Uncomplicated

I’m on a mission to dial back the news to a need-to-know-only basis. Even—especially—the news online, but even NPR has drifted into the “I have no use for this material” folder. It is essential to be well informed, but it is equally essential to be able to separate the news from the noise. My stress level has adjusted up during the last, I don’t know, five years, to some higher level of anxiety not at all compensated for by valuable information. Material gathered should be worth the anguish to obtain it. But that simply isn’t the case any longer. Now it is just static which causes stress, which doesn’t benefit me at all.

So…

excuse me while I step aside. It won’t bother anybody if I simply duck away for a while. I can no longer handle the endless stream of garbage reported in media. Don’t pay any mind to me if I move out of the way while I let pass the convoy of criticism and manipulation. I’ll just sit and watch the water and wildlife do their thing, the perpetual movement of the tide. In fact, my health, my energy, and my stress level are all improved by the absence of the nightly news, which I once revered back when it was journalism. And I’m better off without the one-on-one conversations with way too many negative people. I am more likely to live longer, less likely to have a negative disposition, and infinitely more likely to relax by turning away from those discussions. Remember the adage, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”?

When I’m at the river and the sun is just changing tones behind clouds in the west, it doesn’t make a bit of difference who the president is, what the commentators had to say, which tweets came from which attention-deficit minds, who bought what company, who accused who of what with whom, what happened first, and what happens next. My phone alert from the NY Times Breaking News doesn’t really catch my attention anymore, and I am far more interested in keeping my blood pressure in double digits and my heart rate closer to my age than my golf score.

When the eagle glides from the tree tops, and the osprey teach their young to fly, and the clouds at dusk separate colors in prism-like perfection, it is hard to remember what the complaining was all about anyway. We carry our baggage way longer than we ever need to if we ever really needed to at all. And the answers we seek in our daily life won’t be unearthed during some pointless pursuit of fair and balanced. Even if I listened more intently to all the facts and expert opinions and came to the correct conclusions agreed upon by Nobel laureates and Pulitzer Prize winning journalists, what then? So I might know the truth about A and the lies told by B and the injustice we see served to those in need. Again, what then?

I think my students would be better served if instead of watching presidential debates and finding the fallacies, we all spent some time in soup kitchens and the cancer ward at a children’s hospital and then came back and discussed respect and morality and fair and balanced. Maybe we could spend a class talking about the good there is. Let’s write about that. Let’s take a stand and find expert support about that.

When I returned from Spain I was on a mission to “simplify” my life. It didn’t take long on the Camino to discover how little I needed; how superfluous most concerns really turned out to be. As a professor of critical thinking and research writing courses, I found it necessary, pre-trip, to discuss current events and breaking news. But afterwards I found philosophical discussions as relevant as any subject covered by some mass-com graduate reporting from The Hill. I told my students that any fool can gather and argue immigration or trade; but it took real thought to discuss the “matter” of things, the bend of time. “Which works better for you?” I asked. “Ted Cruz said that we need to make decisions based upon faith” or “St Bernard said, “We need to learn to make excuses for other people.”  One is a proclamation of how he intends to govern; the other is an edict of how we should live our lives. This led to discussions of driving and working, and we talked about getting along with relatives and partners. People like tangible applications. Those conversations spilled from the class to the hallway.

That’s how it should be.

But time got away from me. When all I hear is the call of an osprey or the way the waves lap at the edge of the land, I could be in so many other places and so many other times. It is innocent, even ignorant some might say.

We live in the age of information, the age of blame, the age of instantaneous and simultaneous where the comment you posted ten minutes ago is now ancient news five screens in the past. It is the age of convenience and the age of emotion, and the age of attention-getting-self-indulgent-everyone’s opinion matters and is valid and is equal and should be heard. And that’s just not true, it is wrong, it is defeatist, and it is destructive, and I’m simply over it.

So I’m done jumping through hoops and trying to walk across coals; I’m simply not built for it. I’ve finally “come ‘round right” and am simplifying my life like I hoped I would when I came home; like I hope I will again. My theory is this: I will be healthier, happier, more efficient, more useful and focused, and infinitely more at peace. Then I might be of use to others, and that is the point, isn’t it?

I love the way the water feels cool on the soles of my feet on a hot afternoon, or how the saltwater gets on my lips and seems to stay there all day, even after I shower. It is as if the movement of the waves exactly coincides with the movement of my blood, and that rhythm somehow settles my soul.

And it really wasn’t so complicated: I just decided to.

I’m going to sip my iced tea and let the river run by for a while. If it doesn’t work out, look for me chasing the windmills in Spain. There, I’ll be in good company, even if it seems a bit too quixotic for some.

My Own Private Camino

So many people talk about war, about poverty, emigration, about nuclear fallout and political discourse. The news is now riddled with bullet point reporting about stranded soldiers, homeless families, courageous politicians, and psychopathic leaders. You’d hardly know they were talking about humanity. You’d never guess they were talking about us.

The top of the hour take on today tells me a few million people must live elsewhere, most likely forever, that the cost of gas is so high it is no longer cost efficient for minimum wage workers to work unless they bike or bus. The cost of food will rise, as well as the price of everything trucked, shipped, or flown to somewhere else to consume.

Covid is still killing people, and controversy concerning restrictions consumes organizational meetings and town hall events. Two people were shot and killed in Worcester, Massachusetts, last night, and those late souls were just two of two hundred and seventy others in the last twenty-four hours.

The view from this wilderness is discouraging.

So many people talk about sanctions and retaliation, about cyberattacks, about drone warfare, about soldiers looting and soldiers who have no idea what they’re doing there to begin with. So many people talk about inflation and recession, about climate change and burning swatches of America.

The headlines have gone bold on a daily basis, largest type of the fattest font, that bold type normally reserved for assassinations and declarations of war, set aside until Dewey Defeats Truman, is constant, morning edition, afternoon edition, online version, all full bold above the fold in your face headlines about how many dead, how many fleeing, how many floundering in some nether land on their way to Poland or Germany or Alabama or anywhere that’s somewhere else. Headlines about a leader misleading his nation, another leader leading by example, and a little girl singing a little girl song in a shelter. She holds a kitten.

Some people will believe anything. Some people need to believe in something. Some people believe that if you believe you’ll be fine.

This is not how I wanted my fourth quarter to start. It’s been a good game, mostly. I’ve had some incredible, once-in-a-lifetime plays, well more than once, but I’ve fumbled as well, threw my share of interceptions. But it’s been amazing. I trained across two continents; I walked across a country; I reconnected, resigned, regrouped, then remembered what it was I wanted out of life to begin with. And it’s not to listen to so many people with no expertise decide exactly what’s wrong and who caused it; it’s not to listen to so many people bend toward the fight instead of negotiation, lean toward aggression instead of forgiveness. This is not how I want the fourth quarter to play out. Clearly I have more comforts than the vast majority of this world; I’m not “sitting on the cold floor of a train station” as some random posts remind me, insisting that since I’m not destitute and homeless I should shut up. I agree completely with this sentiment; I’ve no reason to complain. But this isn’t about empathy; this is about my inability to absorb anymore disappointment with a species with such capabilities as to create miracles on a daily basis yet falling faster into a vacuum of violence from which it doesn’t seem possible anymore to escape.

I’ve tried switching my meds, I’ve tried exercise and eating differently, I’ve tried laced lollipops and tiny bottles of Baileys.

I’ve tried. But still, I need to try something else. So I remember that...

when you walk five hundred miles, you note each step, your life slows to some equatorial pace, and you can feel the air move around you, the subtle brush and lift of a soft breeze come across a field. Every day is an eternity, each moment you find yourself exactly where you should be with whom you should be with. Each person crosses your path for a reason, and each reason evaporates with the next step, like a constant stream of rebirths, an endless loop of beginnings.

This is how I escape the persistent pounding of chatter, the numbing talk shows filled with nothing more than speculations. This is how I keep from falling: I wonder, would anyone notice if I just walked away, headed south along the coast, hitchhiked, bussed, trained, away from here? Would anyone notice if I ended up in Pied de Port, France, looking out toward the Napoleon Pass across into Spain, out of reach of the rising tide of so many people?

I’d like to believe that the view from this wilderness is always optimistic, and so many people have commented on the beauty of this wilderness, the sunrises and nightfalls, the slow glow of dawn sweeping gently across the bay and stealing the day, but the true wilderness that must be explored is within, always first and last the wilderness within, and that is very difficult to do with so many people talking about so many people dying.

I wish that I could slow the whole thing down. The world is changing again, and it’s not looking like a strong narrative is headed this way, but there are still so many people I want to spend time with, so many places I’d like to see.

Ever So Narrow the Now

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The View, this time, is from behind.

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

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

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

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

Instead, I typed up a favorite saying of mine:

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

–Confucius.

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

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

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

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

–Lao Tzu

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

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

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

William Penn. Herman Hesse. Helen Keller.

Thoreau.

Darwin.

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

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

—Joseph Campbell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway.

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

and this bird you cannot change

–Ronnie van Zant

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

I’d like to believe it is still there:

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

–Grandma Moses

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