Stardust

Let’s start with this creepy little statistic: Every single day, one-hundred tons of meteorite dust coats the entire planet. You, me, the cars, buildings, everywhere, everything. It is so miniscule, of course, that we don’t even know it is happening, preferring instead to wait for the Leonid shower, or the Perseid, the Geminid, or even the Urid, to run outside and watch shooting stars every twenty or thirty seconds on a clear moonless night. Who isn’t transfixed by that? No one says, “Hey, I’m covered in microscopic meteor dust; make a wish!” But equally, who isn’t freaked out by the thought of meteor dust in their hair? On their ice cream cone?

This Earth of ours is at its core about ten thousand degrees Fahrenheit, exactly the same as the surface of the sun. Symmetry aside, one has to wonder if The Great Thermometer simply stops tracking at 10K. Also, Earth is the only planet not named for a God, and as crazy as this seems, no one knows who named it, though the etymological roots are Germanic and Old English. As for age, Scientists–the ones who know what they’re talking about because of generations of research–say the planet is about 4.5 billion years old, but humans of any sort have only been here for about 450,000 years. Some traditions and faiths call the start date around six thousand years ago. Either way, the human portion of earth hasn’t been here that long and isn’t staying long enough to wear out our welcome. It seems the earth is cleansing herself.

Since the onset of the Covid pandemic, this planet has shed about three thousand humans per day. That’s a 911 every single day. We are improving, but we are doing it on a very slippery slope. Why? Well, we’ve so adjusted for life to be “convenient” (think Smart Phone, think 5G, think online everything, think curbside, think Drive-thru, think Alexa, think Lunchables), that too many believe if some aspect of life is inconvenient, they’ll simply redefine reality to accommodate what they want, even if it chips away at Earth’s patience.

We’ve traded the rare beauty of this one-of-a-kind globe for “whatever’s easier.” The percolator becomes Mr. Coffee becomes a Keurig. It’s easier. We are completely, arguably, most definitively reliant upon the 2500 operational satellites orbiting the earth (about 6000 actually are orbiting, but more than half simply don’t work–how inconvenient). So here’s the thing: According to scientists who know what they’re talking about and constantly work on and adjust the Asteroid-Satellite Collision Probability, when a meteor or other such space object hits a satellite, the rock “vaporizes into hot, electrically charged gas that can short out circuits and damage electronics, causing the satellite to spin out of control.” Don’t worry about being hit–it’ll burn up on reentry into the planet’s atmosphere. No, that’s not the problem.

See the problem? Yes, no more satellite.

And if a large such space rock plays pinball with Space X’s system of communication, we here are earth are, as they might say on “Eureka,” simply fracked. And if one of them or a flock of them zero in on the Great Siberian Forest setting it ablaze, we are, once again, Stardust, part of the atmosphere, that naked-to-the-eye coating which exploded countless zeros away from here several billion years ago, arriving, now, on our chocolate swirl cone.

The greatest scientists in the world who know what they’re talking about have trouble wrapping their minds around this simple idea: We, Earth, are an anomaly, God’s only child. Even if you believe somewhere in the deep recesses of unthinkable distance are planets with lifeforms playing Scrabble and drinking Pinot Noir, astrophysicists like Stephen Hawking, Neil Tyson, Carl Sagan, and Brian May can’t tell you where, and they’ve looked with equipment so advanced some of it has left the solar system, some landed on moving asteroids, and some is scooping up dirt like a dog-walker in Central Park and bringing it back. Then they study it, then they tell us they still don’t know.

But they can tell us around 100 tons of meteorite dust coats the earth, and us, daily.

I walked to the river earlier. Unplugged and, to be honest, uninterested in much. The day started poorly but finished really strong, but still I felt like going for a long walk in the mountains or sitting on the sand at the gulf, quietly. Instead, here I am, more than a little content to look out at a distant bridge and watch the cars and trucks cross the mile and a half reach headed North, up toward DC, up toward New York, up, just further and further up, perhaps as far as the northern stretch of Ontario to watch the Northern Lights bounce across time. But closer, near me on the river, some bufflehead ducks surfaced and dove again. Watermen on a workboat checked traps.

See, it is information like this that makes me aware of why when a student asks me about subject-verb agreement I’m wondering why we can only see about 2000-3000 stars, not “millions” as we feel when standing at the bay on a clear, moonless night. And my frustration at knowing I have so much I want to see, so many glasses of wine to drink with friends in European pubs and small quaint villages, brings me to the brink of psychosis when someone actually screws up simple comma rules. Part of me wants to say, “Come on! This isn’t rocket science! It’s a fracking comma, for God’s sake!” but in the past few years, a stronger part of me, a more conscious part, wants to whisper, “You’re doing fine. It’s just commas–I knew what you meant. Now go outside and bathe in the miracle of meteorite dust. Buy a cone and wait for it.”

We’ve drifted too far astray from the essential, so far afield from what matters.

We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Etre en Vie




It’s New Year’s Day. Barely.

A heavy fog has settled on the Rappahannock and even out into the Chesapeake. It is calm and I can hear morning doves, some house wrens, and a few gulls calling from the docks. I like to think the fog is a cleanser, slowly sweeping through like mist to cleanse the world overnight so we can rise this morning and start fresh.

I promised someone I would get up and do something, so I went for a long walk, despite the fog. Even enhanced by this fog. I need a new start. My life could stand a decent cleansing.

I did a superb job of racking up a list of shortcomings to undo this coming year. The easy stuff includes losing the weight my doctor told me to lose and which I absolutely know how to lose but keep yo-yoing through the months. Also, to eat better. Again, I have the capability and the information to get it done, but it must be challenging enough that I still have these resolutions to make. I think you know what I mean.

That brings me to the difficult stuff: willpower, motivation, and simply getting through those tough three weeks or so where I still crave old ways while adjusting to a new way of doing things. I know after that time habits will form to achieve my goals, and old habits will be pushed out and cast aside. But I knew that fifty-two weeks ago—that’s seventeen chances of three-week periods to start again and stick with it that I simply didn’t bother. So why would now be different? What is it about this New Year that will find me a month from now well on my way to my goals, and a few months down the line having obtained them enough to enter that stage of maintenance only?

I’m getting to that. First though, I believe 2022 was a wake-up call for many people I know. Some dear friends of mine are not doing well, and the problems are beyond their control, so the rest of us must recognize that when the problem that slows us down and even compromises our lives is in our control, we should not hesitate to act. Another part of it is the peace of mind I used to love when everything was going right—physically and mentally, and while I must still pay close attention to many aspects of my life, I would like to knock this physical monster out of the way—the one I actually can take care of and was at one time an expert in doing so. It is inexcusable, to be sure.

The fog is starting to lift, and the river is like glass, like a mirror, and in the distance I can hear a flock of geese; out at the mouth of the river I can hear the diesel engine of a workboat. More geese. At the marsh two deer gently walk through the reeds. There was a time some years ago I made a resolution to spend more time in nature. I remember how hard it was adjusting my routine to make that possible, but I also remember it becoming such a part of my day that at some point I couldn’t recall not being out in nature all the time.

We choose the life we wish to live. Even if we don’t choose at all, which in itself is a choice.

To be blunt, 2022 was one of the crappiest years of my life. I’ve been fortunate to have very few of them, and when I do run into one of them, friends have always been there to help me keep perspective. But this last one, well, thank God for my friends and thank God it is gone.

But New Year’s is just another day. So sometimes it takes something more than some annual resolution to achieve the same annual goals we didn’t bother to attempt the previous annum. It takes more than some passing motivation.

ie:

Not long ago I had a conversation with someone about what I would do with my life if I knew I was dying. I sipped my coffee and thought about it and said I’d tie up loose ends and then drive to see everyone I’ve cared about—family from Long Island to Seattle, friends from Florida to Ohio, from Prague to Africa. I’d go for a long hike in the Rockies and I’d sail along the gulf coast. I told her more. She told me what she will do. It made me deeply sad, yet it also made me deeply aware of my aliveness, of my choices not everyone has.

Finally, after working the phrasing in my mind for a few minutes, I said, “I am dying. Maybe not in six to eight months, but maybe—I don’t know. Maybe thirty years.”

“Better get off your ass then,” she said. Then a very long pause. Then, “Just in case. Really, Bob,” she said from somewhere deep, like she reached as far as she could into her soul before speaking so I’d not just hear her but absorb every syllable. I’d never seen anyone push words out so hard before. “Be alive as long as you are.” We were both quiet a long time.

Sometimes you just know to be quiet.

After a while I said something to make us laugh, and we laughed for a very long time. I joked about the coffee and the overpriced croissants. Joking is my default position, and she appreciated it. Then I was quiet and added, “I’ll pick a day and get right on it. I Promise.”

Today is good. January 1st, 2023. Happy New Year my friends.

Be alive as long as you are.

It’s time to make mistakes again, it’s time to change the show.

It’s time and time and time again to find another way.

It’s time to gather forces and get out of yesterday.

–John Denver

Standing Still but Still Standing

This week marks the end of Volume Seven of this blog. Sunday, January 1, 2023, I will begin Volume Eight. It did not go where I had expected it to, though few things in my life, if anything, have gone where I thought they would. I also could not conceive that I’d still be doing this going on eight years. It proves the notion that if you just keep showing up, things happen.

When I started the blog in January of 2016, my father had just died a few months earlier, I was still senior faculty at a college in Virginia Beach, was still senior faculty at a university on the naval base, my mother still lived in a large condominium and my brother lived in Texas. None of those things are true anymore; or, the truths of those things are in the past, as most realities in our life tend to be, eventually.

I thought this site would be a simple escape into nature, and for a while it was. I wrote about geese, about the river and the bay, about the hawks and eagles here at Aerie, and about the wildlife we discovered here at night while looking at the stars. But as the weeks and months progressed, it became more about the nature of things, including and perhaps most significantly, human nature, particularly my own. I recognized a few of my many flaws, proving in some small ways to myself that “Writing to Learn” really does work, noting those times I wrote myself out of a depression or into a corner and back out again.

The changes kept coming, as they are apt to do: I left the college. I left the university (or the university left us, as it shut down because of Covid and never reopened). I lost touch with people I knew well for a very long time understanding finally that sometimes people we thought were friends were really simply colleagues with whom we shared a world. Mostly, I spent more time on the river, along the trails of the Chesapeake region. When I started this blog, President Obama was still in office. As the years moved drudgingly by, someone else came, and now President Biden holds down his temporary quarters. There was no such thing as Covid, we hardly ever used terms like quarantine, masks, social-distancing. Yet as we did, nature became more important, no longer simply a refuge, my escape, but a place to breathe without worry, a place to walk without concern.

Professionally, this blog led to a book, A Third Place: Notes in Nature. Among writers, blogs are somewhat controversial. Some believe it can distract from real writing, absorb your energy from completing more worthy works. I understand the argument. But I’ve always had several layers of writing going on at the same time. There is the serious material I know I want to send to publications, perhaps even in book form, as in the case of my current larger projects including Wait/Loss, Front Row Seat, and Curious Men. Then there is the raw material—the stuff I read in bars with the likes of Tim Seibles—stuff we generally don’t expect to be published and which certainly won’t appear here; stuff we prefer you hear when you’ve been drinking and where recording is strictly prohibited. Other work, too, got done. A reissue of a book about Van Gogh, Blessed Twilight, and The Iron Scar: A Father and Son in Siberia–this year’s book about riding the trans-Siberian railway with my son whose pictures grace the book in a gallery of several dozen of his shots.

But there is the middle work, the journaling, the reflections, the prompts, the thoughts, the spewing of anger at politicians, the rants at society for ignorance and negligence, and the confessions to those I know and those I do not know about so many of my shortcomings, failures, and misunderstandings. Many times what I thought would be a work about nature turned out to include my heart on my sleeve; yeah, I’ve exposed much in these six years and as a result some people pulled back, others gathered closer. This has certainly been a cleansing experience. Nothing wrong with that at all.

But in the end this blog is a place I simply am what I am. I do not know if I’m departing this life tomorrow or in thirty years, but when I do, I’m leaving everything I can out there, exposed. This blog has taught me, is teaching me still, to be who I must, something I wish I had learned decades ago.

It started with one reader—me. Last week the unique readership numbered almost 1500 people, averaging just around 1200 every week. I’m very pleased by that. But make no mistake: I have no illusions that I am changing people’s minds about anything, including my own. I simply found a place to express myself instead of calling you on your cell phone and doing it. You’re welcome. In the end every single blog posting from the start to the finish is for me first.

I have written about dear friends who I thought I’d spend my life with, confidants I counted on to be there and to be there for, but they moved on too soon, like Cole and Joe and Trish and Ed and Bobbie and Dave and too many more to count. I’ve written about artists who I’ve known and whose work made me feel like they knew me, even the ones who I was never fortunate enough to meet, like Vincent van Gogh and Dan Fogelberg, John Denver, Harry Chapin, Mozart, Chopin, Pachelbel, Marley, Nick Drake and so many more whose music plays while I’m typing.

I’ve written about my son. About my dad. But still, mostly about nature both human and natural, always from my perspective, never anyone else’s. The advantage of a blog is we’re like street corner preachers standing on a milk carton flapping our sentiments to the wind, and some people hang out and nod, others hang out and get pissed off, but most just walk on by. That’s fine. I’d walk by too. I’ve never had a guest blogger. I’ve never skipped a week except when traveling, and even then I believe I scheduled some writing. I’m proud of this blog. It makes me feel like I’m being constructive when I should be raking leaves.

And if I haven’t written about some people, it’s because I didn’t want to, don’t want to, and never will want to. If I’ve learned anything at all, it’s reflective of the sentiment of that Long Island philosopher William Joel, to “do what’s good for you, or you’re not good for anybody.” Something else I learned way too late in life.

But a few other things I’ve learned in these now 450 posts:

Heron get frightened easily. Geese change course if they see humans. Hawks are hyper-focused on food and if you walk by one while they’re eyeing down a squirrel, they couldn’t give a rat’s ass you’re nearby.

Standing at this river and watching rockets lift from over at Wallops Island raises the hair on the back of my neck, as does standing in the yard and seeing the stars.

Bare trees in winter are as beautiful as the colors of fall and the buds of spring.

I’m stronger than I thought I was but nowhere near as smart as people think I am. My strength is creativity not intelligence, and my true abilities lie in expression, whether through writing, photography, and at one time music. I suck at finances, am shaky with quantum physics, and I do not know how to build an erector set.

Some of my posts never made it to publication because they were too honest, too scathing, and not fair. Some never made it to publication because as soon as I finished, I thought they could do better than A View, and they have, including pieces which went on to the Washington Post, The Sun, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, among others. Other entries just sucked so I deleted them.

I learned that people prefer to laugh hard or cry exhaustively rather than the simple, boring rants or blogs about education. I learned that everyone can relate to nature, wishes they spent more time in nature, feels more relaxed in nature.

I’ve learned that I prefer to be hit over the head by someone about how they feel about things rather than some slow reveal of the truth. And I’ve discovered that time spent with people who make you feel better about yourself is all there is left in life. There is no legacy, there is no endowment more valuable than that—to spend time with people who you love and who love you and who aren’t afraid to be truthful about that, no matter what, who are able to remain quiet without worry of that quietness.

This blog will continue with its bloated pretentiousness and condescending rants, but hopefully as well, readers will be more likely to notice the sun on the bottom edge of a cloud, the call of geese or the strong woosh of an egret’s wings. Too, I hope they are encouraged to reflect more often about how swift life is, and how we all know the simple truth is when we leave this world, we’re going to wish we had been more open with others, move loving, more honest with how we feel without concern of hurting or being hurt. And we will wish we had seen more sunsets. It is that simple.

The view from this wilderness is fragile and fast, and beautiful, and it is the same view as those reading in Mumbai, in London, in Brooklyn, Cincinnati, Mexico City, and Barcelona. The View from this Wilderness is not dependent upon coordinates. I’ve learned, too, that we need to help more people without them asking, and we need to let more people know we love them without worrying about their response. The old Japanese saying remains true: “Just because the message is not received doesn’t mean it is not worth sending.”

All artists like to know that people hear and appreciate us, but that’s not why an artist paints or a writer writes.

We write to remind ourselves that we miss too many sunsets, sunrises. We walk by too many flowers just beginning to open, and too many quiet lakes. We pass by too many mornings without opening the curtains and too many evenings without stepping outside. We move too swiftly through life, worrying more about grace than gratitude, more about lofty ambitions than love. And we believe everyone else does to, and we want to say so for them.

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If you’d like to respond to individual posts, please do in the notes section after each entry.

If you’d like to go for a walk, drop me a line–I’ll be outside waiting.

Those of us here at A View from this Wilderness (that’d be just me) wish everyone a Happy New Year.

“Love when you can

Cry when you have to

Be who you must

That’s a part of the plan.”

–Dan Fogelberg

Boxing Day

This piece was originally published in an independent journal and subsequently as a chapter in my book Prof: One Guy Talking.

Boxing Day

I had been teaching about three years when the president of the college called me into his conference room. It was autumn, and it rained that day so not only did the impending meeting occupy my thoughts, but the weather made everyone miserable. Fog settled heavy on the James River behind the buildings, and just the walk from the parking lot left me wet and sticky.  I sloshed into the leather seat in his spacious office. The river ran behind his windows, the water and fog blending. The Monitor- Merrimac Bridge Tunnel appeared little more than a shadow of a river crossing. The only lucid thought in my mind was knowing the professor he planned to fire wasn’t me– I would play the role of messenger. He thanked me for driving to his office and moved right to business. “Tell me truth here, Bob. Is she crazy?” 

She was an African-American, PhD professor. Short and rather rotund, her Islamic chador shrouded her dark darting eyes. She hid in bushes some early mornings, garrisoning herself from evil attacks of campus maintenance workers and other faculty. Sometimes after class she walked home by advancing from tree to tree, looking about, scanning the parking lot for followers. We had been hired together, and when we first talked we talked long about Africa, where I had been and where she had longed to go. I showed her a picture of the village chief, a tall thin man who in the photo is searching for a place to settle down with his prayer mat in the sub-Saharan dust. She stared at the picture a long time. It was just a few months later she spouted profanities across the library tables to other workers, accusing them of casting a spell on her. It was another two years before the President called me in and asked me if I thought she was crazy.

“Compared to who?” I asked. I quickly qualified myself as not being able to determine anyone’s mental state. True, a professor who hid in the hedges and crouched behind trees because she thought she was being followed appeared, on the surface at least, insane. But who was I to say? In my time teaching college, I have often desired to flee to the cover of rhododendrons. “I don’t know,” I said. “She’s a great teacher though. She knows her stuff.”

“Bob, she yells across the library–yells–at other personnel–screams for them to stop following her. Last time they were just replacing light bulbs.”                                                                     

“Yes, sir, that’s true. But it’s not my call. I’m her colleague.”

I was also Assistant Division Chair at the time, and while this denoted nothing when assessing other full-time faculty–least of all their mental state– it placed me in a position where the woman in question trusted me. In fact, I was the only one she talked to most of the time. To avoid the obvious lawsuits, the administration looked for someone she trusted and felt comfortable around to end her career. The college was being both cunningly cautious and blatantly cowardice. While I am a white, Catholic professor, we still had more in common than others. I’d traveled extensively through Islamic Africa, and we talked often of village life, and she asked about people, about their lives. So when she started to cower in the dark corners of campus with what can best be perceived as paranoid schizophrenia, I was the medium through whom the administration communicated.   

 “She can’t stay,” the president said.

“Okay.” I answered. At the time, I really didn’t care either way. A puddle had formed at my feet, and my sweater smelled like a dead animal in a Moroccan marketplace. He offered me coffee. 

“Bob. We’d like you to offer her three choices. One, she stays, but if the pattern continues, she will be fired. That will give us time to document more of these incidents. Two, she transfers to another campus. When people there start following her and she yells at them, that would mean it’s her, not us and we would need to let her go. Third, she can resign now, we’ll pay her contract for the rest of the year, and she leaves on good terms with recommendations.”  I thought, You are going to recommend her? To who? But what I said was, “Wow, Dr. This is somewhat beyond me here, don’t you think? She simply checks too many boxes for you to do it yourself, doesn’t she?”

He was quiet for a moment. “You’re the only one she trusts, Bob.” Clearly, the legal issues lingered like the fog on the James River. I asked what he wanted to happen, though I already figured that out, and said I’d talk to her.

When I was leaving I said, “You know, sir, I don’t get paid enough for this.”   He laughed. Of course, because it’s so laughable.

I sat in my office, just across the hall from the victim. I wondered where the line was between being mentally stable and out in left field, thinking I should know exactly where it is since I step over it so often. To be honest, all three offers seemed low and outside–academic spitballs. I’m crazy for doing this, I thought. But then more than a few college profs of mine wandered well into the outfield too often during the season.

One philosophy professor I had in college brought us to the campus grotto with magazines where we proceeded to rip them apart and toss them in the air. He insisted that one group of philosophers believed eventually the pieces would land in their original design. My anthropology teacher lived with aboriginal Australians in the thirties and spent each class telling stories of trips to Alice Springs, and he’d dance a small Australian dance, the music playing somewhere in the recesses of his mind.

My advisor would haul a television into class to watch the Giants play Thursday night football. He’d profess the advantages of eliminating first person from our work, and add an occasional exclamatory “Damn it, give up the running game!”

One professor I had was a priest who taught a course in parapsychology. The street name of the course was “Spooks.” In his youth he was an exorcist in France and had been dealing with the paranormal for sixty years. He always left the front row of every class empty in case former students or colleagues who had died might show up to sit in. Once, when the door was slightly ajar, the wind blew in and swept it all the way open and then slammed it shut. We were silent until Father quietly stated, “Oh, Larry, I’m so glad you are joining us” We laughed. He didn’t.

As a professor, I once worked once with a colleague who would walk into class the first day and exclaim, “Nearly all of you will get no better than a C,” and he was right–he failed more than three quarters of the students in every class he taught.

During my first year teaching, a student entered my office and complained about himself. He started a business by buying six grand worth of equipment but didn’t have the time to run it, and while he wrote excellent essays, he couldn’t get them turned in by the due dates. He apologized, saying he’d have to drop the course. After some time, he asked if I were him what I would do. I told him that wasn’t fair, that I could look back those six years to twenty-three and know so much more than I had known, but he told me that was exactly why he was asking. He charged that hadn’t I sometimes wished that at twenty-three I had talked to someone.

So I told him. “Okay, if I were your age, I’d sell it all, put three grand in a strong money market account and take the other three grand and disappear. I’d get out of the collegiate predicable setting and do what Eleanor Roosevelt recommended ‘Do one thing dangerous every day.’ I’d be gone. Africa maybe, South America definitely. I’d stay away from expensive places that are merely mirrors of our own big cities. I’d search it all. Three grand will last a long time if you do it right and you’d still come back to a good bit of money to start in a direction you are sure of.”

He left, laughing, telling me he’d love to do something like that but he wouldn’t know where to start. “You’re crazy,” he said.

A few days later a colleague asked if I knew the guy. Lianne was from the genre of professors who knew all the students’ names, where they came from and what they needed to work on. Still, she had her occasional moments of doubt.

She said “Bob, Kevin came by. He was in my developmental English class, and he seemed excited about your conversation. God, I wish someone talked to me like that back then.” Lianne was in her mid-thirties at the time, one child and one on the way. We talked for some time about those choices, about working instead of going to school, about discovering life. We talked about my persistent uneasiness when standing still, about her dedication to her students and her love for teaching. “I just wish these students would really understand how necessary it is to really live life and not just follow someone else’s path!” she would say firmly. I’ll never forget going down the hall to her office six months after that conversation to show her the postcard Kevin sent me from Sydney, Australia, with a note, simply stating, “Don’t know when I’ll be back. Thanks.” A few years later Lianne died of cancer. She was so young. The post card is still around somewhere. So, too, in some way, is Lianne.

When she died I asked myself, “Why am I doing this? What am I doing here?” Teaching is an occupation where you can tell other people how to do things you don’t actually do yourself. Most writing instructors don’t actually write. This isn’t to say that to teach psychology teachers should be disturbed (though the ones I have known for three decades certainly have had issues). Sure theorists are necessary to measure differences and calculate shifts in perspective. But I’m one who believes in understanding the swamp by walking through it. Because it is a swamp, all of it. The pieces will never fall back into place no matter how many times you toss them in the air. In the real world, “C” is average and most of us are just that. And sometimes someone really is out to get us, nudging our psyche to the margins, forcing us to duck into the hedges. Sanity sometimes hides in the fog. We look for the obvious outcasts somewhere on the playing field when the insane might be sitting next to us in the box seats.

I once taught a class about the structure of argumentative essays when a student in the front row, lit only by the glow of the overhead projector, screamed out to the quiet class, “I JUST HAD A GREAT BOWL OF SPAGHETTI!” That became consistent in her weekly rants. As she yelled to the walls, we learned about her new laptop, her broken down car (one student shivered from the thought of her behind a wheel), of her boyfriend’s (more shivering) mental problems. But then I walked across campus and saw students with bent elbows, cell phones squeezed to their ears, yelling at parents about dinnertime. Eighteen-year-old’s smoking in ten-degree weather, rocking back and forth, complained of the wind. I see educated minds quieted by medicine, illegal drugs, alcohol, and pain relievers. Students sit quietly in class safe from the brutal reality of being beaten at home. From our benign perspective we all pass judgement on what others should be doing, decisions they should make, how to best improve the path they find themselves on. One faculty member I knew put smiley faces on returned papers, graded them with crayons, and held pot luck dinners during class. A professor of mine at Penn State screamed at students every day telling us we were worthless and wasting our time, and worse, his time, because our brains were filled with immoral crap. He gets paid for that– more than I do. Crazy? Give me the hedges any day.

Once when I was still in college, a few minutes before philosophy class a friend of mine and I tore a Newsweek into pieces and then put it back together on the ground near the front desk. We scattered a few pieces about to make it seem natural, and when Dr. Kelly entered, we called him over: “Dr! Look!”

He laughed for ten minutes. “Thank you, gentlemen” he said and never addressed the subject again. It was years before I figured it out. Years.

A few days after seeing the president, I was in a faculty meeting when the drugs finally kicked in. Unfortunately, I wasn’t taking them. But the hyperactive freak throwing his glasses across the room in disagreement over some freshman composition concern calmed down and kept quiet. Thank God. Still, it woke me up. I sat staring at the wall listening in cartoon fashion to my colleagues. Their voices came out as one long whir like the nonsensical sound of teachers in Peanuts cartoons. My shirt felt tight about my neck like I couldn’t breathe, and I thought of a Whitman poem, “When I heard the Learned Astronomer,” wherein the student gets sick and dizzy listening to someone talk endlessly about astronomy and doesn’t feel fine until he walks out and looks up in “perfect silence at the stars.” My blood pressure rose like Icarus, and I was burning up. I feared I might crash while discussions continued about whether the research paper should be taught in freshman composition one or freshman composition two. No one wants the responsibility of turning a freshman class into a difficult class.

We have faculty meetings that department chairs expect us to attend. They include textbook committees to determine which ones, often costing more than the course, are most beneficial to the “stereotypical student.” Some people still believe faculty teach classes, hold office hours and go home. The entire make-up of college courses, texts, student committees, articulation agreements, transfer policies, and enrollment caps is chaired and championed by faculty. Professors meet to talk about composition courses, to discuss pedagogy, they meet to argue developmental courses and to discuss transferring students to transfer courses once they understand at least eighty percent of the material that should have been learned in fourth grade anyway. No one wants to be there but they discuss it all with enthusiasm because they believe in what they do and know that these issues, how they are handled, how they are resolved, will not only provide a sense of accomplishment beyond the classroom, will offer excellent fodder for their curriculum vitae and allow them to choose their wars instead of being assigned battles by the division chair. And they know as years go by their decisions affect the way American college students learn, how they conduct themselves, and how they will succeed after college. These meetings we attend, or blow off, tilt the tables of the American workforce.

Still, everyone is watching the clock.

Eventually, I left the department meeting only to be accosted by the Spaghetti Student in the hallway wanting to know if Ernest Hemingway wore green pants when he shot himself. Back at my office I found eight students waiting. None of them wanted advice on papers or suggestions on topics but wished merely to confess to me about how the humidity in their houses ruined their printers and the only person left at home to feed Grandma is a fifteen-year-old sibling who isn’t back from rehab yet. Every time my office turns into this sort of confessional, the room spins, the hallway dissolves, and I can’t breathe. So I slip outside and always waiting there, smoking, are students who never showed up for an earlier class and proceed to tell me about some car problems that didn’t get flushed out until after class was over, though they really hustled, and they deliver all this with a straight face as if I’d never been to college and didn’t blow off classes, or as if a twelve-year-old couldn’t see through their backwards, pathetic excuses.

So I keep walking, passing most with my head down, taking the long way around to my mailbox since a three-minute walk can take fifteen if it’s between classes and I am spotted by students with reasons to see me other than collegiate. I’m not fast enough though and my choices are the student who wants to show me his poetry even though I told him I don’t know anything about writing poetry or the faculty member who wants to discuss textbook choices for the next semester and maybe we could do so at his house with a small party and invite all the faculty for a potluck textbook brain session. If I hesitate too long, I’ll never get to my car fast enough to get a drink before my next class, so I duck into the hedges and wait, pulling my baseball cap down over my eyes, hoping no one notices even though I know–I mean I know– I’m being followed. But I’m too late and the faculty member comes close and says, “Bob, do you want to get some lunch and talk about textbooks, and all I can think of to say is, “I JUST HAD A GREAT BOWL OF SPAGHETTI!” and he leaves me alone. Finally.

Back at my office, I still had to offer the three choices to the victim, so I knocked on her door. She had been kneeling, praying, and stood awkwardly, with my assistance and apologies. She seemed totally lucid, completely at ease, and I didn’t know if that was good or bad. She settled down and asked, “Am I going to be fired, Bob?” I told her the choices, and, unfortunately, with some tears, she asked what I thought she should do. I gave her the picture of the village chief searching for a place to put his prayer mat, and she nodded. Part of me wanted to tell her to fight–to get a lawyer and battle this out, but I couldn’t figure out why. So I said, “You’re hiding in hedges. You’re yelling at colleagues across the library.”

“I’m not crazy, Bob.” She paused and looked at the cinderblock wall. “What would you do?” she asked.

Now whenever anyone asks me that, I always think of Sydney, Australia, and smile, picturing Kevin wandering down some beachfront. Sometimes when someone asked “What would you do?” I think of my son because back then whenever someone asked a stupid or difficult to answer question, I tried to imagine how I would want the teacher to respond if it were him. I found patience and restraint this way, and just a little bit of balance, though, true–not always. Sometimes I crossed the line, tossed my notes into the air wondering if they’ll all come down in one piece

I thought of Kevin recently and about his postcard and realized he never came back. And this professor with her prayer mat and concrete understanding of American literature never came back either, mostly because we never do go back after we leave a place.

A few years later I didn’t go back either. But shortly before leaving, I was teaching class one windy day when the door swung wide open, startling students. I stared for a moment and said, “Oh Lianne, come on in,” and everyone laughed.

Except me.

Five Beautiful Moments: 2022

We can get down on ourselves, slip, feel like there is little hope, and even when someone lends us a hand, we can feel like it is not enough, never enough. It is easy for anyone to feel alone, and more so when there truly are issues to deal with; issues that don’t seem to go away.

That’s why it has become more essential in this world that seems to be failing on all fronts to take a few moments to remind ourselves of the reasons to carry on. I have had insane success; I have failed beyond reason. I have fulfilled more than a few of my dreams, which in itself is amazing; and I have been completely disillusioned by the truths of what I once worshipped.

I have seen tragedy–deep cut, difficult to deal with tragedy, including countless suicides, deaths by horrific means, and disturbing disappearances. But I have seen what can most easily be called miracles. So when my grip on life seems to be slipping, I will once again try something new for the upteenth time: when things feel insurmountable, I’m going to remind myself of five beautiful moments. Yes, I’ve tried this before and it worked, but then I’d drop the ball and let my chaotic emotions and lack of focus take over, and I subsequently nosedived into some self-created abyss, always asking others to help me out.

No more. Now, to get out of that debilitating self-inflicted mess: I will refocus on the beauty of us, the absolutely miraculous hope that we are.

Here are five from this past year:

One: In 2022 I watched more sunrises than perhaps any other year. I am an early riser anyway, so the only challenge is to get dressed and get going. That’s just will. Then addiction takes over: will today’s be more vibrant? Will the clouds blot out the image entirely or will they help to make the eastern horizon even more brilliant, sending forth reds and oranges and yellows to caffeinate the moment. But there was one in particular which remains fresh in my mind. My son had to rise early anyway, so before he headed off to whatever it is he was doing, we headed out to the bay which lay out in dark blue before us, only a whisper of some orange pushing up over the reach. An eagle perched on a tree behind us, and dolphin moved past not far from shore. It was quiet–meaning, of course, quiet including the water sneaking into the rocks, the call of gulls, the low hum of a diesel engine on some workboat at the mouth of the river. Just the memory of that moment eliminates the anxiety of a thousand other moments this year. Give me those sunrises for the rest of my days.

Two: I was in Frostburg, Maryland, at a party at the house of writer Gerry LaFemina, and I left to walk back to my hotel a mile away–less than a mile. I’ll skip the details, but I walked the wrong way. It was raining, and a soft October, midnight chill moved in, a slight fog. At some point when I looked up and realized I might have been two towns to the west facing nothing but woods and a creek, I turned around. I pulled out my phone to ask Siri how far I was from the hotel: “The Gunter Hotel is 5.3 miles away as the crow flies.” An hour and a half had passed. I turned around, got my bearings, and walked. In the rain. In the fog. In the middle of the night. And I slowed down, my pulse slowed, and I was soaked. I could hear some movement in the trees, and in a window I saw some black and white movie on a television. It was a moment of absolute peace, and the unusual sensation that I could be just about anywhere and the scene would be the same. I was completely in that moment, the stresses and anxiety foreign, like something I had read about in some book. Getting lost might have just helped me find my way home. I’d get lost again anytime.

Three: We had already hiked several miles earlier that day near a lake outside Ogden, Utah. It was a beautiful, warm July day, and we talked, laughed, walked in silence, completely comfortable with the lack of conversation, as at ease as ever. Then we decided to hike to a place called the Wind Caves. We drove to the start of the trail and it was just two or three miles tops from the car to the caves. Piece of cake. Okay, so there were switchbacks, but not really. The trail is pretty close to vertical, and I imagined we looked like Batman and Robin with a rope on the side of a building, but we had no rope. I rested often, and a few times wanted to turn around. The nearly 7K elevation didn’t help this beach bum of a body, but we pushed. Well, I pushed, she glided without effort. But then we came around a path, down a slope and stood on top of the caves, looking out across Utah and aspen trees, lakes, distant mountains, and we stood in the caves (really more of vast openings of rocks) contemplating that they had not been formed by wind at all but water. Here before humanity existed. Give me that moment again.

Four: A text. That’s it. My sister had been diagnosed years ago with stage four ovarian cancer. Her numbers were off the charts, and according to WebMd the outlook is disturbingly low for even one year, let alone the seven or eight it has now been. But that text: It said she’s been cleared to not go back for her oncology checkup. The cancer isn’t just gone from her body–it has fled the building. My sister (who has a Notre Dame sticker on her car because of her PhD, but is at heart a Bonaventure grad), kicked the crap out of the OC, and did it while working every day forty-five miles from home. That text seemed to set the world right again, and it showed in not just a small way that nothing–nothing--is impossible.

Five: I’ve written about this moment recently, but I don’t think I emphasized how real the moment felt. I fell asleep one afternoon on my bed in the rays of the afternoon sun not that long ago. I woke completely disoriented and reached for my phone to give my father a call. He has been gone seven years this past October, but for that moment he was very much alive and sitting at his desk at work, and if I had not come to sooner, I’d have started to dial his 800 number I dialed from all over this country for years when I wanted to call him. I came to, went outside and went about my business, but when I recall that moment I am not sad, I am refreshed by the brief evaporation of time, the suspension of linear existence, that I could so easily hear his voice, sense his distant aliveness, know he was there if I needed him. It was a moment that reminded me that those we cherished are never truly gone–not as long as there is love.

So, what’s next? 2023? Wow. That year seemed inconceivable to me not too many years ago, but here we are. The irony is, for a plethora reasons, I need to start again. I need to reinvent myself and “get out of yesterday.” So I will add one more moment. I was down. I knew something had to change but I also know I’m not young anymore. I’m not even close. I went looking for one book when I came across another and flipped through it and found this passage. It fills me with hope for what’s next.

Merry Christmas my friends. Here are some words from Joseph Zinker at the Gestalt Institute to finish the year and move toward the new one:

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, by thinking out ways in which he behaves in a self-defeating manner, by listening to the words that he utters to his wife, his kids, and his friends, by listening to himself, by listening to the words and looking into the eyes of those who speak to him, by learning to respect the process of his own creative encounters and by having faith that they will get him somewhere soon. 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 am 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.

Peace. Pax. Mir. Salam.

Peace-Typography-Wallpaper-Widescreen-HD

I do not understand why everyone doesn’t celebrate Christmas; I really don’t. I understand the ones who shun Easter; Easter, after all, is what makes Christianity what it is with the resurrection as the foundation of the faith. It is Easter, after all, that set the whole religion in motion. So if you don’t buy into the resurrection part, well then Easter is not for you. Some say Christianity as a faith began with his birth, but I don’t think so. It is the resurrection that turned the prophet into a savior. So if you’re not good with that savior part, okay; but come on–how can you disagree with his ideas, his philosophy? (that’s rhetorical people)

Christmas is when we celebrate the birth of someone—Son of God, Messiah, Prophet, call him what you will based upon your faith, or lack thereof—who is literally the personification of peace. It is not the season to directly recognize his divinity; Christmas is decidedly about his humanity. The man preached absolute peace, encouraged us to love our enemies and forgive them, reminded us to remember our own shortcomings, and insisted on love as the basic tenet of life. Who can possibly have a problem with that?

It seems a lot of people.

I have one friend who hates Christmas. Despises it. Absolute contempt. Though to be fair, he feels that way about everything and everyone. But this time of year he is especially hostile. I don’t know why except he believes not believing in the divine means you shouldn’t believe in the humanity. That makes no sense to me. Shouldn’t we start with humanity? Isn’t that the point to begin with? If you don’t comprehend the mystery of the resurrection, you can at least understand the life of this rebel who stopped history in its tracks. For God’s sake, he cracked history in half so that even those who crucified him must be dated relative to his life. Christmas Day is a chance to remember the one Person who had perhaps the greatest effect on all of humanity.

Some don’t like the shopping, the carols, the crowds, and the commercialization of Christmastime. I never understood that either. If you don’t like the commercialization and crowds and shopping then don’t buy anything. But to put a positive spin on it all: it is the season when retailers do well enough to keep the prices down, when even the most tight-assed co-workers buy a tray of food for the luncheon, and strangers greet you with something other than disgust. It’s like a big, seasonal “time out” where everyone gets to pretend to get along. In July when a six-pack of Corona is reasonably priced, Merry Christmas. Some of those naysayers prefer to point out the hypocrisy of the season, noting the phoniness of pretending to be nice one day, saying “Merry Christmas,” and not giving you the time of day the next.

Okay, but listen: if you have the choice of those around you being nasty only eleven months of the year instead of twelve, wouldn’t you take it? And since when is your peace of mind and happiness dependent upon what someone else says or does? If that is true then there is no better time to pause and contemplate the peace that is the season. That WWJD wristband so popular for a short time some years ago makes perfect sense. Here is The example of how we should act toward other people; here is The Ideal—a Birth that happened only one time in the history of ever—surely it isn’t a bad idea to take one day to recognize his time here on earth and his absolutely radical ideas of, you know, peace on earth and goodwill toward everyone. Have you read his bio? Go ahead, Wiki Him, and then tell me his birth isn’t worth celebrating.

How about this: make dinner and invite friends and family and tell stories of days long ago—like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Put some extra spice in the stuffing and make sure someone finishes off the wine. Put the game on, sit near the fire and have a drink and remember those who can’t be with us any longer. They’re missed, especially this time of year. Remember those in homeless shelters and under bridges. Because we, all of us, are the peacemakers, We have to be. There’s no one else.

Peace my friends.

And Merry Christmas.

Obscure Christmas Songs

I’m crying here. The last three songs in particular will first grab you by the heart, then get you to laughing, then get you thinking. Please watch these. I promise–I really do–they are exactly what Christmas is about.

Honestly, if this season is about anything, it is about humanity; these lesser known scores bend that way.

Everyone plays the standards: Bing, Elvis, Bruce, Perry Como, Andy Williams, The Carpenters, and on and on, adding new classics each year.

But some songs simply get left behind in the wave of music that avalanches onto the airways each winter.

Allow me to present for your listening pleasure Bob’s Seven Obscure Christmas Songs. Feel free to share, forward, follow, sing along:

Do Listen. Warning: Number seven is technically not a Christmas song, but is perhaps more about the very truth of Christmas than any other song ever written. Truly.

Obscure Christmas Song #1

Jackson Browne: The Rebel Jesus

Obscure Christmas Song #2

Paul Simon: Getting Ready for Christmas Day

Obscure Christmas Song #3

John Denver: Christmas for Cowboys

Obscure Christmas Song #4

Bob Dylan: Christmas Island

Obscure Christmas Song #5

Trans Siberian Orchestra: Christmas Eve/Sarajevo

Obscure Christmas Song #6

The Piano Guys: Angels We Have Heard on High

Obscure Christmas Song #7

Ralph McTell: Streets of London

Hello, It’s me

It’s easy to lose touch with friends, with family. People move on, drift apart. Distance, interests, the unanticipated paths that move us in separate directions. It doesn’t mean we don’t think of each other, don’t miss each other; it doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be beautiful to see each other again. It’s just circumstance, and time, and the slow erosion of life.

Geez, life itself can be so tragically depressing, can’t it? But how much of the sadness do we bring upon ourselves? It’s easy enough to call someone, toss out a quick, “Hey, I can’t stay on, but I was thinking of you.” We don’t need to make promises of lunches and catching up; we don’t need to ask questions about employment or children. Just “hey, I hope you’re well” can change the course of a person’s day. For some, it can literally save a life.

I mentioned recently I woke from a deep afternoon sleep and my bearings were out of whack—time, place, reality—and I reached for the phone to call my dad. He’s been gone seven years. I shook it off and went outside, my day picked up where it had left off. It would have taken five minutes to call one of my aunts, the last two remaining of his siblings, and tell them I was thinking of them, “I hope you’re well.” One is ninety-five years old, the other eighty-five. Both are fine—for now. At what point do we say, “I should have called.”

I suppose we tend to believe we might bother someone, or that they’ve forgotten us or are busy, that they will wonder why the hell after all these years we’d call them anyway. But that’s probably not true—the proof is in knowing I’d love to hear from people. My aunts would be thrilled.

It’s been a rocky five years. More than a few times I’ve wanted to pick up the phone and call family, friends—some I obviously do. There are some people who I’ve remained very close to or became close to again. But many more I didn’t. So much can be misunderstood and interpreted wrong, so we grow distant instead of calling and saying, “Hey, you okay? What happened?”

If we called one person a week for just five minutes to say, “Just checking in. Sorry it’s been so long and to be honest I can’t stay on, but you were on my mind,” we might just make someone’s day, pull them out of some med-induced numbness to keep them from depression when both of those just might disappear with a call. Maybe not. But.

It was the end of November and twice the previous week at exactly seven in the morning my office phone rang and I didn’t answer it; I was getting coffee. The message was from a very old friend of mine. This was before cell phones, when an answering machine was the only device available if someone wasn’t there. In the office the voicemail could not be heard live; we had to wait until the message was left, then dial some code and retrieve our voicemail. Both times I tried calling back a few hours later but couldn’t reach him.

Then seven am rolled around a few days later, and this time I was in the office but my bag was on my shoulder, keys in one hand and coffee in the other, a bagel in my mouth, and a student outside the door waiting to ask something or other, so I let it go to voicemail and knew I’d try later that day.

Before I could, another friend of mine called and told me what happened. How they found him. How he left a note steering a co-worker to the garage.

I know had I answered the call any of the previous times to talk, it wouldn’t have made any difference in the outcome. None. But it would have been nice to catch up, spend a minute or two laughing one last time, telling him I’d call in a few weeks. That would have been nice.

My office phone rang another time and I didn’t recognize the “Is this Bob?”

“Yes it is.”

“ROBERT!!”

Okay. Let me stop here and say I actually despise the name Robert. I don’t know why. I like it from my family because that is all they’ve ever called me (long story), and to hear them say Bob is odd. One time a girl I liked in High School called me—actually called me!—and asked my mother, “Is Bob there?” and my mom said, “I’m sorry, there’s no one here named Bob.” (insert a loud Charlie Brown UGH). When we moved to Virginia Beach after ninth grade, I became Bob to everyone. It stayed that way with the exception of a few people who call me “Bobby.” But Robert has to be family.

I sat wondering from the obvious Long Island accent which cousin was calling.

“Ernie? Roy?”

“Ha! It’s Eddie!”

Ed was my best friend for years when I was young. We hiked every aspect of the state park next to our village, wandered the beaches of the Great South Bay, and taught each other everything we could know at that age about music. We were inseparable. Then thirty-five years later he called me.

We talked often before he left this world, and there was no awkward transition, no “what the hell are you calling me now for” implications. Just joy.

I do that now. I randomly call people—usually I know them. It keeps me grounded. It reminds me that everyone I was I still am, every way I have been is still simmering inside. If it is true that my “life has been a tapestry,” the people I have known have been the thread that held me together. And there are times, I’m telling you, times holding it together has not been easy.

Then I pick up the phone. “Hey, just wanted to say hi, I won’t keep you. I hope you’re well,” which almost always leads to a thirty-minute conversation, and those waters that have always run through my life still flow, holding me together, help me to know that just over the slight slope of the earth is someone who might not mind hearing from me.

We are all we’ve got. The money and house and cars and computers and trinkets and walls filled with art and attics filled with boxes are all secondary at best, all fade to the periphery of our lives compared to those we love.

We’re all we will remember.

Anyway. Talk to you soon.

A Joyeux Noel

rockwell

Well before dawn this morning, I could see some stars and what must have been a planet in the west. Something about a clear sky at Christmastime has always mystified me, captivated my attention and imagination, from the simple, fun thoughts of reindeer and sleighs to the philosophical digressive pondering of First Cause and the imaginative world of proof. I love Christmas morning with its tidings and anticipatory pay-off. But even more I love the days earlier, of anticipation, alone, when the sky is a narrative, and the Author was sharp enough to leave enough room to us to fit in our own passages as we need to.  

In the east a sliver of light.

I remember now:

On Christmas morning before our parents were awake (or so we supposed), my siblings and I would gather, usually in my sister’s room, to exchange gifts we had bought for each other, before we headed down for the beginning of Christmas Day. It would inevitably still be dark out, and I know we’d lay awake waiting to hear each other also awake in the other room. A tap on the door. A “come in.” And we’d sit on the floor and open our presents.

At some point (like clockwork, as much an annual tradition as the Turkey or the pies), our mother would wake our father and he would exclaim, “I thought I said no one up before nine am!” and he couldn’t hide his smile to our laughter at the ludicrous suggestion we’d be up any later than five. It was always cold out during those Long Island years, and often snowy, but we weren’t going outside so it just added to the magic. Dad would be in his robe and slippers and he’d head to the living room as we gathered on the stairs and waited for him to plug in the multi-colored lights on the tree, and those on the rail, bringing to life the otherwise dark room. Mom had, of course, already organized whatever presents we would get into separate piles, and Dad would stand back and she directed us to the right area under the branches, though sometimes it was obvious if an unwrapped toy appeared, clearly already wished for by one of us. Dad would sit on the couch and watch in joy, even through the stream of “Wow, thank you Mom!” wishes continued.

It wouldn’t be long before the aromas of breakfast mixed with the onions and Bell Seasoning already underway for the stuffing, and eventually we’d need to get dressed, if not for church since we might have attended midnight mass, certainly for the droves of family who would soon fill the rooms. It was a beautiful way to grow up. I do not know the possible stresses, fears, and sacrifices that went on behind the scenes—that’s how good they were at it. Then, much later in the day after everyone else had left and we had all settled into the routine of looking at our gifts again, Dad would emerge from some closet with his gifts for each of us—books he had personally picked out, bought, and wrapped. It remains one of my favorite memories of all of my memories of my dear father.

It’s in the forties here today along the Chesapeake, and sunny. This is one of those days each year where I’ve been up so long and have done so much that it feels like it should be six hours later than it is. My sister and brother and nieces and nephew are all off in various parts of the country with their families anticipating their own Christmases, all of us with some common traditions, all of us with our individual touches to the holiday. Certainly all of us fortunate enough to be celebrating Christmas, laughing and telling stories, enjoying the food, the drinks, the sounds of football or Christmas music, and especially the welcome sounds of children, with another on the way. We are, to be sure, at peace this year. Anyone with family is engulfed in traditions which help balance our lives; they bring peace to our soul while providing some shared space not only with each other but with the idea of our ancestry, the hope of our posterity.

My father used to sit to the side for most of the holiday and enjoy being surrounded by his family. He’d carve the turkey, and of course disappear toward evening to get the books to give to us, but I picture him most in his chair, watching a game, laughing with us, waiting for Mom to call him to duty in the kitchen. He has moved on, and whatever there might be to know after this life of ours, well, he now knows, and that too brings me great peace.

Two deer stand nearby in the woods, cautious but not fleeing. It’s so quiet out. Absolute peace stretched out like canvas in all directions. On the water some ducks ease by.

I miss the days before society took “nearby” and “not far away” and tossed them to the strong breezes of technology and One World. The people I love are hundreds and even thousands of miles away, and we are used to that now. But this time of year I’m keenly aware of the distance. But in that small house around that small table when I was a child were so many relatives it is crazy to conceive how we pulled it off. But no one cared—we were together. Everyone was close enough to “drive over,” and by the time the turkey came out of the oven, a small crowd was sitting and standing and outside and in, laughing and sharing serious moments, because it was Christmas.

The sun is present now, but it is chilly, so I’m going inside again. I bought Michael a book at a local nautical shop and I need to wrap it to “surprise” him with Christmas evening when the rush of the day has settled down. He will be gracious enough to act surprised, just as we did with our father when he would predictably surprise us with books fifty and more years ago.

Well, except for one time. We had all settled down and we were sitting quietly, even the television off, the games had ended and dinner was done. My sister looked at our father and said, with a smile, “Okay, so where are our books?”

Thank God for memories. They bring us closer, help us to find the simplicity.

Resolves, Part Two (On the Bright Side)

2022 was a truly tremendous year. For me anyway. Good days, bad days, “going half mad days,” of course. But if I were to drone over the past twelve months, my general consensus would be I’ve been terribly lucky (fortunate, blessed, tapped by Buddha–whatever).

There’s the obvious, of course. Professionally, my book The Iron Scar: A Father and Son in Siberia, launched (it didn’t “drop” folks–stop dropping things) to rave reviews. While that was going on, a dozen or so other pieces appeared and I am in negotiations for two separate books, Front Row Seat for one press and Wait/Loss for another. I’ve got two other projects here on my desk, and this blog is up to over 1500 unique readers each week. Plus, I STILL don’t write poetry–so there’s that.

My son and I hiked dozens of trails in as many state parks from the Potomac to the York. We spent more time outside in the last year than I ever thought we would, and he shot pictures which hang in galleries and private collections.

I sat on a pier on Lake Ontario and talked about life, about the passing of time, about the regatta to the east and the sunset to the west. We laughed about the things friends laugh about and sat in an understanding silence when we thought about our dads, about the inevitable change of seasons and generations.

In May my siblings and I brought our mother to dinner for her birthday and we laughed until we cried. We always do, and we sat remembering our father who lived a long full life, and celebrated our mother who is still very much her self, the matriarch as well as the focus of our jokes. I drove home appreciating her sense of humor and her absolute goodness that seemed to have leaped over me and into my son.

I hiked to the wind caves in Utah and we spent four days finishing each other sentences, each other’s thoughts, and laughed, and we walked in silence. We drove out to the salt flats of the ebbing Great Salt Lake and drank champagne and watched the sunset, and time didn’t stand still so much as we no longer cared about such measurements. We simply watched the sunset much like we had thirty-six years earlier two thousand miles east and toasted friendship, toasted whatever celestial changes brought two random paths together again. Maybe not so random.

I sat on my porch and watched deer, hummingbirds, osprey, and eagles. Michael and I stood on the sand at the river and watched sunsets, changing tides, talked about caminos and trainrides, talked about what’s next.

I had coffee with one of my dearest friends last week and we laughed for an hour about how beautiful life has been. I had a dozen lunches with another one of my closest friends, and we put aside our writing careers and talked about dads, we talked less about words than we did the quiet that comes between them, the grace of a smile, the love of a glance. He told me of the wildlife in South Africa and I told him of the snow in Utah.

The thing about time is we can make it stand still if we want. Go watch a sunset with someone, go sit on a pier and talk for hours, have lunch and laugh, have coffee and cry–the clock stops, the earth stops spinning, and everything that should be right is and everything that went wrong fades into something like a mist.

It was an extraordinary year. It was one of six decades of extraordinary years.

I woke. I got out of bed and watched the sun come up over the bay. I laughed. I spoke to my mother or my brother or my sister or my son, and at night we watched the planets and stars.

It was a year of moments I’ll never forget. I’m still sitting on the salt in Utah watching the sunset. I can still feel the calm waters of Ontario, I can still see Michael crouching down with his camera catching just the right angle of the sun on water.

I still understand perspective and the absolute power of love.

2022 was just fine.