Time to return to the wilderness.
I sat on the front porch tonight for a bit. Birds had been chirping for quite some time; cardinals, house wrens, and a couple of cooing doves somewhere in the woods to the southwest. When I was on the patio I sat and cupped my hands and blew through my thumbs to make a similar sound, though I doubt I fooled them. The thing is—they went quiet for awhile and then only replied when I made the noise again. I like to think I was telling them something or warning them, though they probably sat on a branch somewhere talking to each other about my opposing thumbs.
Those thoughts were fleeting—no worries. What stayed with me, however, looking out across the front yard into the woods, looking down the darkening path to the east and where it bends back toward the distant driveway, was thoughts about other paths in other places. The trails of eastern Virginia I’ve hiked with my son, the paths at Mt Irenaeus in western New York, the steeper, thin-air paths of Utah that wind straight up to the wind caves. I’ve walked paths I’ll remember forever and a few I wish I could forget, both in reality and metaphorically.
But the true path that always comes to mind, which set the standard and raised the bar, is the Camino de Santiago in Spain. It terrifies me that a pilgrimage across Spain that I can recall like I did it last month out west actually happened ten years ago next summer. It is with me still, but, unfortunately, many of the lessons I thought I learned there have slipped away. I came back convinced I had it right—I’d simplify, I’d organize and stay focused and follow through, but, as Jim Croce aptly reminds me, “So many times I thought I was changing then slipped into patterns of what happened before.”
It’ll remain warm here for quite some time, but today there was a breeze off the bay that felt somehow foretelling of autumn. It wasn’t “cool” by any means, but certainly pleasant, welcome. As someone pointed out to me last week: “Summer isn’t through with you yet.” That’s fine; often come mid-September I want to “reach out and hold it back,” as Jay Gatsby desired. Almost all the time, I am like that.
Not this time. No. I’ve almost got my ducks in a row, and I’m casting aside as much as I can of old habits and tired routines. We are always looking for “kicking off” dates to start anew, to really “gather up our forces and get out of yesterday.” There are plenty to choose from: New Year’s and birthdays are probably the most common. But as a professor I have the added commencement of late August, early September, when classes start. This is the time of year everything is brand new, and my attitude is new, my hopes and ambitions, just like students I’ll face each week, just like it was for me forty-something years ago this week. It happens every year, but this time it is a bit different. I’ve worked very hard at separating myself from the umbilical cords of failed approaches and misguided directions. So this time is something closer to my return from Spain, when I knew, I mean I had the absolute conviction, that my destiny was my own. I thought that powerful knowledge would last, but it slipped through my mistakes and shortcomings.
This time, however, it won’t for one very essential reason: I’m older now, and I’ve reached the age where I know I’m running out of do-overs. And I sat on the porch thinking about Spain, about the summer of meandering, both physically and psychologically, and how I was focused on each moment, and I followed through with plans every day while there. I didn’t think in big ideas and sweeping hopes. I thought in small pleasures and that idea of simplicity.
I need to do that again, and for the first time nearly since returning from Spain, most certainly within a few years of returning, I find myself in a position to be able to do just that, and mean it this time when I say, “I’m through wasting what’s left of me.”
I’m at my desk now, an hour ago having left the circling hawk and the frightened doves to do what nature does. It is later and the sun is gone—it sets so much earlier now than just a few weeks ago. Someone across the river is shooting off fireworks. I never thought of Labor Day as a celebration to set off fireworks, but, well, maybe I shouldn’t ignore the symbolism of such New Year’s overtones.
It took ten years for the Camino to truly make sense to me. I’m a slow learner.
You know what? Maybe I’ll just go back to Spain.