The Length of the Light

Urbanna Oyster Festival on the hill to the river

I sat on the porch and stared at the moon just near Jupiter, and to their right, Saturn. I didn’t get the large telescope, didn’t grab the deep space binoculars. My son is at work tonight in the bustling Urbanna, Virginia, where the weekend’s Oyster Festival draws thousands and thousands of people. I have been to the annual event a dozen times or more, ate a variety of oysters and deep-fried everything, listened to live music, negotiated the flow of people from Main Street down the hill past the old Tobacco Factory to the historic waterfront, also jammed with oyster-eating tourists listening to more live music. My son is there since nine this morning, bartending and serving food at a pub in the heart of all of that. I imagine he’ll be there well into the early morning hours, a constant flow of tourists and locals and noise and more. It all happens again tomorrow.

I sat on the porch and relied solely on the naked eye to grasp the wide-angle perspective of these distant, celestial transients. A small flock of geese just passed, headed toward the pond near the river. I could hear their call for a mile or more, and then nothing. Some frogs, a light wind. In the distance out on Route 33 a truck went by, east it sounds like, though they won’t get far before reaching the bay. Acorns are falling steadily now, and near the house an oak reluctantly lets them go and I can hear some hit the canoe, some the A/C unit, some the roof.

But with that it is still peaceful, absolutely quiet. I don’t mind the bustle going on right now up-county. I have tended in several pubs and listened to patrons lose their minds over a barrage of troubles; I’ve drank in several more, and I’ve settled into the ebb and flow of crowded streets in cities throughout the world. This, though, here, has my attention, keeps my mind focused, aware of the turning of things, conscious of the circular quality of things.

And one of my companions tonight, Jupiter, makes me understand how insignificant my daily troubles actually are. There is something about true permanence that underscores the temporal state of everything else. Even our moon is a child to that mother of a planet. And me? A speck, like sand, like grain, like a drop of water.

Always like water. I started my journey on the Brooklyn Narrows, learned to breathe on the Great South Bay and the Connetquot River. I came of age on the Lynnhaven and the Atlantic, found my footing on the Allegany. I took a deep metaphorical dive into the Neva, the Vltava, and the Congo, learned to let go on the Susquehanna, and learned to slow down on the Chesapeake and the Rappahannock, right there, where geese settle in tonight, disturbing the moon’s reflection stretching all the way to Cape Charles on the Eastern Shore.

I had a day, today. Quite a day. And tonight I am being what a friend of mine would call Unapologetically Bob. It’s peaceful tonight, here in my peregrino soul, and out there at the mouth of the Rap where the still waters of the Chesapeake are tangled up with planets, and out there further still, where the light I’m seeing now left Jupiter almost an hour ago; roughly the time it takes to walk through the crowded streets of Urbanna, Virginia, this evening, surrounded by drinking watermen.

These celestial companions will be my drinking buddies tonight. I have lost touch with friends because some sadly lost touch with themselves, and I have lost touch with others because for whatever reasons they have they no longer have a need to keep in touch, but tonight I’m at peace. I’m just going to hang out tonight, unhurried, breathing well, sipping some sauvignon and thinking about the waters and watching the moon and Jupiter as if I’d never seen them before.

Walled In Again

There is always noise these days. Always something on, and now a massive portion of the population has earbuds perpetuating the sounds. The time spent in complete silence save the sounds of nature, or even a quiet walk down a sidewalk with cars passing or people talking nearby, has diminished to a fraction of the day. There is simply always some sort of humanmade noise.

Add to that the waves emitting from cellphones always on our body somewhere, moving the space around us, the air around us, pushing or pulling the vibrations and filling the emptiness in the air around us, everywhere, and we are bathed in noise, saturated by noise, be it audible or not.

When is there room for imagination? When are we ever left alone with our own thoughts? Not filtered through music, not wrapped in anticipation of who might text or call, but space for letting our thoughts drift, our mind, uninfluenced by a claustrophobic world, wander at will.

In anticipation of the long long long anticipated launch of The Nature Readings Project, I have been watching videos all week of writers reading work about nature, and there is a common theme amongst almost all of them, from Tim O’Brien and Tim Seibles to classic recordings by Robert Frost and Wendell Berry, all reiterating a concept most famously communicated by Thoreau: nature’s greatest asset for humans is the chance to escape and regroup so we can better deal with society.

And as I approach the 500th blog here at A View, I have skimmed through the early days and discovered too that my emphasis was always on nature as a place to remind ourselves of the essentials, the basics we need, so no matter what society throws at us, we know what we can handle. More, we remember we need so much less to be happy than we might believe when suffering under the deluge of noise.

Anyway, this morning I stopped at the Point near my home before headed south to the college, and I sat and watched a pod of dolphins move by, and geese, and one lone heron. The only sounds were of the water—somewhat rough—the deep call of the heron as it moved by, and the geese encouraging each other along.  I could have stayed there all day like I used to during Covid and would record videos for my asynchronous courses, talking about the structure of an essay while watching fishing boats head out to sea.

Instead, I drove south, sat on the bridge-tunnel for an eternity, weaved through the streets of Norfolk to campus, and sat before class staring at twenty students with earbuds in and reading cellphones, moving their heads to some song, or texting away to some friend.

It is none of my business until class starts, but when class starts I have a tendency to make that my business.

“What’s her name?” I asked one student in the front row about the one next to him.

“I don’t know.”

“Does anyone here, a month into the class we meet three times a week, know anybody else’s name?” They all looked around, then at me. They didn’t, of course, but worse, they couldn’t care less.

“In the before times,” I told them, noting I didn’t mean before Covid, but before cellphones, “people were endlessly engaged with each other, talking so much I had to call out several times to get everyone to calm down to start class. Friendships were formed, relationships. They used to look in the eyes and talk to people who were now part of their future instead of looking down into their past, their friends since seventh grade in their phones.”

I told them to talk to each other and that I’d be back in fifteen minutes. No phones. No silence. Introduce themselves, ask questions.

I stood outside and listened to cars going by, some birds in an oak outside the building, two professors from the business building talking on the sidewalk. I slowed down my breathing. I thought about the bay, my river, hikes I’ve taken recently along the York River and out in Utah. Those times I stepped outside my comfort zone. My bp came down, my breathing stayed normal. My headache went away.

I appreciated the time to regroup. I really haven’t heard of people doing that anymore—regrouping. I walked back in the building relaxed, ready to talk about the tedious task of editing, hoping their minds were all a bit clearer now, relaxed. Even hopeful, I hoped.

I approached the room and could hear nothing at all. Nothing. I walked in and people quickly hid their phones, looking around, one even pretended he was finishing a conversation with the woman next to him.

“Don’t worry,” I told him. “You’re not being graded.”

I sat for a minute and imagined the waves from the devices as colors, dark red and purple, and deep yellow like on weather maps of thunderstorms, and I looked around the room and in my mind I could see nothing but the storm, a rough sea of dark colors filling the air, completely occupying every aspect of the room, and when anyone took a breathe their lungs filled with purple and yellow air.

We used to talk to each other.

We used to look at each other more. We used to laugh and tell stories, or go for a walk through fallen leaves, their sound the only music.

We were present. We remained present so that we could better handle the future when we got there.

We lived deliberately.

“Let’s talk about tone,” I said, and everyone let out a sigh of relief, as if they were terrified I was going to make them talk to each other again.

I’ve Been This Way Before

It’s late. On my way home I stopped and stared across the water to a massive moon just hanging there. The other night we used deep-space binoculars to gaze up-close at its craters, the shadows and mountain ranges. But tonight my eyes adjusted to the breeze, the well-above-flood-stage tide moving across the road at the river, and out there in all her glory tonight’s moon, like it has been for everyone who has ever been on this planet, all of humanity has seen this moon, hanging there, pushing the water just slightly higher.

Life is quiet tonight. It’s when it is late like this that I feel all of life is a murmur, a whisper of sorts. Emotions flow and ebb, successes and failures too, love, misery, those brief lightning-strike moments of euphoria and the near-suicidal feelings of claustrophobia, when it seems there is simply no escape and no more help to be found, also, flows and ebbs.

In fact, time may be the only consistent aspect of life.

Time runs away from us, out there past the horizon where that eternal moon waits just above the bay. There is absolutely something comforting in water. Have you ever waded for a while beneath the surface? If not, I am not certain I can describe it. There is a suspension, where with the wave of your arms ever so gently, perhaps the kick of a foot every so often, you just float there, water all around, and the impressing power of ocean on your skin and in every pore, ever orifice, weightless, and you become the water, as if the body—which is, of course, about seventy percent water itself—remembers, and returns to its natural state, you just float in this amniotic ocean, and when you surface, the water pulls at your skin, the intense tug of the water trembles for you to return, but the air reminds you of gravity and linear time, and you move onto the sand knowing you barely escaped this time, just one more day perhaps.

And the highs return, the absolute conviction you have control over your decisions, and mental health has no say, and past mistakes have been forgiven, and you know everything you hoped would go right goes right. But if you’re around long enough—six decades perhaps—you know it’s all going to fade again. And again.

Anyway, the moon is pretty tonight, and the water high from some storm passing Bermuda and pushing the water this way.

Before I left the college earlier, I asked my students—all brand new freshman in a class designed to help them with all aspects of adjusting to college life— what they do when they feel trapped and scared, just can’t find their way, when they just want to quit one way or another. They shrugged, mostly. One mentioned music, another calling home or friends. But one young man kept looking away, and when I walked on that side of the room I could see he had been crying. I moved back toward the middle and said, “When I was a freshman at college in western New York, I didn’t fit in at all. I really didn’t. I got involved but I always felt like I was so much more immature than the others, and I was from a place no one else was from—before cell phones or computers, when calling anyone meant slamming quarters into a payphone with shaving cream all over the receiver. So I found a place, a small grotto in the woods on a hillside across from campus. Mind you, it wasn’t about the beautiful statues at all, it was simply about the peace there, the absolute quiet there that somehow flooded my body, every pore, every orifice and brought me such peace and reminded me I am no one but who I am and I will always be this way and I have nothing to apologize for. I’d sit in the grotto for hours, sometimes falling asleep, and head back to the dorm well after midnight only to find everyone still partying. But somehow it no longer bothered me, like I knew something they didn’t; as if I had discovered a part of myself they’d never be able to touch, and it got me through four years. It got me through four more decades.

Find a place, I said to the class but really to this one young man, and don’t bring your phone, don’t bring your laptop. Don’t bring your anxieties and insecurities and hesitations.

On the way home something else was truly on my mind, an anxiety that filled my every space and set my heart racing, so I pulled over at the bay and watched the moon—this beautiful, imposing, eternal moon, surface and rise from the bay, and I sat a long time until I found that peace I needed that holds me up through the ebbs of life, reminds me that no matter how easy it would be to let the water have its way, that the tide is turning.

For those who wait long enough, the tide always turns.

The Five

In my creative writing classes I gave an assignment to exemplify the benefits of immediate experience over memory of a previous encounter, and of allowing all our senses to participate instead of just one.

I sent half the students into their respective bathrooms (without limitations upon identification, of course) with a pad and pen and I asked them to spend ten minutes in there and describe it. The other half of the students stayed in the classroom but did the same thing. The results of this second group were always predictable. Certainly, every one of them had been in the bathrooms multiple times through the semester, but still they almost universally remember the trite—running water, unpleasant odor, writing on the wall, mysterious missing locks on the stalls, paper towels on the floor around the garbage can.

When the first group returned, their notes were a bit more illuminating. Not just unpleasant smells but one of overwhelming cleansers; the low buzz of a fluorescent bulb, the mirrors always slightly too low on the wall, the faucet left on, the urinal still running, the clogged commode.

We experience with five senses, sometimes six if you include that sense of familiarity, of déjà vu, but we tend to remember and often only experience with one—sight. Studies show we rely upon how things “look” to recall them more than eighty percent of the time, yet the number one trigger for recall is smell. “Use ALL the senses,” I tell them. “Perhaps ‘taste’ is not so appropriate in this particular assignment, but sound is essential, obviously smell, and touch for its absence—how can you not include the desire to not touch anything?”

We spend a good deal of our lives living in the singular. One thing at a time; one sense is enough, one path in the woods. One thing problematic in this dip back to Psych 101 is how much we are missing. Sure, sometimes one is enough—but even when we eat, taste is only a fraction of the experience—the aroma draws us in and works with taste for complement, and presentation strikes first, of course. And how many of us are not crazy about a particular food because of its texture (for me, swordfish).

Shift:

This morning I sat on the rocks at the river, trying to mentally juggle too many happenings at once. The new semester starts soon—online for now—and I thought about how I had hoped for more classes but enrollment is way down, so then I thought about the project I’m working on to catalogue as many readings about nature from writers as I can and my attempts to summon interest, then about a new book project I started, kinda—okay, not so much started as stepped in that direction—and about my sharp, intensely sharp spike in anxiety and depression when the news is violent, when the rhetoric is redundant and aggravating and angry, and about a tree which fell and needs to be cut up, and about

and about…

and…

the coffee kicked in and I took a deep breath, exhaled very slowly into the chilly breeze, and reminded myself that I need to warm up to the day in much the same way we would warm up before a class at the health club. Take deep breathes through the nose, out slowly through the mouth, stretch, let all our senses work—and stretch those senses, make them limber, feel and see and touch and taste and hear all at once, not only like we are absorbing the world around us but the world around us is absorbing us.

This doesn’t work well in the city. It doesn’t even work well at home on a mat in a quiet room—we created the room by design and experience. No, nature is safe from subjective influence, it remains absent of judgement and human influence; there’s nothing out there we need to “get to” while looking around. It has a sense of eternal about it.

So I sat on the rocks and did that breathing thing, and the cold tightened the skin on my face the way cold wind does, and I could sense every touch of air across my reddened and tight neck and cheeks. On my tongue and lips that taste of salt I have known since my childhood, the marshy odor, the freshness of the Chesapeake, and the waves ripping against the rocks, lapping on the sand, breaking ten feet out in the river, the call of a gull behind me, the low distant rumble of a workboat diesel.

And then, dominantly, the view, the view which reaches deep into the immediate and blocks out all things social and political and makes us present. The deeply blue water today, the intrusively blue sky, the foam from the cold water on the sand and the white edges on the tips of the breaking waves. The small green strip of interruption that is Parrott Island a mile or so out, and the glint of sun off the window of a truck crossing the Norris Bridge in the west.

I am rarely present these days, distracted by what I hear on the radio, disturbed by the distance between where I am and where I need to be. It happens to us all. The changes in my life over the past two and a half years have been so drastic that sometimes—usually—it is hard to keep up with everything, so I turn to the constant, the familiar, to let my senses recalibrate themselves and make things right.

I like—need—order in my very unorderly life. And stepping into nature is perhaps the most reliable method of getting all my ducks in a row and feeling centered again. There’s something Thoreauvian about that, of course, and Jung is part of this equation, but for me on a much simpler and basic train of thought, it’s the undefinable persistence of beauty that brings me peace. And the innate need of us all to love. Lao Tzu was right when he insisted that “Love is of all passions the strongest, for it attacks simultaneously the head, the heart, and the senses.”

So many changes, so much turmoil, so many medications and sessions and updates and downplays that have distracted us all from what should be elemental in our lives—ourselves, and all of our senses working together. It is the cure for the soul, as Oscar Wilde once noted, as is the soul the cure for the senses.

In this new year I’ve noticed something which at once was subtle but has become too persistent to ignore—I’m stepping further away from that which doesn’t bring peace to my mind. And the one absolute I know is I never had that problem in nature.

It just makes sense.