It’s getting cooler each week, now into the 20’s or lower at night, with occasional snow flurries — the “old normal” for early December. After the workday, I sometimes manage to get in a brief walk in the evening. The house is sited on tranquil acreage among the eastern Blue Ridge Mountains. Normally I like to meander, but since I’m on unfamiliar land and my excursions are at dusk, I keep to the roughly-scraped dirt road.
The rugged path winds around to the back edge of the property where it affords access to a small river. Of course I found myself drawn toward its bank and the soothing hush of its gentle flow. The birds twitter as they settle in for the night. My walks have intersected with deer a few times, and once a skunk. The other evening I heard what I believe was a fox yipping. The owner said bear routinely visit the property but I’ve yet to come across any.
There’s a palpable quiet here as the winter arrives. Just the sound of errant oak leaves scraping the dirt as they tumble through the fields catches my attention. It’s all a delightful change from my usual city-centered sounds and routines. As the night approaches, the critters seem eager to hunker down before the chill. The warmth dissipates and the light fades quickly when nestled in a river valley within mountains. The scenes shape-shift even within my walk. The rhythmic rows of cropped corn stalks I enjoyed seeing on the way to the river become vague, mysterious expanses of space on my return; the lush copses of trees are transformed into impenetrable dense black green walls lining the road. Venus shined brightly a few occasions, and the later it is, the more stars emerge from incomprehensible distances.
Something about being in this setting obliges introspection. For a few months I’ve felt a bit adrift, assessing where I’m aiming to steer my life, where best to apply my energy, where art-making fits in, some general goals for the near future. I long ago accepted we only have limited control as we drift in life’s currents, but it seems to me we can occasionally steer our canoe and perhaps avoid the rocks or head toward a calm bay. I’ve often been most at peace helping others free their canoes from snags. Working alone day after day has always allotted me room to ponder life, but lately (my age? or the state of the world?—whatever that means!—or perhaps what’s written in the stars?) I really can’t say why, except that for some reason I feel a pull to put extra energy into contemplating my course a bit.
Like many, I lost a few family members and friends in the last couple of years, so maybe this is part of “working through grief.” That phrase sticks in my craw. It seems wrong to isolate “grief” as a process separated from “regular life” — I suspect it has to do with our culture’s unhealthy denialist viewpoint of the full circle of being and the reality of our momentary role within the experience of life. What we refer to as working through the passing of a loved one seems an essential “process” we ought to be engaged in constantly. Nothing is permanent, except our awareness of what we experience—and I no longer assume that awareness is individualized. Divisive as things may feel, in an era where insecurity urges us to define “us” and “others”, it’s obvious we’re all bound together. As Nick Cave put it recently in an interview with Krista Tippet, “loss is an essential binding agent among all humanity.”
There are all sorts of losses. Over Thanksgiving, I visited family and stayed with my younger sister who last year “lost” her beloved husband of 30 years (he was in many ways my soul brother). Among many endearing qualities this brilliant engineer and humble polymath was very connected to and regularly “conversed” with his fish. While I was there last week, one of his favorite fish took ill and died. It triggered understandably complex emotions for my sister and me. The fish have become a conspicuous link to this man we both loved.
As it happens, the owner of the house I’m repainting is in the thick of a divorce, again, after several marriages. (No judgment here—I’ve married and divorced.) Severing the connection one had vowed to uphold is rarely simple. I feel for him (and her). It’s satisfying my work seems to be bringing some new joy to the place they once shared, a vision that was lost. It’s challenging enough to aim one’s canoe in the same direction as another, more so to steer the same canoe with another. I greatly admire those who manage to achieve the latter.
We all have friends struggling with unique yet universal challenges. Sometimes this may manifest in changes to a familiar routine; expectations of a certain behavior may shift without warning. Despite efforts to be aware, I can still find myself caught up reacting and responding through my small-minded view of how another’s actions are affecting me. The wiser, more compassionate perspective is to consider first what may be happening in their life that prompted the changes. It may be trying, and even seem a contradiction, but in order to genuinely uphold and build trust and deep connections we often have to be open to letting go.
There are all sorts for degrees of hardship. Through my travels out of country, I’m in touch with some friends who work with orphaned kids in truly terrible, impoverished situations. Even though they never had much, these kids still have “lost” far more than most. With barely a foothold on any form of security, they face suffering and death daily, and directly. Yet incredibly, given just a bit of room to breathe and be, they still manage to reveal an inner, even joyful light. Perhaps it’s a trait essential for survival. Despite everything, they glow in the company of others who care—whether their young companions or those offering a helping hand—as if they intuitively grasp how potent and vital being seen and feeling connected with others is above all else.
After a few moments absorbing the soothing presence of the river, I head back to my current lodgings. Inevitably, I stumble as I make my way along the barely discernible path. The stars are out, but I plod forward ignorant of their potential directions… Slowly my eyes adjust and accept the soft light on the road, offered by the generous glow of the moon, itself reflecting the very distant sun. Everything we can know is intertwined and connected. Eventually I make my way. This quiet landscape and I are becoming familiar with each other; some of the hills and curves seem to guide my way. I’m uncertain what tomorrow will offer, but in the moment, I’m grateful to be here, temporarily, in a warm homestead tucked within these friendly mountains. A wonderful quote by a beautiful spirit resonates in my mind:
“We’re all just walking each other home.” ~ Ram Dass