Today is one of those chilly, rainy Sundays I’ve always loved. There’s something immediate about them—I feel present. A mist is moving down river toward the bay and a Great Blue Heron has perched on a branch across the swamp, her head pulled down like a cold child. The air is calm and the tide high.
Like everyone else these days, I have a lot on my mind. I’m worried about a few friends, some projects I’m working on, some commitments I must stick to, some issues I’ve been dragging around for a few years. To push the tired metaphor that NPR guests cannot seem to use enough, it often feels like playing a game of Whack-a-Mole; just when one issue has been dealt with, another rises, and it goes on and on, and I feel like running away.
Instead I walk to the river dressed in seven layers and a raincoat, a hat, my hood up, hands shoved deep in my pockets. I can hear buffleheads in the fog diving under the surface, rising. Some gulls call from a nearby pier, and the diesel engine of some boat pushes it along the channel toward the bay.
Another typical rainy morning.
I remember a rainy Sunday morning forty-two years ago. Half the guys on my floor at the dorm were asleep, the other half just getting home from passing out somewhere. I had been up in Niagara all day Saturday and while the details aren’t important, it took me twelve hours to get home. I slept a few hours, noted the cold rain, and decided to walk to my friend’s painting studio under Francis Hall on the far side of the campus. It had been a seminary years earlier, and in an old library beneath the hall he set up his paintings. On the walk over I couldn’t even see the hills just behind campus across the Allegany River, and it was deafening quiet on campus. Quiet like today, misty too, and chilly like today.
I descended the stairs and could hear John Lennon’s “Double Fantasy” album; an album that artist Cole Young played non-stop for a few months that year. I was deathly tired, and Cole looked up from the canvas just briefly. “Kunzinger! Listen to this!” Then a minute later, “What the hell happened to you?”
“I walked home from Niagara Falls. Well, a good deal of it. I’m tired.”
Cole put his brush down and sat down, crossed his legs and picked up his coffee mug. “Go on.”
I told him how a friend and I hitchhiked to Niagara Falls the previous day and the hour and a half drive only took us an hour and a half—someone picked us up immediately and brought us right to a donut shop at the falls and bought us donuts and coffee. Then we ran into some other Bona people and hung out all day, and around four she said, “Bob if we leave now we can be back to the dining hall for dinner by 5:30.” Cole laughed hard because, of course, we were idiots.
“So you guys just decided you’d get a ride right away from someone who happened to be headed to this town that isn’t on the way anywhere?”
“And you didn’t get a ride.”
“You’re a genius Cole.”
I told him we walked until nearly three in the morning then huddled together in the overhang of a hardware store in the small village of Machias, and after ten minutes I saw a payphone and convinced my friend to call her boyfriend, who is still a very close friend of mine despite that night, and ask if he can borrow someone’s car and come pick us up. He did. We got home. I slept, woke to the rain, walked to the studio.
“That is excellent, Kunzinger! Wow!!”
“I like your painting. What’s it called? ‘More trees somewhere’?”
He laughed. “Homage to Cole.”
“Oh but we don’t have an ego!” I quipped.
“Thomas Cole, Kunzinger.” Of course, the Hudson Valley School founder was a major influence in my friend’s craft. “Seriously! What a great night!” he said.
“I’m exhausted. That was frustrating because I KNOW that people we know passed us on Route 16!”
“But then you would have gotten home and done what? Gone to the skellar? The Club? Are you kidding?! You walked to Machias from Niagara Falls!”
“I know but…”
“Before you cross the street, take my hand.
Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”
Cole was a beautiful man. He died young. But that day at that moment he nodded his head in a definitive manner as if to say “if you don’t agree with me you’re too stupid to live.” “Don’t you get it?” he asked me.
I got it.
“You would have had another unmemorable night in a long stream of unmemorable nights surrounded by drunks and loud music! You’ll be talking about last night for the rest of your life!”
That was more than four decades ago.
I’ve done really well. I have. I have a beautiful place, been around the world dozens of times, written books, and laughed hard—really really hard—with friends. But I’ve been down too, scraping by, not able to pull my own weight without help, living in the extremes—life at perfection that if you died then you’d be happy with it, and life so decidedly bad that if you died right then you’d be happy with it.
But in both cases, I was not busy making other plans. I was decidedly alive. Maybe I should have been more restrained, I don’t know. I’d do a lot differently, especially in the past few years. Even now I want to call a few people up and tell them to shut up while I apologize and explain myself, but there’s no point. There’s only now and next. That’s it.
It’s raining harder now, though I’m at my desk looking out at the woods where a fog has settled with the holly, and it is beautiful.
Sure, I could sit here, get some work done, prepare some lessons for my writing class Tuesday night, maybe finish an essay I’m working on about—no kidding—weather.
But life is happening, and I want to go be a part of it. I’m not irresponsible. Well, okay, I’m sometimes not irresponsible. But sometimes when the world “is too much with me” and I feel unable to think rationally, I get the attention span of a lightning bolt and need to get outside, and walk slowly, taking it in, sitting watching the heron on the branch perched watching me, and spend hours at a walker’s pace instead of seeing it all like a drive-by.
I don’t mind the rain or the cold. It is the nothingness of life that chills me to the bone.
The painting Cole Young was just starting that night, “Homage to Cole,” hung in the second floor lobby of the South Tower of the World Trade Center, and when they came down, I called him at his studio in Brooklyn at the time, and said I had read in the New York Times about the artwork in the towers, and how his was among them.
He laughed. “Yeah!” Then he moved on quickly. “Hey Kunzinger! When are you coming up here! We can hit some studios and some bars, listen to some live guitar music. Bring yours!” he said.
“It’s not around the corner,” I told him.
“I just assumed you’d hitchhike.”
The thing about the hills behind campus was I knew they were there even though on misty Sunday mornings you couldn’t see them at all. But they were there. I’m heading out to the river, walk in the morning fog and clear my head.