Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Step Away from the Fridge

I've never shot my refrigerator with a .357 magnum. Or any other caliber revolver for that matter. But I think we've all reached the level of frustration in life that Henry Lightcap/Edward Abbey outlines to begin "The Fool's Progress," (I love that the NY Times review is titled, "Beer, Guns, and Neitzsche") his autobiographical novel. The hope is that we don't get to the refrigerator-shooting point in our lives, or, that having been there, we know how to avoid finding ourselves there again.

We've got a habit we try to keep of around the dinner table, before we eat, saying some of the things we are thankful for in our lives. Not just at Thanksgiving, but any night we sit around the dining table (which isn't every night). For me it can be that I'm thankful for a great day; I'm thankful for a roof over my head and food on the table; I'm thankful for the girls' being healthy and making honor roll; I'm thankful to have a job where I look forward to going to work every day; I'm thankful to be outside in cool, fall weather that reminds me I am alive.

I'm thankful for books, movies, art, that transports my mind and opens my soul to the Universe. I'm thankful to be reading at present a couple heroes of mine in John Muir and Edward Abbey. Heroes not just in what they thought or wrote, but of living their lives outdoors, on their own terms, even if/when those terms weren't shared by others.

I recently watched "Into the Wild," the film version of the John Krakauer's telling of the life and story of Chris McCandless. It's freeing to see Alexander Supertramp slough off the conventions of modern life and live his life his way. But I got to the end and felt, no, where McCandless went wrong, someone like Muir had a handle on it. I'm an introvert, but not a hermit or a recluse. Life, love, adventures are meant to be shared. And Muir found something, being out in Nature, that he felt so passionate about that he had to communicate it to others. Muir wandered the country on his own terms more than McCandless, but still found ways to connect and make sense of it all without having to die alone in his 20s. This is not a knock on McCandless, per se, it's just seeing other paths to live life on my own terms, with deep meaning and connections to Nature, people, place, community.

"Into the Wild," sent me back to my bookshelves for Muir and Abbey; for Gary Snyder, and also for David Abram. And this is where the me that was going to be a philosophy professor loops back onto the scene. Abram's book, "The Spell of the Sensuous" has been calling me for a challenge for some time. Over the course of trail and ultra running, I came across Abram and the concept of ecophenomenology. Phenomenology (what I was going to get my PhD studying) sets itself the task of looking at how we find and make meaning in the world. If you add "eco" to that, you get the idea. It's a way of combining the natural world and our experience of it, and the value of being out in it, with philosophy. From Abram

As technological civilization diminishes the biotic diversity of the earth, language itself is diminished. As there are fewer songbirds in the air, due to the destruction of their forests and wetlands, human speech loses more and more of its evocative power. For when we no longer hear the voices of warbler and wren, our own speaking can no longer be nourished by their cadences. As the splashing of the rivers is silenced by more and more dams, as we drive more and more of the land's wild voices into the oblivion of extinction, our own languages become increasingly impoverished and weightless, progressively emptied of their earthly resonance.

There is a reason that Muir, Abbey, McCandless got the fu** out of Dodge and went their own way. Abram wrestles philosophically with that need and our need to be in contact with, connected to, the natural world around us.

Studying our surroundings. For me, that yokes together trail running, bird watching, paddleboarding, the various ways I dig exploring outside. It's a framework for examining life and the world around me.

It makes "outside" part of my reading list. It creates a space where reading sends me outside, and my experience outside informs my reading and writing. In the words of George Peppard's Hannibal on the A-Team, "I love it when a plan comes together." Creating existential reasons to avoid shooting the refrigerator.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Bluebirds, Buntings & Paying Attention

2015 has been the year of the bluebird. It's been the year of paying attention. It's been a year of listening to life and of finding happiness in work, relationships, and home. That makes it a fairly banner year thus far.

Eastern Bluebirds have clearly been on Maryland's Eastern Shore for probably all of my 43 years. But I can't say I saw and noticed one prior to this year. And we've been over my thing for the color blue here before. Seeing bluebirds while on a run and coming home to look them up was my first "birding" experience (says the guy with the Great Blue Heron tattoo on his forearm).

Following that, I set up some feeders and sat and watched. I wasn't actively going out birding, just looking at what came around. It helped to be living at a veritable bird haven, but out my windows and while out running on Baileys Neck,  I saw the aforementioned Bluebirds, Cardinals, Red-Bellied Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, American Goldfinches, Cooper's Hawk, Red-Tailed Hawk, Bald Eagle, Ospreys, Brown Thrashers, Blue Jays, Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, and Pileated Woodpeckers. Enough to pull me in to wanting to see more.

But it's more than just seeing birds. Author Lynn Thompson, in her memoir, "Birding with Yeats," gets it:

Sometimes I think that the point of birdwatching is not the actual seeing of the birds, but the cultivation of patience. Of course, each time we set out, there's a certain amount of expectation we'll see something, maybe even a species we've never seen before, and that it will fill us with light. But even if we don't see anything remarkable--and sometimes that happens--we come home filled with light anyway.

I'm not that good at patience. But when it comes to finding reasons to be outside and look deeply at the beauty around you, that's a lesson I've taken to heart.

Walking and (nominally) looking for birds at Assateague Island and Pickering Creek over the last couple weeks, the subject of the Indigo Bunting came up. A bird more blue than a bluebird, but not seen as much. Tractor beam on. Pulling up pictures and reading about them, they are around in the spring and summer, and winter in Central America. Hhhmmm... maybe it's time to go visit a friend in Costa Rica :)

But I've got it in my mind, the first bird I want to go seek out and find is an Indigo Bunting. But now I have to wait until spring to do it? Do you have any other buntings? Why, yes. Yes, we do. How about a Snow Bunting?

Mission confirmed. Buntings it is. I don't have a life list of birds; I'm not interested in just going out and checking off one after another. Whether trail running, hiking, biking, longboarding, paddleboarding, or bird watching, I'm of the John Muir mindset:

This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never dried all at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.

Being outside, the looking goes both ways: outward and inward.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Finding Purple

Colors change me. Mentally, emotionally, maybe spiritually. Especially blues, purples, greens, but really any color found and experienced fully. It's hard to explain, but it's unmistakable when felt.

After running the Seaside 10-Miler in Ocean City, Halloween Saturday morning turned into walking trails, dunes, and beach on Assateague. I had Alice Walker's words in my head seeing flashes of purple like soul breadcrumbs:

I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it.

It was everywhere, scattered like puzzle pieces, wanting to form one larger purple spectrum, like there was some larger purple shell that had been shattered and wanted to be put back together again.

So I gathered a few, to have some puzzle pieces to remember, study, ponder. And I left some for the next folks who come along to find.

What I kept (and keep) thinking about is the purple that connects them all, not the separate shells. And that got me mulling Oscar Wilde:

Mere color, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.

When I first read that thought from Wilde, my mind went to the sky or the sea, where there are expanses and variations of unspoiled color, without form. All-encompassing. But the shells were carrying it also--through broken, partial forms, it was something about the color itself, what connected them.

I'm going to make a little leap here, if you'll permit me. Let's secretly replace color with Love (capital L Love), and swap out the shells for people. There are times when maybe we all feel like we have some part of that purple within us. Whether for kids, parents, partners, pets, I hope there are moments when everyone has felt something like that. Our own part of the purple.

But what about the larger purple that runs through everyone. If we all have that purple within us, and from time to time, we recognize that purple, that love, the commonality, in someone else. Or in everyone else.

There are times when I have felt that purple in a gathered group, that I can't explain any other way. When Bobby Banks sang a hymn at my great uncle's funeral, I swear I felt connected to everyone else there around me. It was a profound, sublime, visceral experience. When I crossed the finish line of the JFK 50-Miler after 11-plus hours of forward motion, I was so overwhelmed and felt so humbly and greatly connected to everyone around me. And it can come in silly, unexpected ways, seeing a video of people doing something for others, an unexpected act of kindness; a glimmer in someone's eyes; a smile about to become a laugh.

I can't explain it, but it was there. I think in the best and deepest moments I've contemplated life, religion, the Universe, sometimes, when I'm lucky, a feeling that goes further than where my thoughts can reach is there. Transcendent and underlying.

I won't swear to it, but that connecting thread, that piece that ties us altogether, it's not impossible that it's Love. Or purple :)

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Writing Oxford: Life in a Small Town

A pilot becomes a painter, documenting a half century of a small town and becomes a part of the story he is telling--community exhibits, his paintings hanging on residents' walls, the side of the market bearing a mural of his work.

A real estate agent, who sails, carves decoys and models, and writes books and poetry about his hometown, starts a tradition of decorating docks along the creek with Christmas trees, that are still lit every December. An award bearing his name is given out each year to the people who are doing the most to honor the town's past and move it forward.

A World War II photographer turns his lens to the small community he calls home and helps pen the definitive history book of the town's first three centuries. And along the way, he helps save the old school building, turning it into a community center.

Howard Lapp, Doug Hanks Jr., and Norman Harrington. Just three examples, but ones that float to the front of my mind, about how individuals can and do make a difference in Oxford, Md., and how Oxford's collective history is told through the stories of its people.

This is obviously the case with any small town or community, but Oxford is the one that I know and whose names and people I know and have seen in action. The chapters of the town's history are people and a person has the chance to be an integral part of the story.

I think I have felt that more in Oxford than anywhere else, which is maybe what keeps me close, or brings me back. Oxford's is a story that is unfolding, and anyone could play a big part in what that story is or what it becomes.

In 1704, Oxford was one of Maryland's most important cities. By 1800, it was desolate. In 1900, the town had ten general stores, five seafood packing houses, two restaurants, two physicians, two blacksmiths, two hotels, a flour mill, shipbuilder, cooper, dentist, brick manufacturer, undertaker, druggist, barber, shoemaker, sailmaker, newspaper, bank, and four churches (citing "From Pot Pie to Hell and Damnation: An Illustrated Gazetteer of Talbot County").

I'm not saying Oxford could return as a hub of commerce, nor that that would be a good thing. In my lifetime it's been a town known for boat yards, restaurants, brick sidewalks, boats, and water. A number of the people who live here found it by sailing and decided to call it home. That's pretty damn cool.

I don't claim any special knowledge or insight into Oxford's future. No predictions or prophesies here. What I like is seeing how people, individuals, have made a difference; have shaped the town and helped create what it has been and what it is. And knowing that for wherever the town goes, those people are here now, living and/or working and helping it get there. People whose vision, whose efforts, whose eccentricities, whose time, whose senses of humor, all make a difference and make up the town.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

In October Bloom

Tuesday morning bike to work. The trees haven't changed, but leaves are falling. The breeze ambles alongside, waking the skin on my face and forearms, shirt sleeves rolled up. It's a Phil Collins fall day, "no jacket required."

Fall is a return to school and to field hockey. I've been thinking a lot about what it means to raise girls, or kids in general, so that they grow up and become good people--caring, compassionate, connected; passionate, curious, critical thinkers. Individuals.

A friend shared this the other day, which seemed to me to put things into a solid perspective. Have them learn to care about something other than themselves, to find, for themselves, what is truly important in life.

I think about how much time kids will sit in front of a screen if you let them. That's not a statement about today's kids, we would have done the same thing, but Atari and Betamax can only hold your attention for so long. What makes me happy is how quickly they will leave screens in favor of something more fun, if they think about it, I want to make sure they think about it.

I'm a believer that kids being bored is a good thing, and that it is their job to combat their own boredom. That is where creativity comes from.

But kids model after the people around them, for better or worse, even (and especially) parents and grown ups, wrong as we frequently are. I dig that the girls see running, biking, skateboarding; I love that we play soccer, kickball, go paddleboarding, walk dogs, or that they can be surprised by dad's monkey bar skills :)

There is the active stuff. But there is also the aesthetic stuff that shapes their souls. Going to a concert to hear live music; watching a sunset from the shoreline; filling bird feeders and being able to name some of the birds that come; drinking hot tea; being able to sit still; knowing the names of flowers.

I love that they know what it is to be a part of a family and a community that knows each other, enjoys each other's company, and looks out for one another.

There are different barometers, small things, that overflow my heart. When the girls say thank you, unprovoked; when they turn cartwheels and play in the grass; when they laugh until they are out of breath; when I see them stop and notice something that someone else might walk by. Like a yellow rose in October bloom.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Ring the Bells

I wanted to say something about light. Fractured light, noticeable for being splintered. That's often how my mind works, get an image, find something to say about it. I looked for cool quotes, and found Leonard Cohen saying, "There is a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in." End of search.

The next morning, I had a picture I took of church bells, one I took while running. I start combing through quotes about bells and find, "Ring the bells that still can ring. / Forget your perfect offering." Also Cohen. Wow, that's cool. Then I see the piece above, and they were backwards halves, the two quotes, of the same verse.

I searched for two thoughts, separate from each other, one about light, one about bells, not looking for them to be connected at all, one at night, and then the next morning, and I might as well be talking to Leonard Cohen.

And I like where Leonard is going. We're flawed. Everything is broken. And therein lies it's beauty. That's what lets us/life shine, our wonderful brokenness. And you know what? Fu** it, ring the bells that still can ring. Don't sit around pining over what used to seem perfect, or waiting for everything to be just right. Carpe the diem, not some unpromised diem down the road.

Leonard's words have been ringing in my head since. And if you don't know his voice, it's not easily duplicated or forgotten. It stays there for a while. But don't take my word for it.

Fractures and fragments send my mind to puzzle pieces. Glimpses, not the full view. If I stick with the night sky that has caught my eyes of late, something like the sky being cracked and letting the stars light through, but not all at once.

Something like vignettes. Last night, walking up Bonfield Avenue, a fox bolted by, sprinting under the street lights and turning down a side street. Last night and the night before, the low-lying yards along the road were under water.

There are singular moments, that feel like more. That feel connected, but I don't have the balcony seats that give me that overarching perspective. I can't tell, can't see that things are connected, but I can feel it.

What to do with a limited view or perspective? Listen to Leonard. Ring the bells.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Cruising Town and the Cosmos

Since moving to Oxford in July, the girls have newly found the bed of the pick-up truck I have had for 12 years. When the speed limit is 25 (and you have checked with local law enforcement to make sure they are permitted to travel in the back of the truck) and the sun is shining, the bed of a pick up can feel a lot like a horse-drawn carriage. Cruising to the beach at the Strand, or to the park, or for ice cream at the Scottish Highland Creamery warrants Will Smith's "Summertime" for a soundtrack.

We've taken to different means and times for cruising the town. Longboarding to and from work has put a perma-grin on my face. Thirty years ago I rode my first skateboard down these same streets as a vagrant youth, now I wave and talk to folks skating to work. The symmetry is not lost on me.

Another new habit, rekindling an old wonder, is night walks, fully staring at the star-filled sky.

Life over the past year-plus has taken some unexpected turns. New houses, new jobs, new life in so many ways, but still connected to all that has come before and all that is still to come. Ava's return home from a month in the hospital; her return to school and seeing friends and family; life getting into a familiar, but new fall rhythm. When I walk under the sky, pondering constellations and the cosmos, the vast scale of it all and wondering how all the dots connect--what, if anything, my walk to the market for lunch has to do with the broader order of the Universe--it makes my mind both spin and sit still. So I've called in the experts, picking up Carl Sagan's "Cosmos," of which Neil deGrasse Tyson has done a documentary reboot; cultivating gratitude while walking, running, skateboarding, sitting, or going to church.

It's all a cosmic puzzle I doubt I will ever be able to put together. And I'm okay with that. Here's why...

I got off work on Wednesday and went for a run. At different points along the way, I stopped and took in the sunset, both visually and breathing it in. Taking pictures to remember it. Each scene was stretches of river and horizon I have seen countless thousands of times. But not once did any of those previous times look exactly like it did that evening, on that run. Maybe that is because those exact colors, and those exact scenes had never been assembled quite like they were just then. I think that is true. But equally true is that my eyes see differently now than they ever have before.