I eat almonds, wild berries, artichokes. I consume legumes, fiber, and avoid fast food. Last night, I passed on New York style Pizza, the thin kind where oil drips off a folded slice, and there’s just enough cheese to cover the sauce. You know the kind. Like Vinny’s on Seventh Avenue or that place in Queens that sells pies for half price on Wednesdays. We used to bring home the coveted white box, held hot in the passenger seat, that most unique smell filling the car, combination of crust and toppings, making everyone hungry. Then we’d pull the slices apart, glad for the way the pizza guy slammed the round blade onto the pie and spun it four times to make the slices even. Sometimes I’d order an entire small pie for myself and sit and watch the game, drinking ice cold coke.
But last night I passed on the slice my friend kindly offered. Ate instead a plate of lettuce which looked a lot like weeds I pulled from the garden and tossed onto the overturned lid of a metal can to carry into the woods, only this had oil and vinegar. You see, I’m not trying to lose weight, though I should; and I’m not trying to save my heart from heavy foods, though, there too, I really must pay more mind. What I’m trying to do is act my age. Guys like me, you see, those for whom the graph in the shape of a pie is about two-thirds colored in, we have to spread out the years a bit more, make it last.
Sometimes after a day filled with too much news and not enough hope, I feel like I’m just trying to make it to the end of life before anything bad happens to me or the world. I don’t remember feeling this way as a kid. Hell, I don’t remember feeling like this four years ago. I remember when I was little picking up garbage on Earth Day and thinking at that moment everyone in the world was picking up garbage. That applied to all aspects of my trash-free existence. If it rained it rained everywhere. Snow. Everyone on the planet on Saturday mornings watched Underdog. Of course.
So a few weeks ago I sat on the flatbed table in the doctor’s office and he listened to my heart. “You eating right?” he asked. “Sure.” “How about exercise? Are you getting enough?” “Absolutely.” “You really shouldn’t eat pizza so much you know.” “Hey, when I was in college I ate it all the time.” “You were twenty; you could eat linoleum and your body would be fine.”
I went outside into the grey morning sun and sat in the car. Most of us live roughly the same length of time, give or take a dozen years. Most of us are roughly the same height give or take, possess a relatively small variety of features like eye or hair color, have nearly identical operating systems for intake and evacuation, and suffer cold and heat, pain and comfort, desire and illness roughly the same.
So what separates us from each other I wondered as I drove off to find a Duck’s Donuts. My dad’s generation were “doers.” Survive the depression; fight the Nazi’s, build a house and raise a family. They took the punches and kept moving forward. My son’s generation waits for things to happen. They are raised in a paranoid, post 911 world where you never know when the next shoe is going to drop. Mine is the Earth Day generation. We were going to clean up the world; we stood together anti-nuke, anti-oppression, anti-war, pro-environment, pro-conservation dreamers with an absolute conviction we would be successful. We had Dylan. We had King. We had time. I suppose the environment in which we are raised has a heavy hand on the scale; the era, the latitude, the world-at-large. My era was the emergence of Earth Day, granola bars, Rocky Mountain High. I’m not sure when the hope started to erode like it has, but it has. Except for those moments when hope is like iron, like space. Those moments. You know the ones I mean…
Two dollars and fifty cents for a fucking donut. I paid the woman and took my small, custom-made lunch to an empty park and wondered why no one was outside playing. “Are you getting enough exercise?” the doctor asked. Honestly, I am, and long-distance hikes aren’t unusual for me; way more exercise than most of my twenty-something-year old students, to be sure. And, actually, I normally do eat really well. But sometimes I wonder if the three months or so longer I’m going to live by eating right and doing Yoga is worth the amount of pleasure I must cut out of my life to get there.
I finished eating and got on the swings. Eating right? Yeah, sure I am, I thought, and moved over to the slide and slid right down to the bottom with ease, landing plump on the dirt. I put my palms down on the ground and tilted my head back and stared at an emerging sun, the clouds quickly dissipating. Act your age, I thought, looking around. Part of me was glad I was alone in the park—made me want to climb the monkey bars. And another part of me wondered why the place wasn’t packed with senior citizens, pumping donuts into their mouths and giving the see-saw another workout. Hell, that’s what I’m going to do when more of this metaphoric graph gets filled in. It is, after all, my life. I brushed my palms against each other and the dirt smelled good, fresh, and some salty air drifted in from the Atlantic. Then all at once I felt young, but it wasn’t the swings or the slide or the monkey bars. There, right there, the dirt and the ocean’s salty air, and the sun cracking the day in half, these things, right there, the visceral life we have at our fingertips, right then I remembered is nothing short of miraculous.
Late last night and early this morning it snowed. Not much, couple of inches, but enough for the university to say stay home, and enough for my son and I to head out and walk the trails on the property. The woods here are filled with holly, and the holly are all covered in snow since there was no wind to speak of and the snowfall was light, dusty. The little out there packed under our heels to that well-known winter sound of shoes compacting snow, leaving tread marks, pulling up small chunks. I made the mistake of walking under a tall, heavily snow-laden holly, and instead of throwing a snowball at me, Michael aimed for the branches above my head, and pounds of snow fell on my head, down my neck, covered me perfectly. The cold on my neck and down my shirt on my back felt—and I don’t mean to simplify this adjective—white. That kind of cold wetness on the neck feels white. Melting white. The crisp, clear air stung at my face and my eyes watered a bit from the cold and the air and the brightness of the sun on the snow. We took pictures as proof, and cardinals passed moving from a holly to the porch rail to sift through safflower seed. This all before eight am.
That, too, felt ageless, as if fathers and sons everywhere this morning walked through the woods, and snow fell gently, and none of us anywhere had any promises to keep.
Back on that first earth day, when I was just a child, I remember thinking—or maybe someone said it, which is more likely—if people didn’t throw trash everywhere, we wouldn’t have to pick it up. Ah, prevention! How elusive you can be!
…but eventually it all makes sense, because eventually you understand that it is all about those moments; we simply don’t have enough of those moments when we love out loud; when we spend time with those we need nearby, laughing, telling stories, remembering when, watching the sun paint a lonely reach, listening to other people’s voices far off across the way laughing at some far off story only they will know. And we start a fire and open wine, and we all go for a walk, three or four separate conversations mixing, tumbling back on each other, so that we don’t know anymore which comments we are laughing about. Someone suggests ordering a pizza and everyone sits around the fire having a slice and everyone comments how it is the best pizza they’ve ever had, though they’ve had it before, but not like this, not at all like this.
Then, right then, you’re glad you listened to the doctor, glad you did your part in salvaging this magnificent planet, glad you tried, anyway, and glad you are still here. Because right then everyone everywhere is sitting around a fire, laughing, the whole clean and peaceful planet right then is sitting around telling stories and laughing, and your eyes swell at such beautiful transient thoughts.
And later, when it is quiet, and someone says there is no point in stoking the embers—it is late, or early—and someone might have already fallen asleep nearby while two others talk with more control and less style about the swiftness of time, about uncertain moments, about unrequited dreams, and it will get quiet, and the air might have a chill. And eventually, one of the two will say while the other just nods, “But look, we are here now, and who knows for how long, so let’s be here.” And right then I know, if I’m among the mix, I know for certain that I’ll look out across the distance and think of Frost:
“Earth’s the right place for love; I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”