Chasing Windows

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

Sometimes I just want to see the world like I did that once.

“That once” wasn’t just one specific time. It’s all the times I’ve seen, really seen, the splendor of life right in front of me. I remember last winter: I had just lit a fire in the wood stove, and it was casting its amber glow. Rio was drawing, Annie was reading, and I was watching them. It occurred to me that I was witnessing clearly what I actually have in my life: a home, a family, health, love. There was no questing for more, no castigations of why not, no clouds of regret or self-doubt. No, I was watching a beautiful scene in a film unfold, and it was from my own life.

Ah, but how quickly it fades. Even though I have enjoyed almost 365 days since then with Annie and Rio in this very house, the number of times I’ve caught this same glimpse and really felt it in my bones seems paltry. I often think my own experiments with bending reality — I have a few tired tricks I use — are simply attempts to get me back to this blessed view.

Recently I was driving around a college town, worry on my mind. I was waiting for a light to change and saw two students smiling and laughing as they stood on the street corner. I recalled my own days in college towns, how much easier the world seemed to me then. I was more insecure, sure, but I had less weight on my back; there were days I could just fritter and float. As I drove off, I had the urge to return to those streets; to take the place of these young men and have a view of the world that was perhaps more naive but bright.

The most pristine vistas are the childhood ones, the ones I’m still trying to climb back into. The poet Coleman Barks describes “those two minutes at the end of the day when a golden light would fall across the floor. . . . I would lie down in it and hug myself. One time when I was doing that, I told my mother, ‘Mama, I’ve got that full feeling again.'” For me, such moments came when my grandfather and grandmother would drive my sister and me “down the lake” to the tiny fishing cottage they’d built there; as soon as we hit the gravel road I’d lean forward in my seat to get a glimpse of the water through the trees. When the lake finally appeared in slivers between birches I’d feel a joy I’m not sure I’ve ever relived, even though I still return to that lake every summer and relish it with as much gusto as I can muster.

One of the pleasures of having a child in one’s life is getting to re-experience some of this wonder. When we visit the same fishing cottage these days, I watch Rio’s face closely in the rear-view mirror to witness it register some of the same anticipation I felt as a boy. But it’s not his job to serve as a hope chest for my mislaid dreams. And I can’t be a kid again, just like I can’t return to that college town. But Rio gets me close; and there is some simple pleasure in nostalgia, that bittersweet proximity to experience that memory grants us.

Perhaps the best I can do is to be patient with the pace of beauty; to not fret that the spot at the window may only come to me now and again. And to not curse the ephemeral nature of joy but rather to say thank you for even experiencing it. Otherwise I’m relegated to a life hunting shadows.

The other night I took Stella for a walk down to the bridge after Rio and Annie went to sleep. The evening was unseasonably warm, and a faint orange marked the billowy clouds blanketing the sky overhead. The river was rushing high due to recent rain, and I could see the lights of our little town through the trees. Stella was off leash and smelling this and that, and suddenly I felt a swell of satisfaction, of just knowing that I love and am loved, that these wayward ingredients somehow make a feast. I called out to Stella and she came running, and I hugged that darn canine and inhaled her musky scent and felt a warm quiet rush of the unadorned goodness that life sometimes slips in my pocket.

Berries

Rio loves berries, especially when we’ve picked them ourselves. In Bynum, there are two such treats: the mulberries that grow above my neighbor Ollie’s storage shed, and the blackberries that burst forth in prickly bunches along the river.

We know that summer is coming by the appearance of mulberries. In tune with Southern manners, we always wait for an invitation from Ollie before we climb the ladder. Rio still doesn’t quite understand why we can’t just ask him: “I know he’d say yes, so what’s the point in waiting for him to bring it up?” It’s hard to explain the intricacies of grace.

But once we get Ollie’s offer, we climb the rickety ladder and balance on the shed’s narrow and slanted roof, filing our bowls and delighting in the fact that we’ve been quicker and wilier than the raccoons and birds. Rio likes mixing half-ripe berries with fully ripe ones — that interplay of tart and sweet.

About six weeks later the blackberries turn their deep-violet hue. To get to the blackberries, we must navigate the poison ivy that always seems to weave itself through its sweet counterpart’s vines, their leaves remarkably similar.We’ve braved thorns, chiggers, and itchy rashes in the pursuit of the perfect purple orb. We know about several patches down by the river, a few behind the old mill, and a couple along the road, set far enough back that most people probably don’t notice them. Rio and I tell no one about our secret troves, not even Annie — we’re the private tenders of a wild orchard. The only hiccup was the one time when the public weed-clearing tractor used its long claw to rip some of our most productive bushes off the side of the road just as they were reaching peak sweetness. A year later, Rio will sometimes say, “I’m still mad at that driver. Those. Weren’t. Weeds!”

There’s something supremely satisfying about picking and tasting something you’ve watched grow. During the winter, Rio and I will look at the bereft bushes and say, “It’s hard to imagine that in a few months there will be ripe fruit hanging from there.” Come July, it almost feels like we worked for that berry — all those days of patient vigil.

As a kid, I’d spend every summer along with my sister at our grandparents’ house in Connecticut, where they kept a huge garden. My grandfather would plant, tend, and pick; my grandmother would jar, freeze, and cook. I grew up eating ears of corn for dinner that my grandfather had picked that very morning.

My sister and I would help around the garden as much as we could; we both loved riding my grandfather’s lawnmower, and we would also be conscripted to pick two crops in particular: green beans and blueberries. I still remember one bean or berry going into my pail for every two that I put in my mouth. To me, there was nothing finer than a crisp green bean snapping between my teeth. For the blueberries, we’d have to contend with the wasps and yellow jackets that crowded in with us beneath the cotton netting my grandparents had placed over the rows of bushes to keep out the crows. All that bending and dodging in the humid summer heat made the berries even more delicious.

My grandfather died a few years ago at the age of 98, and my grandmother lives in a nursing home. I still visit their house, though, because my aunt and uncle now live there. The garden is gone; a neatly trimmed lawn stands in its place. But those tiny, exploding moments of joy are still in me.

The Pedestal

A good friend and I were talking recently about how easily we fall from serenity into the murky waters below. Although the mechanics of our descent are different, we both feel the same fundamental pain of having lost our golden spot.

So what to do? We agreed that once we slip off, a whole day can go by with us floundering in the backwaters. Often I try to cheat my way back to the pedestal — fill in quick fix here — swimming down channels that usually end up taking me farther from my goal. Don’t lifeguards say that when you get taken by a riptide not to try and swim your way out of it? But I’m not comfortable with my own drowning.

So I dream of a spiritual ammonia, something pure and simple, a quick dose under the nose and bam I’d be all right again.

There do exist some natural remedies I haven’t tried, or that I don’t use often enough. I liked yoga but am so naturally inflexible that it was like trying to bend steel. Thank God I decided that instead of trying to meditate I would instead sit in silence for a few minutes; a semantic distinction perhaps, but one that turned a failure into a regular practice. Sometimes I’ll simply rub my own heart in small circles and say, “Everything is OK, Tim” over and over.

I wish I used these simple strategies more frequently, but the truth is once I’ve fallen off the pedestal I usually thumb my nose at the sky and hope for a better day next sunrise.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s possible to de-pedestalize the pedestal itself. If I perceive it as a precarious high spot then I struggle to return once I’ve fallen from its throne; if on the other hand I see it as a small rock that I’m always just a step away from standing on, then I need not panic when my feet lose their grip. Rather than spend twelve hours drowning, then, I may instead see a day as a constant two-step on and off the rock.

From the front yard of our house in the country I can see a radio tower in the distance. When I first spotted its blinking red light, I cursed it as evidence of the inevitable encroachment of civilization. But I’ve learned to see the tower’s flashing beacon not as an annoyance but as a reminder that the chances to get back on the pedestal tick by incessantly. Off. On. Off. On. Occasionally when I’m lost I walk outside and look at the red pulse and think of my own heartbeat and say out loud, “Just try again. Now.” Sometimes, it sticks.

Animal Soul

I recently had some torrid one-night stands with my lower self — that petulant punk who thinks he is the center of the universe and deserves all he wants. It’s not that I wish to behead desire’s fiery skull; I’d prefer to transmute base urges into soulful ones. (Good luck with that!)

The truth is that what my inner brat says I want is not necessarily what I really want. It is often misinterpreted desire. When my brat says “stimulate” I usually need rest. When he says “alter consciousness” I really crave a simple adventure. When he says “obliterate” I in truth aspire to feel more deeply. It reminds me a little of the Seinfeld episode where George Costanza does the exact opposite of what his mind first tells him to do, and he marvels at the good fortune that unfolds in front of him.

The Sufis calls these desires “the nafs”: animal energies that naturally course through us. They don’t necessarily label these as bad, something the Western mind (and I) do quite readily. In fact, the poet Coleman Barks says, “Each stage of growth has its nafs which make one satisfied with his present state and inhibit further growth. Recognition of, and conflict with, those nafs leads to an opening, a new breathing, the next step.” In grappling with the nafs, then, we grow, which means they can be blessings, or at least catalysts.

But how to engage with the lower self in a present way? I can so easily lose myself in the rabbit hole that it’s hard to keep my feet on solid ground. Tangles with my animal soul tend to leave me spent, hungover, hanging by a fragile thread. The lows I experience afterward come not necessarily from the acts themselves, nor even guilt over them, but more from the morbid disappointment that I remain unfulfilled despite my gorging.

In contrast, when I meet my true desires, I find them quite easily fulfilled, a pleasure really: a kiss from Rio; an interesting conversation with a stranger; writing for a few minutes even if what I produce feels like the crudest sketchings.

Perhaps the best I can do is to increase the frequency of these serene moments and to embrace also the days I stray. I believe this is called being authentic. The only alternative is to split myself into two halves: the good me and the bad me. I’ve tried this and have been left holding only jagged shards.

No, I’d rather look for chunks of gold in the pits.