It’s true that walking may not be the most practical mode of transportation. I could easily hop on a bus or a bike and get to my destination at least twice as fast. But there’ s something magical about strolling around a city. The world slows down. You’re exposed to the ambiance. You sense what’s going on around you, instead of being locked inside the cocooned environment of an automobile. To walk is to experience, to enter into the endless river of surroundings.
Does that make sense? I hope it does. Maybe it doesn’t. I’ve been feeling particularly out-of-it recently, ever since my girlfriend of five years up and left, without an explanation of why she was leaving or where she was going. I won’t bore you with the details of our relationship, but ever since she flew the coop — about five weeks ago — I’ve been existing in a hazy stupor where everything, by turns, seems either entirely unreal or so incredibly real as to be unbearable. So these walks, you see, temporarily abate my misery.
I live in a 400-square foot studio apartment that costs $750 per month. Immediately outside of my door, there’s an egg-shaped swimming pool, which is usable approximately half of the time. The other half, the water is coated in a strange green sludge that lingers until one of the maintenance guys sprinkles chemicals on it. When I wake up and notice the water’s clear, I don my bathing suit and take a brisk morning dip. The chill resets my biology and establishes a positive tone for the day. And most of my days — here, recently — have consisted of reading books, listening to records, lying by the pool, that sort of thing. I’m trying my best to establish a new normal, a fresh means of existing as a bachelor. I don’t talk to many people — I do enough talking as a barista at a nearby coffee shop named Pink’s. But thankfully for me, Pink’s isn’t open on weekends, and today is Saturday — August, in the South — and I’m blindly swimming in all of this free time like a dachshund in the middle of the Atlantic. Out of place, but free. Free, but for how long?
Immediately outside of my door, there’s an egg-shaped swimming pool, which is usable approximately half of the time. The other half, the water is coated in a strange green sludge that lingers until one of the maintenance guys sprinkles chemicals on it. When I wake up and notice the water’s clear, I don my bathing suit and take a brisk morning dip.
Let me tell you about a book I recently read titled A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. In it, Dillard poetically recounts the days she spent in solitude in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwest Virginia, leisurely strolling through the hillsides and settling into the basic rhythms of the natural world. The book, which won the Pulitzer Prize, features sparse interaction with other humans. Instead, Dillard focuses on minutiae in nature that most people don’t notice because they’re so busy jumping from one thing to the next that they never stop to smell the cowshit, so to speak. Dillard, being a professional writer, has ample time to smell the cowshit. Take the following passage, for example:
The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price. If I thought he could teach me to find it and keep it forever I would stagger barefoot across a hundred deserts after any lunatic at all. But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise. I return from one walk knowing where the killdeer nests in the field by the creek and the hour the laurel blooms. I return from the same walk a day later scarcely knowing my name at all.
Scarcely knowing my name at all: Dillard’s setting is much different than mine, considering I’m landlocked here in the middle of a Great Southern City. Yet the sentiment is the same. I’ll walk to the grocery store on some days and notice the etchings on the sidewalk, know precisely which face will be working behind the counter (their names, I do not know, for I never ask). Other days, I’m at a loss. Nothing sticks. I’m floating so high in my own petty and muddled thoughts that, by the time I return home, I can’t remember a single detail from my stroll, even if I’ve been out for an hour or two. How to solve this problem? Meditation? Thought work? Should I take a cue from the great monks: that is to say, stop clinging to every stupid notion and instead let my consciousness flow like the Nile or the Mississippi: uncaring, undiscerning, at each moment different, at each moment new? I’ve tried this Eastern approach to existence, and I’ve found that I’m able to capture it in brief and glorious spurts. On good days, I can make it last an entire morning, or afternoon. But the ego, with its vices, hang-ups and opinions, always makes an unwelcome return. How I’d love to shrug it off for good, to live as a lilting ghost in the trees, to expand beyond my puny circuitry once and for all, to break out of the persistent prison of the I.
When I look into a mirror, I see so many things that others can’t see, could not possibly see. When others look in a mirror at themselves, the same is true: they see so much that cannot be sensed by me. How much of this deeper seeing is factual, and how much of it are simply false fictions that we’ve told ourselves over and over for so long that it feels as real as the person standing in front of the mirror?
Today I am taking a walk. I’m going to the bar to have one beer. I’m going to the bar to observe, to kick back and watch humanity, at its best and at its worst. I’m 25 years old. So much of the world is still available to me, but I fail to notice most of it, because I’m young and my sense of perspective hasn’t fully developed. In six years, I’ll be living in the country, in an entirely different state. I’ll be married, with a kid on the way, looking back on the life of that 25-year old, wondering who that person was, and how he became the person sitting here today, waiting like a saint for the moment he becomes a father.
How does time work on us? How does change actualize? We notice no difference in ourselves from one day to the next. Yet six years later, we’re different people. How can this be? The universe acts in grains of sand, in atoms, in millenia. To think that the human mind could grasp its inner workings, its utter mystery, is to underestimate how truly microscopic (beyond microscopic) we are in the grand landscape of unfathomable existence.
“How does time work on us? How does change actualize? We notice no difference in ourselves from one day to the next. Yet six years later, we’re different people. How can this be? The universe acts in grains of sand, in atoms, in millenia. To think that the human mind could grasp its inner workings, its utter mystery, is to underestimate how truly microscopic (beyond microscopic) we are in the grand landscape of unfathomable existence.”Andy Moon
This, I feel, is true, but today I am 25, and like I said, I’m going to the bar to drink a beer. I notice as I walk. Somebody has etched “DON’T METH WITH SETH” into the sidewalk. Across the street, a college-aged student sitting at a picnic table in a food truck court drops salsa onto his white shirt and shouts “FUCK” in a tone that echoes down the street. I try not to think about the fact that I am utterly alone, that I have to go back to work at the coffee shop in two days. I ponder about how great it would feel to be truly loved by someone, but recoil at the thought of being truly loved by someone, because what is in my soul other than hot trash and anger? What kind of angel could turn that filth into gold? No, I am not worthy of pure love, but one day — if I’m lucky — I may find it in spite of myself. Until then, I’ll stew in my angsty self-indulgent melodrama. I’ll write poetry, most of it awful, but a small portion of it valuable on some level. I’ll churn, I’ll thrash. To quote Bob Dylan: “Little boy lost/he takes himself so seriously/he brags of his misery/he likes to live dangerously.” That’s how I feel walking down this hot city street, sweat blotches on my white t-shirt. The dip in the icy pool I took earlier in the day has already worn off.
Who am I to think it’s OK to waste this much time? I could be doing something with life, but instead I’m making people coffee and scribbling in my notebook like a wannabe Bukowski without the talent. I am young enough to believe that I’m somehow special, somehow inherently important, but old enough to realize that this notion is merely a delusion of youth. Soon enough, through the creeping passage of time, I will understand my minisculity on a base level. And while this won’t keep me from writing, from creating, it will — by releasing the burden of false genius — allow me to direct energy to people and things beyond myself. I will become more selfless, more human, more flat.
But not today. Today, I will indulge, I will glow. At a stoplight, across the street from the bar, I watch a blackbird peck at a bag of trash that’s fallen into the middle of the road from a truck bed. Cars rush past him on either side, swerving this way and that, but the bird is unfazed. He just pecks and pecks, so overcome with lust for this glorious bag of trash that he’s totally unaware of the dangerous universe surrounding him. Maybe we’d all be better off if we were more like that bird. Or maybe it would kill us.
I’m sitting on the patio at the bar. I order a beer, which is always a crapshoot. Sometimes a beer makes me feel looser, freer. Other times it strangles up my mind. I’m halfway through this one. It’s a fruity, hoppy joint. The alcohol is sitting well. My muscles relax, my mental gates open. For a moment, I’m a deer. For a moment, I’m Dillard, watching the laurels bloom. The trash and anger in my gut has momentarily dissolved. I pull out a notebook and think of something else that Dillard wrote in Pilgrim: The wonder is — given the errant nature of freedom and the burgeoning of texture in time — the wonder is that all the forms are not monsters, that here is beauty at all, grace gratuitous, pennies found, like mockingbird’s free fall.
The existence of beauty is a strange gift, indeed. I understand this now. And I see beauty now, sitting across the patio with short strawberry blond hair and freckles on her nose. Maybe she’s 23, scrawling in a notebook, lost in her thoughts like a blackbird in trash. I wonder what she’s writing about, whether she’s registered my existence across the space that separates us. Night is descending, and one of the bartenders walks around the patio, lighting Tiki Torches as crickets chirp from surrounding vegetation. For a second, I have no ex-girlfriend; I’m floating, belly-up, in the pool; I’m walking around the city in a blissful stupor, scooping up found pennies all around me. In that second, I capture the light, before it fades away like a blackbird, garbage dangling from its mouth.
The existence of beauty is a strange gift, indeed. I understand this now.
At that moment, I write a poem. One of my less-shitty poems. I write it for ol’ freckle nose across the way. It’s called daydreams of a future that may never come to pass. In six years, I’ll read this poem from my house in the country and realize that maybe all of that time I thought I wasted in my 20s wasn’t wasted after all. Maybe the act of silent creation was worth it in some subtle way:
we could move to a
small fishing village in
new england, rent a studio
apartment by the sea and
read. i’ll work on a fishing
boat by day, and you can
open a coffee shop on main
street and serve americanos
to that nice older couple
that lives down the
street. in the evening
I’ll bring home the day’s
catch, and we’ll drink
wine, and read by firelight
as the sea whispers
like a ghost, like a hymn
outside our apartment
I’m not one to believe in vague portents, but after living through a year as awful as 2020, I’m not really sure what to believe anymore.
On the opposite end, there are the forgotten. The lottery nobody wants to win, but must be won by some. The unluckily lucky ones, the one-in-a-million that nobody wishes to be.
Jo never thought of himself as a river guy, per se, yet one morning he awoke in a canoe, floating down a body of water that clearly was a river.