I’m sitting at my desk watching the moon rise over the Berkshires, shivering in a flood of cold air pouring out of my cathedral ceiling that looked so airy and open when I rented the apartment in August. I’m wishing that I’d learned that wood-only heat was no more capable of giving me a spiritual life than a BMW was of giving me happiness back when I lived in North Carolina where it doesn’t get as cold in February as it already has up here. I have never been able to see around the corner until I get to it, and I sense that I’m approaching another corner. This time, at least, I’m not so sure that the next one will be the last one.
People who move into a house built in the last thirty years go through a process of denigrating the choices of former owners.
“I can’t imagine why anyone would choose this color tile,” they might say. (Or wallpaper, or paneling, or kitchen floor, or flowering shrub.) It’s a way of claiming the property — exorcising the energies of those who scrubbed the floor or watered the shrubs or turned on extra lamps to read in the panel-dark room in winter. No previous owner or tenant was ever clean enough, consistent in upkeep, or possessed of adequate taste.
On the contrary, those who purchase much older homes — the equivalent of antiques in the world of furniture — regard the builders and owners with reverence approaching Oriental ancestor worship.
Every bit of molding has its story. And modern couples (who may dine on Lean Cuisine and rely on a microwave) speak with nostalgia of cooking pots that swing in and out of the fireplace on an iron rod. Wintertime movers wait for spring to see what old-fashioned treasures will resurrect themselves in the garden. And unevenness — in rosy bricks or pine floorboards — is a mark of authenticity, not something to be corrected.
From people in 1920s houses with graceful French doors or country dwellers who gather pears and pecans, one hears, “They knew how to live,” the implication being that atmosphere can teach.
While the more current consumers — who nod to fashion with a trestle table and a grapevine wreath — seem to be saying, “We know what we like. We don’t need to look to the past or the future.”
Invariably, though, we invest a dwelling with our own hopes for our lives.
When I moved from a house to an apartment (pleasant, but different), a college-age daughter said, “Look at it as this year’s dorm room, Mom. Enjoy what you like about it, and what you don’t like — well, you know it’s not forever. It’s this year’s dorm room.”
Still, it has taken on a life of its own — with quilts and wind chimes, shamrocks and sage (the American Indian herb of blessing), candles at Christmas, familiar books.
I may hear the music of neighbors next door; I never sense “the ghost of tenants past.”
But sometimes, looking at the cliffs across the river at twilight, I imagine teepees in the distance.
And when I stand by the river, it is the stream of time.
All our dwellings are like the teepees, small and transient — but ours for a time — and connected, in echoing ways, to all who have gone before.
Little Rock, Arkansas
Whitney Valley. With the deer, cranes, geese, coyotes, toads, all the wildlife. With the highway a hundred yards from the house and the county road less than a hundred feet. Log trucks on the road, chainsaws on the hills. Elk bugling on the ridges for future generations. Western larch turning shades of lighter green and then yellow, dropping needles for fall. Wild meadow all around us and forests on the hills.
We tried to move to California. We needed electricity, running water, a better-insulated house, a warmer climate, some place where we could grow more than root crops and cabbage, a better job, higher wages, less physical labor for this aging man, cultural opportunities, music, plays, art, more contact with people.
We had a place lined up. Take care of the place and pay no rent. We thought they said a seventy-foot trailer and a smaller trailer, both against a deck. When we got there, the seventy-foot trailer was twenty-eight feet long. The smaller one was smaller. The deck was boards on the gravel. We agreed without hesitation; it wouldn’t work.
Laura and the girls stayed in California with her mother to check on jobs, rentals, caretaking positions. I came back to cut firewood, fix fence, earn some money.
Rentals down there are high. Jobs don’t pay well unless you’re high-tech or highly-educated, with credentials. The school district hassled Laura for not having the children in school, even though they were just visiting. The sprout business we thought of establishing required a state-approved kitchen, separate from living quarters, and we didn’t even have living quarters.
Few people smiled, made eye contact, had any time but for what they were busily about.
I said come back, at least until the wood-cutting season is done. When they got here, I said, “Nothing we need turned up down there, so why go back?”
The girls asked, “Does that mean we’re staying in Whitney?”
They cheered. They danced. They sang. They glowed. We almost didn’t need to light lamps that night. They didn’t like California.
The problems here are not fewer than they were. But we’re practicing gratitude for the blessings we have every day.
We don’t always need everything we want.
Whitney Valley, Oregon
Mostly where I am now is letting go of figuring out where I am now.
But I sure would like to know.
I lived in Horton, Kansas, where Dorothy lost her way to the storm cellar and ended up on her way to the Wizard of Oz. It was in Horton that, for the umpteenth time, I picked up Be Here Now by Ram Dass. For years I had only been able to read and re-read the first half of the book, never finishing it. The remainder was never palatable before I arrived in Horton. Soon, upon my refrigerator door, over the bathtub, on top of the stereo and next to my waterbed were two short questions inspired by Be Here Now. Those questions were, “Where are you?” and “What time is it?”
It worked like this. I’d go to the fridge for a beer and there’d be this little sign at eye level . . . “Where are you?” I’d answer, “Here.” “What time is it?” I’d answer, “Now.”
I was amazed at how that grounded me and made my legs tree trunks connecting earth and sky, a channel where energy flows. Surprising how my head’s perpetual preoccupations cleansed themselves in the current of that flow. I opened the fridge, reached for a beer and drank. I could enjoy it because I’d truly opened up for the moment. Ahhh!
It also worked like this. I’d come home from work. Fifteen hours in a Juvenile Court House, counseling as best I could, doubting as my cynicism had trained me, caring as I was inspired by my co-workers who gave and gave and gave. I felt guilty that I couldn’t give as much. I’d buy beer on the way home. I’d open some food cans and heat the contents and call it dinner — an excuse for drinking beer and smoking a joint.
I found the weight of caring too much for me. I thought I wasn’t “good” enough. I went to the doctor with debilitating pains in my lower back. The doctor gave me sedatives and muscle relaxers. On the pills, I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning and I realized I didn’t care. Miraculously, the back pains disappeared! After a week of this, I rolled over in bed late one morning and saw my little sign. “Where are you?” I answered, “On my way to work.” “What time is it?” After focusing with difficulty on the clock, I said, “Too late.”
But it was not too late although I was on my way all right — on my way down and out. I would say it was fortuitous that I left that work. Leaving was a result of realizing what little joy “here” brought me in my “now.” Since I couldn’t figure out another way to tackle the Juvenile Court House-six-pack-and-joint-a-day here and now, I moved on.
Where am I now? That Seventies question feels strange to me in this brave new world of post-1984. How important it all seemed a decade ago to be able to tell one another where we were, or where we were coming from, as we called it back then. Now the question has a darkness to it, like a built-in parody of something we used to think so important. Who now has the least bit of confidence that one can be the least bit defined or circumscribed? (And I render this observation without a trace of cynicism, if it should be suspected.)
Still, I’ll have a shot at it. . . . In time travel, I’m living in my forty-fourth year — a crisis year, my intuitions tell me, and have told me for a long time. In wisdom I am somewhere in my awful (or awesome) eighties; in my ignorance I am still a terrible two. In another territory (place instead of time), I live in rural West Virginia, yet am a man of cosmopolitan tastes equal to any phony New Yorker. In still another territory, the mind, I have never been more cunning in my life, and now that my cunningness has realized itself, never more innocent either. The more I know clearly, clearly the less I know, and I rapidly approach the day I’ll know enough to know nothing. I am both exhilarated and frightened to death of that day.
As I establish more self-center, everything in me and about me polarizes. My so-admired strength makes me begin to feel somewhat ludicrous about my glaring weaknesses. (They always glare at me, especially when I’m in the process of trying to hide them from others.) Yet I suspect more strongly all the time that my weaknesses (I mean my real weaknesses, not the ones I wittingly share with others) are the best part of me.
Paradoxes everywhere. Where I am now, I perhaps run the risk of oversimplifying everything into a paradox. I am never so happy as when I’m having a good cry, and the deeper it goes, the more profound my happiness. (Similarly, I’m never so sad as when I’m having a good laugh.) As my sex drive diminishes, I seem to have more and more sex appeal. My worry wrinkles make me handsome, and, at this rate, I should be one day the proud possessor of a quite good-looking corpse.
My pride breaks open into humility daily. The devil is quick to congratulate me on any fine performance, any compassionate act, any sparkling thought. (“Nice boy, Jim. Good boy. Fine boy. Aren’t you thoughtful of others, now. Aren’t you a clever one, too. Haven’t you worked hard to get where you are now. . . .”) The old guy gives me almost no room to enjoy myself; yet we have become oddly comfortable friends to each other, nonetheless. I guess I don’t take his nagging, or his praise, quite so seriously as I once did. We are more playful, though I worry sometimes that he might have a nasty streak that I underrate significantly. Still, the more room I give him to trick me, or nag me, or stroke my vanity, the less he seems to need to persist in it. He comes in, does his job, I thank him kindly, and he retires into a back room to wait until he feels needed again. He knows it won’t be long. In fact, he just this moment whispered in my ear what a fine analogy I was compiling here. (What a liar!) I laughed and gave him the high five, and now he’s gone again, looking for some more resistance, I presume. (I don’t think he’s my devil all to myself, although at times I have entertained the notion of a guardian dark angel, too.)
What I’m trying to say about where I am now is that I’m learning to cooperate with the old fellow. Sometimes he’ll sit with me for hours (I guess during slack times elsewhere) and I’ll listen as he goes over my good points for me, and then, let’s say, God will have just enough of it, blow in, kick his ass down into the cellar, and get me back in touch with what a shit I am. But then I’ll see that, let’s say, God is but the devil in another disguise (there is really no end to this trickery), and then I’ll realize that the original devil was really, let’s say, God in disguise, because God knew the only way God had to work with me was through my bad self-concept, and thus had to appear as the devil, you know, bad conscience or inflated self worth. . . . So as for God and the devil, now I’m sure that I’ll never know which is which, a suspicion, by the way, that the devil is suspiciously quick to applaud, but which makes God angry as hell.
So that’s a rough cut of where I am now. Sometimes I feel as fixed and as solid as the rock of Gibraltar, as wise as Socrates, and as compassionate as Jesus. A few hours later I’ve been totally dissolved. I don’t know anything about nothing. My life is one big mess.
(You see, my problem is that I’m quite a popular guy in my own sphere, but almost nobody really likes me.)
Petersburg, West Virginia