It’s About Balance, That’s All

If I could take only one memory with me when I move into an age of forgetting, it would be walks to the river, my son on my shoulders, the sun on my back, those moments. Or the times we went swimming when he was four. Or maybe the sound of house wrens just before dawn, or the whippoorwills just after dusk. I’d like to take that feeling of an open fire on my face and the cool night on my back. Or the sound of my father’s voice telling me to sleep well. Or my mother’s laugh, the way she takes a long breath. I’d like to forget all the times I got angry, all the times I was critical, all the times I didn’t listen, the myriad moments of arrogance, of immaturity, and replace them with the memories of all the times I listened to the sound of rain on the canvas awning at our home when I was a child.

I know I’ll want to remember one more time the foghorns on the Great South Bay drifting through the air, the sound of my friends’ voices as we hiked through the woods, headed toward wherever. I take it the grand design allows we forget the minutia as we age, but I’ll salvage what I can. I like remembering the way my son laughed uncontrollably when he was two and I chased him across a field. Or the jazz band that played at halftime during the basketball games at my college, or the sound of the train late at night coming in over the hills out toward Salamanca, the tracks just a block away.

Sometimes now when I am out for a walk, I stand at the water and wonder where everyone is. And I look up the coast and imagine my childhood friends—save one who left too soon—the rest now adults, sitting with their families, reading the paper, watching a movie, most likely long ago forgetting what we did when we were young. But I’m glad they’re there, just a few decades away, somehow still part of some shared history.

Or later. New England. Like the time I got home early from vacation and the kitten had shredded all the New Year’s Eve decorations I had put up, and a friend of mine stood in the kitchen crying with a bag of new decorations in her hand (the cat was nowhere to be found).

Or the time in the old house near that farm when we heard the cow so early that morning. The sound of the “moo,” a car start, drive off, and we laughed a long time picturing the cow rushing off to work somewhere. I remember that, and I remember the phone call a few months later. Of course. I have made it here now to who I am now because of both, and with both I am able to be honest about who I am. The extreme emotions of our lives are ironically very much the same, really.

I celebrate memory; I embrace melancholy. Too many medicines move us to the middle; doctors are terrified of the extremes. But the extremes are what we remember—good and bad. This is not to say I don’t spend the majority of my time planning and moving forward to what’s next. It is just that in the early morning, before the sun has had her say, before I am about to walk into the realm of a thousand voices and the movement of life, I like to remember that it’s been a good ride so far, despite the moments of pain, the now seemingly fleeting difficult moments. LIke that bolt that went into my son’s head, and the way he handled it like a trooper while the doctor’s tended to me, while I tried not to faint.

It’s been a ride, I must say. It’s been one hell of a ride so far. And fast. So damn fast.

The length of a lifetime from the beginning looks nothing at all like the brevity of that life from the end, like standing on a diving board terrified to leap, knowing you have to anyway for all the others lined up behind you waiting to have their chance. It’s your turn so you jump despite the fear of how far it is to the water, but when you “rise again and laughingly dash with your hair,” you look up at where you started and think, that wasn’t so far at all.

No, it isn’t far at all. Which is why while planning ahead I also like to find a friend, pour a drink, sit quietly for a while, then say, “Hey, do you remember that time…”

and then, quickly, find a map, make plans, block off some time—fall maybe, perhaps winter—and find something to do together later so we can remember when again. And again.  

Sometimes at 3 am

Where to See the Stars that Light Up Florida's Night Sky

It’s just after three in the morning and from outside this bedroom window I can hear the waves of the Gulf of Mexico methodically pounding the sand just fifty feet away. The weather must be changing for me to hear such waves. But it is March, and the “waters of March” are known for their changes; the very physical embodiment of “in like a lion, out like a lamb.” Still, such sounds seem more lioness than sheepish at this hour.

I suppose everything does.

The things that need to be done, projects to finish—or at least get beyond the just getting started state, practical matters to figure out and promptly address, the very foundations of life to re-solidify, ghosts to talk to and attempt to quiet down for now—you know the ones; they show up at three am, sometimes in the dreams that wake us, sometimes in a powerful memory played out in some cosmic Déjà vu, and sometimes in the mist that rises from pounding waves, waking you up and reminding you of everything that didn’t go well, everyone who lost faith in you, everything that normally settles to the back of your memory, stirred by the pounding, brought to the front by that rhythmic pounding.

The other morning I was in a different part of Florida getting ready for some work I had to do, and I turned on the television. One of those dreaded televangelists was wandering about the stage in front of thousands of people, and the tinge of his voice, the tight suit, the open collar, the plastered smile, the false tan, the nodding of the audience to his every, well-timed shift of tone, sent me looking for the remote to switch to something else, anything else, but before I found it he said something to the effect of, “Don’t carry the weight of what happened before! Let it go! Let go of how the last place you worked treated you that sent you running! Let go of the mistakes you made—stop deciding they were mistakes simply because things didn’t go the way you had hoped! Let go of your guilt for becoming dependent on others when you had no desire or intention to do so but found yourself there nonetheless! Let it go! For whatever reason, this is where you find yourself! For whatever others may think of how you got here, here is where you are! It is time to turn toward what’s next!”

Then I accidently kicked the remote which had dropped on the floor. Only then. I sat on the edge of the bed, turned off the television, and thought of Richard Simmons. Thirty-seven years ago that was essentially what he told all of us who were tasked with the job of motivating others to turn their lives around, and it worked, and I believed it, and it always worked for me, always.

Well, almost always. It doesn’t work well at three am when the ghosts rise from the pounding waves and settle on everything, and you wake up moist and lay staring at the ceiling, each wave a situation not handled well, each wave a wrong turn, some seemingly self-inflicted failure. William Styron called it the “Darkness Visible,” that depression that can’t be defined, but is ever present, like something you keep meaning to do but can’t remember what it was, just sitting there at the front of your mind, and only you know what’s bothering you, but even you can’t define it.

But if you spend enough time listening to those waves they can become deafening, overwhelmingly deafening. But eventually they can sound exactly—I mean exactly—like the waves that crash on the same sand at six am when the sun is slipping up over the trees behind you, and everything seems right with the world. And you’re able to put to bed those old thoughts and remember what it is you were trying to do anyway. But one should not have to wait until dawn to see some hint of light through the darkness.

Here’s the thing: There is the big picture; that is, where do I fit in in this massive world where eventually all things pass, and there is the detail in the small box in the corner, which is clear and points us toward something specific to focus on. And some people only see the big picture as the reason to find so much of life pointless to begin with, or they only see the small detail as that proverbial drop of water in a Gulf of pounding waves—what possible difference can one small contribution ever, I mean ever, make?

No middle ground for those people. As fellow Islander Billy Joel once pointed out: It’s either sadness or euphoria.

There are questions, though, right? Did events in the past cause this wake-up call, not the waves? Or did some state of mind which often remains undefinable and undiagnosed cause the events of the past to replay with every damned crash of a wave? (Simmons-training translation: Do you eat the junk food because you are depressed or are you depressed because you keep eating junk food?” Well, both perhaps)

So, one might simply go back to bed knowing that the truth is in the morning the sun will glint off the mist from the pounding waves and everything that symbolizes darkness in the soul suddenly symbolizes hope, or one might decide to redefine that metaphoric wave-pounding by walking out the back door, wandering down the grass to the sand, and stand at the water’s edge, stare up at a carpet of stars spreading all the way to the Mexican coast across the Gulf, and listen intently to the waves, each time noting what went well, each time feeling the brilliant slamming of a wave and thinking of a new idea to see through, an old accomplishment that brought good things, each wave in the imposing darkness becomes the putting away of those who don’t understand but never bothered to ask, of those who pushed back without cause, of those who doubt, knowing for certain that there is no bigger doubter than you. Until eventually each wave that wakes you up at three am reminds you of what’s possible. That’s how to chase away the ghosts.

So that’s what that tv guy said. Or at least that’s what I heard, something about making the choices to let go of what is unhealthy, including people, and hold tight to what is empowering, especially people, especially yourself.

Sometimes you only need your eyes to adjust a bit in order to see the darkness in a whole new light.

May be an image of sky and ocean

That Was Me

Flipping baseball cards on a summer day. The boys in my neighborhood did  this when we were kids. Us girls ju… | Childhood toys, Childhood memories, Baseball  cards

A million years ago I flipped baseball cards with friends on the sidewalk outside our home in Massapequa Park. I’d sit on the cement in my dungarees and Wildcats little league t-shirt with a stack of Topps cards in my left hand, ready with one in my right hand between thumb and index finger, hoping to take the stack on the ground between us. The older cards were limp and ripped in places, but the new ones were stiff, still dusty from the hard stick of gum that came with them.

I’d turn over a rookie Tom Seaver or a Cleon Jones, not knowing then that I held several thousand dollars in my left hand, and since at some point the following year I had the entire 1969 New York Mets squad, tens of thousands of dollars. I only knew I wanted to kick some baseball card-flipping butt before I had to head back inside for dinner. We were about to move further out on the Island, to a new house out near the Great South Bay, and who knew when I’d have another chance to do this.

Life was about flipping cards. Ask anyone who was nine back then—they’ll back me up on this.

Everything was easy. Well, for me. But on the other side of the planet the Vietnam War was in full swing, my uncle on his way over, a friend’s brother on the next street was not coming back. And just upstate, music fans would gather in a month at Max Yeager’s farm, while just fifty miles away in the city, the Mets were in last place for the last time, heading in a matter of months to a miraculous championship. Hippies walked down Main Street, the Beatles were together and going strong, Nixon was reelected, and Steve Bezos just turned five.

Above us, just about the time I lost the Seaver card, Apollo Ten was orbiting the moon, doing surveillance for their successors, Apollo Eleven, just a few months later. Funny, now it occurs to me up until that point I lived in a world where we still had never walked on the moon. I wonder what we compared tasks to before we could say, “We can land a man on the moon but we can’t make a toaster that cooks evenly.” Maybe an atomic bomb reference, or the sound barrier.

In any case, I didn’t yet know any of this, except the Apollo mission, didn’t care about Tricky Dick, preferred the Birds to the Beatles anyway, and baseball was the universe. I was eight, for God’s sake. My voice hadn’t yet changed.

Yeah, seriously; a million years ago.

That was back when my friends had no last names. They were simply Charlie and David and Chris and Tommy, and the Little Read Haired Girl (seriously, just like Charlie Brown) who I think was Kathleen. We had a pool and block parties and barbeques, there were blackouts and everyone came out into the twilight evening, my friends and I chasing each other, the adults standing around in the cooling summer air, talking about how, “Over in Amityville they still have lights, and a few houses on Euclid, but they’re out down on Park Avenue, and all the way down East Lake.”

Lights. No Lights. Whatever. I was eight.

My cousins lived too far away to ever think about visiting on a whim—a good thirty or forty miles, and the ice cream man would come, and the television was a big black and white console on which my sister would watch Gunsmoke and Bonanza and my brother would watch Star Trek and the Olympics from Mexico City and I’d watch cartoons or Andy Griffith. And baseball when it wasn’t blacked out to local viewers because the game over in Shea hadn’t sold out.

And at night after the Late Shows ended, if I was still awake in bed and one of my parents had fallen asleep on the couch, I could hear a man’s voice declare, “That is the end of our broadcast day,” and the screen would get fuzzy with a low buzzing noise all night. Didn’t matter which of the five available channels was on, they went off the air.

The friends I have now, back then, were all over the place. Rick was probably about to leave high school and hitchhike across the country, Tim was playing high school football in Philadelphia; the other Tim was a lieutenant humping his way through the marshes of Vietnam, and Sean was learning from his father upstate the value of giving, of volunteering. And my friends back then, now, well, who knows? I think about them when I pass through Kennedy Airport or the rare times I’m on the Island and stop in a store, wondering if I just walked by or stood in line behind someone that at one time a million years ago was my absolute best friend; the one I’d know forever. It was so easy then. When you’re eight you’re simply always going to be eight—no discussion. Your parents will always be there, your siblings will always wake up early with you on Christmas morning to exchange gifts before you head down to the living room to see what is under the tree, and baseball card-flipping is more important than religion.

Sometimes I have to try hard to make myself realize that that eight-year-old was me. That it wasn’t some kid I saw in a movie or read about, or a child someone told me about. That was me, legs crossed on the cracked cement sidewalk on East Lake Avenue, the same me that sits now near the river and listens to the approaching flock of geese, watches the descending sun, feels the faint brush of something familiar, like a song I once knew or a memory of someone that was kind to me. The same me that barreled across Siberia with my own son, who is now twenty years older than I was back then.

It’s late, and I’m tired. I have some writing to finish for readings next week, and a few deadlines looming, and I walked out on the porch and listened to the cold night, the clear, star-filled night, the late-winter, early spring night that is colder than it should be here on the bay. A friend of mine believes in reincarnation, believes we come back as, well, some other living form, whether another human like the Dalai Lama does, or as an orangutan, but as something. I’d be okay with reincarnation, but I want to come back as me. I want to do this again, make those mistakes again, fall in love again, have my heart broken by the same girl again, play golf with my father and brother, receive care packages from my sister when I was at school, move into those dorms again, play tennis again. Hurt and give and cry again, until it hurts again.

If we agree eighty years is about a life, anything more than that is a bonus—overtime, if you will, which I absolutely plan on participating in, then I’m now entering the fourth quarter. Games have been won or lost in the fourth quarter. Some of the greatest plays in history were made in this part of the game.

The Mets didn’t turn a losing season into a streak of winning now universally called miraculous until the late third and fourth quarters.

It’s not over yet. And it just might be that the best resource I have to face whatever comes next on this pilgrimage is that eight year old boy somewhere inside of me who could flip baseball cards with the best of them.

Ya Gotta Believe. By Jay Horwitz | by New York Mets | Mets Insider Blog

Not Everything is As it Appears

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I watched a hawk sweep down and pulverize a dove. The hawk perched on an oak branch and the dove, distracted by the wind and some seed on the lawn, stopped paying attention. It happens. The hawk isn’t fast as much as he is silent, just a simple cliff dive, stepping off the branch, and, wings out, sweeps in with perfect form with his claws out front to grab the dove at the neck. A sudden puff of feathers busts into the air, and the raptor is gone. So is the dove.

This time the dove simply stood on the grass. She had been facing the direction of the hawk and when she turned around the hawk flew into action. The dove seemed to hunch down like she knew what was about to happen. Gone.

I wondered if she just gave in, like she’d had enough. Sometimes the natural instinct to survive is not as strong as simple resignation. I get like that.

When I was in high school some friends and I went to the beach on the bay. At some point one friend and I decided to swim out to the end of a very long pier. We made it but we were exhausted and ended up helping each other back, each of us taking a turn at holding the other until we were at the breakers and could ride in. She and I just collapsed on the beach, spent. It isn’t like we weren’t in shape. We had stamina; we just swam too far out. I wonder when it is that people decide to give up? I wonder if we had been another hundred feet would it have been too far or would we have found the strength and determination to push it.

I mean, did we collapse on the beach because we couldn’t go another yard or because we didn’t have to?

I wonder how often I’ve given up because I thought I found the shore when the truth is I could have probably held out for more, pushed it a bit, opted to swim a bit further.

It’s cold today, but sunny, and the hawk is around—I can hear him, though the doves are feeding on the porch rail where it is safe and out of sight. Earlier out on the river I noticed the osprey have returned from South America and found food for their offspring, and the cormorants have returned too. Sometimes some river dolphins swim under the Rappahannock Bridge, but not yet this season. I find peace here. I think mostly though I like the area because of the water and the sand. Ironically, the first time I was in this area was exactly ten years before I bought the land to build the house. Just across the river is The Tides Inn, a quiet resort right on the Rappahannock. For my parents’ thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, my father invited us all to stay at the Inn. It was an excellent time, and we went for a river cruise on the Miss Anne, a riverboat which went under the bridge, and we followed the south shore and returned to the Inn along the north shore, turning around at the mouth of the river into the Chesapeake. I had no clue we passed close enough to my eventual home to be able to cast a line to shore and pull us in.

Thirty-one years later I’m watching osprey feeding their young out across the same bridge, while hawks stand watch in oak trees waiting for doves to stand still.

I was born a moving target; I’m not sure I ever learned when was the right time to collapse on the beach. The hawks have for the most part missed me up until now. When I do settle down it is usually to look at a map. Ironically, since I moved into this house I have traveled more than I ever dreamed I would—Russia, Prague, Amsterdam, Spain, France, Norway, and plenty of states. And at night in the darkness we use the telescope to travel through the heavens out across the waters and find planets and meteors. We often joke about one of the meteors ripping through the atmosphere and hitting us in the back of the head while we’re facing the other way. Raptor, rapture? Whatever. Done. But not done.

When I was in college a friend had a poster on his wall promoting Nike. It was a long shot of a winding road through open country with one solitary runner, and the tag line said, “There is no finish line.” I like that. If we didn’t know when to stop I wonder how often we would keep moving. I’m not an advocate of indecision, but I’m a staunch opponent of settling for something when there’s still more options for the ones willing to wander a bit more. It is, to be sure, a delicate balance, and like chemistry or psychology, or passion, finding that line between “Keep going, it’s worth it,” and “You know what? Fuck it,” is not an easy call for everyone. Sometimes you need someone to help you over the reach; sometimes when you’re ready to give up, a quick turn back and a “Hang in there,” is all it takes.

Certainly I get tired as I move forward, especially on the days when I’m not sure where I’m going or how long it will take to get there, and I’m doing my best to move past the silent judgements and thinly disguised treading of water. But when I think about that swim to the end of the pier and back, I don’t often recall the collapse on the sand; I remember how quiet and peaceful it was for just the two of us, taking turns helping each other, sorry we tried yet, honestly, not sorry we tried. It was hard to tell if we were helping each other or saving ourselves.

Well, the truth is, all we can do is help each other. It’s the only way to save ourselves.

The journey doesn’t necessarily end because we found a safe place to rest

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Last Name First

name/nām/ noun

  1. A word or set of words by which a person, animal, place, or thing is known, addressed, or referred to.

Growing up I was called “Robert.” Part of that is because my mother’s youngest brother was with us very often and he is Bob, or Bobby. But when we moved to Virginia and I entered tenth grade, I reestablished my identity as a Bob while at school. It had no effect on my family who continued to (and continue to) call me Robert, though when referencing me to non-family members, I’m a Bob. Once, a girl in high school I had a crush on called the house and my mother answered. My friend asked to talk to Bob and my mother said, “I’m sorry there is no one here by that name,” and hung up. UGH! Apparently, my friend called the next guy on her list because she never called back. Some months later she admitted, “I called you once to see if you wanted to go out somewhere, but I must have had the wrong number.”

(a note to young readers: if you are trying to figure out why my mother would answer a phone call for me, Google, “Antique phone customs.”)

Now I’m not thrilled when anyone anywhere calls me Robert, though it’s no big deal. Except my family, who when they call me Bob it seems totally wrong, like the Man who Never Was.

Crazy how identity is such a deeply-rooted motivator for our life, yet so often hinges on a name. Quixotic. Kafkaesque. Jeffersonian.

Boblike.

I wish we could still use one name like in Greek times: Plato! Aristotle! Or names associated with location: Francis of Assisi, Lawrence of Arabia.

Bob of Brooklyn.

Even ethnicity in this country is often shrouded by a last name. Kunzinger has all the markings of a deeply German background, and it is true that my great-great grandfather hailed from Lohr en Main, in Bavaria, Germany, where he and three of his brothers left for the United States in the 1850s. But according to the latest update of my DNA, I’m barely 11 percent German, with almost 50 percent going to my Irish roots. So O’Kunzinger is more appropriate but most likely quite offensive to my Galway ancestors. England/Scotland comes in second followed by Italian and French. So, with apologies to Philip Kunzinger of Lohr, my last name is a poor indicator as to my roots.  

At the university, Professor is likely, though at my previous college of employment, “Dude” was not unusual. The professor moniker is a burden, however, since while I think I’m a decent teacher of art and writing and humanities, I’m still apt to think of “Professor” as the scholar in a tweed coat with world-renowned expertise, who is referenced in journals and instead of watching Late Night reads papers in bed. I know these people; I’m not these people, though I play one on Zoom.

Then two new students approached me the other day after class and said, “We Googled you.” They told me that at first they saw some articles and information about where I had worked before, but then said they changed “Robert” to “Bob” and a slew of pages came up with all writing references and links. I told them that “Kunzinger” makes it inevitable that anything about Bob Kunzinger would not be likely to mix with other people, but if I were Bob Smith, they probably never would have found me; I’m nobody, really, except someone with a very uncommon name. Still, they said they ordered books so there’s that.

For a long time when I met someone through my parents, I’d introduce myself as “Robert” so not to contradict what they might have said, and that was usually correct. So now when I hear Robert I think of “young” me, adolescent me, no need to figure it out yet me. When I hear Bob I think of writer me, traveling me. But I also think of restless me, unsettled me, still looking for peace me. Robert goes back so far I can’t help but feel quieted when I hear it—from certain people. It was a good youth, where serenity wasn’t difficult to find during those Robert years.

“Dad” has a category all of its own, though a completely different set of mental wanderings than say “Daddy,” which tends to conjure up twenty-five-year old memories instead of the oysters we had last week.

So what goes on the headstone? Each of them is correct for different reasons, and I think it would cost too much to put them all on there. Perhaps “Dude” is the correct one, which implies just everyman, anyone—no one in particular.

It’s raining today, and the ground is saturated, the marsh exceptionally high, and the river, though still, rising. I come to the water to clear my head of the nonsense and worries, of the anxiety and depressive ways of life, and I am settled by the lack of labels here, the absence of naming things. I know the names of the wildlife here, but they don’t, and that thought brings me great peace; they simply are, and that is enough for them, so it’s enough for me out here.

For a long time I wondered if our names were for us or just for other people to make accounting easier—separate us from the simple “Hey You” confusion. It helps with mail delivery and paychecks, with grades in school and publications you spent a long time working on. For instance, I do not put my name on drafts no one will see but me.

The truth is, I feel more mature when I hear “Bob,” more ambitious and accomplished. And I must admit hearing “Professor” makes me more likely to give a well-thought-out response over someone calling me “Dude.” But names and labels and titles and degrees only serve us to exist with others in a regulated society where fitting in is necessary to maintain a place of our own, both physically and metaphorically. But out here where the river meets the bay, and the winds sometimes bring a chill from the northwest, and the osprey return to chase away the eagles for the season, I often forget who I am to begin with, and what was troubling me. Out here, where I have a complete sense of, well, what..?

Peace, I guess. Serenity, maybe. But “serenity is a long time coming to me, and I don’t believe that I know what it means anymore.”

A Little Too Slow

It’s raining, been raining, since, like, last March. Seems that way anyhow. It’s been okay, here, going for hikes, catching the sun no matter the temperature, sitting out near the bay or walking the trails along the Potomac an hour or so north of here. Yeah, it’s been fine.

But honestly, it would be easier without all the endless streams of information, contradictory, negative, often inflammatory, soul-killing information. The most common conversations carried out on social media and mainstream media and alternative media is what is wrong with everyone else, what rules others are not following, and some of it focuses on someone else’s lies and some of it is lying to begin with, or making personal attacks, and violating absolutely every single fallacy professors dutifully instruct students NOT to do. Then we have to explain to them why politicians, analysts, talking heads, and others are guilty of what we preach is wrong.

It is no longer the case that all the information is being evaluated closely and disseminated widely by scrutinizing professionals, and only then do various factions disagree with how to handle the information. No. Now, each party has its own source, all different from each other, all verifying (or not verifying) their own information with their own “experts” and disseminating that information to their own followers, and anyone who disagrees isn’t watching the same media-flow to begin with, like separate cultures studying separate languages with separate definitions who try to communicate and, well, can’t.

And ten years ago, even five years ago….hell, last year, I’d have allowed myself to get worked up about it and head down to the college and take advantage of my position in front of literally a captive audience and preach about the rampant hypocrisy and childish behavior. I’d have lectured about those fallacies and the need to have a complete understanding of all the information before passing judgement—and that even then you don’t have a right to do so anyway, only certified experts should do that, and I’d leave feeling satisfied even if they didn’t get it.

Now, well, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about who’s saying what about whom and who’s lying and who’s on the prowl. I’m over it. Tired of it doesn’t begin to explain how tired of it I am. Maybe it is because I’m frustrated like everyone else. I no longer have the outlet of doing gigs which satisfied my life emotionally, financially, and professionally, but it is more than that. It is an overwhelming sense that the water has risen too high to ever again recede enough to see those placid and amicable shores. They’re gone. Just gone.

So what do we do? Learn to swim? See, I think that’s been my problem. When the waters of ridicule and childish bantering so common in the world rose higher and higher, I’ve been trying to keep up, at the very least tread water. Wow was that a bad idea.

I was at the river earlier. It is raining today, all day, a steady downpour which seems like hasn’t occurred since I was young and spent Saturdays on the couch watching old black and white westerns on television because it was too wet to go out and play. That kind of rain, where being inside is easy because being outside is simply not pleasant. It would be okay if the temperature was mild, but it is not. I know we’re lucky here not to have the ice and snow and power-outages so much of the country is currently suffering. Very lucky, indeed. But here we are, stagnant, overly complacent, and feeling submerged like never before.

Then the river, and a heron landed nearby, looked at me for a moment as if she had been dozing and only then realized, “Oh, crap, a human,” and took off for the other side of the pond. I looked out at the bay, felt the rain on my hood and my face and back, and remembered when things were, well, simpler.

Maybe not politically or socially; I really couldn’t tell you. Because back then I made conscious choices for things to be simpler. I worked, of course—always have—but I also took my time, didn’t listen to anything that brought me down if I couldn’t do anything about it anyway. I didn’t so much have my head in the sand as much as I did in the clouds, above the minutia of meaningless banter and complicated nonsense.

I’m no longer interested in confrontation, have no need for discussions about masks—literal and metaphorical—and so-called experts and excuses. We live in a world of blame without evidence, of judgement without inquiry, of ridicule without recognition how the other person might feel. We’ve lost the ability to make excuses for other people, and we long ago fell out of fashion with the idea of being brutally honest with each other, no matter the cost, in spite of the gain. Maybe that’s why love seems so lacking of late in the world, and dreams. And the softness of memory and hope.

I’ve always been aware of what’s around me, proud of the fact I can adjust to just about any situation in which I find myself—streetwise we used to call it. But truth be told, and to rip from a JT song for a second, I’m not nearly smart enough for the life I have led for the past thirty years, not fast enough for the times in which I find myself.

And the anxiety I often feel comes from trying to keep pace. That’s it. Oh how that thought today when I was standing there in the downpour, that my anxiety comes from trying to keep pace in a world that’s going too fast for its own good, ripped into my memory so powerfully it was like a hologram appeared on the surface of the river before me, as if even the heron saw those people there, the ones at a health club I used to manage. People would come up to me after a workout, crying, wanting to quit, frustrated at the pace of others in the studio, and I would tell them, “Set your own pace! This isn’t a competition; your life is not their parlor game! It is yours! Play it how you want’ then you can’t lose!”  

Well that advice turned out to be way harder than it sounded. Or, should I say, it is way easier to tell others that than to live it myself. But today, when the heron realized I was there and took off, and I realized I was there and had an overwhelming desire to take off, that simplicity, that sense of my own right to set my own pace and no longer worry about how I’ve been judged, how I’ve judged others, and let it all go, awash in the river, like the water upstream, passing me now, heading out to the bay, and further, and farther still, reset my sense of self for the first time in a long time. I have no idea how I’m going to get from here to there, but like the humanists of long ago, I’m sure the answers can be found around me, out here in nature where objectivity exists, and truth, where one cannot make excuses, one cannot blame others, and the only survival technique needed is the oldest truism in nature: keep it simple.

These Lives of Mine

I don’t remember the place in the picture above. It is in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and I lived there for five months. While five months is a long time, in this case it was my very first five months. Still, it is in my blood. The roads of Brooklyn walked by my parents, my grandparents, my ancestry, is in me as if they picked up gravel along the gutters of Ovington Avenue and bled it with our DNA. My parents lived in the apartment building above from not long before my sister was born until shortly after my own birth roughly seven years later. She remembers it, I suppose. Some of it. I’m sorry that I never knew the place as the apartment building was filled with my Dad’s brothers and their families–and I have a lot of cousins. In fact, my cousin Stephen was born not long before me, and my mother wanted that to be my name but didn’t want two Stephen Kunzinger’s living at the same address because it would confuse the teachers. So Stephen was relegated to my middle name, and my cousin and his family moved to Elmira, hundreds of miles away, and we moved to the Island, several light years away. Upside to visiting: The Bay Ridge Bakery is on the corner. Amazing.

Massapequa Park on Long Island was your typical suburban village. The elementary school was just across that street on the left, and that house was ours, except, well, no. We moved in there sixty years ago and they either tore down the old house or renovated it so completely that only the bay window and the garage door seem familiar. Gone is the side patio with the green awning under which I loved to sit on rainy days. We built snow forts at the corner, and I once fell and slammed my head on that sidewalk. Charlie lived a few doors down. I remember this place; I really do. I remember mostly baseball and the pool in the yard. Across the street were neighbors who became life-long friends for my parents–Joe and Rose Fontana. Rose, who taught my mom to cook Italian food decades before she knew she was Italian as well, and Joe, “Baby Face” Fontana, the boxer, who wasn’t that tall but I once watched him dive from a stand still on the ground into a four foot pool. But I don’t consider this the place I grew up, even though the greatest comediennes in the business lived in Massapequa. Go ahead, look it up.

This is where I grew up. This is where I am “from” in my Facebook bio. Of course, the trees weren’t there, or at least not as big, since we planted them. It’s hard to see the house in this picture but I still know every inch of the place. I still know every street name in the beautiful village, and I’m happy to say it is one of the places in my past which is still as nice as when we lived there almost fifty years ago. This is where I’d walk every day to the deli or the post office or Timber Point Country Club or the Arboretum. But mostly it is where for six years I lived to hike the trails and beaches of Heckscher State Park with my friend Eddie. When Eddie died tragically not long ago, I had both the urge to head to Great River and the drive to never go back again.

It’s crazy, going back where we came from, where we became ourselves. Sometimes I wish I could get in the car and drive up there and somewhere along the Southern State enter a time warp to the early seventies. And Steve and I would play baseball, and my brother, sister and I would walk to the deli for heroes. And Eddie and I would talk about music. I sometimes wonder if some other young boy is in the room with the two windows in the second floor, and if he sometimes climbs out on the roof of the porch and leans against the house and thinks about the astronauts as I did. Back then it was Apollo 11; back then the internet was our imagination, and we had no device to talk to anyone except the one phone we all shared downstairs. Back then I couldn’t conceive of right now; it was never going to happen.

The irony of this house on Wolf’s Neck Trail in Virginia Beach is it really was my parents’ home for about three decades, yet mine for only three years, as I went to high school then. Still, this is where we all gathered and holds significance for being the house that my siblings and I all lived in, even if briefly, while we were all single, and returned to later enough in our lives that we all had our children, and my parents’ five grandkids all well remember playing in this house, and heading out into the yard which stretched hundreds of feet down to the Lynnhaven River. It really never looked much different than this picture, though some trees have come and gone, but that crack in the driveway has been there since 1974. Go figure.

I lived here for four years.

St. Bonaventure University in the Enchanted Mountains of western New York. I’ve lived in five states and been around the world many many times, but this is “home,” this is where I came of age and discovered that the pursuit of self is as important as the pursuit of knowledge. The people I met here are still some of my closest friends and confidants, and shall remain so for the rest of my life. I have written stories about some particular experiences at this college and about how I learned just how small the world is, about just how brief life can be, all wrapped in a place that offered us all some foundation of eternity, some sense that no matter what happens, we can come back anytime we wish to regroup and have another go at it.

Someone stole my bike, though, freshman year right in front of that building there–Deveroux Hall. Still pisses me off.

This is Tucson, Arizona. I worked in a record store and that’s it, because my memories of Tucson are of hiking the Catalina Mountains, hiking up to Bear Canyon and the Seven Falls, hiking to Mt Lemon and skiing during the day then swimming at the apartment pool that afternoon. My memories are of driving up to Kitt Peak Observatory where it was dead silent and cold in the day, or the Sonoran Desert Museum, which was actually a kind of wildlife preserve. But mostly my memory comes after my roommate Tom headed back east and my friend Renee headed back east and I headed south, to Mexico, where I finetuned my Spanish and made decent money buying blankets for practically nothing and reselling them at University of Arizona football games. And Kahlua. That too.

I include the small picture on top because for three years that was my playground–the Wachusett Reservoir in central Massachusetts, and that house on the right was my home–well, the bottom floor off to the left side. Of all the places I lived until my home now, this is the one I never should have left–not the house itself, but the village, the people, the location, the life. I love it there. I worked for Richard Simmons at the time and spent all that money traveling around New England, but mostly I walked the shores of this reservoir, out to the Old Stone Church or around to Bob’s Hotdog Truck. Across the street was the Deacon’s Bench Antiques, and up the road in Sterling was a very cool farm stand with apples and apple pies and an apple cider mill. Further still, up the road was Mt. Wachusett, where I’d hike to the summit in summer and watch kettles of hawks or look east at the Boston skyline.

I’m glad I left but I never should have left.

After a brief run on East Chocolate Avenue in Hershey, I lived here. This old house in this old village with horse farms and country roads was fine for someone in their seventies, which absolutely every single one of my neighbors was, but it is still deep in my heart for other reasons. I had the entire second floor of that house and also the attic, and it is here I lived when I attended Penn State, and it is here I lived on one of my trips to Africa, and it is here I came to understand why we decide to stay somewhere instead of moving to say, Austria, to tend bar in a castle, and where I came to understand why some people need to leave, to find out not just who they are, but who they aren’t; the need to define themselves without any lifelong influences. I stayed here too long.

But I loved that attic.

Forget the move to the beach, the winter on a beach in Sandbridge part of Virginia Beach, the apartments, the hurricanes, the car breaking down in a college parking lot where I decided to use the phone in an office and walked out with a career. No, I need to jump to Aerie:

This picture above is all Google Earth will provide. So, here’s what is under those treetops:

Aerie: Hawk or eagle nest.

I built this house, quite literally. I didn’t do the foundation or the mechanicals, but I helped stack the logs, and then after it was framed out, I built all the interior walls, the stairwell, all the doors, the floors, and the kitchen, including the cabinets, though on that point you can kind of tell I did them. That was twenty-four years ago. In fact, while I have lived more places than the pictures above represent, Michael has lived in this house since he just turned four. The house is fine, but I’m more attached to the property with its trails, and the hill which runs down past my neighbor’s farm to the river.

I’ve long wondered about two perspectives in life: That of the one who has made a home for himself in many places, but never long enough to become completely a part of any of them, and the one where one lives in one spot for his life, so that the village is in your blood, and the people you know you’ve always known and always will know. I’ve taken a little of each place with me and sometimes they don’t so much pull at my shirt, tugging me backwards, as much as they push on my back, urging me on.

This is the family homestead for me, now, and my blood is literally in the walls here, as three year old Michael can attest to as he sat on the floor in front of the fireplace eating an orange and learning a new vocabulary as I tried to fit countertops just slightly too long into a small kitchen.

But this place is also a springboard, for Ireland, for Spain, for places I haven’t even thought about yet. I like hanging out on the porch, drinking tea or wine, and watching the osprey head out toward the bay. I like spending weeks traveling no further than the village for coffee and bread. But I wouldn’t like it nearly as much without waiting in line at airports, without taking a train across some foreign land, without trying foods from third-world countries in second-world restaurants. When I’m home too long, I need to leave; when I’m gone too long, I need to get home. I miss Oakdale and the yellow house on the reservoir; and I miss the hills of Allegany, New York. I wish I could tell my younger self about where I’ve been–which places to avoid and which to stay just, well, a little bit longer anyway. I’d tell some friends in Pennsylvania how to find me later, just in case, and I’d tell Eddie not to leave work early in December of 2020.

The thing about moving is you make a lot of friends, but you leave a lot of friends, and I’m not so sure the first part is worth the second part. We live in a world now where we can remain in touch with virtually every single person we’ve ever known or have met, and therein lies the greatest problem of all–we need to miss people; I believe it is important to miss people. It teaches us the value of time, the persistence of love, and the need of us all to stand still long enough to recognize who were are.

I’d tell Dad the truth, that I didn’t want to leave Great River, when he asked what I thought about moving to Virginia Beach. It wouldn’t have made a difference, but it would have started me down a path of being honest with myself about what it is that makes a home.

These are literally just random thoughts, written just now, no rewrite at all, while I was screwing around on Google Earth, zooming in on old homesteads and moving the littler person icon to the street. Very cool, huh?

I’m not so sure. I’m really not.

Image result for earth

Inshallah

Image result for rainy day on the james river

I’ve written about this before, and this story occurred when I was a different person in a career I never anticipated. Last night I found a picture, and it brought this memory back like it occurred last week.

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 rain-covered windows, the water and fog blending. The Monitor- Merrimac Bridge Tunnel appeared little more than a shadow of a river crossing. 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 a 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, and her eyes welled. “I feel like I should be there, Bob” she said. 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, the division chair at the time simply did not get along with her. The college was being both cunningly cautious and blatantly cowardice. While I was a white, Catholic professor, we still had more in common than others. I’d spent a good deal of time in Islamic villages on two separate trips to Africa. She asked often of life there, about people, about their lives. So when she started to cower into 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 whom? But what I said was, “Wow, Dr. This is somewhat beyond me here, don’t you think?”

“You’re the only one she trusts, Bob.” Ah, so that’s how you do it, I thought. You find the one employee the victim trusts most and sic him on her. Well, in this case, the victim filled nearly every minority check box, and the legal issues lingered like the fog on the James. 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. 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 wander well into the outfield too often during the season.

I worked once with a professor 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. While I was in college in New York, a priest 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 fifty 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.

Before I went across the hall, I decided to consult my friend, Lianne, whose office was just around the corner and whose ethics exceeded just about anyone at the college. Her response, of course, was on the money: “Why isn’t the college getting her help? Our insurance covers psychological help; they should be helping her, Bob!” she exclaimed with complete empathy. For a few years, I’d run into Lianne in the hallway and she would shake her head and repeat, “They should have helped her, Bob.”

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 after my Presentation of the Three Choices, to tell her what happened. It disturbed her on so many levels. A few years later Lianne died of cancer. She was so young.

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 fucked up (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. Throw a torn magazine in the air as often as you’d like, but the pieces will never fall back into place. 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.

A few days after seeing the president but before I made the Presentation of the Three Choices, 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 Peanuts teachers. 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.           

Meanwhile, everyone is watching the clock.

Eventually, I left the department meeting only to be accosted by some student in the hallway wanting to know—not kidding here—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 pot luck 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.

(Breathe in. Breathe out. Move on)

Back at my office, I still had to make the Presentation of the Three Choices, 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, the one of him 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’ll do what Allah wants me to do, Bob. But I’m not crazy.” She paused and looked at the cinderblock wall. “What would you do?” she asked.

Now whenever anyone asks me that, I always think of a student, Kevin, who I suggested sell his roofing equipment at the company he started but hated and travel. Kevin, who six months later sent me a postcard from Sydney, Australia. Back then when someone asked “What would you do?” I thought of my son because 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 cross the line, toss 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, and me too, who took over her office some years later, not long before I also left and never returned; mostly because we never do go back after we leave a place, allowing others to decide what had been wrong with us all those years, who we used to be.

One windy day in my final year of teaching at that college, I stood in class and took roll 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.

And I said to myself

Even nature doesn’t have any good news lately. Snowstorms throughout the Northeast, floods in the west, roadways wiped out along the Pacific coast, wind damage from here through the southeast, and more storms coming. That’s okay; it is February and this isn’t unusual, it’s just that, you know, Covid, politics, the economy, unemployment, conspiracy theorists, maskless morons, all underlined by time just slipping slipping slipping, into the future (I don’t really need to attribute that, right?).

I’m exhausted.

Usually we can handle one or two aspects of existence slumping for a bit, but many are dealing with no less than three weak spots in their belay line. People slip, some fall, some jump. And at some point we’re going to come out of this dank period and grab hold of hope again. But it’s not feeling around the corner, is it? Well, anyway, it doesn’t feel that way to me.

So…what then?

If you were someone else, and that person came to you complaining about the way things are, down about the seeming lack of promise, deep in despair about some vague, indiscriminate sense of helplessness, and asked for advice, what would you say?

I used to do that when I was younger. If I wasn’t sure what to do, and I felt like there wasn’t anyone I could talk to about it, I’d step outside myself and ask the other me what advice I had for, well, me. It usually worked because the objective part of my psyche is way more positive than the character caught in the tangled curtains separating a lousy perspective caused by confusion about reality. The troubled side of us too often sees things in a dimmer light.

So I asked myself, “Myself, what’s the best use you could be making of your time right now?”

And Myself said, “Go to the river.” In this case, Myself sounded a lot like the medieval knight in the cave at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  

The tide is high today, well above normal, and the water choppy from the strong winds out of the west. It isn’t snowing or raining but a little of both, sometimes, looking a lot like it will pass yet not anytime soon.

Then I watched the Seabirds push against the wind, rising and falling while trying to hover against the storm much like they do when eyeing down a fish below the surface, just before they tuck back their wings and dive, but now they hang there for survival, pushing, ducking a bit then rising again, but always in the same area, always resisting the storm, pushing against it.

I pulled my collar up, tilted my head down a bit, my eyes tearing from the cold.

Then one of the gulls lifted up, well above the others, then let the left wing loose, stretched it all the way out, tilted her head to the east just slightly, turned with the wind and was gone, gliding out toward the bay, lifting up with ease, and higher, the whole time not needing to work, just heading up and out over the bay, quickly covering a distance it would take me more than a little time to travel.

What grace she had, letting go of the resistance of inevitable forces, and using what is best in her the best she should. A few minutes later another untucked her slightly frozen feathers and flew behind, just feet above the water this time without so much as a single push, like pelicans in summer along the coast, and then another, and another.

I don’t know what happened that they suddenly turned and took flight. Did they wait until the storm was strong enough to carry them afar? Did they always know they were going to head that way but waited as long as they could?

Did they give in? Tough call, when to resist and when to head home by another way, choose another path. How long did they hover believing it was always going to be like that where in the distance they could see only grey, only more grey after that?

And an egret stood at the edge of the water, oblivious, dipping her head for minnows in the unusually rough pond. And a young eagle perched alone atop a tree beyond the marshland. And two young gulls stood next to each other on the sand, facing the wind, but low, below the point that might force them to find new shelter.

They didn’t seem to mind, not really. Nor did the others. They negotiate the storms with much the same approach as they do the hot and sunny days of August.

It is snowing again, and on the news now they’re talking about congressional disagreements, about rising Covid numbers, about almost half a million deaths, about regression among schoolchildren, about lack of relief for poor and famished families, about so much most of us can do nothing about, and I find myself turning away from this storm of information, this deluge of inhumane behavior, and let the breezes lift my spirits enough to rise up and move on, away from the madness.

After/thoughts

It’s cloudy today, perhaps some snow tonight as the temperature is supposed to drop to around thirty. The sky right now, however, is dark grey from horizon to horizon, and across the reach the bay is barely visible, Windmill Point not even a thought in the morning fog and mist.

I’ve been viewing the work IT Chris is doing on the Nature Readings website, adding videos from writers reading about nature just about daily, in preparation for its launch soon. But when watching or listening to readings from New England and California and Pennsylvania and Prague, and Texas, and more, I find my mind quite quickly drifts to my yard, then beyond my yard to the river, and then further still. So I turn off the computer and saunter along the trails here at Aerie until I’m on the road which brings me down the hill to the Rappahannock.

And there, the seemingly infinite routine of buffleheads and gulls diving is in progress. An egret or heron lifts from the grass in the marsh, letting out its distress call of a low honk—almost a cross between a goose and a mallard. It lands nearby, however, anyway, and lets me pass without so much as looking up from the shallow pond, as if it would say, “Geez, Bob, you scared the crap out of me!” as it settles back into its perpetual rhythm.

This is my morning.

The contrast from duck pond to Rappahannock River is startling considering they are separated by a mere twelve feet of sand and reeds. The pond, shallow and still, mirror-like most of the time, and the river, while it has moments of glass-like reflection, is more often choppy, more than a mile wide at this point just a stone’s throw from the mouth of the bay. It is always moving, the current, the tide, the winds on the surface, always mixing and pushing out to sea or up the banks here, and every so often that barrier between river and pond erodes enough to allow a few narrow currents cut through. It is never the same.

At the university the other day a student came by my office to say hello. While we are completely online at this point, I let them know I’d be in my office for a few hours since several students opted to live in the dorms. This student, an athlete who lives with her teammates, came by because she said she’s a face to face person, and she wanted to meet me so when she watches the lectures via zoom, there will seem less of a barrier. We talked about sports and essays and pandemics and pizza, and she left. In the hallway she said she was going to go back and rewatch the first few videos now that she has met me; she believes she’ll absorb them better now. I agreed.

When I was young I tried reading John Muir and Thoreau and other such nature writers. The writing is inspiring, albeit, for me, often drawn out and boring. But there was always some barrier between the imagery and my imagination, some sort of missing element which I felt I needed to completely understand the prose.

Then I went outside.

I hiked the mountains, walked endless beaches, lay in fields of leaves of grass and walked along the edge of Walden in autumn, alone. On that particular outing, I returned to my yellow house on a reservoir not far from Concord and reread Walden, and for the first time in many readings of the book, I felt like I was reading my own journal, or a letter from a friend who I had traveled with. It came to life like nothing had.

That tradition continues. Prague, Amsterdam, St. Petersburg guides couldn’t help me comprehend the cities until I walked the streets, found a stool in a local pub and talked with locals, and then returned home and revisited the guides and literature of the area so that the experience seemed sealed, somehow grounded in another writer’s adventures, so that I could sit back after passages and say, “Yes! Exactly!” Before going, I didn’t know what the writer meant; upon return I read the work with the passion only experience can provide.

I need eye contact with nature; I need all the senses to be involved. An hour walk along the water or through the mountains can bring me a greater understanding of not only nature but myself than all the volumes nature-writers can provide.

I don’t mind today’s clouds, this evening’s forecast. The storms and “dreary” weather are as enlivening to me as a clear day or a starry sky in January. I don’t mind being cold, the wet night air on my face making my skin feel tight and my eyes sting. It is that sensory experience which is dreadfully lacking in literature.

I don’t believe nature writers write so those who can’t experience what we do can somehow be there vicariously. I think we write so that just a few pages in the reader might put down the book and grab some gloves and a scarf and head outside, whether to saunter down the sidewalks of a village or the blocks of a city, or a nearby park.

Being outside is as primitive an instinct as humans have; it is in our nature.