All Hail the Storm King

img_20160914_180955254_hdrThere’s something monstrous and all-encompassing about New York City, as though the longer you’re there, your memory of the way the world works elsewhere is slowly cached until it fades into oblivion. Everywhere about the City, nature prevails. The pigeons come close and tilt their heads to look at you as though you’re the one that doesn’t belong amid this concrete, not them. The mice and chipmunks and squirrels are perfectly content to live among the steel-and-glass ignoring you, mostly. The trees manage to climb surprisingly high, a wooden skyscraper unto themselves, their roots searching the dirt beneath until it slams up against the concrete veins and arteries of the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Everything here unnatural seems to have grown together so well that it may have become one with Mother Nature herself.

Until, of course, you leave New York City and discover that this is not the norm, that – in fact – it’s a kind of beautiful, artistic and architectural blasphemy unmatched the world over.

img_20160917_104720302_hdrSuffice to say, it is still jarring to me that less than an hour away, the signs of the City are replaced with countless acres of trees and farmland, of mountains and lakes, of the River Valley where the remnants of the Appalachians come crashing into one side of the Hudson and pick up again on the other as though there’d not even been a creek in the way or perhaps as though Moses learnt to part rocks the same way he’d parted water. In the early days of autumn, just when the dog days of summer have tired out, and there’s a light breeze whispering to some of the trees that dying is a part of living, you can escape here and forget there ever was any concrete or steel or glass or plastic or car horns or subways. This is the land of towns with names like Fishkill and Beacon and Doodletown and Stony Point. It could just as easily be Tennessee.

It is not a place without its reminder that New York City is close by, of course. The train to Montreal whistles off the Hudson and churns on the tracks like a tornado rolling through, and the traffic and passers-by are a diverse lot of run-down hooptie cars, the people packed-in tight on their way to the next ‘job,’ juxtaposed with an occasional Tesla driven by a lone Frenchman who wears G Star Raw and is environmentally-conscious. And yet, in the same way the City can make you forget this place over time, this place – this dance with Mother Nature – manages to flood back over you singing, lulling that this is the real America. Cue Paul Simon on a search.

img_20160917_113923636And what is the real America but that hard, tried juxtaposition, that reminder that nothing is simple or can be easily broken into ‘this vs. that’ but is instead some mosaic of anything-and-everything we’ve ever done, imagined, or desired – the best and the worst of us – all thrown into the same mixing pot we once celebrated in this country.

Here is the Catskills, and here, maybe ten minutes west of the river and buried in its rolling hills there is an art gallery stranger than most. Imagine an outdoor museum, five hundred acres of it – something akin a postmodern Stonehenge with giant architectural feats planted like seeds that grew uncontrollably large in a river valley. It is the exact opposite of New York City: these structures that seemingly don’t belong actually make a very good case that they were born and grew up here and couldn’t reside anywhere else but a garden ‘that rivals Versailles.’ Against a backdrop of perfectly groomed green grass, knolls perfect for sledding, and oak and pine, these artistic gods – like a Picasso come to life – tower toward the pristine blue above to kiss the clouds. Their rusted metal – black and red – screams to the sky, but it’s somehow overwhelmingly peaceful. Once again, what didn’t belong found a home, and at home, you can scream loudly and find peace in it.

img_20160917_121225180The name of the place is fitting, too: Storm King, as though just around the mountain to the east there lurks Zeus ready to fire his bolts directly at the towering metal structures. I half-expected a postmodern ‘Night at the Museum’ were I to hang around until after dark.

Maybe that’s because seeing a giant, rusty metal structure next to a pond gives it life. But I think, too, its wild shapes, its shadows, the way the light might hit it at different times of day, leaves you to imagine that this one stationary structure could be a million things to a million people across a million eons. Somebody throws one gargantuan slab into the pasture, sculpted in steel, calls it art, and it tells a vastly different story at sunset from what it told at sunrise. Could it be said to be the same thing on a cloudy day when the sun doesn’t give it its sharp shadow that, arguably, is as much a part of the sculpture as the body the artist built? Or does the absence of its shadow breathe into it new life altogether?

img_20160917_121025271We small creatures who look upon such vastness are made somehow smaller still by this place. What of life is any different? Is not everything we look upon equally as complex? I am caught often, chained even, by my very limited perspective: that how I encounter you or the things you and I have made depends on just how the light hits us, just where we’re found in it, and just the time of day (or week or month or year) that your life and your creation may have graced mine. It is difficult, sometimes, to wait through the cloudy days to see again the shadow. It is that much more difficult, should they remain, to not let the clouds skew our view of what we know or once knew to be true. We are the storm kings and queens tasked to wade through the layers of our limited perspectives, to call out with humility precisely what those layers for us may be and to view it all as the birds of New York City might: looking curiously on and wondering what belonging is while knowing and claiming, this is our home.

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The Transient Paths of All the Creatures of the Field

There’s a family of groundhogs that have been hanging around my house lately. They are joined, strangely enough, by the sudden return of deer who avoided the island like the plague when the summer crowds first arrived on Memorial Day. Some have been brave enough to get within a few feet or so. And driving down the road recently, I saw again a flock of turkeys. It’s as if a “no [insert animal here]” sign was removed much the way the stop signs on Shore Road will be removed soon after Labor Day.

There are, of course, the usuals who never left – the squirrels, the chipmunks, the ospreys, and the gulls – all around and about. But I’m intrigued most by the coming-and-going of the temporary little animals – both the furry, cuddly kind and us human beings, too. It’s almost jarring how quickly life can change, the mode of circumstances that drive us – quite literally – from one place to the next. That’s how quickly I found myself drawn from Morocco to cross the ocean to Tennessee to New York.

I remember when I was in high school and first studying early nomadic humans in Mr. Briley’s world history class and how strange it was to me that people picked up and left and didn’t know one place, really, as home. Our earliest ancestors did what the animals seem to do even now: follow the safest path that has the guarantee of food. But by the time I was reading the Odyssey a few years later, it seemed to me there was a drive greater than the search for safety or food alone that lead us away. Something tied together the unknown, some need to know it, and our need to be. Something nearly guaranteed this kind of transience for a life that’s already, fortunately or not, a fairly transient one. Was some evolutionary pattern instilled in us so that when we did choose to go, we were still just following the food sources subconsciously? That may be, but I think the search for bread and wine can be one deeply symbolic and beyond the physical elements. It’s no wonder that the eariest mythologies, the earliest gods and goddeses, were tied to the land, the river, the well-springs of life. But they were tied to them in a way that followed the well-spring to where it sprang most, and that was something that they found often shifted and changed as the waters moved.

The holiest places, then, were the places we human beings felt it was safe to stop, even if (or especially when) that was temporary. And we still do this. It’s why we camp, why we retreat, why we vacation, or even move. In a society so driven by consumerism, there’s more than money pushing us out of our complacency whether we listen to it or not. There’s a voice that whispers, “Go,” against all our fears of leaving our holy spots, our sanctuaries. There’s another voice that whispers, “Stay,” when we stumble upon our calling. It’s the very reason most great prophets, Jesus included, were peripatetics, sauntering such that their home was wherever their feet were at the given moment. How long are we allowed to stop? How long do we need to replenish ourseles? From where is the water fulfilling enough and can we distinguish it from the bitter waters we choose too often to drink instead? How long before the holy home of rest is grown to something mundane and no longer the haven to us it once was? Will we carry the courage to acknowledge when we must go or when we must stay? Will we connect ourselves to our inner self, to the “Ground of Being,” to others so that we can hear the voices with honesty when they nudge at us? Whether evolutionary patterns or not, we are called to be like the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky or even the little groundhogs scuttering away to the shadows underneath the cottage. But they seem to know better than us how long to be. I envy them and the early nomads for the ease with which the evolutionary patterns seem to be guiding to their most basic decisions. But I’m thankful too for the rest, for the pause, for the return of the little creatures and the role I play welcoming them here to my home, however temporary or long-loved they or I will be.

Paul and the Magic Rock

I don’t consider myself a mystical sort of person. I don’t think I believe in ghosts, and while I definitely believe that there’s something greater than me out there, a kind of spiritual realm akin my own mundane one, I don’t think – in my life – I’ve gotten many glimpses of something I could call a ghost or a god or an angel. Not to deny their existence (far from it); I just haven’t directly experienced those things enough times to feel comfortable calling it “proof.”

I do, however, very distinctly recall an experience I had with a magic rock. There’s no real story to it. The rock didn’t do anything special. The face of Jesus was not carved into the rock. It didn’t move or fly. It wasn’t a pet rock. I don’t even think I kept it afterward. But the experience, whatever it was, was a significant moment for me. And a friend of mine named Paul.

Paul and I were kindred spirits. We were both loners of sorts, at least in our own way. Paul was a gamer and loved philosophical discussion. I cherished my independence, and both of us loved hating our Boy Scout troop, which was where we had met.

When I was in high school, I was a Boy Scout in Troop 10, which around West Tennessee was known as the “Eagle Factory,” probably stemming from the fact that our scoutmaster was a West Point graduate who ran the troop with very high expectations. We often went on camp-outs to Camp Mack Morris, the scouting camp serving the West Tennessee area, and occasionally, those camping trips took place in the dead of winter.

I remember one in particular that has nothing to do with the magic rock, but I’ll mention it anyway. Hudson – the scoutmaster – spent a lot of time planning what he called “Merle,” a three-day weekend in the wintertime where we focused on one merit badge. Merle was also the name of a card game we would play in our free time, though I think the actual game we were playing was Euchre. I always watched and never learned how to play, because I thought the game was stupid and hard, or maybe just hard. I’m getting off-track.

Anyhow, Merle was the camping trip where I first went tree-pushing, which consisted of just running around finding large, dead trees to push over. You were the “winner” if you could push over the largest tree, though I don’t think Paul or I could push any trees over at all.

I also remember getting lost in the woods at night one year playing German Spotlight. And I remember Bob Hudson showing us the Gene Hackman movie, Hoosiers, and making us take notes during the movie and discuss “leadership” and what the movie could teach us about effective leaders.

Yeah. And you wonder why Paul and I both loved hating the Boy Scouts.

One year, everybody was standing around in the cafeteria, and it was raining outside. I remember, as the rain let up, Paul and I went outside to walk around (just the two of us) and talk, and I remember we were either depressed or complaining, though I can’t remember which one it was – maybe a combination of both. The gravel path outside (there wasn’t a paved road) was wet, and as you walked along the rocks, they crunched against one another like walking on coals or compacted snow.

At one point, Paul reached down and picked up one of the rocks. He rolled it around in his hand, and then said something like, “Hmm, interesting,” before handing me the rock. Like Paul, I held the rock, and rolled it around in my hand inspecting it. There was nothing special to it. It looked the same as all the other rocks. But it was wet and dirty, and the red-clay dirt rubbed off onto my hand as I rolled the rock around.

I handed it back to Paul, and we both sort of looked at each other, and as we did, this strange sense of awe sort of jolted us both. Paul said out loud, “Do you feel that?” I nodded and we just stood there taking in the moment. I didn’t then and don’t really know now how to put into words what it was. Paul didn’t either. But both of us felt overcome by some force, be it nature or God or a gas leak. It seeped into us and gave us chills and made us both feel like we and this silly rock were all sharing some sort of natural communion. That something as simple as a rock could make us feel like the world was huge and good and that we were brothers and somehow connected to everyone and everything.

I don’t know where these mystical feelings come from. I don’t know how a magic rock can be magic. But I think that one little experience has left me searching and sauntering my way through life always hoping I’d be jolted again, in a good way, by another person or thing that entered my life. I still do.

From the Morning

I’ve grown to love the morning. Maybe it’s because I stay up all night, so the sunrise to me is sort of like everyone else’s sunset (yeah, still haven’t changed that sleep schedule). Or maybe it’s because it’s the one part of my day where everything still feels fresh. The dew on the grass has just settled there, and because it’s spring in Tennessee, there’s this coolness like a light breeze that isn’t even really a breeze, and it just kind of keeps everything calm, despite the squirrels just waking or the little mockingbirds hopping about.

I know this because around 5:30 each morning, I take Abner out to walk around, and I’m pretty sure we walk every inch of my front yard. It isn’t a large front yard. But I’ve grown particularly fond of it. Whereas most suburban yards are well-trimmed with green, lush grass, ours is more like a mossy forest. Parts of it are even barren with red clay dirt exposed leading up to a tall oak I used to swing on as a kid. I remember Dad trying really hard to get grass to grow there, but I’m kind of glad the seeds never took root. It makes our yard stand out, and I guess if you’re a yard specialist, or whatever they call people who take care of lawns (I should know this), you’d probably scoff at our pathetic excuse for a well-trimmed yard.

But then I watch all these people mowing their yard compulsively (and to be fair, we do too), and it just seems so odd to me that we’re socialized to believe we need to give our grass the same cut we give our heads. I mean, I get it – I really do (I think) – but of all the things we’re socialized to do, it’s gotta be one of the more bizarre ones when you really sit down and think about it. Why isn’t a yard that’s let nature takes its course considered more natural? An old friend of mine talks a little more about that in his blog and says it a little better than I can.

So, I think the small arboretum in our front yard gets us off the hook a little bit, as though the number of trees in your yard makes the barren earth they expose more acceptable. Which also makes no sense, but luckily, it makes me feel like, instead of walking around in a suburban lawn, I’m still “in the wilderness.” In fact, it gives me little flashes at times of Morocco, of the orchard, of hikes I took breathing the fresh morning air before the sun had begun its daily damage of scorching everything it touched.

Sometimes those flashes are like visions of sorts. It’ll be like I’m walking around, and I know I’m in Tennessee but some part of me is suddenly elsewhere at the same time, and I just soak it in and take myself there. There’s this recurring image that plays in my head of me walking the trail to my house or me walking next to the ancient farming aqueducts in the orchard, and I just take in a breath, and as I inhale, there I am, and by the time I exhale, I’m back in my yard with Abner.

I wish I could bottle up the mornings, though. They are the only time of day I feel bogged down by nothing. They’re a little glimmer of hope, and I think wherever I end up next as I take these liminal steps, it will be a place with a morning that seems to last all day.