Last Name First

name/nām/ noun

  1. A word or set of words by which a person, animal, place, or thing is known, addressed, or referred to.

Growing up I was called “Robert.” Part of that is because my mother’s youngest brother was with us very often and he is Bob, or Bobby. But when we moved to Virginia and I entered tenth grade, I reestablished my identity as a Bob while at school. It had no effect on my family who continued to (and continue to) call me Robert, though when referencing me to non-family members, I’m a Bob. Once, a girl in high school I had a crush on called the house and my mother answered. My friend asked to talk to Bob and my mother said, “I’m sorry there is no one here by that name,” and hung up. UGH! Apparently, my friend called the next guy on her list because she never called back. Some months later she admitted, “I called you once to see if you wanted to go out somewhere, but I must have had the wrong number.”

(a note to young readers: if you are trying to figure out why my mother would answer a phone call for me, Google, “Antique phone customs.”)

Now I’m not thrilled when anyone anywhere calls me Robert, though it’s no big deal. Except my family, who when they call me Bob it seems totally wrong, like the Man who Never Was.

Crazy how identity is such a deeply-rooted motivator for our life, yet so often hinges on a name. Quixotic. Kafkaesque. Jeffersonian.

Boblike.

I wish we could still use one name like in Greek times: Plato! Aristotle! Or names associated with location: Francis of Assisi, Lawrence of Arabia.

Bob of Brooklyn.

Even ethnicity in this country is often shrouded by a last name. Kunzinger has all the markings of a deeply German background, and it is true that my great-great grandfather hailed from Lohr en Main, in Bavaria, Germany, where he and three of his brothers left for the United States in the 1850s. But according to the latest update of my DNA, I’m barely 11 percent German, with almost 50 percent going to my Irish roots. So O’Kunzinger is more appropriate but most likely quite offensive to my Galway ancestors. England/Scotland comes in second followed by Italian and French. So, with apologies to Philip Kunzinger of Lohr, my last name is a poor indicator as to my roots.  

At the university, Professor is likely, though at my previous college of employment, “Dude” was not unusual. The professor moniker is a burden, however, since while I think I’m a decent teacher of art and writing and humanities, I’m still apt to think of “Professor” as the scholar in a tweed coat with world-renowned expertise, who is referenced in journals and instead of watching Late Night reads papers in bed. I know these people; I’m not these people, though I play one on Zoom.

Then two new students approached me the other day after class and said, “We Googled you.” They told me that at first they saw some articles and information about where I had worked before, but then said they changed “Robert” to “Bob” and a slew of pages came up with all writing references and links. I told them that “Kunzinger” makes it inevitable that anything about Bob Kunzinger would not be likely to mix with other people, but if I were Bob Smith, they probably never would have found me; I’m nobody, really, except someone with a very uncommon name. Still, they said they ordered books so there’s that.

For a long time when I met someone through my parents, I’d introduce myself as “Robert” so not to contradict what they might have said, and that was usually correct. So now when I hear Robert I think of “young” me, adolescent me, no need to figure it out yet me. When I hear Bob I think of writer me, traveling me. But I also think of restless me, unsettled me, still looking for peace me. Robert goes back so far I can’t help but feel quieted when I hear it—from certain people. It was a good youth, where serenity wasn’t difficult to find during those Robert years.

“Dad” has a category all of its own, though a completely different set of mental wanderings than say “Daddy,” which tends to conjure up twenty-five-year old memories instead of the oysters we had last week.

So what goes on the headstone? Each of them is correct for different reasons, and I think it would cost too much to put them all on there. Perhaps “Dude” is the correct one, which implies just everyman, anyone—no one in particular.

It’s raining today, and the ground is saturated, the marsh exceptionally high, and the river, though still, rising. I come to the water to clear my head of the nonsense and worries, of the anxiety and depressive ways of life, and I am settled by the lack of labels here, the absence of naming things. I know the names of the wildlife here, but they don’t, and that thought brings me great peace; they simply are, and that is enough for them, so it’s enough for me out here.

For a long time I wondered if our names were for us or just for other people to make accounting easier—separate us from the simple “Hey You” confusion. It helps with mail delivery and paychecks, with grades in school and publications you spent a long time working on. For instance, I do not put my name on drafts no one will see but me.

The truth is, I feel more mature when I hear “Bob,” more ambitious and accomplished. And I must admit hearing “Professor” makes me more likely to give a well-thought-out response over someone calling me “Dude.” But names and labels and titles and degrees only serve us to exist with others in a regulated society where fitting in is necessary to maintain a place of our own, both physically and metaphorically. But out here where the river meets the bay, and the winds sometimes bring a chill from the northwest, and the osprey return to chase away the eagles for the season, I often forget who I am to begin with, and what was troubling me. Out here, where I have a complete sense of, well, what..?

Peace, I guess. Serenity, maybe. But “serenity is a long time coming to me, and I don’t believe that I know what it means anymore.”

A Little Too Slow

It’s raining, been raining, since, like, last March. Seems that way anyhow. It’s been okay, here, going for hikes, catching the sun no matter the temperature, sitting out near the bay or walking the trails along the Potomac an hour or so north of here. Yeah, it’s been fine.

But honestly, it would be easier without all the endless streams of information, contradictory, negative, often inflammatory, soul-killing information. The most common conversations carried out on social media and mainstream media and alternative media is what is wrong with everyone else, what rules others are not following, and some of it focuses on someone else’s lies and some of it is lying to begin with, or making personal attacks, and violating absolutely every single fallacy professors dutifully instruct students NOT to do. Then we have to explain to them why politicians, analysts, talking heads, and others are guilty of what we preach is wrong.

It is no longer the case that all the information is being evaluated closely and disseminated widely by scrutinizing professionals, and only then do various factions disagree with how to handle the information. No. Now, each party has its own source, all different from each other, all verifying (or not verifying) their own information with their own “experts” and disseminating that information to their own followers, and anyone who disagrees isn’t watching the same media-flow to begin with, like separate cultures studying separate languages with separate definitions who try to communicate and, well, can’t.

And ten years ago, even five years ago….hell, last year, I’d have allowed myself to get worked up about it and head down to the college and take advantage of my position in front of literally a captive audience and preach about the rampant hypocrisy and childish behavior. I’d have lectured about those fallacies and the need to have a complete understanding of all the information before passing judgement—and that even then you don’t have a right to do so anyway, only certified experts should do that, and I’d leave feeling satisfied even if they didn’t get it.

Now, well, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about who’s saying what about whom and who’s lying and who’s on the prowl. I’m over it. Tired of it doesn’t begin to explain how tired of it I am. Maybe it is because I’m frustrated like everyone else. I no longer have the outlet of doing gigs which satisfied my life emotionally, financially, and professionally, but it is more than that. It is an overwhelming sense that the water has risen too high to ever again recede enough to see those placid and amicable shores. They’re gone. Just gone.

So what do we do? Learn to swim? See, I think that’s been my problem. When the waters of ridicule and childish bantering so common in the world rose higher and higher, I’ve been trying to keep up, at the very least tread water. Wow was that a bad idea.

I was at the river earlier. It is raining today, all day, a steady downpour which seems like hasn’t occurred since I was young and spent Saturdays on the couch watching old black and white westerns on television because it was too wet to go out and play. That kind of rain, where being inside is easy because being outside is simply not pleasant. It would be okay if the temperature was mild, but it is not. I know we’re lucky here not to have the ice and snow and power-outages so much of the country is currently suffering. Very lucky, indeed. But here we are, stagnant, overly complacent, and feeling submerged like never before.

Then the river, and a heron landed nearby, looked at me for a moment as if she had been dozing and only then realized, “Oh, crap, a human,” and took off for the other side of the pond. I looked out at the bay, felt the rain on my hood and my face and back, and remembered when things were, well, simpler.

Maybe not politically or socially; I really couldn’t tell you. Because back then I made conscious choices for things to be simpler. I worked, of course—always have—but I also took my time, didn’t listen to anything that brought me down if I couldn’t do anything about it anyway. I didn’t so much have my head in the sand as much as I did in the clouds, above the minutia of meaningless banter and complicated nonsense.

I’m no longer interested in confrontation, have no need for discussions about masks—literal and metaphorical—and so-called experts and excuses. We live in a world of blame without evidence, of judgement without inquiry, of ridicule without recognition how the other person might feel. We’ve lost the ability to make excuses for other people, and we long ago fell out of fashion with the idea of being brutally honest with each other, no matter the cost, in spite of the gain. Maybe that’s why love seems so lacking of late in the world, and dreams. And the softness of memory and hope.

I’ve always been aware of what’s around me, proud of the fact I can adjust to just about any situation in which I find myself—streetwise we used to call it. But truth be told, and to rip from a JT song for a second, I’m not nearly smart enough for the life I have led for the past thirty years, not fast enough for the times in which I find myself.

And the anxiety I often feel comes from trying to keep pace. That’s it. Oh how that thought today when I was standing there in the downpour, that my anxiety comes from trying to keep pace in a world that’s going too fast for its own good, ripped into my memory so powerfully it was like a hologram appeared on the surface of the river before me, as if even the heron saw those people there, the ones at a health club I used to manage. People would come up to me after a workout, crying, wanting to quit, frustrated at the pace of others in the studio, and I would tell them, “Set your own pace! This isn’t a competition; your life is not their parlor game! It is yours! Play it how you want’ then you can’t lose!”  

Well that advice turned out to be way harder than it sounded. Or, should I say, it is way easier to tell others that than to live it myself. But today, when the heron realized I was there and took off, and I realized I was there and had an overwhelming desire to take off, that simplicity, that sense of my own right to set my own pace and no longer worry about how I’ve been judged, how I’ve judged others, and let it all go, awash in the river, like the water upstream, passing me now, heading out to the bay, and further, and farther still, reset my sense of self for the first time in a long time. I have no idea how I’m going to get from here to there, but like the humanists of long ago, I’m sure the answers can be found around me, out here in nature where objectivity exists, and truth, where one cannot make excuses, one cannot blame others, and the only survival technique needed is the oldest truism in nature: keep it simple.

These Lives of Mine

I don’t remember the place in the picture above. It is in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and I lived there for five months. While five months is a long time, in this case it was my very first five months. Still, it is in my blood. The roads of Brooklyn walked by my parents, my grandparents, my ancestry, is in me as if they picked up gravel along the gutters of Ovington Avenue and bled it with our DNA. My parents lived in the apartment building above from not long before my sister was born until shortly after my own birth roughly seven years later. She remembers it, I suppose. Some of it. I’m sorry that I never knew the place as the apartment building was filled with my Dad’s brothers and their families–and I have a lot of cousins. In fact, my cousin Stephen was born not long before me, and my mother wanted that to be my name but didn’t want two Stephen Kunzinger’s living at the same address because it would confuse the teachers. So Stephen was relegated to my middle name, and my cousin and his family moved to Elmira, hundreds of miles away, and we moved to the Island, several light years away. Upside to visiting: The Bay Ridge Bakery is on the corner. Amazing.

Massapequa Park on Long Island was your typical suburban village. The elementary school was just across that street on the left, and that house was ours, except, well, no. We moved in there sixty years ago and they either tore down the old house or renovated it so completely that only the bay window and the garage door seem familiar. Gone is the side patio with the green awning under which I loved to sit on rainy days. We built snow forts at the corner, and I once fell and slammed my head on that sidewalk. Charlie lived a few doors down. I remember this place; I really do. I remember mostly baseball and the pool in the yard. Across the street were neighbors who became life-long friends for my parents–Joe and Rose Fontana. Rose, who taught my mom to cook Italian food decades before she knew she was Italian as well, and Joe, “Baby Face” Fontana, the boxer, who wasn’t that tall but I once watched him dive from a stand still on the ground into a four foot pool. But I don’t consider this the place I grew up, even though the greatest comediennes in the business lived in Massapequa. Go ahead, look it up.

This is where I grew up. This is where I am “from” in my Facebook bio. Of course, the trees weren’t there, or at least not as big, since we planted them. It’s hard to see the house in this picture but I still know every inch of the place. I still know every street name in the beautiful village, and I’m happy to say it is one of the places in my past which is still as nice as when we lived there almost fifty years ago. This is where I’d walk every day to the deli or the post office or Timber Point Country Club or the Arboretum. But mostly it is where for six years I lived to hike the trails and beaches of Heckscher State Park with my friend Eddie. When Eddie died tragically not long ago, I had both the urge to head to Great River and the drive to never go back again.

It’s crazy, going back where we came from, where we became ourselves. Sometimes I wish I could get in the car and drive up there and somewhere along the Southern State enter a time warp to the early seventies. And Steve and I would play baseball, and my brother, sister and I would walk to the deli for heroes. And Eddie and I would talk about music. I sometimes wonder if some other young boy is in the room with the two windows in the second floor, and if he sometimes climbs out on the roof of the porch and leans against the house and thinks about the astronauts as I did. Back then it was Apollo 11; back then the internet was our imagination, and we had no device to talk to anyone except the one phone we all shared downstairs. Back then I couldn’t conceive of right now; it was never going to happen.

The irony of this house on Wolf’s Neck Trail in Virginia Beach is it really was my parents’ home for about three decades, yet mine for only three years, as I went to high school then. Still, this is where we all gathered and holds significance for being the house that my siblings and I all lived in, even if briefly, while we were all single, and returned to later enough in our lives that we all had our children, and my parents’ five grandkids all well remember playing in this house, and heading out into the yard which stretched hundreds of feet down to the Lynnhaven River. It really never looked much different than this picture, though some trees have come and gone, but that crack in the driveway has been there since 1974. Go figure.

I lived here for four years.

St. Bonaventure University in the Enchanted Mountains of western New York. I’ve lived in five states and been around the world many many times, but this is “home,” this is where I came of age and discovered that the pursuit of self is as important as the pursuit of knowledge. The people I met here are still some of my closest friends and confidants, and shall remain so for the rest of my life. I have written stories about some particular experiences at this college and about how I learned just how small the world is, about just how brief life can be, all wrapped in a place that offered us all some foundation of eternity, some sense that no matter what happens, we can come back anytime we wish to regroup and have another go at it.

Someone stole my bike, though, freshman year right in front of that building there–Deveroux Hall. Still pisses me off.

This is Tucson, Arizona. I worked in a record store and that’s it, because my memories of Tucson are of hiking the Catalina Mountains, hiking up to Bear Canyon and the Seven Falls, hiking to Mt Lemon and skiing during the day then swimming at the apartment pool that afternoon. My memories are of driving up to Kitt Peak Observatory where it was dead silent and cold in the day, or the Sonoran Desert Museum, which was actually a kind of wildlife preserve. But mostly my memory comes after my roommate Tom headed back east and my friend Renee headed back east and I headed south, to Mexico, where I finetuned my Spanish and made decent money buying blankets for practically nothing and reselling them at University of Arizona football games. And Kahlua. That too.

I include the small picture on top because for three years that was my playground–the Wachusett Reservoir in central Massachusetts, and that house on the right was my home–well, the bottom floor off to the left side. Of all the places I lived until my home now, this is the one I never should have left–not the house itself, but the village, the people, the location, the life. I love it there. I worked for Richard Simmons at the time and spent all that money traveling around New England, but mostly I walked the shores of this reservoir, out to the Old Stone Church or around to Bob’s Hotdog Truck. Across the street was the Deacon’s Bench Antiques, and up the road in Sterling was a very cool farm stand with apples and apple pies and an apple cider mill. Further still, up the road was Mt. Wachusett, where I’d hike to the summit in summer and watch kettles of hawks or look east at the Boston skyline.

I’m glad I left but I never should have left.

After a brief run on East Chocolate Avenue in Hershey, I lived here. This old house in this old village with horse farms and country roads was fine for someone in their seventies, which absolutely every single one of my neighbors was, but it is still deep in my heart for other reasons. I had the entire second floor of that house and also the attic, and it is here I lived when I attended Penn State, and it is here I lived on one of my trips to Africa, and it is here I came to understand why we decide to stay somewhere instead of moving to say, Austria, to tend bar in a castle, and where I came to understand why some people need to leave, to find out not just who they are, but who they aren’t; the need to define themselves without any lifelong influences. I stayed here too long.

But I loved that attic.

Forget the move to the beach, the winter on a beach in Sandbridge part of Virginia Beach, the apartments, the hurricanes, the car breaking down in a college parking lot where I decided to use the phone in an office and walked out with a career. No, I need to jump to Aerie:

This picture above is all Google Earth will provide. So, here’s what is under those treetops:

Aerie: Hawk or eagle nest.

I built this house, quite literally. I didn’t do the foundation or the mechanicals, but I helped stack the logs, and then after it was framed out, I built all the interior walls, the stairwell, all the doors, the floors, and the kitchen, including the cabinets, though on that point you can kind of tell I did them. That was twenty-four years ago. In fact, while I have lived more places than the pictures above represent, Michael has lived in this house since he just turned four. The house is fine, but I’m more attached to the property with its trails, and the hill which runs down past my neighbor’s farm to the river.

I’ve long wondered about two perspectives in life: That of the one who has made a home for himself in many places, but never long enough to become completely a part of any of them, and the one where one lives in one spot for his life, so that the village is in your blood, and the people you know you’ve always known and always will know. I’ve taken a little of each place with me and sometimes they don’t so much pull at my shirt, tugging me backwards, as much as they push on my back, urging me on.

This is the family homestead for me, now, and my blood is literally in the walls here, as three year old Michael can attest to as he sat on the floor in front of the fireplace eating an orange and learning a new vocabulary as I tried to fit countertops just slightly too long into a small kitchen.

But this place is also a springboard, for Ireland, for Spain, for places I haven’t even thought about yet. I like hanging out on the porch, drinking tea or wine, and watching the osprey head out toward the bay. I like spending weeks traveling no further than the village for coffee and bread. But I wouldn’t like it nearly as much without waiting in line at airports, without taking a train across some foreign land, without trying foods from third-world countries in second-world restaurants. When I’m home too long, I need to leave; when I’m gone too long, I need to get home. I miss Oakdale and the yellow house on the reservoir; and I miss the hills of Allegany, New York. I wish I could tell my younger self about where I’ve been–which places to avoid and which to stay just, well, a little bit longer anyway. I’d tell some friends in Pennsylvania how to find me later, just in case, and I’d tell Eddie not to leave work early in December of 2020.

The thing about moving is you make a lot of friends, but you leave a lot of friends, and I’m not so sure the first part is worth the second part. We live in a world now where we can remain in touch with virtually every single person we’ve ever known or have met, and therein lies the greatest problem of all–we need to miss people; I believe it is important to miss people. It teaches us the value of time, the persistence of love, and the need of us all to stand still long enough to recognize who were are.

I’d tell Dad the truth, that I didn’t want to leave Great River, when he asked what I thought about moving to Virginia Beach. It wouldn’t have made a difference, but it would have started me down a path of being honest with myself about what it is that makes a home.

These are literally just random thoughts, written just now, no rewrite at all, while I was screwing around on Google Earth, zooming in on old homesteads and moving the littler person icon to the street. Very cool, huh?

I’m not so sure. I’m really not.

Image result for earth

Inshallah

Image result for rainy day on the james river

I’ve written about this before, and this story occurred when I was a different person in a career I never anticipated. Last night I found a picture, and it brought this memory back like it occurred last week.

I had been teaching about three years when the president of the college called me into his conference room. It was autumn, and it rained that day so not only did the impending meeting occupy my thoughts, but the weather made everyone miserable. Fog settled heavy on the James River behind the buildings, and just the walk from the parking lot left me wet and sticky.  I sloshed into the leather seat in his spacious office. The river ran behind his rain-covered windows, the water and fog blending. The Monitor- Merrimac Bridge Tunnel appeared little more than a shadow of a river crossing. He thanked me for driving to his office and moved right to business. “Tell me truth here, Bob. Is she crazy?” 

“She” was an African American, PhD professor. Short and rather rotund, her Islamic chador shrouded her dark darting eyes. She hid in bushes some early mornings, garrisoning herself from evil attacks of campus maintenance workers and other faculty. Sometimes after class she walked home by advancing from tree to tree, looking about, scanning the parking lot for followers. We had been hired together, and when we first talked, we talked long about Africa, where I had been and where she had longed to go. I showed her a picture of a village chief, a tall thin man who in the photo is searching for a place to settle down with his prayer mat in the sub-Saharan dust. She stared at the picture a long time, and her eyes welled. “I feel like I should be there, Bob” she said. It was just a few months later she spouted profanities across the library tables to other workers, accusing them of casting a spell on her. It was another two years before the President called me in and asked me if I thought she was crazy.

“Compared to who?” I asked. I quickly qualified myself as not being able to determine anyone’s mental state. True, a professor who hid in the hedges and crouched behind trees because she thought she was being followed appeared, on the surface at least, insane. But who was I to say? In my time teaching college, I have often desired to flee to the cover of rhododendrons. “I don’t know,” I said. “She’s a great teacher though. She knows her stuff.”

“Bob, she yells across the library–yells–at other personnel–screams for them to stop following her. Last time they were just replacing light bulbs.”                                                                     

“Yes, sir, that’s true. But it’s not my call. I’m her colleague.”

I was also Assistant Division Chair at the time, and while this denoted nothing when assessing other full-time faculty–least of all their mental state– it placed me in a position where the woman in question trusted me. In fact, I was the only one she talked to most of the time, the division chair at the time simply did not get along with her. The college was being both cunningly cautious and blatantly cowardice. While I was a white, Catholic professor, we still had more in common than others. I’d spent a good deal of time in Islamic villages on two separate trips to Africa. She asked often of life there, about people, about their lives. So when she started to cower into the dark corners of campus with what can best be perceived as paranoid schizophrenia, I was the medium through whom the administration communicated.   

 “She can’t stay,” the president said.

“Okay.” I answered. At the time, I really didn’t care either way. A puddle had formed at my feet, and my sweater smelled like a dead animal in a Moroccan marketplace. He offered me coffee. 

“Bob. We’d like you to offer her three choices. One, she stays, but if the pattern continues, she will be fired. That will give us time to document more of these incidents. Two, she transfers to another campus. When people there start following her and she yells at them, that would mean it’s her, not us and we would need to let her go. Third, she can resign now, we’ll pay her contract for the rest of the year, and she leaves on good terms with recommendations.”  I thought, you are going to recommend her? To whom? But what I said was, “Wow, Dr. This is somewhat beyond me here, don’t you think?”

“You’re the only one she trusts, Bob.” Ah, so that’s how you do it, I thought. You find the one employee the victim trusts most and sic him on her. Well, in this case, the victim filled nearly every minority check box, and the legal issues lingered like the fog on the James. I asked what he wanted to happen, though I already figured that out, and said I’d talk to her. When I was leaving, I said, “You know, sir, I don’t get paid enough for this.”   He laughed. Of course, because it’s so laughable.

I sat in my office just across the hall from the victim. I wondered where the line was between being mentally stable and out in left field, thinking I should know exactly where it is since I step over it so often. All three offers seemed low and outside–academic spitballs. I’m crazy for doing this, I thought. But then more than a few college profs wander well into the outfield too often during the season.

I worked once with a professor who would walk into class the first day and exclaim, “Nearly all of you will get no better than a C,” and he was right–he failed more than three quarters of the students in every class he taught. While I was in college in New York, a priest taught a course in parapsychology. The street name of the course was “spooks.” In his youth he was an exorcist in France and had been dealing with the paranormal for fifty years. He always left the front row of every class empty in case former students or colleagues who had died might show up to sit in. Once, when the door was slightly ajar, the wind blew in and swept it all the way open and then slammed it shut. We were silent until Father quietly stated, “Oh, Larry, I’m so glad you are joining us” We laughed. He didn’t.

Before I went across the hall, I decided to consult my friend, Lianne, whose office was just around the corner and whose ethics exceeded just about anyone at the college. Her response, of course, was on the money: “Why isn’t the college getting her help? Our insurance covers psychological help; they should be helping her, Bob!” she exclaimed with complete empathy. For a few years, I’d run into Lianne in the hallway and she would shake her head and repeat, “They should have helped her, Bob.”

Lianne was in her mid-thirties at the time, one child and one on the way. We talked for some time about those choices, about working instead of going to school, about discovering life. We talked about my persistent uneasiness when standing still, about her dedication to her students and her love for teaching. “I just wish these students would really understand how necessary it is to really live life and not just follow someone else’s path!” she would say firmly. I’ll never forget going down the hall to her office after my Presentation of the Three Choices, to tell her what happened. It disturbed her on so many levels. A few years later Lianne died of cancer. She was so young.

When she died I asked myself, “Why am I doing this? What am I doing here?” Teaching is an occupation where you can tell other people how to do things you don’t actually do yourself. Most writing instructors don’t actually write. This isn’t to say that to teach psychology teachers should be fucked up (though the ones I have known for three decades certainly have had issues). Sure theorists are necessary to measure differences and calculate shifts in perspective. But I’m one who believes in understanding the swamp by walking through it. Because it is a swamp, all of it. Throw a torn magazine in the air as often as you’d like, but the pieces will never fall back into place. In the real world, “C” is average and most of us are just that. And sometimes someone really is out to get us, nudging our psyche to the margins, forcing us to duck into the hedges. Sanity sometimes hides in the fog. We look for the obvious outcasts somewhere on the playing field when the insane might be sitting next to us in the box seats.

A few days after seeing the president but before I made the Presentation of the Three Choices, I was in a faculty meeting when the drugs finally kicked in. Unfortunately, I wasn’t taking them. But the hyperactive freak throwing his glasses across the room in disagreement over some freshman composition concern calmed down and kept quiet. Thank God. Still, it woke me up. I sat staring at the wall listening in cartoon fashion to my colleagues. Their voices came out as one long whir like the nonsensical sound of Peanuts teachers. My shirt felt tight about my neck like I couldn’t breathe and I thought of a Whitman poem, “When I heard the Learned Astronomer,” wherein the student gets sick and dizzy listening to someone talk endlessly about astronomy and doesn’t feel fine until he walks out and looks up in “perfect silence at the stars.” My blood pressure rose like Icarus, and I was burning up. I feared I might crash while discussions continued about whether the research paper should be taught in freshman composition one or freshman composition two. No one wants the responsibility of turning a freshman class into a difficult class.           

Meanwhile, everyone is watching the clock.

Eventually, I left the department meeting only to be accosted by some student in the hallway wanting to know—not kidding here—if Ernest Hemingway wore green pants when he shot himself. Back at my office I found eight students waiting. None of them wanted advice on papers or suggestions on topics but wished merely to confess to me about how the humidity in their houses ruined their printers and the only person left at home to feed Grandma is a fifteen-year-old sibling who isn’t back from rehab yet. Every time my office turns into this sort of confessional, the room spins, the hallway dissolves, and I can’t breathe. So I slip outside and always waiting there, smoking, are students who never showed up for an earlier class and proceed to tell me about some car problems that didn’t get flushed out until after class was over, though they really hustled, and they deliver all this with a straight face as if I’d never been to college and didn’t blow off classes, or as if a twelve-year-old couldn’t see through their backwards, pathetic excuses.

So I keep walking, passing most with my head down, taking the long way around to my mailbox since a three minute walk can take fifteen if it’s between classes and I am spotted by students with reasons to see me other than collegiate. I’m not fast enough though and my choices are the student who wants to show me his poetry even though I told him I don’t know anything about writing poetry or the faculty member who wants to discuss textbook choices for the next semester and maybe we could do so at his house with a small party and invite all the faculty for a pot luck textbook brain session. If I hesitate too long I’ll never get to my car fast enough to get a drink before my next class, so I duck into the hedges and wait, pulling my baseball cap down over my eyes, hoping no one notices even though I know–I mean I know– I’m being followed.

(Breathe in. Breathe out. Move on)

Back at my office, I still had to make the Presentation of the Three Choices, so I knocked on her door. She had been kneeling, praying, and stood awkwardly, with my assistance and apologies. She seemed totally lucid, completely at ease, and I didn’t know if that was good or bad. She settled down and asked, “Am I going to be fired, Bob?” I told her the choices, and, unfortunately, with some tears, she asked what I thought she should do. I gave her the picture of the village chief, the one of him searching for a place to put his prayer mat, and she nodded. Part of me wanted to tell her to fight–to get a lawyer and battle this out, but I couldn’t figure out why. So I said, “You’re hiding in hedges. You’re yelling at colleagues across the library.”

“I’ll do what Allah wants me to do, Bob. But I’m not crazy.” She paused and looked at the cinderblock wall. “What would you do?” she asked.

Now whenever anyone asks me that, I always think of a student, Kevin, who I suggested sell his roofing equipment at the company he started but hated and travel. Kevin, who six months later sent me a postcard from Sydney, Australia. Back then when someone asked “What would you do?” I thought of my son because whenever someone asked a stupid or difficult to answer question, I tried to imagine how I would want the teacher to respond if it were him. I found patience and restraint this way, and just a little bit of balance, though, true–not always. Sometimes I cross the line, toss my notes into the air wondering if they’ll all come down in one piece

I thought of Kevin recently and about his postcard and realized he never came back. And this professor with her prayer mat and concrete understanding of American literature never came back either, and me too, who took over her office some years later, not long before I also left and never returned; mostly because we never do go back after we leave a place, allowing others to decide what had been wrong with us all those years, who we used to be.

One windy day in my final year of teaching at that college, I stood in class and took roll when the door swung wide open, startling students. I stared for a moment and said, “Oh Lianne, come on in,” and everyone laughed.

Except me.

And I said to myself

Even nature doesn’t have any good news lately. Snowstorms throughout the Northeast, floods in the west, roadways wiped out along the Pacific coast, wind damage from here through the southeast, and more storms coming. That’s okay; it is February and this isn’t unusual, it’s just that, you know, Covid, politics, the economy, unemployment, conspiracy theorists, maskless morons, all underlined by time just slipping slipping slipping, into the future (I don’t really need to attribute that, right?).

I’m exhausted.

Usually we can handle one or two aspects of existence slumping for a bit, but many are dealing with no less than three weak spots in their belay line. People slip, some fall, some jump. And at some point we’re going to come out of this dank period and grab hold of hope again. But it’s not feeling around the corner, is it? Well, anyway, it doesn’t feel that way to me.

So…what then?

If you were someone else, and that person came to you complaining about the way things are, down about the seeming lack of promise, deep in despair about some vague, indiscriminate sense of helplessness, and asked for advice, what would you say?

I used to do that when I was younger. If I wasn’t sure what to do, and I felt like there wasn’t anyone I could talk to about it, I’d step outside myself and ask the other me what advice I had for, well, me. It usually worked because the objective part of my psyche is way more positive than the character caught in the tangled curtains separating a lousy perspective caused by confusion about reality. The troubled side of us too often sees things in a dimmer light.

So I asked myself, “Myself, what’s the best use you could be making of your time right now?”

And Myself said, “Go to the river.” In this case, Myself sounded a lot like the medieval knight in the cave at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  

The tide is high today, well above normal, and the water choppy from the strong winds out of the west. It isn’t snowing or raining but a little of both, sometimes, looking a lot like it will pass yet not anytime soon.

Then I watched the Seabirds push against the wind, rising and falling while trying to hover against the storm much like they do when eyeing down a fish below the surface, just before they tuck back their wings and dive, but now they hang there for survival, pushing, ducking a bit then rising again, but always in the same area, always resisting the storm, pushing against it.

I pulled my collar up, tilted my head down a bit, my eyes tearing from the cold.

Then one of the gulls lifted up, well above the others, then let the left wing loose, stretched it all the way out, tilted her head to the east just slightly, turned with the wind and was gone, gliding out toward the bay, lifting up with ease, and higher, the whole time not needing to work, just heading up and out over the bay, quickly covering a distance it would take me more than a little time to travel.

What grace she had, letting go of the resistance of inevitable forces, and using what is best in her the best she should. A few minutes later another untucked her slightly frozen feathers and flew behind, just feet above the water this time without so much as a single push, like pelicans in summer along the coast, and then another, and another.

I don’t know what happened that they suddenly turned and took flight. Did they wait until the storm was strong enough to carry them afar? Did they always know they were going to head that way but waited as long as they could?

Did they give in? Tough call, when to resist and when to head home by another way, choose another path. How long did they hover believing it was always going to be like that where in the distance they could see only grey, only more grey after that?

And an egret stood at the edge of the water, oblivious, dipping her head for minnows in the unusually rough pond. And a young eagle perched alone atop a tree beyond the marshland. And two young gulls stood next to each other on the sand, facing the wind, but low, below the point that might force them to find new shelter.

They didn’t seem to mind, not really. Nor did the others. They negotiate the storms with much the same approach as they do the hot and sunny days of August.

It is snowing again, and on the news now they’re talking about congressional disagreements, about rising Covid numbers, about almost half a million deaths, about regression among schoolchildren, about lack of relief for poor and famished families, about so much most of us can do nothing about, and I find myself turning away from this storm of information, this deluge of inhumane behavior, and let the breezes lift my spirits enough to rise up and move on, away from the madness.

After/thoughts

It’s cloudy today, perhaps some snow tonight as the temperature is supposed to drop to around thirty. The sky right now, however, is dark grey from horizon to horizon, and across the reach the bay is barely visible, Windmill Point not even a thought in the morning fog and mist.

I’ve been viewing the work IT Chris is doing on the Nature Readings website, adding videos from writers reading about nature just about daily, in preparation for its launch soon. But when watching or listening to readings from New England and California and Pennsylvania and Prague, and Texas, and more, I find my mind quite quickly drifts to my yard, then beyond my yard to the river, and then further still. So I turn off the computer and saunter along the trails here at Aerie until I’m on the road which brings me down the hill to the Rappahannock.

And there, the seemingly infinite routine of buffleheads and gulls diving is in progress. An egret or heron lifts from the grass in the marsh, letting out its distress call of a low honk—almost a cross between a goose and a mallard. It lands nearby, however, anyway, and lets me pass without so much as looking up from the shallow pond, as if it would say, “Geez, Bob, you scared the crap out of me!” as it settles back into its perpetual rhythm.

This is my morning.

The contrast from duck pond to Rappahannock River is startling considering they are separated by a mere twelve feet of sand and reeds. The pond, shallow and still, mirror-like most of the time, and the river, while it has moments of glass-like reflection, is more often choppy, more than a mile wide at this point just a stone’s throw from the mouth of the bay. It is always moving, the current, the tide, the winds on the surface, always mixing and pushing out to sea or up the banks here, and every so often that barrier between river and pond erodes enough to allow a few narrow currents cut through. It is never the same.

At the university the other day a student came by my office to say hello. While we are completely online at this point, I let them know I’d be in my office for a few hours since several students opted to live in the dorms. This student, an athlete who lives with her teammates, came by because she said she’s a face to face person, and she wanted to meet me so when she watches the lectures via zoom, there will seem less of a barrier. We talked about sports and essays and pandemics and pizza, and she left. In the hallway she said she was going to go back and rewatch the first few videos now that she has met me; she believes she’ll absorb them better now. I agreed.

When I was young I tried reading John Muir and Thoreau and other such nature writers. The writing is inspiring, albeit, for me, often drawn out and boring. But there was always some barrier between the imagery and my imagination, some sort of missing element which I felt I needed to completely understand the prose.

Then I went outside.

I hiked the mountains, walked endless beaches, lay in fields of leaves of grass and walked along the edge of Walden in autumn, alone. On that particular outing, I returned to my yellow house on a reservoir not far from Concord and reread Walden, and for the first time in many readings of the book, I felt like I was reading my own journal, or a letter from a friend who I had traveled with. It came to life like nothing had.

That tradition continues. Prague, Amsterdam, St. Petersburg guides couldn’t help me comprehend the cities until I walked the streets, found a stool in a local pub and talked with locals, and then returned home and revisited the guides and literature of the area so that the experience seemed sealed, somehow grounded in another writer’s adventures, so that I could sit back after passages and say, “Yes! Exactly!” Before going, I didn’t know what the writer meant; upon return I read the work with the passion only experience can provide.

I need eye contact with nature; I need all the senses to be involved. An hour walk along the water or through the mountains can bring me a greater understanding of not only nature but myself than all the volumes nature-writers can provide.

I don’t mind today’s clouds, this evening’s forecast. The storms and “dreary” weather are as enlivening to me as a clear day or a starry sky in January. I don’t mind being cold, the wet night air on my face making my skin feel tight and my eyes sting. It is that sensory experience which is dreadfully lacking in literature.

I don’t believe nature writers write so those who can’t experience what we do can somehow be there vicariously. I think we write so that just a few pages in the reader might put down the book and grab some gloves and a scarf and head outside, whether to saunter down the sidewalks of a village or the blocks of a city, or a nearby park.

Being outside is as primitive an instinct as humans have; it is in our nature.

The Return of Human Decency.

Schedule of Biden-Harris Inauguration Day: Timeline of events and how to  watch | TheHill

Isn’t it crazy? An ordinary day, with relatively ordinary people showing each other signs of respect and humility, acting with diplomacy and integrity, being polite, demonstrating their love for each other and country, is suddenly an extraordinary event.

Like some prodigal child, the country has come home to open arms, and is welcome with a feast, for what was once lost is now found, what once seemed gone forever has come home again.

It is inauguration day, and a gentleman, a fighter, someone not ashamed to show emotion, proud of his faith, his country, his service to this country, is at the helm, and at his side is a woman of color whose intelligence is surpassed only by her fierce determination, and her devotion to country is equaled by her devotion to her family.

The former leadership showed no signs of love, none of integrity and certainly no signs of humility. The irony, of course, is had he shown even a small amount, he just might have won reelection. But it simply isn’t in him. When I saw the pictures today of Vice President Harris’ kids grabbing her arms, and them all laughing, it reminded me of the beautiful photos of the Obamas, and of President Biden’s brutal loss of his son, today his other at his side. These images—truly universal images of the elemental in all our lives, family—are absent from the past four years, and for all of the debates over policy and bullish attitudes, it just might be that love and grace, humbleness and a sense of sacrifice, is what we want in our leadership.

I’m not depressed today. It’s not medicine or the sunny, clear blue skies, or starting classes again or moving along well on a new project. No. It’s that today is an ordinary day, finally. The news is positive, words like “hope” and “grateful” have returned to the rhetoric. I’m going to have a glass of wine but this time to celebrate instead of to forget.

I live in the country, and many of my neighbors have been serious supporters of the former president. During the previous four years, the example set by the president seemed to make some feel like they had carte blanche to treat others, particularly those of us with different ideas, as intruders, as suspect, and more than a few acted like childish, unintelligent people. But this was the example set for them. Sad.

But the example set for us by President Biden and Vice President Harris is clear: it reflects the president’s very own faith in the words of Thomas Merton: “Our job is to love others without stopping to decide if they are worthy.”

That should be normal. That should be how we act on any given day. But for four years I’ve felt like my most successful days were when I made it home without having an argument, without having a stroke. Life should not be like that, but it was. It really was.

No more. Now, while we still have a transition to endure, the golden rule—quoted today during President Biden’s speech—is in favor again, and the normal acts of human behavior to treat others with respect, to act with dignity and integrity, and to have some self-respect, have returned.

The view from this wilderness today is one of hope. It’s been a long time coming.

Joe Biden, Kamala Harris & Their Families on Stage for Fireworks -  Photogallery

Rachel

Tourists In The Street At Kazan Cathedral In St Petersburg, Russia  Editorial Stock Photo - Image of road, church: 131547573

I’m thinking tonight about Rachel. Dear beautiful Rachel.

This is a tragic story.

In the early 2000’s, in May, in the hallway of the Pribaltyskaya Hotel in St. Petersburg, Russia, I ran into my good friends Jose and Rachel. It was nearly four am and we were leaving in a few hours for the airport, but no one was asleep anyway and Rachel decided while packing that she still needed a half dozen or so bottles of vodka to bring home as gifts.

“Vodka!” I said, perhaps a little too loudly. “Rachel, you’re pregnant!” A few hookers at a nearby booth turned to watch.

“It’s not for me!” she declared, also not just a little loud for the hour of the morning.

Jose explained he was bringing her to a twenty-four-hour kiosk not far away and would make sure she didn’t get hurt or ripped off, or, worse, purchase bad alcohol. This was Jose’s fourth trip to Russia with me and he knew his way around the black market during the white nights of late May. “Just be careful, Rach,” I called. “You should be dead anyway!” I added, and we all laughed.

A few days earlier our entire entourage was walking freely down Nevsky Prospect, the Fifth Avenue of the city. I was right behind Rachel on the crowded street so we were all pretty close to each other. As usual, my former student was engaged in taking pictures and writing in her notebook, jotting down “Kazan Cathedral” which was just to our right. Of all the people I’ve traveled with—numbering well over four hundred—Rachel was by far the most diligent about drinking it all in, making notes, taking countless photographs. She always smiled anyway and could make everyone around her laugh, and there on the other side of the world she was in her element. She absorbed every single moment. In the evenings she’d come into my room and show me what pictures she had taken that day and double-checked their locations. Then we’d sit and talk about her impending motherhood, what it’s like being a parent—my son had just turned ten. We’d laugh about students in the classes of mine she had taken. Like one guy that previous semester who kicked over a desk, told me to fuck off, and stormed out of the building.

“I have that effect on people,” I said.

“Only those who deserve it!” she laughed. “He was such a punk! I can’t believe you let him back in.”

“Chances,” I told her, and she laughed. We had over the course of a few semesters joked about how many second chances we get, and when we do to not screw them up. “He pulled out a passing grade. He’s in my next class this summer, so we’ll see. Which, by the way, I saw you’re not in!”

“Hello?!” she laughed, pointing to her abdomen, which was just starting to show enough that she wore loose blouses.

“Can I ask about the baby’s father?”

“We’re working it out. He keeps promising he’s going to be different now that we’re having a baby. He got a job, moved in with his parents to save money. We’ll see.”

“Second chance?”

“HA! More like fourth or fifth!”

And we’d talk about education, about travel being the most advanced degree possible, and that she wanted to make sure she went on all the trips she could. For this one Rachel had secured a scholarship to help pay for the expenses. To earn that, however, when we returned they would have to write a paper for me for Humanities credit, and she chose to write about architecture.

So the next morning while walking past Kazan Cathedral, she was absorbed in her notes and stepped right off the curb and into the cross street where a bus was ripping past us at forty miles an hour. I was close enough to Rachel to grab her hair which she had pulled back in a pony tail, and I yanked her back into my chest, and the bus was close enough to knock her bag out of her hand on into the street. Those around us screamed and Rachel turned back somewhat unaware of what had just happened. “He saw me,” she said, to which I replied, “Yeah, he did. He just didn’t care. Pedestrians don’t have the right of way here.” We picked up her belongings and in no time she was back into enjoying her tour of Russia; my heart didn’t settle down for hours.

“Second chance!” she said to me, later on the walking tour.

“More like four or five!” I joked.

The morning we were to leave, she and Jose showed up to the bus with their bags just in time for our ride to the airport. Rachel had her vodka supply and asked how she should handle customs. I ran through the myriad responses possible for whatever they asked, but as it turned out they waved her right through.

I saw Rachel several times during the following year, even after she turned in her paper (A), and a few times after she told me she had a new roommate at an apartment on 24th Street at the beach, and she broke it off for good with the ex.

The last time I saw her she brought her daughter, Shaylyn, to my office. This beautiful woman with her beautiful little girl was so excited to move on with her life; she’d be a single mother, she told me, and hoped she could set a good example. Then we remembered the bus in Petersburg, laughing at the nearly tragic outcome, and she assured me I had saved two lives that day. I laughed and told her I was just glad she hadn’t cut her long, curly hair. “Yeah that hurt, by the way,” she joked, grabbing the back of her head.

Her daughter has her eyes.

Not much later, in May of 2005, the little girl’s father went to find Rachel who was hanging out with some friends at their apartment. When she refused to let him in, he cut a hole in the screen and climbed through. Rachel ran out the back door and called 911. Her ex walked through the house and shot four people killing two of them before he found Rachel hiding outside. She had called 911 and the operator had to ask several times what was going on, but Rachel was quiet, until finally she replied, “He saw me,” and her ex put his gun to her skull and shot her in the back of the head, killing her instantly. Three years later with some plea-bargaining to avoid the death penalty, he was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole.

In the woods not far from the hotel, right on the beach and tucked away in a grove of trees, was my favorite gritty bar I’ve ever been in. Everyone called it “the shack.” I knew a gypsy band who played there most nights after midnight until about four, and for a few years by then I’d head out and join them, borrowing Dima’s guitar while Sasha played violin and Natasha sang, and it would last until dawn while we drank red wine and ate shashleek, a chicken dish similar to shishkabob. Sometimes there would just be a few of us, and other times a whole group, like the time we spent the night in the shack during a storm. Rachel was there that night, sitting at a table in the small make-shift shack, taking it all in, watching everyone dance, sing, and drink. She had bottled water and a lot of chicken and laughed hard with Natasha who sat with her between sets, though I know Rachel didn’t understand a word the singer said. I can picture her still, sitting there, laughing.

That’s how I will always picture her.

Her daughter today would be almost Rachel’s age then.

Christ.

We spin and we turn through the changes and falls, hoping beyond hope we get to the end of it all without something tragic happening, dreaming of second chances and laughing the best we know how, stealing time with friends, telling stories and remembering when. But there are no second chances, not really; just this one, and while not all of us will live the life we had hoped for when we started out, some will not get any chance at all.

A few weeks after the murder I was giving a tour at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia, to my art students at the university. Rachel always showed up for those tours—notebook in hand. She was on my email list of people who wanted to know when I brought my class since it was open to anyone. I stood in the atrium lobby drinking a glass of cabernet talking to another student who often came with her husband. It was quiet while visitors and students mulled about waiting for the tour to start, and I said to the woman, “I thought Rachel would be here. She had emailed a few weeks ago that she was going to bring her daughter.”

The woman handed her wine to her husband, touched my arm, and suggested we move to a table to talk.

Rachel Scher Obituary - Chesapeake, Virginia | Graham Funeral Home
Rachel Scher

Opinion: The Most Misunderstood Concept in Discourse

TOP 14 IGNORING FACTS QUOTES | A-Z Quotes

If you will indulge me for one post, this is a diversion from the literal nature to human nature:

Few people think they know more than the ignorant MAGA dude does in line at 711 looking for attention, for someone, for anyone to mark his credibility. These maskless morons cannot be reasoned with, nor can they comprehend large words or complex concepts. Does that sound arrogant? Does this hint of elitism? I don’t care, because at this moment I am going to do something I rarely do: Brandish my three college degrees as well as my expertise in research and verification of sources. And if any of this basic lesson in critical thinking comes across as anything other than a frustrated, highly anxious professor of thirty years who can’t handle the spike in blood pressure when small-brained pricks yell conspiracy, fine.  

So to the point, here’s how discourse in this country is supposed to work:

The most important question professors ask of every student who writes a paper, takes an exam, debates an issue, or raises a hand to ask a question is, “Where did you get your information?” The answer to that question determines just how prepared that student is to participate in any discourse. The very notion that “everyone is entitled to their own opinion” is simply not true. An opinion is a “judgement based upon facts.” What everyone is entitled to is their “belief.” And as long as people keep mixing up those two simple concepts, we will have division, dissent, and misleading information.

A simple metaphor: if someone’s stomach is in excruciating pain and they want to know what to do, they ask a doctor, not a plumber, not the guy next door, not the friend in line at the convenience store. No one questions this. But when it comes to issues of constitutional law, of election accuracy, of the rights of individuals to raid a government institution, too many people “believe” they are entitled to their opinion of what should be allowed and what should be questioned and mocked.

It is a simple three step process to insure people know what they’re talking about when they protest or protect, when they prosecute or defend: One, again, “Where did you get your information?” The answer to this question, if done correctly, should be sources whom have advanced degrees and experience in the field discussed—constitutional lawyers, political science researchers—and it should be noted that education and experience are not the same thing. A three-term member of congress does not make that person an expert on anything except what it’s like to be in congress for all that time. An historian, social scientist, or political scientist who has made a career out of investigating the causes and effects of House and Senate activities, studying the experts through the years, and has published extensively, is the source of what works and what does not work.

Two: Because even experts may allow personal beliefs to stand in the way, people who truly know what they’re talking about have multiple, independent sources. No self-respecting expert would dare present results of any investigation, whether into the actions of a president, the accuracy of voting machines, or the validity of an election, without first consulting at least three independent, recognized experts in the field being discussed. Then and only then can a valid judgement be made based upon the most accurate and complete set of facts.

Three: Anyone who is to be taken seriously should have a complete understanding of the opposition’s argument, evidence, and position. To know how anyone reached an opposing opinion is essential if any intelligent discourse is to take place. This allows either side to point out the fallacies of the opposition through prior understanding.

Okay, so what’s the problem? Easy: A fundamental belief that everyone who disagrees with you is lying because they want what’s best for themselves and not for you. The only way to combat such a non-objective belief is to insist those people provide the source of their information so you can better understand how they came to that conclusion. If the answer continues to be “the other side is lying” or “it is a conspiracy,” but never fastens itself to concrete study and research to accurately determine the validity of the evidence, they are participating in a debate they simply are not prepared for, rendering their belief absolutely worthless.

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may... - Quote

The Five

In my creative writing classes I gave an assignment to exemplify the benefits of immediate experience over memory of a previous encounter, and of allowing all our senses to participate instead of just one.

I sent half the students into their respective bathrooms (without limitations upon identification, of course) with a pad and pen and I asked them to spend ten minutes in there and describe it. The other half of the students stayed in the classroom but did the same thing. The results of this second group were always predictable. Certainly, every one of them had been in the bathrooms multiple times through the semester, but still they almost universally remember the trite—running water, unpleasant odor, writing on the wall, mysterious missing locks on the stalls, paper towels on the floor around the garbage can.

When the first group returned, their notes were a bit more illuminating. Not just unpleasant smells but one of overwhelming cleansers; the low buzz of a fluorescent bulb, the mirrors always slightly too low on the wall, the faucet left on, the urinal still running, the clogged commode.

We experience with five senses, sometimes six if you include that sense of familiarity, of déjà vu, but we tend to remember and often only experience with one—sight. Studies show we rely upon how things “look” to recall them more than eighty percent of the time, yet the number one trigger for recall is smell. “Use ALL the senses,” I tell them. “Perhaps ‘taste’ is not so appropriate in this particular assignment, but sound is essential, obviously smell, and touch for its absence—how can you not include the desire to not touch anything?”

We spend a good deal of our lives living in the singular. One thing at a time; one sense is enough, one path in the woods. One thing problematic in this dip back to Psych 101 is how much we are missing. Sure, sometimes one is enough—but even when we eat, taste is only a fraction of the experience—the aroma draws us in and works with taste for complement, and presentation strikes first, of course. And how many of us are not crazy about a particular food because of its texture (for me, swordfish).

Shift:

This morning I sat on the rocks at the river, trying to mentally juggle too many happenings at once. The new semester starts soon—online for now—and I thought about how I had hoped for more classes but enrollment is way down, so then I thought about the project I’m working on to catalogue as many readings about nature from writers as I can and my attempts to summon interest, then about a new book project I started, kinda—okay, not so much started as stepped in that direction—and about my sharp, intensely sharp spike in anxiety and depression when the news is violent, when the rhetoric is redundant and aggravating and angry, and about a tree which fell and needs to be cut up, and about

and about…

and…

the coffee kicked in and I took a deep breath, exhaled very slowly into the chilly breeze, and reminded myself that I need to warm up to the day in much the same way we would warm up before a class at the health club. Take deep breathes through the nose, out slowly through the mouth, stretch, let all our senses work—and stretch those senses, make them limber, feel and see and touch and taste and hear all at once, not only like we are absorbing the world around us but the world around us is absorbing us.

This doesn’t work well in the city. It doesn’t even work well at home on a mat in a quiet room—we created the room by design and experience. No, nature is safe from subjective influence, it remains absent of judgement and human influence; there’s nothing out there we need to “get to” while looking around. It has a sense of eternal about it.

So I sat on the rocks and did that breathing thing, and the cold tightened the skin on my face the way cold wind does, and I could sense every touch of air across my reddened and tight neck and cheeks. On my tongue and lips that taste of salt I have known since my childhood, the marshy odor, the freshness of the Chesapeake, and the waves ripping against the rocks, lapping on the sand, breaking ten feet out in the river, the call of a gull behind me, the low distant rumble of a workboat diesel.

And then, dominantly, the view, the view which reaches deep into the immediate and blocks out all things social and political and makes us present. The deeply blue water today, the intrusively blue sky, the foam from the cold water on the sand and the white edges on the tips of the breaking waves. The small green strip of interruption that is Parrott Island a mile or so out, and the glint of sun off the window of a truck crossing the Norris Bridge in the west.

I am rarely present these days, distracted by what I hear on the radio, disturbed by the distance between where I am and where I need to be. It happens to us all. The changes in my life over the past two and a half years have been so drastic that sometimes—usually—it is hard to keep up with everything, so I turn to the constant, the familiar, to let my senses recalibrate themselves and make things right.

I like—need—order in my very unorderly life. And stepping into nature is perhaps the most reliable method of getting all my ducks in a row and feeling centered again. There’s something Thoreauvian about that, of course, and Jung is part of this equation, but for me on a much simpler and basic train of thought, it’s the undefinable persistence of beauty that brings me peace. And the innate need of us all to love. Lao Tzu was right when he insisted that “Love is of all passions the strongest, for it attacks simultaneously the head, the heart, and the senses.”

So many changes, so much turmoil, so many medications and sessions and updates and downplays that have distracted us all from what should be elemental in our lives—ourselves, and all of our senses working together. It is the cure for the soul, as Oscar Wilde once noted, as is the soul the cure for the senses.

In this new year I’ve noticed something which at once was subtle but has become too persistent to ignore—I’m stepping further away from that which doesn’t bring peace to my mind. And the one absolute I know is I never had that problem in nature.

It just makes sense.