I think everyone has an element that completes some sort of organic cycle. For some it is fire, they need the heat, the rough texture, the friction. I need the water. I don’t know why; it is my truth. Maybe because of the pureness, the deep, cold distance across the river or the ocean, or the salty closeness of the marsh, hanging in the air like smoke and lingering in my senses like a photograph. Most likely it has something to do with movement; it rarely sits still, and I like not knowing where it is going or just how rough it is going to be, or how calm.
The wilderness has always been my reference point. When I’m near the water I have a better sense of who I am and can be at peace with what I have done. So much of my life should have been different. Some souls tell me, no, no, this is what it was supposed to be, it is fate, it is always fate, but I am not married to that idea. I’m more than well aware in retrospect of the contradictions between what should have happened and what occurred. It is a harsh truth we are all aware of at some point. For me, there are times it digs inside like an ulcer, like acid, but when I am near the wilderness, the ocean, a mountain lake or stream, nature seems to let me down easy, lets me know I’m not that far off track, and everything I thought I’d be I’m still becoming, and I find some slight hope in whatever remains.
The rest of the time, though, oh my, the rest of the time we fight battles; we fight battles by holding onto careers, keeping on top of finances, trying not to skip forward, trying hard to bounce back, quarreling too much; being silent, too much distance, feeling smothered. And there are times when I know I didn’t have the balls to be who I had hoped, and other times I can stand wherever I am and know whatever happened until now brought me to now, and now can be fine, it can be just fine. Getting lost in might-have-beens is getting easier, what with lockdowns and shut-ins, what with so many funerals, too many unanswered calls, wondering whatever happened to, whatever became of, I wonder if he ever, I wonder if she ever…all pointless pursuits, I know, yet they seep in, they saturate sometimes at three am, and you wake up soaked in a sweat.
But the water reminds me despite the scars on my face, not everyone is missing, and despite the hairline and grey streaks, not all of me is aging. I’m one of those who keeps forgetting I’m not nineteen wondering what I should do next, where I should go, how alive and exciting it will be when I get somewhere else. I’ve always been this way but it happens especially near water, near western lakes, near eastern rivers and northern sounds. Here along the bay the river runs in from the west and the water is brackish, and swirls of fresh and salty, clear and murky, create the perfect canvas, the better rough draft, the finer composition, and the spark of whatever creativity I have is both born here and returns here. It is a place to come home, always, but it is also a place that reminds me that I am on the edge of leaving; it is the coast of somewhere else, and the waves whisper the same thing they did when I was a child on the Great South Bay—follow through, for God’s sake, follow through; you already know why.
The water is rough today, a storm coming up from the south, a front moving in from the west. The laurel is in full bloom and the rain makes the trees dark green and the paths clear, and I wander from path to road to the sand and along the river toward the bay, and I swear I can keep going, chase the osprey south, call an old friend and say “Hey, let’s go. Yeah, now, why not.” Are you serious? someone might reply, and I’ll say, yes, of course. These days I have faith in a lot less people than I used to, but that’s okay. A few is all a person needs to keep some light burning at three am.
The wilderness is my polygraph, I can’t lie to myself when I’m heading toward a bend in the trail; I can’t pretend, I can’t deceive or mistake or excuse or rationalize. It is both a mirror and a window, and sometimes I stand and reflect, other times I laugh as water swirls about my thighs and I know I’m no different than the tides, and that only when I stop fighting the pull does the depression ebb, and the false hopes are tempered and the truths surface, because after all this time the water has taught me that nothing in life is really lost; the tide always turns if we wait. Age has nothing to do with it. Neither does security. It’s about honesty and chance.
Both apparent and plentiful in the wilderness, along the rivers. It’s crazy what I pick up when walking along the water. I have a friend who collects shells, beautiful, exquisite shells. I have another who collects sea glass; she has jars of all different colors. For years I walked the ocean and I’d see the same old man there walking with his metal detector collecting coins and bottle caps and key chains in the plowed sand before the tourists flood out of their rooms. He bends over with his small plastic shovel and picks up what he can, usually examining it and tossing it in a bag.
I pick up moments and turn them over; like the time I thought I’d head out west, or the moment I knew I’d fly to Europe. I lean down and pick up that bike ride to Coos Bay, the horseback ride in Ontario, the walk through Paris late one night, the talk with a stranger for hours early one morning in a dirty old cafe, and I turn them over in my hands, and lately I’ve gotten better at asking the right questions, better at knowing when not to give up, so I keep walking and pick up shards of suggestions, pieces of possibilities. Some of it I examine and toss back in the sand, but some of it I wash off to find out what it’s worth. I am reminded right away when out in a forest or along the ocean that there’s always something worth salvaging.