Between New York City and Lyndhurst, New Jersey where I reside, there’s basically nothing but meadowlands and marshes, akin the wetlands approaching Mordor in Lord of the Rings.
Before coronavirus, taking the train into the City demanded I pass through these marshlands, and I always admired what they were as though they were somehow the last breath of fresh air before succumbing to the constant, overbearing steel-and-glass the moment you waltzed beyond Pennsylvania Station.
I think in pop culture, too, these endless acres of Jersey sea oats and swampland lent to something almost mafioso–some sunken industrial barren land where the grit of greater New York makes for a grand place to drop a body of whomever crossed the locals.
In reality, the scene is serene, idyllic, the juxtaposition with the skyscrapers in the distance a reminder that this world still belongs to grasshoppers, sandpipers, and monarch butterflies–and not to those of us who have bastardized it with asphalt and concrete.
I took a walk yesterday through the marshes along the Mill Creek Trail which is really just 8 feet of walking path surrounded on either side by the Hackensack River.
It’s arguably one of the best ways to deal with the loneliness, the isolation, the worry of a pandemic and economic unrest. But unlike mountain trails or walking the beach, there’s something betwixt and between here that makes me love the marsh all the more.
Maybe it’s because I feel often as though I’m not ever where I want to be. I can pinpoint where I’ve come from, whether that place is something to be proud or ashamed of. And I can tell you where I want to be, with dreams and visions and sometimes escaped nightmares. What I have the most trouble doing, though, is telling you where I am and embracing that with any real sense of gratitude for what it is.
The present is scary, precisely because it’s neither here nor there. Once you’ve had a chance to grasp it, it’s gone. If you spend time hoping for it, you’ve missed it. The pandemic is a good example, honestly. We can clearly define our lives in this paradigmatic moment as”before” coronavirus and we live in hope for “after” it, but the moment itself is not something we, perhaps as individuals and certainly as a society, have managed to live up to with our best foot forward.
I feel that in my bones. Between the virus and the vaccine, we are living some purgatory, or perhaps it’s better described as the “vestibule” or first circle of some inferno. Either way, it’s decidedly not where we were or where we want to be.
But that doesn’t mean we should shirk entirely what it is either.
There’s this cliche, especially in American politics, that our darkest moments are when we rise to the occasion, which then leads to references of, say, the depression, from which social safety nets arose, or past world wars, when we were called to mobilize as a nation and defeat fascism. It’s a tempting narrative, and yet, I know all too well that for all the stories of rising to meet the occasion, there’s countless others where the dark got darker, too.
Standing in the middle of a marsh, as if wandering through some limbo, I couldn’t help but wonder what to make of this moment, this unknown land. I want to be optimistic, to take note of the swan that was once an ugly duckling, to watch the bumblebee root out pollen and spread life. But the plane flying into Newark overhead, the electric lines with their signs warning of danger, the grassy knoll that, according to Google maps, is actually a landfill, distract and give me pause.
If it’s true what they say about these moments–the ones we can rise to meet–I’m tempted to believe that we do not, or should not, do so without first acknowledging that the world around us is not either/or but both/and: that only in seeing what’s broken can we understand wholeness, that only in embracing the cacophony can we add the notes that mollify the harshness. Too many of us want to jump straight to wholeness and harmony without the nuance and complexity that make those things worth a damn. We crave happiness that’s superficial but at least pretends things are less anxiety inducing than they really are.
I think that’s why I love the wetlands. You can see in them everything you need to see. They force you to be present, not just to the butterfly but as much the landfill. And it’s only when you can take in the whole world like that, as it is, that you can gain the kind of healing that you need to make do, or perhaps, to “rise to meet” the moment.
Otherwise, “vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”