The Quiet Man


I would like a quiet day. One. One quiet day without the residue of yesterday or headwinds of tomorrow. Just the day, one. A quiet one during which I could just let the river run past and feel the cool and heat of the sand and the sounds of gulls or osprey and, of course, waves; when I define quiet I include birds and waves.

I would like one of those days where I’m not waiting for a loan rejection or essay rejection to filter back, or when I’m not anticipating appointments or deadlines. A day where the phone doesn’t ring and no one knocks except family, ready with a joke or an old story to get us all laughing and remembering and planning. Usually quiet days include laughter and stories.

A day to myself like I used to do when I drove into Manhattan and walked from Herald Square all the way up and through part of the park, talking to the vendors or checking out the music along the way coming from the cafes and radios. When I explain “quiet day” I must include the sounds of the city as natural and organic as the osprey and waves since they are expected. Plus, they aren’t talking to me as much as for me so no response is expected or necessary, just my presence. Family is like that too.

My life is not unlike Thoreau’s in that my retreat is near the water in the woods where I am able to regroup, not to ignore civilization as much as be better prepared to face it. So I would like one day. One. One quiet day where I could live deliberately and be in absolute touch with the passing of time solely for the sake of the passing of time, to watch the seconds, to count the minutes. I could lean against a tree and hear the combine on the neighbor’s farm or the rigging on the boats on the river. There is a thin, very thin, line between quiet and the sound of rigging in the early morning hours.

I was thinking the other day about the quiet days in college when a bunch of us would walk into town just to get something to drink and everyone would be talking at once, and laughing at once at different things, and we were always like that and we were always going to be like that. If my mind wandered at all it was to exaggerate, to magnify, the sweet and passive activity of such permanent transience. If I am going to define “quiet days” I can’t leave off my friends. Or a drink or two.

I have had many days which I would “formally” call quiet by the Oxford definition. In Spain, at home on the river when it is early, or late. When I was young and hiked through Heckscher State Park. Sometimes when I am alone at home I fiddle around the house, working out on the property or on the porch, and can go from sunrise to sunset without a sound and it can be deafening. But those are literal, and I have come to understand that true peace is not the absence of noise but rather the presence of love.

I remember a beautiful, perfect, quiet evening a long time ago when a friend of mine and I went to an Italian restaurant in a run-down strip mall, and they were almost closed but they let us order some bread and a bottle of wine and we talked for hours, joking with the woman who worked there but mostly just laughing together about now and about thirty years ago. We finished each other’s sentences and the wine and then went our own ways quietly, content at such perfect time, but not really because it isn’t always that way, is it? No, it isn’t, though it should be.

I would like a quiet day like that again.




I know someone who can turn the most insignificant happy-thought into the most stroke-worthy bitch-session. If I say, “Hey check out the size of this Big Gulp of iced tea from 7-11. Eighty-nine cents.” I hear, “I HATE 7-11. What a dirty waste of people’s time going there. It is pathetic those places exist and they are filled with GMO food that is killing everyone anyway, AND you’re better off making icedtea at homeornot even having it becausethetea candehydrateyouandyoulljustendupneedingwaterandblahblahblah hmmmmmmmpukepuke….” And on it goes. What is the value in that? Where is the benefit in being around that?

Maybe I’m simply around too many people. By that I should say I am around too many people aware I’m around. When I travel, the crowds don’t bother me because then I’m no one, just another face on the street. But in my life here in the hallways of the college or other places where someone mistakes an innocent comment as an invitation to yet-again-bitch, everyone seems to have something to say to me. And more often lately it is negative.

The concept “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” which I grew up with, is gone. On the news, in the classroom, and even in seemingly innocent conversations about a frigging Big Gulp. Please.

So I’m on a mission to dial back the news to a need-to-know-only basis. Even—especially—the news on the television and internet and radio. It is essential to be well informed, but it is equally essential to be able to separate the news from the noise. My stress level has adjusted up during the last four months to some higher level of anxiety not at all compensated for by valuable information. Material gathered should be worth the anguish to obtain it. But that simply isn’t the case any longer. Now it is just static which causes stress, which doesn’t benefit me at all.

Excuse me while I step aside. It won’t bother anybody if I simply duck away for awhile. I can no longer handle the endless stream of garbage reported in media. Don’t pay any mind to me if I move out of the way while the convoy of criticism and manipulation passes . I’ll just sit and watch the water and wildlife do their thing, the perpetual movement of the tide. In fact, my health, my energy, and my stress level are all improved by the absence of the nightly news, which I once revered. And I’m better off without the one on one conversations with way too many negative people. I am more likely to live longer, less likely to have a negative disposition, and infinitely more likely to relax by turning away from the those discussions. No contest.

When I’m at the river and the sun is just changing tones behind clouds in the west, it doesn’t make a bit of difference who the president is, what the commentators had to say, which tweets came from which attention-deficit minds, and what happens next. My phone alert from the NY Times Breaking News doesn’t really catch my attention anymore, and I am far less interested in who said what than I am in keeping my blood pressure in double digits and my heart rate closer to my age than my golf score.

When the eagle glides from the tree tops, and the osprey teach their young to fly, and the clouds at dusk separate colors in prism-like perfection, it is hard to remember what the complaining was all about anyway. We carry our baggage way longer than we ever need to, if we ever really needed to at all. And the answers we seek in day to day life won’t be unearthed during some pointless pursuit of fair and balanced. Even if I listened more intently to all the facts and expert opinions and came to the correct conclusions agreed upon by Nobel laureates and Pulitzer Prize winning journalists, what then? So I might know the truth about A and the lies told by B and the injustice we see served to those in need. Again, what then?

I think my students would be better served if instead of watching presidential debates and finding the fallacies, we all spent some time in soup kitchens and the cancer ward at a children’s hospital and then came back and discussed respect and morality and fair and balanced. Maybe we could spend a class talking about the good there is.

When I returned from Spain I was on a mission to “simplify” my life. It didn’t take long on the Camino to discover how little I needed; how superfluous most concerns really turned out to be. As a professor of critical thinking courses I found it necessary, pre-trip, to discuss current events and breaking news. But afterwards I found philosophical discussions as relevant as any subject covered by some mass-com major graduate reporting from The Hill. I told my students that any fool can gather and argue immigration or trade; but it took real thought to discuss the “matter” of things, the bend of time. Which works better for you? I asked. “Ted Cruz said that we need to make decisions based upon faith” or “St Bernard said, “We need to learn to make excuses for other people.”  One is a proclamation of how he intends to govern; the other is an edict of how we should live our lives. This lead to discussions of driving and working, and we talked about getting along with relatives and partners. People like tangible applications. Those conversations spilled from the class to the hallway. That’s how it should be.

But time got away from me and Trump was elected and news became Reality Television and Reality Television became scripted and civil rights I thought were fought for when I was four were again issues and I just want to run away.

So I am.

When all I hear is the call of an osprey or the way the waves lap at the edge of the land, I could be in so many other places and so many other times. It is innocent, even ignorant some might say. And in a world where even a lesser-able phone than the primitive one I own can keep me up to date on news, attacks, rumors, memes, messages, appointments, and more, I’m turning off my data.

We live in the age of information, the age of blame, the age of instantaneous and simultaneous where the comment you posted ten minutes ago is now ancient news five screens in the past. It is the age of convenience and the age of emotion and the age of attention-getting-self-indulgent-everyone’s opinion matters and is valid and is equal and should be heard. And that’s just not true, it is wrong, it is defeatist, and it is destructive.

So I’m done jumping through hoops and trying to walk across coals in the classroom or other more personal conversations. I’ve finally “come ‘round right” and am simplifying my life. My theory is this: I will be healthier, happier, more efficient, more useful and focused, and infinitely more at peace.

I love the way the water feels cool on the soles of my feet on a hot afternoon, or how the salt water gets on my lips and seems to stay there all day, even after I shower. It is as if the movement of the waves exactly coincides with the movement of my blood, and that rhythm somehow settles my soul.

And it really was this simple: I just decided to. I’m going to sip my iced tea and let the river run by for awhile.




Defying Gravity

IMG-20170601-02726 (1)


(with thanks to Jesse Winchester for the inspiration)

This morning I had breakfast on the pier probing out over the Atlantic in Virginia Beach. Ocean Eddies had long been an evening haunt, and despite that they’re slated for destruction, they remain open and now offer breakfast. This morning I had an omelet stuffed with scallops, crabmeat, shrimp and cheese, with toast and home fries. The sun skipped off the silvery, glass waves and the breezes kept the humidity at bay.

I was alone. It is still too early in the season—especially on a Thursday—for crowds, and I sat under an awning watching dolphins and pelicans work their way down the coast. I knew they’d reach the jetty at first street and circle back. They always do.

The pier is probably twenty feet off the sand offering more of a crow’s nest view of the horizon than a body-surfer’s vantage. And as quiet as the water was, I drifted off into the distance, circumnavigating the globe in my mind as I have for decades. This morning though I really sat and stared not so much at the water as the distance. Portugal is out there, Spain beyond. I looked just below the sun toward what I knew was the northwest coast of Galacia and pictured the people there right then, right at that moment, staring west across the Atlantic from Fisterra, where Michael and I stood just a few years ago. It never ceases to freak me out that right over the curve of the earth, just time away, are villages still, with small cafes where pilgrims right now rest, as we did. If I had better eyesight and the ability to bend vision, I could be looking right at them. I was looking right at them except for the physics of it all.

And further south is West Africa, where I had ceeb—a rice dish—for the first time and talked to friends over Flagg Beer several decades ago. It is so easy to fall into the trap of remembering the “time” it was instead of the “place” it is. I’m sure some of my favorite spots have changed while others, like the tiny chicken villages of northern Spain, are the same as they always have been. But all of them are still right there nonetheless.  It is profoundly easy to forget that when perception forces us into believing that things close by are larger and more significant than things far away. Often it is just that life blocks our view.

What a ride it has been on this spinning playground. I’ve been blessed to be able to see so much, and not by moving mountains or praying for miracles. I just decided to go. It is easy to forget that in the end the difference between when you dream about something and when you pursue that dream is a split second separated by the notion of simply deciding to do it.

These days the news has lost control and the information barrage is saturating existence; but on the pier this morning I remembered how fragile and fleeting our time is that we waste so much of it tangled up in the goings and comings of the small tentacles of anger and negativity. For example, while drinking orange juice I looked just to the north, across the other side of the bar about four thousand miles toward Norway, where early every morning our neighbor, the fisherman Magnus, came back with a cod, cut out the liver for himself, and gave us the rest. On the other side of the fjord outside the kitchen window of our cabin was nothing for thousands of miles to the north pole. I glanced that way this morning. The small town near is a fishing village, and the air is absolute. “Pure” doesn’t describe it.

I sat and looked toward the piers on Long Island, the docks on Martha’s Vineyard, the rivers and bays of New York. Sometimes I get tired and and give in to the shadows, but then I stumble upon a morning like this and I have no trouble buying into Emmanuel Kant’s insistence that “what’s next” is entirely up to us.

Have you ever sat quietly on a balcony and gazed out on the ocean? Two ideas emerge. First, it pushes part of us toward the possibilities which on a daily basis we are afraid to say out loud, and nearly simultaneously forces the lesser angels off of our shoulders, where we sweep them away with the ridiculous minutia we pretend we need on a daily basis.

Sometimes it seems as if society (allow me one paragraph of philosophical banter) is trying hard to crawl back into the cave. So many people in these days of political uncertainty and cultural dehydration seem to be staring at shadows again, looking away from the flames, obsessed with the flickering of residual data on the walls. The tragedy is the fire will burn out and the shadows are an illusion. The only course of action is to get out of the cave, see what’s out there, but too often we stand in the doorway, hesitant, terrified by terrorism and insecure about disconnection, scared we might miss something.

She refilled my coffee two times. The sun moved above a cloudbank and warmed the pier and the sand, and tourist kids from further north gathered along the waterline. I haven’t been that quiet in a long time. Sometimes at night, but never at that hour of the morning. I thought first about how at night my son and I love to get out the telescope and quietly gaze at the stars. (Warning: Trite writing ahead) The night sky stars make us feel small; they make the passing of time and the love of the people around us so much more important, and I wonder why, every single time we do this I wonder why everyone isn’t out looking at Cassiopeia or Orion’s belt. And then this morning I watched the silvery reflection on the waves and then glanced up at the sun, our very own star, no telescope necessary, and remembered all the times I watched the sunrise or set at various places fore and aft, from Arizona to the Sea of Japan.

It feels good to stop and remind myself sometimes that I couldn’t find my way back to the cave if I tried.