This is the first time I’ve seen wood on my front porch after months of snow and ice. The thaw begins.
In the mountains, spring cleaning is not merely a phrase. In order to create traction the roads are coated with sand, which of course mixes with the snow and becomes part of the coloration of one’s boots and automobile for the length of winter. I am always amazed at how my boots manage to discolor the trails around my house, despite the fact that I don’t think I spend much time walking on the roads or in parking lots; but I must, because I spread sand all over my life for months at a time: in my cabin, in stores I go to, houses I visit, I leave behind dirty little puddles. And that’s the least of it. This winter, I burned a cord of wood. That is a very moderate amount, all things considered; many of my neighbors, with larger houses, will burn seven or eight. But even a single cord of wood is about two tons. So two tons of material went through my house, armful by armful, and not only did I track in dirt each of those times, but the wood itself is hardly clean. Leaves and grass stick to it; sawdust has frozen onto it; bits of bark and tiny chips of wood flake off it. I harvest the bark off the wood once it’s indoors before burning it (bark makes a superior water-retentive weed-proof mulch, which saves me a great deal of labor watering and weeding), and bark removal is never an entirely clean operation. All this detritus ends up in the cabin.
It doesn’t just end up on the floor, which would make sense. A coating of dust gets on everything. How so much can accumulate never ceases to amaze me. I really don’t know where it all comes from. Every time I scoop the ash out of the wood stove, I know some becomes airborne, so that is a factor; the tracked-in dirt I have already mentioned must get into the air a bit too; we human beings are supposedly constantly shedding skin, and it is certainly true that we spend more hours indoors during the winter, so I guess that must be part of it; but it seems that no object not in constant use can make it to April without needing a serious dusting.
The best way to do this cleaning is to wait for a beautiful, warm spring day, and bring each object outside, and brush it off with a featherduster, letting it get a little sun, just to see what it looks like outdoors, and then bringing it back in and taking the next piece out. But I did my spring cleaning this year on the 19th of March, and spending much time outdoors was not a pleasant option. It was still cold – terribly cold, twenty degrees in the daytime and five degrees at night – when I did my spring cleaning. My schedule forced me.
On March 25th – old New Year’s Day – my bachelor life will end, and I will be getting married. After a brief honeymoon in the Smokies, my new wife and I will return to the cabin and start life together here. Of course there is no way of avoiding the fact that she will have to deal with the dust and imperfections of my life, but the best introduction to reality is a gradual one, and I thought I would try to clean up my act as much as I could before she arrived. So I went through old papers that had accumulated in the cabin, ran a duster over just about everything, sorted through seeds I had gathered but never planted in all these years (to the compost went the less desirable ones: maybe they’ll come up in my garden in future years), got on my hands and knees and scrubbed the floor, turned old rotted clothes into fuel or rags, and as always seems to be the case in winter, removed pounds of dust and dirt from the inside of the cabin and put it back outside to start the dust cycle all over again (the domestic Sisyphean equivalent of the “water cycle”).
When it was as clean as it was going to get, I snowshoed a bag of garbage and a bag of recycling out to the road, and then went back to get some things. I needed a lot of stuff: camping equipment for our honeymoon in the Smokies, plant ID guides for the same trip, formal attire for the wedding, clothes for a wide range of temperatures, a second pair of snowshoes so Catherine could get in to the cabin, when she arrived, things like that. On subsequent trips I also removed from the cabin some excess books and clothes and things, so that there would be room for her possessions, when she arrived with them.
When I returned for what I knew would be my last trip, I found myself suddenly overwhelmed with emotion. Some of it was the look of the cabin – I actually don’t like tidiness very much, it feels like a denial of process, it makes things look finished, as if there is no life going on. But of course it was much more than that. Cleaning is a ritual, and like all rituals it has meaning and symbolic power. It is an attempt to put an end to something, and to make room for something else. Now the cleaning was finished. But the tidiness was only a ritual tidiness. Things had been stuffed into drawers and swept discreetly out of sight. It looked a bit like a lie. We never get a truly clean start.
And of course I wasn’t looking for a clean start. I was looking for transformation. And I have no doubt it will come. Things do not remain the same. And I have long wanted change now – have known that it is necessary, and pushed for it. But now that I was stepping into the threshold, I could see what I was leaving behind.
Seven years – I had spent seven years alone at the cabin. During all that time I never really had a companion – no one ever shared my life in any substantive way. All I had were visitors, and they were few and far between. One of my male friends made a few trips up, and had a toothbrush in my toothbrush-cup, but I think that was only because he forgot it. I had spent a lot of time alone – a lot of time alone. Seven years – already it sounded mythical, already it was feeling less than real. For seven years, if I returned to the cabin and found something somewhere I hadn’t put it, it was because an animal had moved it, and I got so sensitive to where things were, I would always notice, and then go look for other signs of the animals. It was only me and them and God, though of course when you spend time in the wilderness, “me and them and God” becomes a kind of blur, a hendiatreis, where you become aware that you are saying only one thing, no matter how many “ands” you put in between its syllables.
Seven years alone. In such a time you become a kind of expert on being alone, in all its forms: aloneness, loneliness, solitude, solitariness, singleness, isolation, you name it. I am clearly capable of being alone, but I’m not, I don’t think, much of a loner. My greatest desire is always to share things. I have just been doing something that no one I knew wanted, or really could, share.
As I stood there in the cabin, the last things I needed in my pack, I started crying – I just couldn’t help myself – thinking of all the days and all the nights, the accumulation of all those experiences, the coming into being and now slipping away from me, of so much of what I call my life, here, in this one tiny little room on this one solitary mountain.
I don’t even know why we cry at such moments – I can only say that we do, and that when I do cry like that, I feel close to the mystery of being alive – the mystery of time, the mystery of feeling the river-water slip on past your fingers. We writers always want to catch this mystery, knowing that all the worthy successes in the field are here. How many times had I sat in this cabin, thrilled with some beauty, or dejected by some disappointment, and ached – ached – for someone to share it with. How many days had I shaped in perfect freedom here, doing as I wished, writing and thinking and observing, chopping wood and carrying water, dreaming at night and watching the sun rise in the morning. How I longed to know it all, to let no tree grow here without my knowing it well; how I longed that someday my children would learn the stars lying on this grass, which I had sown with my hands. How I longed that mine would not be the only life to know this place. I remember one night when out visiting friends I returned to my property and parked by the road to begin the quarter-mile walk across the stream to the cabin. I realized I had forgotten my flashlight. No matter: I knew the way in the dark. I had done it many times before. But as I trudged on in the blackness, I caught a glimpse of light up ahead of me. What was that? A star on the horizon? No, it was a light at my cabin. This was strange. Was someone there? As I got closer I saw it was a candle in the window – I had left it burning there by accident. And I realized it was the most animated, welcoming thing I had come home to in seven years. Every other time it had been merely dark and cold when I got home. The fact that I was aware of this – the fact that I experienced that moment in this way – meant that it was time for something different.
And now – now, something different begins. After the wedding, I will return to work at the nursery and Catherine will work in the garden, and so this life I have begun here will continue. But it will not be the same, I am sure. And so I cried there before the hearth I had designed, and the stove my father used to tend when I was a child, and knelt before it, overwhelmed by the sense of a God more inner than the inmost thing I could find inside me, and whom I had as yet not even begun to know, a God so near, but always slipping away, whenever we close our hands to keep.
Next time you are in the woods at a tiny little spring, stare into the first pool it forms and watch the leaves at the bottom of the water. If you watch long enough – at least here in the Catskills – you will start to see relatively large (just shy of an inch long) creatures moving around at the bottom of the pool. They are active all winter long, night and day (I see them more often at night). Even if you don’t see them at first, you can tell if they’re present because they cut roughly circular holes into leaves they find in the water. Such leaves with circular bites taken out of them are definitely the work of this animal. And then- mirabile dictu – this little animal attaches these circles of leaf-flesh onto its back, so it looks, to the eye, like a moving bit of leaf. The leaves they cut are, as far as I can tell, always about the same size – somewhere around a quarter to a third of an inch in diameter. In the fall one leaf covers the whole creature; by now I find they have encased themselves in multiple leaf-circles, typically three per animal. I see them wearing only beech leaves, which (as you can tell from the photo) rot more slowly than other leaves in the Catskill forest.
What are these little things? They attach the leaves to a hard, elongated three-angled casing, and look, inside the casing, like worms; I presume they are the larvae of some insect. I have only found them in small, cold pools, where presumably the insects lay their eggs; such locations are too tiny for fish, and too cold for frogs; but it is possible that these worms are found elsewhere. Their camouflage is so excellent that they could be quite common but we would never see them, unless we did what I must do: spend several minutes regularly staring at the bottom of little pools of water near springs, while waiting for my water-jugs to fill. I am always amazed at the little sacred bits of life around me, in every little place; and how dependent it all seems to be on so many other tiny variables, from the absence of predators to the presence of beech leaves. I’ve lived in this part of the world my whole life, but I’ve never heard anyone talking about these little creatures, and I don’t even know their name. (Click on any of the photos for a closer look).
We have thirty inches of snow on the ground – more at higher elevations – and moving around is still slow and difficult, but the thaw has begun. For weeks I’ve seen almost no animal tracks anywhere but right along the bed of the creek, where the snow is less deep. But even after a couple of days of light thaw, a good crust has formed on top of the snow, and last night for the first time I found rabbit and coyote tracks. Life is returning to the mountains.
I am always impressed at how long the thaw takes. Snow is nature’s reservoir system, holding back water for months in the mountains and releasing it slowly back to the ocean. The top layer melts but refreezes in the snow directly beneath; the snow in the sun melts but refreezes in the shade; at night all of it refreezes. Once a drop of water makes it to the creek it moves quickly down to the Delaware and out to the ocean at Cape May. But it takes a long time for a drop of water on my property to make it that first mile down to the creek below.
One of the defining characteristics of ancient Rome’s late Republic was the saturation of domestic politics with international politics. It began with Roman tribunes such as Lucius Apuleius Saturninus and Marcus Livius Drusus representing – whether out of principle or profit at this distance in time is hard to say – the interests not of Roman citizens (as the tribunes were supposed to do), but the Italian allies of Rome, who did not have citizenship rights. (The assassination of Drusus touched off the Roman Social War). Because Rome was so powerful, any interest group in the whole Mediterranean found it worthwhile to curry favor in Rome, and Roman politicians looking to make a name for themselves were the ones most likely to take up the cause. Cicero himself got his start defending the interests of Sicilians, who were not citizens. When Jugurtha visited Rome to enlist support for his claim to the throne of Numidia, he called Rome “a city for sale, doomed the day it finds a buyer” (urbem venalem et mature perituram si emptorem invenerit).” Ptolemy the Piper funneled cash into Rome for decades buying up politicians, as did his daughter, Cleopatra. The thrones of Numidia and Egypt – and everywhere else – became issues of partisan contention in Roman politics, divided along party lines.
All of this is just an oblique way of commenting on how clearly the same phenomenon is occurring in American politics today. Our relations with Iran, or Israel, are turning into national, domestic issues, and national politicians are taking stands along partisan lines on international issues. This has been going on for awhile, but it is fundamentally corrosive and it appears to be getting worse. Outside issues, and outside money, become intensifiers in national partisan battles. It is fundamentally decadent because it is a disjuncture between a source of power and the arena in which it is wielded: a man can get elected in Arkansas because his family has been important in the hog business for decades, but then his greatest power might be steering the future of Iraq, or Syria, or Israel, or Iran. The chances that this will work out well is very slim.
Despite the clickbait title about the Pope’s bedroom, this is a fine, thoughtful essay about Ian Caldwell’s research into the intellectual life of the Catholic Church and in particular the lives of married priests. Caldwell researched the topic with his customary thoroughness for his new novel, The Fifth Gospel. I did the Latin for the book.
Caldwell points out what I can second, that priests are not taught to be blind when it comes to problems with the Bible. Anyone who has read Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason knows that the scriptures cannot be read literally – not even the math in the Book of Numbers is accurate – and the Church has never put its faith in books. (Its faith in the papacy, and its faith in what it (in full travesty-mode) calls “the economy of salvation” – its own power to grant salvation, even if necessary to sell it for cash, is another problem).
The Summa Theologica doesn’t have that many odd and charming moments, but certainly one of them is when Aquinas – taking a break from questions like “Whether There is Only One Aeviternity”, “Whether Goodness Has the Aspect of a Final Cause”, and “Whether the Separated Soul Understands Separate Substances” – decides to tackle the question, “Whether Pain and Sorrow Can Be Assuaged By Sleep and Baths.” At last, relevance in a philosopher. He begins, as always, with the plausibility of his opponents’ position:
“It would seem that sleep and baths do not assuage sorrow. For sorrow is in the soul, whereas sleep and baths regard the body. Therefore, they do not conduce to the assuaging of sorrow.”
Which, since Aquinas begins with it, we know must be incorrect. And he refutes it, contending instead that sorrow is a kind of disorder in the body’s motion and circulation, and pleasures, by having a good effect on the heart, dispel sorrow:
I answer that sorrow, by reason of its specific nature, is repugnant to the vital movement of the body. And consequently, whatever restores the bodily nature to its due state of vital movement, is opposed to sorrow and assuages it. Moreover, such remedies, from the very fact that they bring nature back to its normal state, are causes of pleasure, for this is precisely in what pleasure consists… Therefore since every pleasure assuages sorrow, sorrow is assuaged by suchlike bodily remedies.
He was the doctor angelicus indeed, I thought as I looked at my toes in the bath at the Lord Baltimore Hotel. I leaned over and took a sip of Bluecoat gin, which I had picked up at the Philadelphia Distilling Company on my way down I-95 a few days earlier – more on the gin later – and I looked at my watch. I had been in the tub forty-five minutes. This wasn’t the worst way to spend a Sunday evening. I could feel the blues dissolving from my body, becoming just a faint blue-green tint in the deep hot water. Lava me, Domine, ab omni iniquitate mea.
It’s the extremes I like: sometimes I think I can’t feel anything without them. The previous time I had tried to take a shower in my cabin I had to wash my hair with soap because I had left the shampoo in my bathroom overnight (where it had frozen solid). When it gets very cold at my cabin, there’s no way to keep the bathroom warm at night. The bathroom was added after the rest of the cabin was built, and was not built to the same standards (in particular it lacks insulation). I didn’t really mind: I just appreciated a little bit more how effective shampoo really is at making hair feel nice. But I will admit that this winter has seemed a bit more vexing, for some reason or other, than many others. I had hoped to work at the local maple syrup farm, but they hadn’t wanted me back; I had just about starved myself through the winter to make my money stretch and give me time to write; time to write just meant staring at the inside of my brain-case for long winter stretches; my generator became the latest addition to the long list of mechanical things in my life that didn’t really work anymore and probably needed to be replaced. Most nights in the winter, I had read and written by candlelight, and I could feel the strain in my eyes. And it had been cold and snowy, and lonely. So how in the world did I end up at the Lord Baltimore hotel on a Sunday night, hundreds of miles from my cabin, hundreds of miles away from my truck, working my way through a glass of fancy gin?
Earlier that day I was in a car with four other New York Latinists, riding through what was becoming a terrible winter storm. Temperatures had been in the single digits the night before – highly unusual for Maryland – but warmer, wet coastal air was filtering in. The storm had begun as snow. Now it was raining, but the rain was hitting the frozen ground and freezing. We saw a car ahead of us begin skidding, then go right off the road, down into the median, and eventually come to a halt up against the guard rail. It would probably have to be towed out. We saw six more cars which had similarly skidded off the road and were now abandoned. One was also upside down. The atmosphere in the car was tense and stressful. It was obvious that we could die at any moment, and for no particularly good reason: we all wanted to get home within the next few hours, but none of us were willing to risk our lives for so meager a goal. But even so, stopping on the side of the highway, while it might have been safest, was wildly inconvenient. We were going to make it to some reasonable destination, even if that meant some danger.
Baltimore ended up being that reasonable destination, and in particular, Baltimore’s Penn Station. There we ate lunch and discussed our alternatives. There were winter storm warnings up the entire East Coast. We were not going to drive out of this storm: in fact it would probably worsen as we drove north. Driving was not safe but the car was going to have to get back to New York somehow. Everyone had to be back at work the next day except for me. So I suggested what seemed the most rational: I would stay with the car in Baltimore, either with a friend or at a hotel, and everyone else could get on the next train for New York. Then Jason, one of our number, found a last-minute deal for me at the Lord Baltimore Hotel: a corner room, with commanding views and a king-sized bed, for $75. And it had a bathtub. Just then I got a text from a friend who I thought might put me up. The roads are bad, she said. Stay at a hotel, we really can’t even come to get you. The decision was made.
So everyone else got on the train, while I took my bag out of the car and walked along Charles Street into the center of Baltimore. It was raining in just about the most gloomy way imaginable. Raining and then freezing on the ground. I knew only three things about Baltimore, but I was able to use one immediately: “Wow. Baltimore really was a good place for Edgar Allan Poe to die.”
There’s a motif in the travel writing of Paul Theroux – who is a very entertaining travel writer, by the way – which goes like this: someone tells Theroux, “Oh, don’t go to town x. It’s boring, awful. Go to y instead.” Theroux then buys a ticket for town x – utterly disregarding the advice he had been given – and finds it completely nice. How does this relate to Baltimore? Well, I knew three things about Baltimore: 1) Poe died there, randomly, no one knew why he was there, they found him in a gutter and they stuffed him into a grave and that was the end of Edgar Allan Poe 2) there’s like three nice blocks by the harbor, go there, there’s an aquarium and a baseball stadium 3) otherwise don’t visit Baltimore, it’s like The Wire everywhere, people sit out on old couches in the middle of housing projects in the dead of winter selling drugs to each other all day. So now I was walking along Charles Street – I had never heard of this street – and on both sides was the University of Baltimore. I had never heard of the University of Baltimore. But it was pretty nice. Cute undergraduates in knit caps were walking around, and it didn’t look anything at all like The Wire.
The street was climbing a hill, and something looking like Trafalgar Square appeared to be at the top of the hill. Was this possible? Maybe it was just the mistiness and raininess and miserableness and an incipient fever, but in the misty horribleness I saw a vision of Lord Nelson standing on a very big pillar. And then I got to the top of the hill, and it wasn’t Lord Nelson, but George Washington. And it was a lot smaller than Trafalgar Square, but actually a lot nicer and I wasn’t terrified of getting squished by a lorry. No pigeons either. Maybe it was just the wretched weather. I wouldn’t think it would be very good for a pigeon to let ice cover their wings. There was an equestrian statue of another Revolutionary chap, whose first and last names I have forgotten but his middle name was Eager. All over this statue were dripping icicles, and I felt it made for a dramatic image, but I had forgotten my camera.
There were some fine buildings all around the area, which looked pretty in a London terrible-weather kind of way. I walked past one and on its doors it said, “Open and Free to All.” I said to myself, “This is the place for me then.” It was the Walters Art Museum. But I said to myself: first let me go find my hotel and drop my bag off at least. (Why did I think I needed my unabridged Latin dictionary and a computer and a bottle of gin for a single night in a hotel? Two of the heavy three would have gotten me through the night, I think.)
I was passed as I walked by a older man riding one of those old-person carts. My father always wanted one of those, so I always think of him when I see them. This man told me, apropos of nothing, that he was rushing to feed the birds, he was worried about them, he was late and in this weather they couldn’t find anything to eat. So I guess there were pigeons around here. He sped on ahead of me.
So I got to the hotel, checked in, and went to my room. Actually, it was more complicated than that, because of course they didn’t have my booking, and then matching the rate ended up being tricky, etc., but that is just the story of my life – nothing electrical or mechanical ever seems to quite work. I got to my room eventually. Next to my room was a poster, which read, “Google Image Search ‘Baltimore The Wire.’” It featured, I presume, the top images from such a Google search. And there were those drug dealers, dealing drugs all day to each other on that couch in the projects.
Once in my room, I looked up the Walters Art Museum, and found out it was closed Mondays and Tuesdays. This meant I had to go now. So back out I went, into the atrocious weather.
It really was atrocious. Since the precipitation was still falling, the sidewalks were not clear, and I saw two people fall on the pavement. I went as quickly as I could, given the circumstances, and got to the museum by four-thirty. The welcoming sign I had passed by earlier reflected the nature of the institution: no ticket required, no button, no sticker, I just walked in and the guard smiled at me as I went by. I was in a luscious marble courtyard, covered over with glass and lined with marble and bronze statues. I had a half hour. I could go left, straight, or right. I went left, despite the unpromising name, into the “Dutch Cabinet Rooms.”
I was afraid this was going to be like those rooms at the Met which seem to contain nothing but dressers. “The Harry B. and Jennifer G. Rubinstein Dressers Wing.” I had a vision of rows of Dutch cabinets, lined up in their woody massiveness, in rooms so valueless and boring they didn’t even need security guards. The first room was kind of like that; and then, as it so happened, I stepped the most interesting room in the United States.
It was a long room, perhaps sixty feet long, and a shade over twenty wide; and it was chock-full of things, composed with great art but accepting none of today’s standard museum categories, like the mansion of some half-mad 19th-century melancholic nobleman. In fact it was straight out of Poe: could have been put together with Poe in mind, in fact. 16th and 17th century paintings everywhere, portraits, landscapes, historical paintings, of Constantine at the Milvian Bridge, of Saint Francis receiving the stigmata; and then all kinds of curiosities, a stuffed alligator, sand dollars used as medallions, fossilized fish, a “theater of insects,” African masks, a statue of Buddha, the upper jaw of a walrus; on the walls were ludicrous and fascinating and terrifying juxtapositions, a madonna and child next to a massive moosehead trophy, a stuffed turkey sitting atop a cabinet of Mesoamerican phallic statues, a Boschlike Last Judgement suspended above a mummified Egyptian child. The Bosch painting – I believe not a real Bosch, but by a follower (the room lacked labels, and the plastic cards in the corners were incomplete) – was one of the most fascinating in the room, and in general, the paintings seemed to be selected for interest rather than beauty. In the painting weird anthropoid frogs and insects and wolves alternately tortured and served the humans left on earth, and angels and devils battled over each individual human body. Nearby was a painting of the Vision of Saint Anthony, terrifying for its combination of apocalyptic hatred and quotidian life in a little Dutch mill-village.
But everything in the room was weird and interesting. There were cicadas with seven-inch wingspans. A stretched skin of a flying squirrel. Very large pufferfish. A cabinet of tiny sculptures called “the Hapsburg Curiosities.” An alligator skull decorated with porcupine quills. A leopard skin over the window. A model of a 1625 perpetual motion machine. Busts, sculptures, anatomical models of the human body, monkey skulls, shark jaws, even boring objects like coins looked weird and interesting in this context. Indeed, everything gained from the startling juxtaposition. All our lives we’ve seen art against a backdrop of white or gray sheetrock, as if fresh from Home Depot. This was a new way to look at objects.
The guard came up to me and told me the Museum was closing, but I vowed to come back. I hadn’t gotten out of the second room.
I returned to the miserable icestorm and walked to a large nearby church, where I saw mass being performed by a cardinal in America’s oldest cathedral. When mass was finished I went to a nice pizza place and had a perfectly satisfactory pizza – getting one sized for two people and eating it all. As the last of it went down I began thinking to myself that it was about time to get back to the hotel. Mass, dinner, a long hot bath and an even longer night of sleep: maybe I should write a devotional book dedicated to St. Thomas. This was a Christianity we all could get along with. I could call it the Imitatio Thomae. Thomas was notoriously so fat they couldn’t get him out of his bedroom when he died, so they buried him there (okay this might be apocryphal but everyone agrees he was large).
By the time I got back to the hotel, my coat was wet, my pants were wet, and my hat had become a cold wet sponge. It felt great to get to my room, take off my wet boots and clothes, and turn the tap and run the bath. But then I thought: this could be improved. I picked up the phone and called down to the front desk.
“Hi there. Do you have any bubblebath?”
The woman at the desk chuckled. “Bubblebath? No, I’m afraid we don’t.”
Sigh. What was a Lord Baltimore Hotel without bubblebath? What would Aquinas think?
“The best thing I could recommend,” she continued, “is there’s a Duane Reade two blocks down.” I got the address from her and thanked her.
I looked at my wet coat and boots and my cold sponge hat. I didn’t want to go out. But I hadn’t had a bubblebath in – how long? Ten years? Fifteen years? I couldn’t remember. I didn’t get many chances. I put on my boots and coat and went out.
It was dark now. It wasn’t two blocks, it was three, but really even within one block the neighborhood seemed to change. The crowds had left the streets; every business was closed, there were no lights but the devilish orange streetlights, and the atmosphere was palpably frightful. This truly was gloom: the weather was cold, dark, slippery, inhospitable and awful, everything wet and everything freezing. Yet in overhang after overhang, black men – no women – stood alone in the darkness. Many of them – most of them – were wearing garbage bags for winter coats.
I arrived at Duane Reade, but it was closed. I took another block home in order to take a circular route back, and actually found a Walgreens by doing this, but it was closed too. But really I was thinking of how many homeless men – or what else were they? – were on the streets.
One of my earliest memories is the time I first saw a homeless man. I must have been three or four, and my mother was taking me into the city (I grew up in Queens). We got onto a crowded F train, and every seat was taken except two which were next to a large homeless black man. His eyes were closed and he was moaning oddly. I can remember the white grizzle against his dark brown face, and the way his legs were spread revealing all the stains in the crotch of his green pants. He smelled like stale urine.
We were standing right over the untaken seats. I asked my mom, with my child’s inability to discreetly handle something incomprehensible, why no one was sitting next to that man. I don’t remember her answering me at all satisfactorily, and I determined I was going to sit, if no one else was. So I began climbing up into the seat when an older black woman leaned forward and touched me, saying, in a sweet voice I have not forgotten more than thirty-five years later, “Oh no, honey, don’t sit there, he’s sick. Don’t sit there honey.” To this day, the feeling of incomprehension I felt while there has never left me. If we really stopped and thought about how horrible it is that some human beings are buying hundred-thousand dollar dresses and their fifteenth mansion and have forty cars, while others are living under bridges, pushing around shopping carts filled with trash, and wearing garbage bags to keep off the rain on winter nights, I don’t think we could endure our country for a single day. I’ve lived with it in my face my whole life, and I’ve never grown hardened to it.
Waiting for the elevator in the hotel I sighed. My trip through the streets had changed my thoughts. The hotel seemed lonely now, even ghostly. Of course like all these old hotels someone out there thinks the place is haunted. UFO Digest (don’t ask) offered the following bits of paranormality from the hotel’s 1921 Guest Book:
I came to stay two weeks. I never left. It was fascinating. It was exciting. – Rose Bisasky
Dear Folks, We’re having a big time. I’m not tired at all now. We were surely dead the first of the week, though – from postcard depicting the Lord Baltimore hotel, dated April 3, 1921.
We never asked (for guests to limit their stay to 5 days) in the old days. Or if we did, it was because we hoped the answer would be that they intended to stay forever. – Sanford Core, Assistant Manager in charge of reservations.
I didn’t see any ghosts; just images of the men out on the streets wearing garbage bags that night while the rain froze on the grave of Poe and the billion-dollar ballfield at Camden Yards.
And there I was, back in my room, with no bubble bath in hand. I put some shampoo in the tub while it was filling, but all it did was make the water slick. It wasn’t meant to be.
But I did have my Lewis and Short with me, and while the water was running I took some time to solidify my grasp on some Latin words I had learned over the weekend. A cos – plural cotes – is a whetstone. A canthus is a tire (while an acanthus is a plant). I also poured myself a glass of gin.
Ah, that gin! There was another story. Later this week the Catskill Native Plant Society is hosting a lecture about the botanists John and William Bartram, and as part of the event we planned to mix up some “health tonicks” using a recipe written in William Bartram’s hand which was found just a few years ago on a piece of paper in one of his books. To do this we needed a bottle of the botanical mixture, which was brewed up for Bartram’s Gardens by the Philadelphia Distilling Company. So I stopped off at the distillery on the way down to the Biduum, and managed to get a tour of the facility as well as engage in botanical talk with the chief distiller there (who had a beard just as good and long as you might have guessed). He was looking for a good source of berries from a certain prunus species, but as the plant is not a native I didn’t have any leads for him. But we had a good chat about Bartram’s Bitters, their Bluecoat Gin, and their Absinthe, which I got to sample and which was superb. I picked up a bottle of gin (which was cheaper than the Absinthe), and I have to say I did enjoy it: it had a smooth but woodsy flavor not at all like the rocket-fuel stuff my father used to drink. Gin, I learned, is really a vodka, infused primarily with Juniper.
So in the tub I went, to soak away the bad thoughts. Almost forty now, and most of what I’ve done on earth is teach people, plant things, and learn stuff. It’s not the worst way to spend one’s time, but then I walk down a street in Baltimore and I feel this burning inside, that I’ve done nothing, that too much of my life is this Imitatio Thomae, thinking and reasoning and writing it down, and not enough Imitatio Christi. But tonight I would just be who I was. I wanted to review that Thomas passage – I wanted to send it to the person curating the readings for our next Latin immersion week. I opened the passage on my computer. Then I put some Sibelius on – those transcendent opening bars of the Sixth – and just soaked myself in it all. It had been a long, cold winter, but I promised myself, after a good soak and a good sleep, that I’d be ready for spring, I’d work, I’d try to be better. And that for tonight I would just revel in the pleasure that the past seven years without running water or easily available electricity have prepared for me. For a long time I had lived without much of anything being abundant or easy to get. And the result was that it all felt precious.
A piece I wrote for the Catskill Native Plant Society on cold stratifying seed.
I think it was last year, at Rusticatio Virginiana, when I really felt that something was happening with the Classics. Something felt different: for so long, Classics had felt for me like a lone pursuit, and, fundamentally, a struggle: a struggle to learn, a struggle to teach, a struggle to find books and materials for, a struggle to get students, a struggle to light a fire in their minds, a struggle to convince other people I wasn’t crazy for bothering with it at all. The feel of it all had been changing for a few years now, but it was last year, as we enjoyed some unusually mild summer weather at Claymont, the magnificent dilapidated old mansion that Rusticatio calls home, that, watching some young Latin teachers play wiffleball in Latin, I had the feeling that the vision which had been in my mind for so many years, really since first going to Rome in 1995, of a life of the mind which blended purpose and passion, enjoyment and rigor, the wisdom of the past with a fundamental openness to the oneness of all experience – was not just inside me anymore. I was surrounded by people who lived that way. It wasn’t just a dream: it was a community I was part of.
It is not my purpose here to trace how this community came into being, from Reginald Foster’s classroom in Rome to the work of Nancy Llewellyn and Terence Tunberg and many others, but one way or another their efforts seem to be prospering now, in a way which I find stirring every time I am immersed in it, and this past weekend offered the largest event of this sort I have ever been part of, the Paideia Institute’s Living Latin in New York Conference.
Humanities professors are not the place I typically go to for uplifting news: generally, what you hear about are shrinking budgets, diminishing respect, lowering standards, vanishing jobs, and embattled programs. But at this event, the news seemed to all be good, and coming from all different quarters. The Paideia Institute, the gleaming new pro-Classics not-for-profit founded by Jason Pedicone and Eric Hewett, has in just a few years of existence conjured up a whole host of programs, each one more exciting than the other: a Living Latin in Rome program where students don’t just read Pliny’s account of the eruption of Vesuvius – they read it standing on top of Vesuvius. A living Greek in Greece program where participants speak ancient Greek in a garden in Achaea right on the wine-dark sea. A new Living Greek Drama in Greece program to come next year, where students will read and perform a Greek play in ancient Greek – and perform it in an ancient theater in Greece. Plus two programs in France (Caesar in Gaul and Medieval Latin in Paris), Classics-themed tours for schools, Classics tutoring in Bushwick, materials for homeschoolers and internet tutoring, and conferences and events here in New York City. And of course the NYC conference, which turned into a clearing-house for a whole host of different people whose study of the Classics was real studium – a zeal that transcended mere study.
Terence Tunberg and Milena Minkova from the University of Kentucky, who were special guest speakers at the event, also reported nothing but growth in their living Latin programs – Kentucky is the only major public university in America where Latin is a language of instruction for multiple courses – and in their “Conventicula,” summer programs which have been one of the primary vehicles for promoting excellence and fluency in Latin in America. Tunberg also gave an address, in Latin, on Erasmus, and his methods and the reasons why they were still profoundly useful to us today (he also gave us, just for fun, Erasmus’s priceless line, “Si scripsissem idiotis, scripsissem Germanice, non Latine” (“if I had intended to write for the unlearned, I would have written in German, not Latin”).
Nancy Llewellyn of Wyoming Catholic College also had nothing but good news: SALVI (the Septentrionalis Americae Latinitatis Vivae Institutum, or North American Institute of Living Latin Studies), which she founded, continues to expand its reach: this year it will be offering four separate week-long Latin programs in places around the country (including the Getty Villa), as well as “Bidua”, weekend-long immersion programs. She has been asked to come to South Africa to bring the method to Latin students there. Wyoming Catholic College has managed to turn Lander, Wyoming, into a hotbed of Latin speakers, a statement which ten years ago would have been met with disbelief (actually, even now that statement will be met with disbelief, but it is nevertheless true). She gave a lecture in Latin on the peerless unicorn tapestries of Cluny in Paris, contending that they offered a vision of love that was inherently synthesizing the body and sensuality rather than renouncing it – which was, I felt, an apt image for a new Classics as well.
Daniel Gallagher, an American working in the Vatican State Department, gave a lecture at the conference on Vatican Latin and its various forms: from Encyclicals, which are translated from the vernacular and for doctrinal reasons stay close to the wording of the Pope, to Vatican diplomatic documents, which are still composed in Latin and represent a continuous tradition of juridical and political Latin going back to the Roman Empire (even some of the phrasing has remained unchanged in all that time). He also spoke about the difficulties of writing papal tweets, and looking for Biblical or Patristic ways of phrasing, in Latin, the pope’s spiritual one-liners. They start with his text, try to fit it into established Ecclesiastical Latin, and send it back to the pope for final edits. The pope’s Latin tweets now reach more than 300,000 people. The audience was spellbound, as audiences often are by the Vatican, which, despite all its problems, for longevity and reach is still probably the most successful institution the world has ever seen.
Luigi Miraglia, generally (and justly) regarded as the single greatest Latinist alive, came to the conference from Italy. His life is like something out of a legend (forgive me if I get a few details wrong, as he was speaking in Latin, and very quickly): as a teenager he made the acquaintance of an old man living alone on an island in the Bay of Naples, a former Jesuit, who he recognized as extraordinary: he eventually came to the island to live, and spent nine years there with him, speaking only Latin and Greek. For the rest of his life he has tried to recreate this experience for other people in various forms, including some spectacular failures which have reduced him to bankruptcy, but he has never stopped reading and learning and living Greek and Latin literature, so much so that we may as well just say that he has read it all – certainly more than any other person alive. His new school, the Vivarium Novum, which already produces the best-trained Classicists in the world, has apparently just found new digs in a spectacular old villa not far from Rome, where the plan is to recreate the Renaissance ideal in both form and substance. Seeing his promotional video, and the beauty of the place, it was hard not be mesmerized by it – and to be happy that it would be used for such a purpose, as opposed to hosting Bunga-bunga parties for some hedge-fund managers who like to fly to their villa in Italy for a weekend or two every summer (which is, in general, what the modern world seems to use nice houses for). Miraglia gave additional classes on his work recreating the experience of ancient poetry by adding the music back into it, which has produced some useful results.
Christophe Rico, who taught eight classes (all conducted in ancient Greek) over the weekend while also giving a lecture (whose preface was in ancient Greek), was, among all the other assembled talent at the conference, probably the talk of the whole place. He was the first person almost any of us had heard speaking ancient Greek ever – ever – despite the fact that many of us had been in ancient Greek classes for twenty years or more. And it was he, really more than anyone, who made me feel like a movement was happening, rather than just a few scattered odd programs in a few places, because he so clearly shared so many of the same intellectual presuppositions, though I had never heard of him and I believe he was operating independently of everyone else. Rico’s Greek classes (you can take a look here for a glimpse – there he is, pattering away in ancient Greek with what look like American undergraduates!) closely resembled Nancy Llewellyn’s Latin classes, which were completely revolutionary when she first did them, though like most revolutions the idea behind it was simple and almost obvious, namely, in this case, that Latin is a language, and hence methods which were useful for learning other languages were useful for learning Latin also. I don’t know if Rico had any actual contact with Nancy – in fact I don’t think he did – but he ran his classes the same way, because, he said, “these are the methods that work.” The method he used for beginners is called “Total Physical Response,” or TPR, which involves physical response to commands, part of the theory being that the body must be involved in language acquisition. He was an exceptionally gifted TPR teacher, and though I knew well that TPR methods work, I had imagined it would be just about impossible to learn Greek well enough to ever use them myself. Rico’s Greek was amazing, and I think I learned more Greek in thirty minutes in his class than I would have learned in a whole semester of Greek at any college in America. And he was the director of an entire institute in Jerusalem dedicated to the wisdom culture of the Western world, whose mission was to reacquaint the Western world with its own traditions by offering people in-depth experiences of the ancient languages of the West: Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. His was the only institution in Jerusalem (a city which he saw as a living symbol of both the problems and possibilities offered by these traditions), to offer access to these traditions, as he put it, “outside of a confessional context,” i.e. without a religious presumption of which tradition was best. And he seemed to be uniquely suited for such work, as he showed himself to be a consummate teacher, not projecting his own agenda onto students, but simply meeting them wherever they were in their quest for knowledge and helping them forward from that point.
All of it was exciting, and it all seemed to be similar in spirit: a deployment of the resources of the modern world to engage with what before had been merely texts in a far fuller, more completely human way, mind, body, and spirit, and not only because it was more enjoyable to engage in that deeper, fuller way, but also with a desire that the study bear fruit not only for the mind but for the body and spirit as well. And a community, scattered throughout the world but with real common interests and real mutual affection, seems to be growing and occupying this happy space. (For more information about it take a look at the Tony Grafton article just recently in The Nation.)
In my previous essay about Cheryl Strayed’s excellent book Wild, I took as my theme the nature of the experience Strayed had, a truly transformational one which ultimately changed her perspective on almost all the issues of importance. Tranformation of perspective like this is called in Greek metanoia, a wonderful word which implies both alteration (meta) and transcendence (meta) of the way we think (noia, from noeo, to think). The word is used as the one-word slogan of Jesus’s ministry: “Metanoiete,” he says over and over again, “change/transcend your thinking.” The word is almost always translated – horribly, as the word most emphatically cannot be restricted to this translation – “repent.” Strayed shows in her own story an excellent example of the way this process actually works.
But I left the previous essay acknowledging another problem, which is this: the transformed person, who has gained some new perspective from her experience, ultimately returns to the world. This ends up being very nearly as horrible as it ever was: “a vale of tears,” as the hymn goes. We live in the world more comfortably after a transformative experience, but there is still something that is not acceptable about it – that is, in fact, still quite horrible. There is a gap between the vision we have seen, and the way things are.
This is one of the ultimate problems of our existence, and none of the solutions are obviously and immediately satisfactory, but I think Strayed herself is an example of the one solution which makes sense to me. And that is: a transformation of the way you live. The things you have seen simultaneously make joy possible and complacency impossible. You attempt, for the rest of your life, to work out the implications of your experience. This requires effort, but the tension between the vision and the world produces energy, which enables us to work: it gives us motive and purpose. Ultimately, what we pour into the gap between vision and reality is our life, indeed our selves, specifically our complete self, functioning undividedly, conscious and unconscious, mind and womb both. It is impossible to read the book and not feel that Strayed has access to that: and that not only does that make her “safe in this world,” but it has changed her as a person: I have no doubt she has come from being a bad mother (she had an abortion) and bad wife (she cheated on her husband numerous times) to a good mother and good wife. What I have heard of her later life suggests, also, the goodness I would expect, and generosity and maturity. She has worked as a counselor – wonderful – written an advice column – wonderful – and written this testament to her experience which now has gone around the world – wonderful. She shows all the signs of having repaired much of the torn fabric of her own life, and also worked to help others do the same. The hope of all religions, with all their pilgrimages, confessionals, meditations, prayers, good works, and everything else, lies in this.
Let us get down to details. Strayed herself was not in the business to draw such conclusions, which is probably good for her book: lessons drawn from experience, to people without the experience, are not as interesting or necessary as the simple encouragement to go have the experience. And that is what Strayed does. But for people who have had the experience, there is nothing more interesting and important than to meditate on the consequences of what you know and have seen. The fruit of experience ripens in the sunlight of reflection.
The first thing which takes on a different aspect is death. Death is wounding; death is horrible; death brings grief; but it is part of the pattern and ultimately inevitable. And it is terrible to see how much pain Cheryl comes to, and inflicts on others around her – at terrible cost – because she was utterly unprepared to deal with death. In Sleeper, Woody Allen is cryogenically frozen and awoken after 200 years, and when told his friends are all dead he says, “But they were all vegetarians! How could this be?” That’s supposed to be a joke, but Strayed is – terrifyingly – not far from it.
As I accompanied my mother and stepfather, Eddie, from floor to floor of the Mayo Clinic while my mother went from one test to another, a prayer marched through my head, though prayer is not the right word to describe that march. I wasn’t humble before God. My prayer was not: Please, God, take mercy on us.
I was not going to ask for mercy. I didn’t need to. My mother was forty-five. She looked fine. For a good number of years she’d mostly been a vegetarian. She’d planted marigolds around her garden to keep bugs away instead of using pesticides. My siblings and I had been made to swallow raw cloves of garlic when we had colds. People like my mother did not get cancer. The tests at the Mayo Clinic would prove that, refuting what the doctors in Duluth had said. I was certain of this. Who were those doctors in Duluth anyway? What was Duluth? Duluth! Duluth was a freezing hick town where doctors who didn’t know what the hell they were talking about told forty-five-year-old vegetarian-ish, garlic-eating, natural-remedy-using nonsmokers that they had late-stage lung cancer, that’s what.
That was my prayer: Fuckthemfuckthemfuckthem. (10)
Her anger intrigues me here, and reminds me of my earlier writing on this topic, that anger is a social emotion. She appears to be presuming that there is a social solution to death: she can go to someone higher up in the primate hierarchy (who lives in a more important place than Duluth, apparently), and he’ll fix the death problem (there must be a fairy tale about this, about someone who is troubled by death and then goes through the kingdom and finds that everyone, even the king, is under this capital sentence – my oh my how our children need the old fairy tales rather than whatever they seem to be reading). So she gets angry at having to deal with the low-totem-pole people who don’t even have enough status and power to fix this whole dumb death thing.
She then – I am not making this up – imagines that her vagina might be usefully employed to solve the death problem, and in a way this is a good instinct, but she just wants to use it to get attention, which will not suffice, I don’t think:
One afternoon, a doctor I’d never seen came into the room and explained that my mother was actively dying.
“But it’s only been a month,” I said indignantly. “The other doctor told us a year.”
He made no reply. He was young, perhaps thirty. He stood next to my mother, a gentle hairy hand slung into his pocket, looking down at her in bed. “From this point on, our only concern is that she’s comfortable.”
Comfortable, and yet the nurses tried to give her as little morphine as they could. One of the nurses was a man, and I could see the outline of his penis through his tight white nurse’s trousers. I wanted desperately to pull him into the small bathroom beyond the foot of my mother’s bed and offer myself up to him, to do anything at all if he would help us. And also I wanted to take pleasure from him, to feel the weight of his body against me, to feel his mouth in my hair and hear him say my name to me over and over again, to force him to acknowledge me, to make this matter to him, to crush his heart with mercy for us. (21)
Again, this is clearly an attempt to use the social goods she has access to to get her way. Death is of course a cosmic problem, not a social problem, and only an adequate cosmology will defuse its hold on us. (I have in my mind an essay on what I think is a broader modern problem here, namely that human society has grown so massive that almost all of our experiences are social, and we are losing the awareness of truly cosmic things).
And in fact an adequate cosmology appeared to be pushing itself on Strayed in the form of her dreams – again, a sign of that kind of inner womb-knowledge I wrote about in my earlier essay which is superior to consciousness and modern rationalistic-materialistic culture:
I dreamed of her incessantly. In the dreams I was always with her when she died. It was me who would kill her. Again and again and again. She commanded me to do it, and each time I would get down on my knees and cry, begging her not to make me, but she would not relent, and each time, like a good daughter, I ultimately complied. I tied her to a tree in our front yard and poured gasoline over her head, then lit her on fire. I made her run down a dirt road that passed by the house we’d built and then ran her over with my truck. I dragged her body, caught on a jagged piece of metal underneath, until it came loose, and then I put my truck in reverse and ran her over again. I took a miniature baseball bat and beat her to death with it, slow and hard and sad. I forced her into a hole I’d dug and kicked dirt and stones on top of her and buried her alive. These dreams were not surreal. They took place in plain, ordinary light. They were the documentary films of my subconscious and felt as real to me as life. My truck was really my truck; our front yard was our actual front yard; the miniature baseball bat sat in our closet among the umbrellas.
I didn’t wake from these dreams crying. I woke shrieking. Paul grabbed me and held me until I was quiet. He wetted a washcloth with cool water and put it over my face. But those wet washcloths couldn’t wash the dreams of my mother away.
Nothing did. Nothing would. Nothing could ever bring my mother back or make it okay that she was gone. (27)
Strayed does not interpret this, but it looks like a classic compensatory dream. Strayed’s waking mind refused death; she held on to her mother (it is a highly suggestive fact that she kept vigil at her mother’s bedside for weeks, and then her mother died almost the very moment she left the room: it was as if Strayed were keeping her back). The dream provides a counter-image, in which she becomes the agent of death, the bringer of it. It is compensation: the waking mind is so far off the path, that the subconscious produces an opposite image to create balance. The proper stance, dreams of this sort indicate, is in the middle: neither conscious refusal nor subconscious promotion: acceptance. Her mother’s death was a wound, no doubt, but the wounds always end up being the most important things. New life out of death, strength out of wounding, is the Paschal Mystery, and Christianity has almost no content but this. It is the same lesson as the woods, the same process I watch every autumn as the leaves fall and the wildflowers bloom out of them the following spring. “Unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” The poet Adrienne Rich, whose works she brings with her on her hike, said it explicitly, about Marie Curie who died (of radiation poisoning), “denying that her wounds came from the same source as her power.” Strayed has a beautiful image of it as she starts her trip: “I could feel myself disintegrating inside myself like a past-bloom flower in the wind. Every time I moved a muscle, another petal of me blew away” (38). It is only when the flower disintegrates that the fruit begins to grow.
When I first visited Rome, I had the gnawing but ultimately impressive feeling that the entire city, with all its art, all its religion, all its hedonism, all its fame-seeking, all its sport and politics and everything else, was merely an outgrowth of man’s discomfort with death. So there is hardly one proper view of death, and no matter what the perspective one may have, the uncertainty and discomfort of it will always remain. (I am personally convinced that bad Christianity is always indicated by a pathologic aversion to death, because Christian spiritual practice demands the daily acceptance of life coming out of death, but that is another essay). But I am convinced that Strayed’s inability to deal with death was in part the result of her unfamiliarity with it, which is a cultural problem. A friend of mine disagreed, saying simply, “Death messes us up,” maintaining that anyone who loses their mother at age twenty-three will be similarly messed up. But I don’t think that’s true. A hundred years ago almost every human being was born in a large family, where death was a constant presence just as birth was, and those deaths did not consistently produce infidelity, divorce, drug use, depression, and abortions. Death poses a problem, but adequate cultures offer adequate guidance on the most basic problems of life. Awareness and acceptance of death needs to be transmitted to the next generation in order to build any kind of wisdom-culture in our society. The alternative is for each generation to be blindsided by it and suffer through it and hope for the best, as Strayed did.
I can say from my own experience that good parenting can offer some of this wisdom, and forestall some of these problems. But many people have no cultural equipment for dealing with death at all. Strayed notes that her mother’s death created an impassable emotional rift with her husband, because he had, himself, no experience of loss:
My husband, Paul, did everything he could to make me feel less alone. He was still the kind and tender man I’d fallen for a few years before, the one I’d loved so fiercely I’d shocked everyone by marrying just shy of twenty, but once my mother started dying, something inside of me was dead to Paul, no matter what he did or said. Still, I called him each day from the pay phone in the hospital during the long afternoons, or back at my mom and Eddie’s house in the evenings. We’d have long conversations during which I’d weep and tell him everything and he would cry with me and try to make it all just a tiny bit more okay, but his words rang hollow. It was almost as if I couldn’t hear them at all. What did he know about losing anything? His parents were still alive and happily married to each other. (22)
Wise cultures train people for such moments. They do not leave young married couples to figure it out on their own. If medical school contained no courses on surgery and anatomy but consisted entirely of learning to fold clothes, then of course a surgeon who just came back from his first week on the actual job would be unable to relate to the problems of the medical students, in their classes busily competing against each other to be the best clothes-folder, completely unaware of what was coming. When I was a child I was taught to pray each night with the following words:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
This at least alerts the child to the existence of the phenomenon. Now, not surprisingly, some people have rewritten the prayer to leave the death part out, because mentioning death might distress the children. I know other parents who similarly have made up elaborate fictions to explain the vanishing of the family pet (to me very nearly the point of having a family pet is the way its death exposes the child to reality). These children are in danger of becoming like Strayed, and going completely haywire when death shows up (Strayed started cheating on her husband seven days after her mother’s death), or her husband, who had nothing beyond general niceness to offer someone going through a death-watch. My mother used to tell me to “pray for a good death,” telling me about my grandfather, who died before I was born: he used to go to mass every morning, buy a copy of the Daily News on his way home, sit in his favorite chair, read the paper, and then fall asleep. One morning he never woke up from his nap. “Pray for a good death,” she repeated. The implication, of course, was that there were deaths which were not so good. This was not trauma or child abuse: this was reality. I remember my mother mocking – often – one of the neighbors (now dead) because he said “If I die” rather than “when I die.” These insights, like the words of that prayer, were not my mother’s inventions: they were traditions that she was merely passing on, and whose wisdom had been proved by generations of experience. Strayed’s grandmother probably prayed with the same words I used, but in two generations much of that cultural wisdom has washed away. Strayed’s mother, a former Catholic who wanted nothing to do with the church, apparently thought she would live if she drank lots of wheatgrass juice. She drank barrels of the stuff as her death approached. I think much of Strayed’s anger against her mother, which surfaces in various places in the book, can be linked at least subconsciously to the fact that her mother really did her a disservice by raising her without any training for death. In the end, we pay a price for every lie we believe, and sometimes, as with our modern blindness to death, a terrible price, and if there is debt left over, our children will have to pay it.
Another ingredient of wholeness is uncoupling love and entitlement. When you go off into the wild, one of the first things you notice is the simple fact that no one goes after you: you were not the center of their worlds, after all. We come to love with so many expectations about the love we “deserve” to have; but in the end you cannot see love as something you or anyone else “deserves.” You don’t even deserve it from your father or your mother. You live off of whatever love you can get: it is never enough; but you must fight against the temptation to feel aggrieved by the defects of your lovers. Strayed comes to this realization twice, once when thinking about her father – the passage quoted in the previous essay – and again when thinking about her stepfather, who was excellent to her. She offers a brief but beautiful image of the way he played with her and her siblings, which really does pinpoint something different about the way a man loves children:
He chased us and caught us and held us upside down and shook us to see if any coins would fall from our pockets; if they did, he would take them from the grass and run, and we would run after him, shrieking with a particular joy that had been denied us all our lives because we’d never been loved right by a man. He tickled us and watched as we performed dance routines and cartwheels. He taught us whimsical songs and complicated hand jives. He stole our noses and ears and then showed them to us with his thumb tucked between his fingers, eventually giving them back while we laughed. By the time my mother called us in to dinner, I was so besotted with him that I’d lost my appetite. (152)
After Cheryl’s mother died, he married another woman with children and forgot about his stepchildren from his previous marriage. But Strayed noted how he had trained her to love camping and hiking and the outdoors, and so he really had been the stepfather, so to speak, of her whole trip on the Pacific Crest Trail:
There’s no way to know what makes one thing happen and not another. What leads to what. What destroys what. What causes what to flourish or die or take another course. But I was pretty certain as I sat there that night that if it hadn’t been for Eddie, I wouldn’t have found myself on the PCT. And though it was true that everything I felt for him sat like a boulder in my throat, this realization made the boulder sit ever so much lighter. He hadn’t loved me well in the end, but he’d loved me well when it mattered. (304)
Maturity makes you realize how difficult it is even to do that much: to love someone well when it matters. One way or another, the people who have loved you are the ones who have given you everything that has mattered to you: that they could have loved you better, you realize, is a useless truism. Entitlement poisons love. To take any kind of love for granted is a sin.
The third ingredient is a more mature attitude toward sex. Strayed is certainly not repentant about the disposability of her prior lovers – “what if I’d wanted to fuck every one of those men?” – but it’s also clear that she was moving away from the kind of mindset that made lovers not much more than single-use disposable dicks (with lips and hands attached). She makes use of one such disposable dick on the trail (she reports regretting going on a trip to the beach with him, as, she says, “my interest in Jonathan was waning” – after just a few hours). But apparently the encounter was not truly satisfying:
“Your address,” he said, handing me a scrap of paper and a pen. I wrote down Lisa’s, feeling a mounting sense of something that wasn’t quite sorrow, wasn’t quite regret, and wasn’t quite longing, but was a mix of them all. It had been an indisputably good time, but now I felt empty. Like there was something I didn’t even know I wanted until I didn’t get it. (259-60)
That is an emotion I would ruthlessly interrogate – “what is it I want that I’m not getting? Why am I missing the mark here?” – though she leaves it as a vague, almost unexpected dissatisfaction. That’s a good beginning, I suppose. Later she has a crush on another man – in fact she seems to kind of have a crush on every good-looking man on the trail – but she doesn’t have sex with him. She interprets this as progress:
For once it was finally enough for me to simply lie there in a restrained and chaste rapture beside a sweet, strong, sexy, smart, good man who was probably never meant to be anything but my friend. For once I didn’t ache for a companion. For once the phrase the woman with a hole in her heart didn’t thunder into my head. That phrase, it didn’t even live for me anymore. (299)
She has a dream with sexual overtones on the trip, which I will quote. It may not, in fact, be about sex, but it is an intriguing message from the subconscious:
I woke up a half hour later with a startled gasp, creeped out by a dream – the same dream I’d had the night before. In it, Bigfoot had kidnapped me. He’d done it in a fairly mannerly fashion, approaching to pull me by the hand deep into the woods, where an entire village of other Bigfoots lived. In the dream I was both astonished and frightened at the sight of them. “How have you hid from humans so long?” I’d asked my Bigfoot captor, but he only grunted. As I looked at him, I realized that he was not a Bigfoot at all but a man wearing a mask and a hairy suit. I could see his pale human flesh beneath the edge of the mask, which terrified me. (223)
My initial read is to say that it is an image of trail life in general, which really is only partially “wild”: on the trail you carry just enough civilization to get you to your next civilization station, where you fill up again. It looks like Bigfoot, but it is just a mask and a hairy suit on what is fundamentally a civilized pursuit. But I will note that it could apply to sex as well: superficial, disposable-partner sexuality is largely (though certainly not entirely) a technical creation: I’m sure there are millions of sexual encounters throughout the world each year that get cut short for lack of a handy condom. Nothing makes an irresistible face so instantly resistible as the threat of further implications. It’s not very wild, in the end, and not very natural. I’m not saying this to attack birth control per se: birth control is like any other kind of technology. The morality is in the way it is used. For every person using birth control to go deeper into a relationship with another person, there seem to be ten using it to avoid any kind of depth at all. In the end, Bigfoot is neither satisfyingly and truly wild, nor fully human (being reduced in the dream to inarticulate grunts). Whatever the interpretation might be, it is an interesting image produced by the subconcious. Strayed seems to be moving away from this version of sexuality: one which she describes as like a vacation, an escape, something detached. And she seems to be moving toward something different. What would sexuality look like if it were the opposite of that – the real task of one’s life, a going deeper, integrated into everything else? What if we loved each other, and treated each other as just as indispensable and important, as we love and treat ourselves?
This brings me to the fourth ingredient I noticed in the book: one’s relationship to escapism. When she approaches the end of her trip, she thinks about re-entering normal life in Portland:
Of course, heroin could be had there too, I thought. But the thing was, I didn’t want it. Maybe I never really had. I’d finally come to understand what it had been: a yearning for a way out, when actually what I had wanted to find was a way in. I was there now. Or close. (290)
She had talked earlier of “planet heroin,” this other world she could go to, to escape her life. But the experience of her trip had changed her into something else. Now she wanted her life: to go deeper into it. Escapism becomes one of the uninteresting things. And hence heroin became one of the uninteresting things. This is the kind of shift that can seep into everything. Strayed’s phrasing serves as a good way to think about sexuality as well: how would your sex life change if it was not a brief way out, but a way in?
The last ingredient of maturity I want to talk about is a changed relationship to desire itself, of all kinds. We notice this in spiritually developed people: the peacefulness, the stability, the way they can deal with adversity, rejection, rebuffing, tragedy. You feel they can handle anything. One of the important lessons of wilderness is the fact that in the wilderness there is nothing for you to do. You are not in control: you don’t have any power. When you see a tree that is dying, you let it die: you don’t try to prune it back to life or fertilize it or water it or anything else. You just walk on. It doesn’t need you to play messiah to it, the way Strayed tried to play messiah to her mother. The tree will die: fine. The birds of the air will nest in its rotting cavities. Wilderness is a place where you aren’t being constantly roasted in your desires to change everything, because there such desires don’t mean anything. This is one of the differences between living in the woods and living in a house, a tension I constantly have to manage. In the woods you can just be an observer of the life that is there; but in your house you are constantly wrestling with your ambitions, because everyone has ambitions for their own house. In the true wilderness your ambitions don’t mean anything. Life is precious in itself, without any value needing to be added to it. It doesn’t even need the value of human goodness – it can be good even if people go on being evil to one another and marring everything they touch. This is the ultimate religious affirmation, though religions are always caught in the tension (as is Strayed and everyone else) between affirmation of the whole and affirmation of the ethical ideal which a reverence for the whole naturally produces. We achieve this paradoxical bipartite affirmation only in the face of our own desires to control everything, to re-write the script of the world and make it conform to our own expectations. To live constantly with this unfulfilled desire is suffering:
It took me years to take my place among the ten thousand things again. To be the woman my mother raised. To remember how she said honey and picture her particular gaze. I would suffer. I would suffer. I would want things to be different than they were. The wanting was a wilderness and I had to find my way out of the woods. (27)
You can live in the world without associating yourself entirely with your desires for its betterment. Those desires don’t go away, but they take their place among the other things. And this insight is one of the things which distinguishes the person who has had a real experience from the person who grabs onto a religious ideal for self-aggrandizement: the latter person often becomes a dangerous zealot. The person with the real experience knows her place is small, and everything worthwhile will require work. Which is fine. You realize you might not be so good at running the world anyway. You realize how sacred it is that everyone else gets to make their choices as well. You try to help them get to the other side – to that place Strayed describes, the end of the trail, the Bridge of the Gods – knowing that there is no more beautiful thing than that, but you know you cannot do it by airlifting them to the end, any more than you can ripen an apple by throwing it into the fire. You burn with desire, but don’t need to claw desperately at the things you want anymore. Patience becomes possible. Even with the people you love. Even with yourself.
It was all unknown to me then, as I sat on that white bench on the day I finished my hike. Everything except the fact that I didn’t have to know. That it was enough to trust that what I’d done was true. To understand its meaning without yet being able to say precisely what it was, like all those lines from The Dream of a Common Language that had run through my nights and days. To believe that I didn’t need to reach with my bare hands anymore. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life – like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me.
How wild it was, to let it be. (311)
A nice piece on Doug Tallamy and the new gardening. ”We have to raise the bar on our landscapes. In the past, we have asked one thing of our gardens: that they be pretty. Now they have to support life, sequester carbon, feed pollinators, and manage water.” Real life always works this way: something always has multiple purposes. And the real gardening is to nourish life.