I’m nineteen, but I don’t really contemplate faith until I’m on some trail somewhere in the snow and turn around to see the valleys cut by ice millions of years ago. Even those faithless among us know that Muir was right when he wrote “the clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.”

I have been going to these therapy sessions since I’m a child along the Great South Bay, and like John Burroughs, I have always gone to nature to be “soothed, healed, and have my senses put in order.” It isn’t far, this nature I’m talking about. I’ve walked down Fifth Avenue in summer at five a.m. and have known nature. The walk from my building to the parking garage at the college passes several groves of trees and a well-hidden pond where birds spend their time between their classes.

When I’m confused, anxiety-ridden, stressed, worried about meeting my goals, worried about so much I thought I’d never have to concern myself with at my age, when “the world is too much with” me, I just know what Einstein meant when he wrote, “If you look deep into nature, you will understand everything better.”

Frank Lloyd Wright said he walked in nature every day for inspiration for his day’s work. Me too, and sometimes it actually happens that way, particularly if I come home, put some appropriate music on, and brain dump my thoughts.

Just as often, however, I’m so inspired and awakened by nature that I just stay out there. The long trails become my compound sentences and the rocks at the river from which I can see both west up the Rappahannock and east across the Chesapeake become my exclamation points. In writing I avoid such sensational punctuation marks, but in nature they are virtually everywhere! The herons and the kingfishers are sensational. The snapper turtles and the stingrays, the pink clouds at dusk, the orange glow before dawn, the osprey call, the geese landing all at once with hundreds of slides into the otherwise-still water; these are nature’s equivalent of dramatic emphasis. There are simply no parentheses in nature, nothing to set off or turn into some subordinate clause. It is all subject and verb; it is always active voice.  

Life—my life—has seemed heavy at times, a ton of bricks difficult to carry but more difficult to put down. I have climbed so far already this year, and I continue one foot in front of the other, but the summit is still quite aways away, and when I’m inside—both physically and mentally—it can keep reflecting back at me, can absorb too much attention simply by virtue of perspective, like a boulder in a bathtub. But when I’m outside and the simplicity of life greets me at the door and reminds me of my priorities, and I step out into the infinite presence of earth, Rachel Carson is there too to remind me that “those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.”

Bizarre statistic: Those who contemplate suicide and decide to see it through at home are three times more likely to do so than those who go into nature to end their misery. Of course there are exceptions; I’ve known or have known of a few troubled souls who found their eternal peace in nature much too soon. But the vast majority of lost souls find their way home by leaving it and seeking out something larger than themselves.

We seem so damned important and certain in the confines of our offices and living rooms and our problems can appear so significant, but out along the river, out where we can stare across the reach to the distant waves, up along the ridge of some mountain where water formed caves millions of years ago and we stand in perfect silence completely in the moment, we are aware that life is nothing but now and love. Life at its core is comprised of nothing more than now and love.

Session over.