A lot has happened recently and all of it has me looking at life differently. My grandfather passed away, my father had a heart attack, I go in for my first colonoscopy because of blood in my stool, Chico went to vet to have some fatty tumors looked at, and soon I will turn 40. I guess it is all about mortality.
A thunderstorm is backing up into the heart of the valley. I can feel the energy growing, the wind swirling, the clouds beckoning. I am building planter boxes, but I stop what I am doing, grab some water, and head for the ridge to watch the storm. I started my 30s up on this ridge. With some of my favorite poets and people on the planet, just after passing our Masters degrees, we went to watch the sunset and drink wine. I am not sure how to characterize these last ten years. They have been the decade of my PhD. The decade of a failed relationship and even bigger failure in coping with it. It has been a decade of blogging, a decade of social media, the decade of owning my first house, of travelling the world, a decade of teaching, a decade of songwriting, and of course, perhaps most importantly, the decade of having a dog. It is unbelievably unlikely that he makes it through the next ten years together. He loads up into the truck, to his seat, to look out his window, and we drive up towards the park.
I woke up on the floor in the kitchen. It was a strange feeling. I gasped awake and quickly thought to myself, oh, I was just asleep, but then I realized, wait, I am on the kitchen floor. I got up, sweat pouring from my body, my heart racing, and I sit at the kitchen bar. What just happened? My housemate wakes up from the couch where he had crashed out, I wonder if I should tell him, but I know it is smartest to tell someone. He looks at me blankly, croggy, still getting his footing back into the world. I call my martial arts instructor, not wanting to freak my mother out, he demands we go the ER. I am pretty sure I just had a panic attack, but I am not sure. I have never had one before.
My father said he thought he had indigestion and if he could find some tums that might have been it, but he couldn’t. My stepmom, gratefully being the worrisome person she is, called for the neighbors to come check him out. He seemed OK, but they recommended a helicopter back to town to be sure. My dad refused. He couldn’t take a helicopter just for them to hand him some antacids. My stepmom drives him the 45 minutes along windy roads, no cell service, back into town. He walks into the ER, tells them his chest hurts, and they jump into action. It is, perhaps, the third time my Dad has had his life saved by almost dumb, what we call “Millard,” luck. The curse of the Millard luck. Terrible for all things accept when it really counts. And this time it did. 3% flow through his lower artery. They clear it and he is better.
Yes, I should go to the ER.
The storms swings opens up into the valley below, crosses the arterial Sacramento River. I become more and more enamored with this river and all it means. The storm seems to block up and refuse to move above the city, the sky darkens, the streaks of grey deluge as clouds tip like water cans and surely the plants below beckon this watering. A rainbow pours out from the murkiness as the sun hurls golden light sideways underneath the clouds. Each day, the sun tracks further north as the earth tilts towards it as if bowing in gracious humbleness. Thank you.
My grandfather passed, fittingly, on April 21st, John Muir’s birthday, the day before Earth Day. For a man who spent most of his life fighting for conservation and understanding of natural systems, it was a good day to die. He was 99 and surely ready to hike into that next wilderness, something more unknown than what he called the “forest primeval” of his youth in rural Oregon. He always spoke longingly of the old growth Doug Fir...mostly gone now. On his 99th birthday, when told he had only one year to make it to 100, he said, don’t remind me. Nonetheless, it has me wondering how you let go of this beautiful earth. My grandfather obviously struggled with this. At 87 we went on his last backpacking trip together. And for years after he would always say, soon he will be better again, soon his knees will get better, soon he will feel stronger, soon he will get back out there to see another bloom of wildflowers in the Marble Mountain Wilderness, soon he will hunt another buck, fell another tree.
For years I have sung a song by Cat Stevens called “I’ve got a thing about seeing my grandson grow old.” I liked the song, but I never really thought about the implications in my own life. I never thought about what a gift it was to me that my father and mother had me when they were so young. That, by them having me, I got more time with my grandparents, more time with them too. And me, as I get older, still struggling to find a way to shunt my heart back open towards love, I think that I will not see a grandson grow old. I am happy my Dad is OK and I can’t wait to do our annual backpacking trip. Not this year, but next year, we will backpack into the Marble Mountains to take my grandfather’s ashes to Big Elk Lake. My Dad tells me that Grandpa always wanted his ashes there, and my Dad says that Grandpa said, it would be OK to piss on them afterwards, because he probably deserved that. He is the old codger to me, the last of a kind. A WWII Veteran, he once met General Patton while stationed in London during the V2 bombings. He spent most of his life in the woods once he returned from war. Much of my poetry in my 20s had him as a key image. He is a muse to me, a siren of the forest.
The sky is darkening and the thunder rolls closer. I wonder if it will come to me. I would wait for it. I would hold my arms open for rapture. I could use this cleansing, this washing, this erosion. I would let it, if it would take it, to remove so much from my life. Open up my heart and let it all rush through. I’d hate to think of polluting the sea. The doctor didn’t know why I would have blood. Might be something simple like internal hemorrhoids; however, it could be something more complex. She says Crohn’s Disease, she says celiacs disease, she says colon cancer. What if you knew you only had so many sunsets left to watch in the world? Emerson once said, what if the stars only came out once every 1000 years? I try so hard to look up each night and see the vast beauty of it all, the incomprehensible infinite. This is why I think I ended up on the floor in the kitchen. Leaving would be hard.
The semester is over soon and I will disappear for a while out into the desert. Abbey would approve. I think sometimes we teach, and we build, and we create to stave off that abyss of the night. That life is a thin scum on a rock planet swirling down the drain of a galaxy that, so far, seems to care very little about us. These words will not last. I want humans to be important too; I want distant gods watching over it all; I want meaning. But I see the black holes of the universe.
Another flash off to my left, to the south. The sky behind me is Prince Purple, an indescribable beauty meant only to be experienced. If I am to go, I want to go watching a sunset. Can I be left to die on a ridgeline watching the world turn? A sky burial? Could my body just fade into the rock? Please don’t bury me in a crowded field of non-native grass. Please don’t burn me up in your fossil fueled oven. Please don’t haul me before an altar in a windowless room.
I am not sure how the next ten years will be. I am not sure what the doctor will find either. I prefer going to places without trails, without maps, without names. I don’t want preconceptions or prejudices about an experience even if I know that is impossible. I started my 20s in a type of panic, and religiously driven panic started at a random fire and brimstone church revival where an image of hell was implanted into my head of spending eternity cramped, shoved into a really small black box on a shelf all alone. And the church man said all I would have to do is to ask forgiveness.
Yes, that is easy enough to do.
I worked hard in my 20s to find acceptance rather than forgiveness. I spent my 30s trying for understanding. I hope to use my 40s for action. There are changes that must be made. While I turned off the television a long time ago, now I know it is time to turn off the social media. Goodbye Facebook. I have loved parts of it. Loved seeing the photos of your kids growing up. While it rarely happened, a few people I actually learned to know better through facebook than I ever did in real life. I think of people like Mike Quaresma who I knew, but didn’t know in highschool and I have admired his honesty and humor on facebook. I loved watching how he raises his kids. I think of Matt Yarbro, who was a friend, then unfriended me, but still we argue and I like what I learn from him because I must learn to love even those with whom I disagree. There are friends I only know through this. I fear they will disappear from my life now. There was Martin Inderbitzin, who I met briefly for a few weeks when he came to visit the hotel I was running in Guatemala, and I watched as he fought through pancreatic cancer and shared his struggle with the world. I am in awe of his resilience. I loved watching Ben Abbott raise his kids in Alaska while studying Climate Change and riding fat-tire bikes and then move to France. I loved some of the honest conversations I have had, and me too, the support some people came when you needed it, friends, friends of friends, old friends, new friends, and even those yet to be. But it isn’t enough. There is no action through Facebook. There is understanding, but understanding without action is a black box, high on a shelf, where valuable things collect dust. I don’t want forgiveness anymore.
Nonetheless, we are friends, and hopefully, we have plans to see each other soon. I will come visit if you ask. Or, you can join me on the trail, join Chico and I, and watch a sunset together. We only have so many left and I would prefer to share them with you. I don’t know what will happen with the colonoscopy. I am not sure how any of it will turn out. We all, I think, hope for old age. Actions don’t always match our desires. I would fight to stay here with my last breath, to stay here with you all, to see this crazy planet with all the struggles and try my best to be an engaged citizen in motion, like everything is in this galaxy, in this universe. Nothing stands still. But go, if I must, with a light pack, and good boots to whatever trail lies ahead, map or not. I’d journal back to you if I’m allowed. For now, I turn some of this off. It surely isn’t you; let’s go for a hike together. Let’s do something...anything. The sun is down, night cascades onto the earth, and tomorrow the sun will push it out again, like fog dissipating into blue sky, only memory is left.