The Moon and My Own Private Ghosts

My moon, today

It’s not easy finding the constant in life. You think—or at least you hope—it will be people, and sometimes, but rarely, a particular person, but that doesn’t always hold to be true. People change, they come and go, they die, they just die, and while that’s not unexpected or even unusual, it still creates that ripple, that slight adjustment which a constant helps steer you through.

The constants in life mean everything.

Today while out for a long walk to clear my head, to figure out where yet again I most likely screwed up, I looked up at the moon and understood there is my constant. The moon, yes, but all of it—the water and the marsh, the woods, the sounds of the rest, and all the rest included.

From the start it was always nature. When I was still in the single digits we moved to a house in walking distance to a state park, the Great South Bay, a river, and an arboretum. Even behind the houses before the highway, which anyway ended right there, were woods and a mysterious trail leading to “the creek.”

When we moved my constant came along. We lived on a river and I could canoe clear out to the Chesapeake right from my own yard. I’d ride my bike all over the city, but in particular along the boardwalk and clear back through a new state park to a smaller but beautiful different bay. It was always nature that saved me from loneliness, from anxiety, from the awkwardness of me.

It simply never changed. At college I never felt either mature enough or hip enough to engage much with others, except if separated by a mic, but the river—that river running along New York’s Southern Tier saved me more than a few times, and my hikes up to the Heart where Thomas Merton used to sit and write in his journal, or overnighters out in the National Park not far west.

And Niagara. Canada. And my go-to safety net, Letchworth State Park.

Bring on Arizona and the Sonoran Desert, the Catalinas, the canyons with waterfalls and paths. I’d head up to Kitt Peak and watch the stars, or up Mt Lemon and watch the snow just miles from friends in shorts. I was safe there.

In many ways I never matured. Some might say my constant is immaturity then. Okay, perhaps. I admit I am more interested in hiking through woods watching birds than I am just about anything else. I moved to New England and hiked Mt Wachusett most weekends; I lived on a reservoir and walked out to the Old Stone Church and sat for hours playing my guitar hoping no one could hear, praying someone would listen.

Africa.

The trails at the small but memorable Pinchot State Park in Pennsylvania.

Here. Aerie, where hawks and eagles nest, and osprey teach their young to fly, and deer, opossums, fox and countless birds make themselves at home, because it is their home. I’m a guest.

Nature has no concerns. It is its own constant. It has no financial obligations; it does not have to ask anyone for help again and again; it does not answer to differing opinions or lie about its past. Nature does not judge, it does not question, or answer for that matter.

I know these trees, like I still know the ones Eddie and I climbed in Hechscher, like I still know the ones bending over like “girls throwing their hair over their heads to dry in the sun” along the Allegheny where my friend Joe and I used to wade for hours, dry fish on the rocks, and talk about wilderness and time.

Everyone above is gone. They’re just gone. But the nature of us is there, as well as nature itself. I wander for hours with my ghosts, talking about back then, talking about what’s next.

Today through the branches the half moon stood stark in the dark blue sky, and I swear not one other human could see it. Sure, you have a moon to admire in your world, but it’s not this one. Because this one knows Eddie and how he warned me one night when walking through the trails just after sunset to lookout for lunatics. I didn’t know what that was so I asked what a lunatic is and he said never mind. When I thought he had left to go home, I walked further past some grove and he jumped out and screamed, and I screamed, loud, and I called him crazy. And he laughed and said, “That’s a lunatic.”

My moon knows that story.

The trees here know about the time my dad and I sat on the porch and he couldn’t remember the names of some loved ones and he couldn’t see how sad I was. And they know about the time he let my son tie him up in a lasso and put a small cowboy hat on his head, and my father and my son laughed. That’s in the air; that’s out there, waiting for me to cut through the path on the west side of the property.

I have much on my mind, and a great deal of it I would rather not discuss with many people. And that’s not healthy—keeping it in like that. So I go outside and share it with the waiting trees and the ghosts I bring along. Certainly it is all internal monologue, but it’s always been that way, when Eddie and I wandered the woods singing Harry Chapin songs, or Karen and I canoed the Lynnhaven talking about how far the river reached to the south, through the marshes. I was always in conversation, connecting to the wilderness.

A friend of mine in Colon, Germany, but who is from Poland, calls me “the Man from the Country.”

“I was born in Brooklyn,” I told him.

He looked around when he was here and we walked to the river many years ago, and said, “This is not Brooklyn, Bob. This is a jungle. You live in a jungle.”

So it is. But it’s an honest jungle, with a river and a bay and a moon.

Nature lets me off the hook. Nature holds me responsible. It teaches me to be honest with myself and, in turn, with others. It teaches me to be quiet, to let others think what they want.

I have lived, lived very much “out loud” as it is fashionable to say. Oh, I have certainly lived. But it is in nature I am alive. There’s a difference. You know what I mean. There is a difference. You know exactly what I mean.

The Great South Bat at Hechscher State Park

The Convergence of Hard Truths

I walked along one of the country roads today thinking about how the stress slips away for awhile when I’m out there. It isn’t being “present” as seems to be the hip way to call “aware.” I’ve always been so in country roads throughout the world; I am rarely more in the moment than when I’m walking somewhere. But I’m also thinking about the times I’ve screwed up, the times I’ve made things work, the differences between the two which seems to be an ultrathin line as it turns out.

I’ve had a half dozen moments in the past five years I’d give anything to have back, to rethink how I approached it, how I’d do it differently. It is entirely possible—as was the case with me—to “do the right thing” in a situation yet completely fuck it up. That’s been me for a decade or so.

I’m quite tired of it. Indeed, I’ve absolutely had enough. I keep thinking of that traditional song, which I know because of James Taylor’s rendition: “If I had stopped to listen once or twice; if I had closed my mouth and opened my eyes. If I had cooled my head and warmed my heart. I’d not be on this road tonight.” Damn straight.

But here I am, nonetheless, confident I made the right decision at the time, confused as to how doing so could lead me to such places as I’ve found myself this half-decade. But I digress, which I’m apt to do from time to time. One paper once called what I do “Digressive Writing.” Okay, I like that, but it’s like trying to have a conversation with a radio, so I’ll get back to my point of the moment—the country road today.

When I was young there was a road which led from the main country road back to stables on the fringe of both a country club and a state park. My friend Eddie and I spent many days walking this road lined with tall pines. It ran behind the deli and the post office but branched off quickly so that nothing sat on either side of the road but woods. Eventually, stables, but until then the peace of nothingness, as if Eddie and I walked alone in the world, some Cormac McCarthy world but only in a good way instead of an everybody’s-probably-going-to-die way.

And we’d sing. Chapin, CCR. CSN. All the initialed ones. One time, and ever since then when I’m on a road like this, we both started singing “The Long and Winding Road,” at the same time. Instead of either of us stopping or both of us laughing, we kept singing, quietly, never looking at each other, never missing a word.

I needed that moment today and I found it right near my home, on another road which runs along the river, spotted by houses set back, but mostly road, trees, and quiet. No concerns about falling down or fucking up. No concerns about what to do next—it is next, there is no next, only a long string of both impossible and beautiful nows.

Just my feet on gravel. Some wind. A house wren, an osprey. No water as it was quite still today on the river. No neighbors, no cars, no dogs in the distance. Just my feet on the gravel or the grass and the light breeze.

And me:

Many times I’ve been alone
And many times I’ve cried
Anyway, you’ll never know
The many ways I’ve tried

I’m not sure what happened next. I was engulfed by all things that have gone wrong; I had a clarity of every path, every diversion, every digression. I stood for a long time and thought of Eddie, of the stables, of a road I used to walk in Pennsylvania and another in New England. There have always been country roads for me. I suppose even my brief time in Brooklyn after college I could consider President’s Street a country road for all of the time my mind was wandering.

When else is a person to think about things?

My brother pointed out to me that someone—Einstein, maybe?—said the definition of insanity is following the same course of action hoping to reach a different result. Geez—lock me up now. Guilty. You know why? No, me neither, and that’s the problem. Sometimes it takes the right convergence of circumstance to cut short a dangerous cycle.

Which brings me to the past week or so. This is my convergence; these are my circumstances: I was in Utah and hiked and laughed and remembered and hoped. I was in Utah and pushed myself harder than I have had to in a long time and found out I could. And the sun set across a field of salt, and that moment is forever; that moment was thirty-five years old and thirty-five years from now. So, I came home and continued to hike, albeit mercifully at sea level. And I let go of my mistakes, my bad decisions. Sure, I still have some bluffs to call, some baggage to burn, and I just hope to high heaven those around me have a little more patience while I find my way back. But I came back and hiked, and today I walked that road down past the house of the late Walter Cronkite, and all the way to the dock and the pier sticking into the Rappahannock River, and I walked to the end of the road lined with pines and let my feet dangle, let my past week just hang out there, let my soul just float out there, and knew that everything we go through, everything, even the depths of bad decisions, brings us back to this moment now, and I took a long breath, let it out, watched a boat head out to the bay, and quietly sang, Eddie’s voice up in the clouds somewhere,

The long and winding road
That leads to your door
Will never disappear
I’ve seen that road before
It always leads me here
Lead me to your door

Please: Take two minutes and seventeen seconds:

The Past is in It’s Grave

Heckscher State Park, Great South Bay

I’m cleaning closets and donating clothes and other items I no longer need. Some are just old collectibles in boxes shoved beneath beds and in the attic. If I could fit junk in the crawl space under the house, I probably would. I have too much stuff. Soon, most of it will be gone, but it isn’t easy deciding what to keep. I can easily make a case for retaining every item. Sometimes it is comforting to pull out an old trinket and tell stories about what happened. I have an ashtray from a resort in Palm Springs from when I was fifteen, but I can’t mention it without my mother reminding me how I wandered alone for hours in rattlesnake country in the San Jacinto Mountains. I’m keeping that one. There are postcards and paperweights from family vacations and solo trips out west. Most of it is going. I can remember what happened without a cheap plastic prompt. And if I can’t remember then the item is a waste of space.

But last night I came to what I call the “Long Island Box.”

At almost fifteen years old we moved from my childhood home on the Island to Virginia—that was almost half a century ago; so far in my past I am the same number of years to 100 as I am to leaving the Island. And so much has happened since those days to make those first fourteen years little more than a title page; at best a brief introduction to the rest of my life. In fact, it seems that boy might easily be someone else save one particular item: the baseball my friends signed and gave me when I moved. On the rare days I pick it up it connects us across time and distance. I can look at the ball as proof I actually knew those people, and if I were to go back to Long Island, I’d almost expect to see them in their youth. Memories trick us into thinking of some places as special when, in fact, it is usually a particular time we relish. The truth is, when I hold the ball I don’t want to go back to New York; I want to go back to 1975.

When we were young we played baseball; we listened to music; we hiked the woods of Heckscher State Park; we skated across the Connetquot River and waded well into the Great South Bay. We hopped the fence of the Bayard Cutting Arboretum and camped out and kept secrets; we built forts and fought over stupid things. We came of age during the Vietnam War, and music was part of our blood. Now as if to symbolize all those days, I have the baseball. The names have not faded even while most of the faces have, though I certainly can conjure up the idea of who they all were. Over the years I’ve been back to New York, but never saw those friends again. Still, when I return I say I’m going “back” to New York, not “up,” as if New York will always be a time more than a place.

When those friends gave me the ball that last day, I wanted to stay in that town and finish growing up with Steve and Todd, Eddie and Paul, Janet and Lisa and Essie and Norman and Mike and Camille. So the ball remains my sole possession from life before the fall. I have wondered if my family had stayed, would I have pursued my burning desire to play baseball, or would the music and restlessness that eventually took over my life catch up with me anyway. Smack dab in the middle of my youth, in a small idealistic town, in a time when my friends and I were pushing the limits and planning our exit strategy, I got traded to another existence five states away. I have no regrets at all, but I have the baseball, and it teases me toward the proverbial road not taken. Steve and I were like Chris and Gordie in the film Stand by Me; Eddie and I spent near every single day together hiking through Heckscher, singing, teaching each other guitar. Every. Single. Day. For five years.

They all signed the ball.

Now I’m thinning out my collections of books and art, pawning off possessions and boxing up souvenirs. My emotional connection to many of these things is tied to the people I met along the way. While it is true that the further through life I paddle, the more I’m interested in what I can enjoy at the time, not stow away like pirate booty. How many times do we buy things while traveling, bring them home and display them, and eventually replace them with new souvenirs? Even if I do take the items out and look at them or show people, the significance eventually ebbs. I have stories and memories, and sometimes I have a longing to return, but I quickly realize that an object is not a memory, it is a symbol, a window through which we can watch our youth.

But this box is different. These are the remnants of when a boy literally grew up and tried like hell to hold tight to what he knew he was losing. I can hold the ball and see us in Steve’s backyard, yelling as we ran the bases, and I can still smell the marsh near the river that time we found an old shack for duck hunters and carved our names in the walls. The ball is proof I was there and it all happened. Souvenirs play an important role in moving on. They keep us from carrying the guilt of complete abandonment. Once in a while I pick up the ball and can hear their voices calling across the yard, across the years, Steve holding a sign of luck, Eddie calling for me not to go, please don’t go. And we’d say good night. Not goodbye—a small quirk of ours. Good night! We’d yell, and laugh, oh my living God we would laugh.  

I used to have this crazy dream that we would all meet at a pub, probably on the Island, and hug and laugh and drink and tell stories of then. It would be at the old Great River Inn, which I think is an Italian restaurant now, or across the river in Oakdale, on the water, and we’d get tables on the deck. Eddie and I would have made fun of Todd for the way he used to follow us through the marshes and kept cursing whenever he stepped in the mud. Steve would recall the terrifying afternoon I hit a fly ball right at the sliding glass door on the back of his house. We’ll both remember at the same time how we used to see who could hit the ball over the roof, and then we’d retrieve it from the street and see who could throw the ball the farthest. And right at that moment I’ll pull the ball out of my pocket and show them how bad their signatures were when we were young, and we’ll laugh and pass it around, but in the presence of these people the ball will suddenly seem irrelevant. We’ll break into a chorus of the Zombies “Time of the Season” like we used to while walking to the deli. Then we’ll order more wings and beers and someone will inevitably have to leave early because of family obligations. Todd will have to head home, and Camille will have to get back to the city.

But that will never happen. We lost Eddie a couple of years ago just before Christmas, and since then the desire to go back to that beautiful, timeless, idyllic hamlet has faded away. But we could have met, we should have. We could have convinced the bartender to play some early seventies music like the Beatles “Let it Be” album. And Todd and I would tell everyone how we were sitting in his room listening to the radio when the story came through that The Beatles broke up. It will get quiet and someone, probably Janet, will say she has to leave, so we’ll all stand in the parking lot and shake hands, and hug, and say we must do it again. They will drive off, but I’ll wait, because that’s how I see this going down. I’ll stand there almost five decades after seeing them last and wonder how it is possible to live this long and still remember details. I’ll be glad I went back, but I’ll remind myself I really must move on and simplify my life, so I’ll turn toward the river and wonder just how far I can still throw a ball.

Eddie and I got back in touch about five years ago and talked often. Neither of us changed when talking to each other, and it was clear we would have remained close no matter where life brought us. We didn’t drift apart; we grew up. 1975 is so far ago I can’t conceive it ever happened at all; yet I can make a case it all went down last week, and if I head down Great River Road and make a right at Church Road and follow it all the way up past Woodhaven, and stay right when I get to Leeside Drive, my dad would be outside at the barbeque, and my brother mowing the lawn. My sister would be in her room at the top of the stairs, and me, well, I’d be heading down the road to Eddie’s and we’d be walking out toward the Great South Bay for the day to see what is next.

It’s just a ball. It’s just a damn ball. It will go back in the closet, and my friends will go back to their faraway towns scattered from Long Island to Florida. All of us probably keep neat houses with boxes stowed behind stairs just beyond reach. Even this house I’m organizing and which I built twenty-five years ago is little more than a hotel to occupy as long as possible before I check out and others make themselves at home. Maybe someone will find my baseball behind a cabinet, and the names will be worn off when the kids here take it outside and toss it around. Anyway, it’s a ball; it’s how it is meant to be used.

Goodnight Eddie.