Ever So Narrow the Now


The View, this time, is from behind.

I am recycling an old post because what it contains is suddenly fresh and nudging my psyche into somewhere new, or, maybe, somewhere I haven’t been in a long time.

It’s like this: When I knew for sure I was leaving my job I held for nearly thirty years, I started to focus not so much on what was next as much as how fast, how so very fast it all went, and I realized that about the same amount of time to come would put me at ninety years old. Sigh.

I cleaned out my office—slowly at first, then with much more indifference. I carried piles of books to a common table in the building’s lobby, I moved file cabinets and other useless furniture into a storage area for someone else to claim and configure to their job the way we do with all things in our lives—we mold them to fit in the corners of our growth and accomplishments. Yeah, I was done with all of it. I absolutely knew I needed to redefine “accomplishment.”

And outside my office I took down all announcements and office hours and lists of readings from my bulletin board so that all that was left was black construction paper. It looked clean, like a slate, and I absolutely loved the metaphor of it all, but I also thought I should take a piece of chalk and write in some demanding font, “Outta here.”

Instead, I typed up a favorite saying of mine:

Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated


I stapled it to the middle of the board, smiled, and went about my business of unraveling three decades and finding my way to that diversion Frost wrote about with such eloquence.  

Next to my office was a classroom, and students often leaned against the wall (and my door) while waiting for another class to empty before entering. A few noticed the saying and commented to me when I returned to my office. “I like it,” one woman commented, “because it makes me think about it.” I liked that she said that. I wish she had been one of my students.

The following week I added another quote to the board, one of my absolute favorites:

If you don’t change directions, you may end up where you are going.

–Lao Tzu

Just stapling that to the board punctured a ball of emotion that spilled out across the rest of that day. How many times have I preached, I thought, about the dangers of getting caught in the currents and letting the world around us carry us through instead of pulling ourselves out of the stream and deciding for ourselves where we are going? Students had the same reaction, and I know they were wondering just who is it that decided going to college right then was the right thing to do. Often there is absolutely nothing wrong with where we are going; this is not a rebellious statement, I don’t think. I believe Lao was just indicating it can’t hurt to get a glimpse of what’s ahead every once in a while to see if you really are okay with the path you’re on.

The board caught on and people started asking when the next quote was going up, gathering around my door on Tuesdays after they figured out I didn’t work Monday’s and that I must have posted them early Tuesday mornings, which I did. Up went James Taylor, Mae West, Seneca, St Augustine, and Jonathan Swift. More than a few passing people commented on how motivating the sayings were, and how they looked forward to them. Well, motivation was always my profession anyway, not teaching. For those thirty years it wasn’t English I was there for—hell, I was barely qualified for the first fifteen of those years. It was that I knew how to get them to find significance in it all—the work, the direction, the balance of dreams and reality, the math necessary to never forget life is a line segment, not a ray. My job in New England after college was to motivate people, and I learned it well. So when my car broke down and I ended up teaching college, I knew instinctively that it really doesn’t matter how much I know the work, if they aren’t engaged—if they don’t feel motivated—I’d be speaking to the walls.

Plus, I think my board was an extension of what I knew was about to end, and I started in those last months to motivate myself.

William Penn. Herman Hesse. Helen Keller.



Then it was the first week in May at the start of my last week ever on campus. And I found this: 

We must let go of the life we have planned so as to accept the one that is waiting for us

—Joseph Campbell.

I typed it up, printed it out, moved Thoreau a bit for balance, and stapled Joseph to the board. That one was for me.

One of my most vivid memories from Spain was being in Santiago after more than a month of walking at about two or three miles an hour, sitting in cafes, crossing Roman bridges noting each step, each breath—essentially more than a month of barely moving to cross a nation—and then suddenly we were boarding a train for the six-hour ride–just six hours–back to Pamplona. Six hours. It took four weeks to go from Pamplona to Santiago, and six hours to get back. On top of that disturbing reality check was that after a month of barely moving, we were suddenly barreling along at sixty and seventy miles per hour. It simply felt wrong. I leaned against a window looking at the landscape and when I saw pilgrims walking the opposite direction toward Santiago, holding their walking sticks, their backpacks strapped and the sun beating down as they walked and laughed, talking to other pilgrims on the road, I got a pit in the center of my stomach, a nauseous pain, like a child on a school bus for the first time who sees his parents outside walking the other way. I wanted to get off; I wanted to pull back the doors between the carriages, toss my pack out onto the trail and tumble out like a character in a movie. Writing that just now brought the pit back; it was that real, it is that real.

And what I learned on that train ride east I am relearning now: I’m a pilgrim, not a passenger.

Sometimes that happens. You’re riding along, caught up in the mainstream, barely noticing where you’re going because you’re engaged with everyone else in the stream barely noticing where they’re going, and you catch a glimpse of some shadow of yourself just out of reach. And you know that’s where you should be, of course, or at least you dream that’s where you should be, but the trouble, the pain, the expense, the sacrifice, the explanations necessary, the possibility of failure, the probability of doubt all slide in front of you, each holding you back just a little, all adding up to a gravitational force of “now” and “comfortable” and “responsible” that’s harder to break free from than the strongest of currents.

Then you jump. And when you do, it’s terrifying. The pit returns in a different fashion, this time pulsating, “Oh my God, what have I done?” And you come to accept that you’ll never lose the pit, one way or the other.

But then you turn around and look back down the stream where you had been going, where everyone else is laughing and engaged and are all still heading, and finally, from this vantage, you see what you couldn’t from the stream, and you know, I mean you know that no matter where you go next, you had been heading in the wrong direction. No one will ever understand that but you. No one.


I cleaned out my office, and I walked outside the door that last day and for a moment I thought about leaving the quotes there, or maybe replacing them all with just one quote in the middle of the black construction paper, saying,

and this bird you cannot change

–Ronnie van Zant

but I changed my mind and took them all down and gave them to my friend Jack. Each week he’d come by my office and we’d talk about the latest quote and what it meant to us. Then on that last day when I was about to throw out the last folder of teaching materials, I found another passage, typed it up and stapled it to the board.

I’d like to believe it is still there:

Life is what you make of it; always has been, always will be

–Grandma Moses


It is Always Possible–Dalai Lama

Northern Cardinal in American Holly in Winter, Marion, Illinois, Usa'  Photographic Print - Richard ans Susan Day | AllPosters.com

My last blog was about Seasonal Affective Disorder, SAD, and two people I care about asked me if I was okay, noting this particular entry at A View from this Wilderness was a bit dark; and it was, they’re right. I tried to write that piece in second person in an effort to point the diagnosis out toward the reader, but it was difficult to remain in the background on a subject close to my life. Their simple inquiry brought to light something common: often we don’t even realize we’ve slipped into a dark place, a malaise, a lack of presence. It just happens while we’re hyper-focused on something else. Then someone says, “Hey, you okay?” Wow, how much that means, and most people have no idea that those “little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love” as Wordsworth called them, can quite literally save lives.  

It takes only that for the ones in the dark to shake their psyche and take a breath and return to some form of balance.

It really does work, you know. The dollar to the dude with the sign, a nod to a stranger standing outside a store in winter, looking in; holding the door, saying thank you, the small things, the activities of a person who is present, who is awake each moment. It is so easy considering it is so rare; Rousseau said the most important lesson any child can learn is simply this: “Never hurt anybody.” Okay, and then throw in a few kind words and really make an impact. I promise you, the one who seems fine might very well not be; but more than this is how little it takes to absolutely grab a soul who is down without knowing why and set them right again. No kidding, it is so easy. The funny thing is when you do these things, recognize others, it lifts your spirits as well—imagine, two people pulling each other up in a matter of moments because one of them was present enough to acknowledge the other. Blaise Pascal wrote that “kind words cost nothing but accomplish much.” Yep.

It’s snowing again, and a bit of sleet. Tomorrow night will be one to three inches, which for most of the reading world is laughable as “accumulation,” but for those of us in coastal Virginia, we understand the lunacy on the roads when locals head to 711 in the same driving fashion they use in summer after watching a NASCAR race. But it is beautiful, to put it mildly. The holly and laurel green are covered in white, and cardinals looking for food find refuge in these and the evergreens. A friend just wrote that there’s something about a cardinal in a pine in winter that fills his soul—yes, exactly.

And this is what I’m talking about: the simple things, the generous offerings of natural beauty, the deep-woven connections of conversations and laughter with friends or family. Whatever depression or indifference one may carry without obvious cause, without visible scars, can so easily be chased to the margins by the simplest of moments and the seemingly fleeting kindness of others. They have no idea, they really have no idea of the impact they have on one floundering. Some think it takes hours of therapy and years of acclimation, and perhaps it does for so many, but equally it takes seconds, and most of us know that, but we forget.

You know someone in a nursing facility? A quick call to say, “I can’t stay on but I was thinking of you and wanted to say hi,” can illuminate the darkest of afternoons. Bertrand Russell said to “remember your humanity, forget everything else.”

This must be true now more than ever, when isolation is standard, when even a hug is seemingly forbidden, and we can’t even smile at each other when masks are in play. Sometimes I get so down I forget to look up on a clear night and remind myself how easy it is to find beauty, but also how easy it is to be kind, and to remind myself that as Emerson said, “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived, this is to have succeeded.”

“Are you okay?” These words are oxygen, they’re pain relievers, they’re anti-depressants. What can be a normal phrase to one person is an umbilical to new life for someone else. We too often don’t even consider common concern to be uncommon, but it is.  

I’ll be down again, indifferent, and completely unambitious, but not right now, not the least of reasons being two people asked how I was. And, recalling Sophocles who wrote that “kindness gives birth to kindness,” I made a few calls, held a few doors—was human, that’s all, but for so many who don’t even realize they’re slipping into somewhere else, somewhere darker, that’s everything.

 “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” —The 14th Dalai Lama.

Seasons Out of Time

Seasonal Affective Disorder | NCCIH

My doctor hit me with the normal “How are you doing?” and then asked, because I’m on some BP cocktail, if I get depressed.

“Yes, of course.”

“Do you ever feel suicidal?”

“Some semesters, sure.” Turns out doc doesn’t really have a sense of humor. “No, never.” We talked some more and he said, “Well we may want to check into having you talk to someone to see if you have Seasonal Affective Disorder. SAD.”

“Isn’t it possible I simply don’t like winter? When it is cold I shrivel up. I miss my flip flops and shorts and the hot sun and the salty water. It’s Winter. I’m going to be bleh until well into Spring. I mean, I like snow, I really do, it’s just that it sucks.”

He laughed and told me to take care and come back in six months and I assumed he meant when my mood improves, and we talked some more but I knew something he couldn’t possibly know about me: humor is my go-to response when I really don’t know what to say.

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

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

In both situations you are absolutely aware of it, like an alcoholic staring at a glass of whiskey and saying to himself, “This is a really bad idea.” But he drinks anyway because not drinking means “dealing” with a life that just doesn’t seem to have any silver lining. The irony? Going for a walk helps. Filing out the forms, returning calls, all help by providing a sense of accomplishment and forward motion, like checking things off the to-do list, it leaves you with the hint that if you keep going there’s something worthwhile on the other side.

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

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

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

“They say the first step in dealing with a problem is admitting you have one.”

Yeah, okay; no one I know in this situation has much of a problem admitting it.  

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

“Maybe if I had just…”

“Perhaps I should have…”

“Fuck it.”

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

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

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

Yeah, winter, you’re going through a snow bank. This is the worst time of year for many people with depressive issues. Seasonal Affective Disorder is real and feels like all of the above. Nothing helps but time, but time to some people sounds like the slow drip of icicle melt.

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

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

It isn’t exactly depression, by the way, though it is easier to simply call it that because it certainly wears the same eyeshadow as depression. It is indifference; it is a vague inability to muster the energy to lift your spirits enough to give a damn about anything. It’s not like you woke up depressed so you decided to stay on the couch all day; you simply don’t care that you’re on the couch to begin with. Complete apathy. You’re not down about anything; you simply don’t care.

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

It is the time of year when you wake at three am knowing nothing is going to work, and you’re going to lose your house and your sense of security and no answer makes sense, no way forward seems rational. Equally, the dawn can come with new ideas and hope, and if you push those moments far enough into the morning, you just might be able to make a day of it. But January has 285 days. And February is several months long. March? Well you well know that March is merely a tease. April comes and breathing is easier. May, and nothing stands in your way. You know exactly what I mean.

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

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

This afternoon I went to the river where a bitter breeze is pushing down from the west. There’ll be ice tonight somewhere, and snow, but I sat reminding myself I have been there, touched that ring of undefinable despair, and I’ve moved through it, sometimes with difficulty, often with ease, always with the knowledge that I’ve had one freaking incredible life so far, and time enough left, I hope, to continue my pilgrimage well into the next mood swing. But there are moments, collisions with frustration at the gap between the way things are and the way things should be, that catch some people off guard.

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

“I can guess what he was laughing at

But I couldn’t really tell.

Now the story goes that Adam jumped

But I’m thinking that he fell.”

-jackson browne

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

Clever Enough to be Crows

(image by Marc Snyder)

I teach a sophomore level critical thinking and writing class—basic argumentative writing and research. It is one of my preferred courses since my specialty other than writing is research, and in these days where the Fourth Estate is more often dissed than referenced, I like to show the students the path toward accuracy.

The other course on my schedule right now is basic Freshman Comp, which unlike many of my colleagues in the past thirty-three years at three colleges, I truly enjoy teaching. Of course, I start the course by explaining it might be the most boring course they are going to take, but I quickly justify it by adding it is also the most important because of writing being the communication skill most necessary to succeed to college.

This semester on the first day I planned to give my standard lectures for the first day, about the psychology of writing, the motivational tools necessary for even the most advanced writers, and the steps necessary to get through the brainstorming stage to rough draft. I was going to remind them to stop treating me like a professor who “has” to read the paper and think of me like an editor who “may or may not” read the paper, and their writing will improve immediately.

I had the normal three-decade-old bag of tricks.

I arrived early and watched students walk in quietly, masked, heads down, silent. We had about five minutes. Out of nineteen students, one said hello. The rest sat looking down, some at phones, most at the laps, like schoolchildren waiting to be told what to do.

I asked how they were doing. Nothing.

I asked one person directly how she liked ODU so far. Fine.

I asked another what his major is. Shrug. Undecided? I guess, he said.

Back Story: Over the course of thirty years I’ve seen classroom chatter pre-lecture go from boisterous to casually friendly to non-existent. This, of course, is in direct proportion to the introduction of technology, but I have also noted that even without the phones or laptops—for example, this class, where only one student was looking at his phone—the concept of communication with unknown peers seemed non-existent, as if they have spent their entire lives only communicating by text, and, yes, they have.

It isn’t a matter of poor social skills; these are today’s social skills. Since most of these students are freshman, asking them to put the phone away, or indicating that they should be taking notes, generally receives a positive response. But any question is answered with as few words and as little eye contact as possible. This has been slowly coming on for some years now. In early spring of 2020, it was a bit easier to get them to respond with more than a grunt or a monosyllabic answer, but then Covid came and extracted whatever scattering of manners was left when gathering among others.

I asked one young woman where she was from. NOVA. What town? Alexandria. Why did you choose ODU? There are some great schools up there and in DC. Shrug.

I asked one whom I know is an athlete with absence accommodations what his major is. Mechanical engineering. What made you choose that? Shrug.

Time came to start class. I stood up and they sat up, the one put his phone away, a few took out notebooks, but most did not—people stopped taking notes some time ago, expecting me to post them on Blackboard (a program to communicate with students).

Well, we are here to learn to separate accurate and verifiable information from the tons of crap that cover it up, distract you, trick you into believing what they have to say is true and real and essential when it is simply, well, crap. We’re going to learn to know who the true experts are and who present themselves as experts but are simply loud personalities. And then we’re going to learn how to write about it. Let’s start with this: How many people here would rather class be online during this Omicron surge and return to face to face when it settles down?


I asked the athlete. Shrug.

I asked the woman from NOVA. Shrug.

What the fuck are you people doing here???!!! I thought.

What am I doing here?!?! I thought further.

I sighed, pulled my chair to the front center of the classroom, and sat down. Outside, a full-grown magnolia stood in all its majesty, reaching against the windows on this second floor, and in the distance a deep blue sky. I wondered if the herons and buffleheads were at the river. I thought about how the cold feels on my neck when walking on trails. Or the heat.

I thought about Spain.

I smiled at a woman in the front row who accidentally made eye contact. I asked and she said she is from Fredericksburg. She decided on here instead of Mary Washington University in her hometown, but it seemed too much of a subject to approach at the moment. A crow landed on the magnolia then took off. I could see this but none of the students could. I wondered if the classroom had been reversed with the windows behind me instead of them, would they still have not seen it.

“So…” I said…

If you weren’t in college, where would you be right now? I mean, I know it is hard to say, but use your imagination, be idealistic for a moment and imagine you left high school and instead of college you and a friend decided to….what?

And one guy mentioned probably the military.

And another said working for his father who owns a store in Richmond.

I said I’d take off. Get a job in Florida or Martinique or Ireland for the summer—tend bar, wait tables, not make up my mind about what the next sixty years it going to be like while my head is still spinning from high school where I was still friends with the same people I knew before my voice changed. They laughed, some sat up.

Then this:

Guy in the back row said he wanted to drive across the country and live with his brother in San Diego but his father insisted on college. Another said she is the first one in her family to go to college and she wants to make them proud. Another said he had nothing better to do so might as well work toward something instead of wasting time wasting time. People laughed. I nodded toward him and said, “You’re going to do well.” He thought I was joking, so I said it again. “Really.”

We talked for a half an hour, laughing, I told a few quick stories about college, a few about classes I had taught in the past, my first one as a professor and how terrified I was, almost the same age as my students, having no clue as to what the hell I was talking about.

They talked about their decisions about going to college, about their majors, about being away from home for the first time. We talked about the impending football game that night for the National Championship; we talked about social media, we talked about which place was best to eat in the neighboring Ghent area of Norfolk , which lead to some funny conversations about types of food.

We agreed we eat out too much, we drink too much coffee, we don’t spend enough time outside, and we are too attached to technology. Even the Computer Science major said this.

I stood up and wrote on the board: What has it been like to be in college so far? 500 words.

I don’t want you to do this, I said, but if I did ask you to, could you?

All said yes.

I mean, you’ve been speaking English for almost two decades now; certainly you can string some thoughts together about this, right? They laughed and agreed.

Then I said, “If you did this but I said the five people whose work really caught my attention will automatically get A’s on their first essay, would you do a bit better? They laughed—we were used to laughing now which made answering questions in front of others so much easier—and agreed they would. Then this—I’ve written about this before in this blog and in the Chronicle of Higher Education, but it works so I use it when I can, but the timing must be right or they’ll call BS on me, and the timing was just right: Okay, if you guys, that includes you I said to the one who preferred pizza from 711 over the good pizza place in town, and everyone laughed, if you guys were to do this assignment but I had told you the top five get a thousand dollars each right on the spot, would your work be better?

They all laughed almost in unison and responded in various degrees of “hell yeah!”

I sat back down. The crow came back to the magnolia, and I thought about the crows at home and how they often keep the hawks away but not the eagles, and not the finches who despite their size have got some serious food-gathering game. The crow lifted and left again.

“So look at you now,” I said. They remained silent. “You just admitted it to me.”

They shrugged.

“You always could do better. You just couldn’t be bothered.”

Maybe if I paid you, then you’d put more of an effort in. Otherwise, whatever. You just presented to me the proof of why you aren’t doing as well as you could be—you can, you just admitted it—you just don’t bother.

I get it, I told them. In my example, the reward is clear, is obvious, and is immediate. But in a freshman college class the reward is vague, distant, and seemingly irrelevant, but in this class in particular, it’s worth way more than the grand you were going to work for. We are so caught up on immediate satisfaction and reward we have lost the art of sacrificing now for benefits later.

A couple of people still knew who Billy Joel is so I told them how when asked what it was like growing up he said the worst part was the piano lessons, how he could never understand why his mother made him practice three hours a day while his friends were outside playing. Then he was asked what was the best part of growing up back then, and he said the piano lessons and how his mother made him practice three hours a day.

We talked more about football and pizza.

Don’t come here because it is “required,” I told them. Don’t show up next time because you don’t want to lose points for being absent. Come because you just met some new people to hang out with, new voices to listen to and talk at. Come because I am going to constantly remind you that being here is worth way more than you know right now, and I need you to trust me. Come because that crow keeps coming back to the magnolia and I can’t figure out why.

And everyone turned around and laughed and we spent the last few minutes speculating about what the bird could possibly be doing out there.

Raven quotes, Crow, Crow facts

One Quiet Day

I have learned the sound of gulls when they circle looking for food compared to their call when confronted by something strange. I can close my eyes and know the direction of the tide and the pull of the current. I do not know most smaller bird calls—my son Michael has to tell me (over and over) which is which when home on the porch—but I know well the call of a hawk or osprey or eagle, especially when they teach their young to fly. It is a sight to behold, and more, it is a sound I will never forget.

There is nothing “silent” about nature. There is nothing quiet about night. On the river in the evening when the stars blanket the sky above the Chesapeake and up the Rappahannock, the most muffled of sounds carries across the water. It could be a car crossing the bridge, a late-night fisherman dropping traps, rigging against a mast, the gentle, familiar, eternal lap of water on the sand.

Paul Simon wrote, “Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance; everybody knows it’s true.” Yes, across the night, when everything seems silent and the distant call of a train comes across the space between. There is life out there carrying on. Like the red dot of a passing airplane when I stand on the sand in perfect quiet and know onboard passengers are talking, laughing, reading, and life is carrying on, heading for somewhere else. Come morning the call of the fog horns on the fishing boats comes across the reach.

I love the quiet of nature, despite its lack of silence. Believe it or not, it has been quite some time since I’ve experienced the type of quiet I am referring to.

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.

A day where if the phone rings at all it is just 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 in my twenties 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 so no response is expected or necessary, just my presence without the noise in my head, the endless, persistent humming in my head of stress or anxiety or what’s next or what happened. Without all that. One day.

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 I loved that sweet and passive activity of such 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 some connection around us.

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 life at another time. We finished each other’s sentences and the wine and then went our own ways, quietly, until next time.

Another time, we stood on the beach here and watched across the bay toward Wallops Island, and it was late and cold and clear, and a rocket lifted with a payload for the Space Station, and all we saw was a red glow and the entire horizon glow white and red, then the sliver of a rocket move up, pushing out flames, further up to the southeast, and then, quietly gone. We never heard a thing. That kind of quiet is mind-bending to me.

It is quiet tonight, and cold—the type of cold, quiet night where sounds travel quite some distance, and I can hear the north winds sliding across from Windmill Point to the duck pond, and I need to turn my back to the cold, and walk up the hill and down the long, winding driveway to my porch, and the rustle of deer or opossum in the woods, try and find some music to match my mood, but doing so usually just sends me back outside.

There’s More than One Way of Growing Old

Suddenly, it’s New Year’s Day, and since I’m not really doing anything except literally watching the clock and growing older, I’m wondering how many people completely start over—I mean absolutely begin again—at sixty-one. Now seems like a good time to consider this, being the month of Janus and all, the God of Doors and All Things to Come. Plus I couldn’t sleep.

This particular contemplation of “what’s next” is not random for me. I no longer teach full time after almost three decades at one college, the other college where I had hoped to continue teaching Arts and Humanities completely shut down because of Covid, and while I do teach a few classes at yonder university, and I do have a new memoir coming out soon, it turns out the world of Readings and Gigs and Workshops has ebbed into the Coronavirus Sea.

So, I looked for some examples of others who, as Janis Ian proclaims, “Make it when they’re old, perhaps they’ve got a soul they’re not afraid to bare.” It is time, after all, to note that, as T.S. Elliot points out, “Next year’s words await another voice, and to make an end is to make a beginning.”

Well, we shall see:

Grandma Moses didn’t start painting at all until she was seventy-six.

Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Award, didn’t start writing until he was sixty-five.

Another writer, Laura Ingalls Wilder, started writing the Little House on the Prairie series at sixty-five.

Fauja Singh ran his first marathon at eighty-nine (luckily if I choose this path I can wait twenty-eight years before getting off of the couch).

Harland Sanders established Kentucky Fried Chicken when he was in his sixties.

And apparently Moses didn’t part the Red Sea until he was eighty years old.

And for God’s sake, Noah was six hundred years old when the waters started to rise.

Hell, I’m going back to bed.

Truthfully, it isn’t about starting over, really. We make resolutions this time of year to lose weight and exercise and save money and volunteer more, and those are common ambitions for a good reason: they’re admirable goals, apt adjustments to our otherwise well-planned life. Emerson tells us that “the purpose of life is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate and have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” I must do all of those things, for certain. But a slight adjustment simply won’t cut it.

It isn’t enough to wonder what all of us can do, but what each of us can do, what is my particular purpose, my part in the plan? Certainly, the atmosphere isn’t exactly conducive to positive change. Maybe its Covid, or perhaps it is the endless bickering and childish spats at all levels of government–all levels of society really–that I thought would be history by the time I became an adult. Really, I seriously grew up believing my generation was the one that would clean the world, bring peace to all countries, and create a more inclusive society. I know it was innocent and naïve, of course, and I didn’t really expect some land of Oz, but I also didn’t expect this pathetic disaster we still call humanity. We are a mess; our supposed “intelligent life” turned out to have little compassion for each other, and it is stressing me out more than my meds can handle. I don’t understand why it all gets to me and brings me down. It just does. I know that “a happy soul is the best shield for a cruel world,” as Atticus wrote. But listening to the news is akin to swimming in toxins, and it has become overwhelming, drowning out whatever happiness takes root. Something has to change–if not out there, certainly in here.

It helps to have a distinct starting-over point. A few times each year—birthdays, Spring equinox, for educators the first day of classes, and New Year’s Day for us all, we can take a deep breath and make some sort of commitment to do some small part; maybe not by changing the world, but by changing ourselves. I can only speak for me.

Of course, I need to save more money, exercise more, lose a little weight, and spend more time volunteering. And I will. But I need something else. Something more personal and more essential.

The clock is ticking while I’m distracted by society’s bad energy, spending valuable time on meaningless banter. I need to get back to me and remind myself, as Dan Fogelberg sang, that “there’s more than one way of growing old.” I need to take more chances and figure out which dreams I simply refuse to allow to fade before I die. Not all of my imaginings are realistic, of course. Certainly I can narrow down the list with some rationale: I can probably toss out the Wimbledon win and playing outfield for the Mets. I’m confident the circumnavigation of the world is sliding off the list as well, as is winning an Academy Award for directing.

But I’ve noticed a few elements common in those people who achieved later in life:

They’re not afraid to fail.

They’re not afraid to embarrass themselves.

They’re not afraid to be transparent.

They’re not afraid to be ridiculed, mocked, trolled, dissed, and dismissed.

And the ones criticizing the loudest are the ones on the sidelines. Paulo Coelho writes, “Those who never take risks can only see other people’s failures.” Yes.

With that in mind it occurs to me most of my successes came in the midst of countless failures for most of my life; I have embarrassed myself in front of crowds at least since I’m nineteen, I remain pretty open about myself, and as a professor and a writer, I have suffered a steady barrage of ridicule, mockery, and dismissal.

And now it’s New Year’s, and in less than two years the planet has lost 5.5 million people from Covid alone. I’m sure a disturbingly large percentage of those lost souls never completed the dreams they had not yet grown too old to achieve. Let that thought hang here for a second.

You and I still have some dreams. And we’re still here. And in the words of Hamlet: “I do not know why yet I live to say, ‘This Things to do.'”


Some of us are simply mentally exhausted. Why do we get so tired? Why do we have such little faith in ourselves? Is it ignorance—we have truly no clue where to begin with some of this? Is it a fear of wasting our time? “I’m just going to gain the weight back,” people rationed when I worked for Richard Simmons. We used to tell those who wanted to quit that in everything in life we have two options: I will attempt this and do what’s necessary to succeed, or I will not bother trying because I’m likely to quit anyway or simply do not have the energy. Some succeeded, some tried but quit, and some signed on with those famous “good intentions” but didn’t bother to show up.

Which group do I want to be in when I’m older? When I am near the end of the end, what would I have been successful at if I had just, well, showed up? Today’s a fine day to think about this because more and more I’m finding myself sliding into that third group, and that must become unacceptable. “I’m too old to change now,” I’ve heard friends say. That’s fine for those who found their place, and sometimes I feel the same way. But for some, life is too short to simply run out the clock.

I’ve shared this next part before, I’ve read it to my students, I read it to the people who came to my classes at Richard’s, and I’ve memorized it. It is from Joseph Zinker at the Gestalt Institute:

If a man in the street were to pursue his self, what kind of guiding thoughts would he come up with about changing his existence? He would perhaps discover that his brain is not yet dead, that his body is not dried up, and that no matter where he is right now, he is still the creator of his own destiny. He can change this destiny by taking his one decision to change seriously, by fighting his petty resistance against change and fear, by learning more about his mind, by trying out behavior which fills his real need, by carrying out concrete acts rather than conceptualizing about them, by practicing to see and hear and touch and feel as he has never before used these senses, by creating something with his own hands without demanding perfection…We must remind ourselves, however, that no change takes place without working hard and without getting your hands dirty. There are no formulae and no books to memorize on becoming. I only know this: I exist, I am, I am here, I am becoming, I make my life and no one else makes it for me. I must face my own shortcomings, mistakes, transgressions. No one can suffer my non-being as I do, but tomorrow is another day, and I must decide to leave my bed and live again. And if I fail, I don’t have the comfort of blaming you or life or God.

It’s New Year’s Day, and we all know this year, like last, is simply unlike any we’ve had before, but for me, this year seems different, more urgent. When you think about it, if the bills are paid and your health is cooperating, the best approach is to “enjoy the passing of time.” But some of us need to also untether whatever limitations we’ve placed upon ourselves because of routine or fear or society’s expectations, and live a bit more before the living is over.

People do it all the time.

I know a man who joined the Peace Corp at seventy-five.

Another who learned French and became a translator at seventy-one.

There are barriers to these resolutions, to be certain. Pressure, stress, money, fear, and sheer exhaustion. Age; dear, persistent and unyielding age. The obstacles can seem insurmountable, but as Moliere said, “The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.” Still, on top of this, those battling depression have to also face those internal voices telling us there’s no point, those for whom the “resolve” in resolution can be a monumental task, those for whom as a friend of mine recently noted, “no longer care if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel; I’m tired of the tunnel.” But none of us, I am not wrong about this, none of us wants to reach the point of death, as Thoreau reminds us, only to find out we never really lived at all, and, even worse, never even tried.

For me, this year’s New Year’s resolution is simple: start something worth finishing.


“If you don’t lose patience
With my fumbling around
I’ll come up singing for you
Even when I’m down

I’ll come up singing.”

Happy New Year everyone.

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Fauja Singh
Still running marathons, here at 100