Tag Archives: musings

How to Read: Thoughts for Fledgling Book Worms

10 Nov

Today, someone new to the act (art?) of reading books asked about how to become a reader, and whether he should start with the classics.  It’s an interesting question, I think.  And in my morning haze, I mentally smushed together this response, which I thought was worth sharing (as I’ve been woefully neglectful of this blog):

Reading is a spectrum of skill and intent that condenses and refines organically with time and experience.

On one end of this spectrum you have reading purely for pleasure, on the other, purpose.  The more you read, the shorter the spectrum becomes, until the two points are comfortably side-by-side. A well-practiced reader effortlessly and naturally combines the two.  I think it’s tempting for newish readers to reach immediately for the “heavy” classics, because they want to “be” that well-read person as quickly as possible. So they go for the books people talk about, the ones that sound so impressive when mentioned in conversation:

“So, what have you been reading?”

“Ah, I’ve been working on Swann’s Way by Proust, such an important work of literature, you know.”

Cue impressed raising of eyebrows. And, of course, it is inarguably an important work of literature, and I believe such things are important to experience.  But for a new reader, that’s like trying to learn piano by poring over Rachmaninoff’s concertos.  Much better to start at the beginning.  Reading well is a product of practice, and a new reader should begin by reading for pleasure first.  Find what it is you love, and lose yourself in some books that fit that attraction.  Don’t worry if they are “great” books, or even good ones.  The first step is training your reading “muscles”, and associating the practice with pure enjoyment.  Then you’ll naturally want to graduate to “heavier” books that catch your interest.  And you’ll be better equipped to approach them successfully.

Reading “critically” is another big facet of this, and we usually learn it in school (perhaps just enough to pass our classes).  But as a life-skill, it can really enrich any reading experience.  Often I hear readers become worried about what they might be “missing” from important works, as though understanding the “greats” is a privilege reserved for some esoteric literary realm somewhere far above them.  However, all it really takes to explore what we call “higher” art (in any medium) is curiosity.  It’s a damn shame, really, that much of civilization’s greatest achievements have been given this air of inaccessibility, when really, the very definition of great art includes universality – a relevance beyond time or place.

I’ll leave off with this quote by Nietzche regarding philology, which is a critical-reading approach that readers and scholars apply to historically-important texts.  I think it applies well to the art of reading deeply and with purpose:

“Philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all – to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow. It is a goldsmith’s art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate, cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it slowly. But for precisely this reason it is more necessary than ever today, by precisely this means does it entice and enchant us the most, in the midst of an age of work, that is to say, of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to get everything done at once, including every old or new book. This art does not easily get anything done, it teaches to read well, that is to say to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate fingers and eyes.” *

* This quote shamelessly borrowed from a lecture by classicist Gregory Nagy

So, by way of a summary: step one is to dive into the art of reading with a glutton’s enthusiasm. Read widely and often. Then, when you get to a book that you feel has deeper layers worth exploring; slow down, savor, probe, research, wonder. You’ll be well-rewarded, and – as with most things – the more you do it, the more you’ll be able to do.

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What’s New?

21 Apr

Spring is springing and it’s becoming time again for things like biking and gardening and strolls downtown. In some mysterious symbiotic link, I find the returning strength of the sun to be more energizing than coffee, and the new projects are starting to pile up. Multiple writing projects are in the mix, plus my plans to start bookselling, plans for an Italian garden, plans to bike everywhere, and plans to learn guitar and harmonica. Then there are less exciting but arguably more important plans, like finding a day-job and eating more regularly. Plans plans plans!

In addition to all of that, I’m starting a new blog to document my personal journey through the world of poetry. It’s called Poetry A to Z, and the idea is that I will explore different poets for each letter of the alphabet, in an effort to self-educate myself in this vast and (for me) undiscovered realm. Tomorrow I will begin with the letter “A”, diving into the works of Diane Ackerman, John Ashbery, Margaret Atwood, Fleur Adcock, Anna Akhmatova, Guillaume Apollinaire, Rae Armantrout, and the ancient Greeks Aristophanes and Aeschylus.

Who am I missing? Are there other letter “A” poets that you consider essential? Feel free to make suggestions!

Destination: Cleveland! Pt. 1 – Great Lakes Brewing Co. and Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

9 Jul

North America is a beautiful continent, vast and diverse, and I’m lucky to have seen a lot of it: sweeping rivers, rolling mountains, the majesty of ancient forests, the severity of the desert.  But in my travels, there’s often a tendency to hop from one end of the continent to the other, leaving the vast center of the U.S. as part of the journey, but rarely the destination.

More the fool, me.

When it recently came time for my lady and I to choose a locale for a short 5-day summer jaunt, we thought of the usual hot-spots here in the northeast: Montreal, Boston, NYC, DC, Philly.  We wanted somewhere within a comfortable day’s drive, with a lot of cultural activities as well as some nice green spaces, and of course, the more affordable the better.  The hot-spots of course are pricy by nature, so I started looking west for some place new.  My eyes settled on Cleveland, a smallish unsung Great Lakes city that I had heard good things about, but had somehow never stopped in.  A city that, I soon learned, had a lot to offer.

The cityscape as viewed from the highway

When I began researching Cleveland, I was mainly motivated by the belief that it would be a cheap vacation.  Which it certainly was.  What I didn’t expect was how culturally and historically rich the town is.  Cleveland, previously unbeknownst to me, boasts world-class museums, a huge zoo and aquarium, five-star restaurants, amazing local food and beer, and varied neighborhoods from the hip to the historic.  It’s the perfect city-size: full of interesting and varied activities, but easy to navigate (once you get used to the crisscrossing highways).  It’s also a surprisingly “green” city, with large expanses of protected land, a lovely university campus (CSU), a renowned arboretum, and even a national park.  It had everything we wanted, and ended up costing us half what we would have spent elsewhere.  Definite win.

An easy highway drive brought us to our hotel, located in nearby Independence, OH, a small suburb only ten minutes from Cleveland proper.  This is a great area to stay in because 1.) you save a lot of money compared to hotels downtown, and 2.) you are right next to the Cuyahoga National Park.  Independence also has easy access to restaurants and stores, handy for last-minute meals or when you suddenly need a pharmacy.  My more-adventurous side would have sooner found a secluded spot to camp in, rather than shell out for a hotel room at all.  But my lady had this crazy idea that a proper vacation to a city should include things like running water and a roof.  Weird right?  We decided to save the camping options for our next visit (and if anyone has tips, please share).  Anyway, you’ll get the best lodging deal over in Independence, where you can choose from a dozen hotels ranging from the luxurious to the usual cheap chains.

For our first night in Cleveland, we hit up the Great Lakes Brewing Company (GLBC).  I was already a big fan of their beers, and couldn’t wait to visit the source of such libatious glory.  It’s located in Ohio City, a downtown neighborhood with some nice brickwork and neo-classical architecture.  We had dinner at the GLBC brew pub and ordered some stupendous fish n’ chips.  The cod was battered with their Edmund Fitzgerald porter, a dark and malty ale named in honor of the famed shipwreck in Lake Superior (GLBC has a lot of regional pride).   The house fries were worthy of epic balladry – possibly the best I’ve ever had.  It is not often that a french fry becomes a sensory experience in one’s memory, yet I can conjure up that taste even now.  I paired this feast with a draft of a flavorful dunkelweizen (dark wheat ale) dubbed Lorelai, a pub-exclusive brew unfortunately not for sale outside of the bar.  If anyone at Great Lakes Brewery is reading this: bottle that beer!  I’d be a happy, happy man with a case of Lorelai.

The glories of the Great Lakes Brewing Co.

Next up came a tour of the brewery.  Our guide made it fun and educational.  Fair warning, Ohio state law prohibits the actual giving-away of alcohol, so the brewery is obligated to charge 25 cents per tasting.  So have some quarters on hand.  And be sure to spend some dough in the gift-shop, because GLBC is a worthy cause!  Not only do they brew fantastic beers, they do so with an eye towards sustainability and integrity.  They use locally-sourced ingredients, strive for zero-waste manufacturing, use green energy designs in the plant, and their delivery truck runs on veggie oil!  These guys are doing it right.  I even bought a t-shirt!

(And I never buy the t-shirt.)

African elephant

Next day, we headed over to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.  Now, I hadn’t been to a zoo since I was a teenager, and I do harbor some ethical qualms about them.  On the one hand, education and conservation are worthy missions.  On the other, a cage is a cage, and there is arguably an innate cruelty in confining certain animals that are biologically wired to roam over miles of territory.  But, I took off my activist/philosopher hat for the day, and just enjoyed myself.  The Cleveland Zoo is big (165 acres), much bigger than it seems on the cartoonish map you get at the entrance.  It’s laid out well, although part of it was built atop a hill, which involves a bit of hiking (unless you’re a wuss and opt to take the shuttle).  The zoo is laid out by bio-region, and there are buildings with indoor exhibits which are like mini-zoos in themselves – a rainforest building, an aquarium, and the largest primate collection in North America.  Throughout you’ll find the sorts of animals one expects – elephants, camels, lions, giraffes – as well as rarities like the aptly named aye-aye and the sleek fossa, which looks like a cougar mixed with a dog mixed with a weasel.  It took us about five hours to see everything, and we are the type of people who like to go slow and savor.

The animals all seemed active and in good health, although (and here comes that activist hat) one never knows what sort of mental or emotional issues are going on internally.  There was one thing I know I’ll always remember.  I was approaching the gorilla exhibit and I saw these thick, black fingers gripping through the fence with what could only be bored resignation.  The stoic ape was hunched over, brow furrowed, staring at the ground.  I met this gorilla’s eyes, and saw such a complexity of intelligence and emotion in them that I wanted to knock down the walls (this of course would not have been an improvement for anyone’s situation).  It was a haunting thing.  But in the zoo’s defense, they also have the Gorilla Health Project, which aims to address health issues of zoo-bound gorillas.  So that’s good.  The zoo in fact seemed to have a lot of ongoing conservation efforts, which is what I like to see.  Gorillas of course are highly endangered, so the question of holding them and other higher species in captivity becomes more complicated.  Is it right or wrong to detain thinking, feeling individuals for the sake of preserving the whole species?  Perhaps an argument for another day.

Young black rhinoceros

Despite these bittersweet musings, the zoo was a lot more fun than I expected.  We saw things we’d never otherwise see, sometimes at very close range (I could nearly pat the heads of the rhinos), and got a bunch of good exercise.  For dinner we returned to Independence and ate a great meal at Aladdin’s Eatery, a restaurant chain that is far too delicious and mindful of quality to be a restaurant chain.  They offer wonderful and affordable Lebanese food and revitalizing fresh-made juices and smoothies.  Best falafel I’ve had outside of NYC.  We rounded out the night back at the hotel with a sixer of Dortmunder Gold (GLBC’s flagship German-style lager) and the lame novelty of cable television (we don’t have t.v. service at home, so it’s always an amusement when we come across it).  We watched three hours of Mythbusters and made fun of stupid commercials.  Pleasant end to a pleasant day.

Coming up: the Cuyahoga N.P., the Museum of Art, and Cleveland’s renowned West Side Market.

Literary Momentum in the Post-Postmodern Age

12 Jun

Is there any art as fickle, evasive or misunderstood as poetry?  Tell someone you’re a poet some time, just for fun, and watch the stages of their expression – the eyes narrow almost imperceptibly before they catch themselves, maybe the chin juts out for a moment, before they give what they hope to be a supportive grunt and a sympathetic head nod.  “That’s great! The world needs poetry, right?”

Right.  Except you wouldn’t know it from the state of the field.  The arts are well-known to be a temperamental pursuit at best, the realm of dreamers, derelicts and the dead.  Success means having your work seen, perhaps even admired, by anyone not already a friend or relative.  This has become infinitely easier with technology (blogging, e-book publishing), although self-publishing routes can (but don’t always) devolve into ego-stroking self-delusion, a hollow victory.  And economic viability?  “Don’t quit your day job” they say, and that’s the unfortunate truth.  Unless you are blessed by an unusually lucky star, know all the right folks, and (possibly the lesser factor) have something new to say that people want to hear, your artistic career is going to necessarily be supported by a palette of menial jobs.  The starving artist? That’s no joke.

The most common path for modern American writers is educational – they plod their way through English and creative writing programs, learn the right moves, and have doors already open for them when the time comes to make a name.  Browse through the average college-run literary journal, and the majority of the writers you see are graduates of some sort of program, and many of them are teachers themselves – completing the insular circle of literary life.  Without going too far from my point, let me say that this state of American literature, created and perpetuated through the ivory tower, has a major downside.  Don’t get me wrong – I love literary magazines.  The universities that put them out do a tremendous service to our culture.  However, as with any art that becomes an institution, a stylistic homogeneity begins to take shape.  Trends appear, and as usual, the victim is any divergent style or sensibility.  Editors admire the work which resonates with the educational channels they took themselves.  Writers mimic (consciously or -un) the style which they have learned and which they see in the journals, because they want to be in there too.  And we’re left with a dull trajectory that does little more than fulfill its own expectations.  New and challenging voices are boxed out in the name of self-perpetuating mediocrity.

This isn’t anyone’s fault.  People pursue literary degrees because they love it, and people go into teaching (hopefully) because they love it, and editors work on magazines because they love it, and so on.  It’s all love, and yet the inevitable happens, and the literary sphere becomes esoterically bland, cannibalizes itself, regurgitates trends of style and education.  And what is the current stylistic trend that has prompted my rant here?  Well in fiction, it’s something I’ve seen a growing number of critics and editors complain about.  It’s this postmodernist, self-aware, meta-referential, first-person-casual approach to story-telling.  It’s this structural and tonal uniformity I keep finding, a hollow sameness.  Something’s missing – heart maybe, or courage, or insight.  Emerging writers seem to take the advice of “write what you know” and then produce safe, tepid stories of suburban ennui, cynical disenchantment, PC hipster irony, college confusion, childhood memories, domesticity, etc etc.  Much of modern literary-fiction has come to be conversational, almost reality-television-esque.  Stories like to focus on recognizable mundanity – it’s like having coffee with someone who is telling you a half-way interesting anecdote.  The literary scene has become rife with passive voices, prefab creative-writers who are brimming with craft but neglecting art, like a blacksmith who forges perfect hoops for wooden barrels but couldn’t pein a decorative door handle to save his life.

Okay, I’m glad I got that out of my system.  And let me amend my tirade – I’ve yet to publish anything, I have very little formal education, and I don’t write a tenth as much as I should, so my opinions on this should be taken with generous spoonfuls of salt.  I just wanted to vent an observation I’ve had about the modern literary state of America, because frankly, I know there are amazing writers out there.  I’d like to see university-driven literary journals have better funding and grow in numbers, but even more, I’d like to see non-collegiate journals flourish.  We need to revive literature and foster its expansion, because that will result naturally in more diversity and more voices, and a richer culture overall.

Now back to poetry.  If it’s tough making a name in fiction-writing, it’s borderline impossible in poetry.  Because who reads poetry?  Who goes out and buys poetry books, subscribes to literary magazines, attends readings?  Other poets, that’s who.  And there are not really enough of us to create a booming industry on our own.  Poetry is quixotic, a doomed quest.  The ratio of published, self-sustained poets to the number of poets in general has got to be staggeringly low, a fraction of a fraction.  We accept this, and hope to achieve at least some dignity in trying.  It will be interesting in the coming years to see how technology reshapes this paradigm.  I already see growing numbers of online literary journals, e-books, blogs, tweets, and what have you.  As a grumpy old throwback who considers the sensory experience of actual printed paper to be inimitable, I have mixed feelings on all that.  But perhaps it will democratize the writing world for the better.  The downside of course to those self-publishing avenues is the lack of built-in quality control – the role of external gatekeeper, traditionally played by editors and publishers but increasingly disappearing.  When “anyone” can become a “published” writer through modern technological channels, writing itself feels cheapened, and it becomes really hard to find the gems among all that slush.  It’s an ongoing debate with some complex factors, the broken system of traditional publishing not the least of them.  We’ll see what happens.

For now, all I can say is, if you’re a writer, keep on writing.  And if you’re a reader, keep on reading.  And if you’re a poet, well… you have my deepest sympathies.  :)

Why Write? In Defense of Discontentment

25 Apr

“Why do you write?”

This question was posed to me recently for a class assignment, and harmless as it might seem, it immediately sent my mind into a spiral of abstract and tangential questions, like “What is art?”  “What is beauty?”  “What is meaning?”  “What makes it meaningful?”  “Why do we search for it?”  “Why do we do anything?”

It was a long night, I’ll tell ya.

Well, people are weird.  That much I know.  For as long as we’ve been banging rocks together and looking at the stars, we’ve channeled our weirdness into amazing displays of creativity and thought.  We’ve painted cave walls and church ceilings, built towers and tanks and toilet bowls, blasted our brethren into outer-space.  But why?  What makes humans so uniquely obsessed with all this constant mucking about and manipulation?  When it comes to simply being animals on planet Earth, why are we so weird?

Goya's Sleep of Reason

Goya's "Sleep of Reason"

When people talk about the “human condition”, what immediately comes to my mind is our perpetual discontentment.  This might sound like a negative thing at first, but actually it’s what makes everything move forward; culturally, scientifically, politically, artistically.  With our tremendous capacity for conceptualization, we can’t help but analyze and reinvent everything around us – tearing down and building up.  It drives our achievements, and the fulfillment of that urge, the attainment of satisfaction, means a slow, mediocre death for progress.  The constant restlessness of humanity is both essential and inescapable – the bane and the boon of our existence.

Now, a question like “Why do you write” can certainly be a fun intellectual and creative exercise, and no doubt I could muster up some sort of profound bullshit to make it all seem very inspiring and inevitable.  But really, there is no easy answer for me, and I won’t pretend there is.  Me, I didn’t grow up wanting to be a writer.  When I was a kid, I wanted to be a paleontologist.  And then I wanted to be a cartoonist.  And then I wanted to be an architect.  But throughout all that, the one thing I’ve always been, and always hope to be, is an explorer.  Explorers are impelled by insatiable curiosity and unrest, and I see every artist as an explorer, in league with Jacque Cousteau or Ernest Shackleton.

Exploring is how we grow, personally and as a civilization.  And one of my favorite ways to explore has always been writing.  I was the kid in class who loved essay assignments while everyone else around me groaned.  Still am, actually.  Later on, as an angsty teen, I began to write terrible poetry (who didn’t?).  I was exploring my identity, trying to understand who I was and where I fit.  Then as I got older, and the pressure was on for me to choose a direction in life, people began pushing me to pursue a writing career.  And when my first college made me the “Featured Writer” of their journal, I considered it for a minute. But discontentment soon reared its head.

I was a good student, but I wasn’t satisfied with where I was or where I was heading. For better or worse, a stronger force began working within me.  It was what my grandmother would call “that old gypsy blood”, the restless seduction of the new and uncharted.  I was feeling directionless and powerless, unimpressed with the options on the table and drawn to the Siren song of new adventure.  Thus, in true explorer fashion, and without very much thought for the future, I abandoned the predictable and turned my back on school, home and economic viability.  I quit my job, broke my lease, sold my stuff, and hit the road.

Frontispiece from the book - South: Shackleton's Last Expedition

I traveled about for years, settling momentarily here and there, but never long enough for roots to touch ground.  I was thirsty for life and drunk with freedom, an American pioneer.  But I was also running away, Peter-panning, breaking through the atmosphere of a prescribed world that simultaneously bored and terrified me.  I didn’t want to carve out a career, or start a family, or improve my credit score.  I just wanted to explore.  I guess I figured life would figure itself out, and all I had to do was drift, let the eddies do the work.  Then I blinked, and I was twenty-eight years old, and I realized I’d become stuck somehow.  I hadn’t actually escaped anything; I’d simply let myself sink, let the world wash over me.  I hadn’t outsmarted the system, or created anything new, or even found any meaningful answers, at least not any that, deep down, I hadn’t already known.

And that’s when I really began to write.  Poetry, short stories, essays.  Once I stopped running, and faced my discontentment head on, I discovered that the real “uncharted realm” wasn’t out there on the highways and train-tracks – it was something broader and deeper than physical space.  I wanted to be a vagabond on the sphere of ideas, a pilgrim of imagination.  I realized how much I love to think and research and learn and argue.  How much I love words, and lyricism and well-crafted language.  I realized that story-telling, whatever form it takes, is probably the greatest achievement that us weirdo humans ever came up with.  Right up there with hammocks, beer and bicycles.

The more I wrote, the happier it made me, so of course I did it some more – an animalistic pleasure response.  I discovered the beauty and acuity of poetry, the sheer joy of fiction – a thrill of omnipotence and creative surrender that made me feel like a kid again.  I had found a way to hold on to my fascination and creativity, a way to focus my restless, discontented energy in a way that might actually matter.  I had found my Neverland.

View from Pi'ilani Highway in Maui, HI

View from Pi'ilani Highway in Maui, HI

So that’s why I do it.  I definitely don’t write under any illusions of fame and fortune waiting on the horizon.  I don’t know whether my words will mean anything to anyone but myself.  I just write, because I want to share, and understand, and create, and expand.  I write because if I didn’t get at least some of these synapses down on paper (or computer screen), I’d be just a little less happy and a little more nuts.  There’s no easy answer to why we feel this compulsion to create, to push boundaries and be heard.  Perhaps, like George Mallory climbing Everest, we do it because “it’s there”, a crucible standing before us, waiting to see if we have what it takes to go just a little further.  Maybe there is an intangible divinity of human spirit pushing us to become the best versions of ourselves.  Maybe we’re dissatisfied, over-thinking apes, screaming defiantly into the void.  Or, maybe we’re just weird.

Personally, my money’s on that last one.

~

Forgotten Places

9 Apr

Whenever I come across abandoned space, I’m drawn in.  I want to rummage in the shells of the past, imagine the stories left inside of forgotten walls.  The above picture doesn’t seem like anything very special, just a closed-down pool supply store on a busy highway outside of Philadelphia.  Yet, as I drove past it, I had to pull over, poke around, take a picture.  It wasn’t specifically amazing, and I’d bet I was the only person on that highway all day to give the building a second glance.  But there was something beautiful about it, and I spent the rest of the day dreaming of that building’s past and of its future, wondering about the people who invested themselves into it, and the happiness or despair it may have witnessed.  I imagined the space in a hundred years, wondered if the building would still stand; would it be converted into a store selling Tang and personal jet-packs?  Or would it be devoured by the surrounding woods, covered in creeping vines, with young trees growing straight through the roof?

I’ve always loved to explore abandoned places.  As a kid I would poke around boarded-up houses in the neighborhood, wander empty lots, even walk into big drainage pipes, feet sloshing through rain water.  I was fascinated by anything discarded or unacknowledged.  I’d peek into dumpsters (when my mother wasn’t watching, of course) and wonder what kind of strange treasures might lie therein.  When I got older, this impulse did not leave me as I started traveling the country.  Abandoned buildings became not just a fascination but also my temporary homes.  I’ve inhabited some odd places: neglected school houses, empty office building rooftops, condemned ghetto high-rises, the iron ruins of old factories.  There was a thrill in exploring these places, climbing and crawling around, bedding down among the artifacts of a forgotten life.

And, I discovered that those mysterious dumpsters of my youth really did have treasure in them.  It’s true!  The sheer glut of American excess would astound you.  One could find all kinds of working electronics, surplus clothing still wrapped in plastic, books, appliances, even whole cases of still-packaged, unexpired, completely salable and edible food.  And there was a simple, child-like joy in it, like being on an Easter egg hunt, the wide-eyed pursuit of unknown fortune.  It also brought to light the heart-breaking waste of the first-world, waste which certainly still happens.  Except now, the dumpsters have been replaced by unapproachable trash-compactors, much to the dismay of scavengers of all species.

A friend sits writing in the hall of a squatted high-rise

 

The crazy thing about a life on the road – and I mean really on the road, no hotel rooms, no rental cars, no brunching at the vineyard – is that you never actually know what is going to happen on a day to day basis.  This sounds like a simple enough thing, but think about how controlled our lives are.  How often do you wake up without knowing, at least generally, what lies in store for the day?  And whenever we are shaken out of this security, it is unwillingly, unpleasant, often due to some kind of tragedy, making us long for the comfort of our routine.  But what if you made the choice to nurture the possibilities of the unknown?  What if you consciously discarded the predictable, and let “fortune”, whatever name you want to give it, write your story for a while?  I don’t mean to romanticize things; I’ve slept in dumpsters and alleys too, battled frost-bite, rain and angry property owners.  It isn’t all carefree vagabondage: sometimes it’s getting mugged by random crackheads for your beer, or diarrhea in a remote span of woodland, with nary a toilet for miles.  But sometimes… sometimes it is a beautiful, indescribably liberating, utterly joyful and peaceful thing.  Sometimes you sit on a cliff-side and eat sandwiches in the early morning, as the sun is just inching over the horizon, and look down on the world and smile.  Because that world is yours, and you are it, and you are fully your own self yet part of everything else, too.  In our anxious and disconnected times, it’s a feeling that can really approach holiness.  I would not say it’s a path for everyone.  But I would say that however you do it, it’s good to sometimes find ways to step out of your insulation, to let go of our conditioned control over life, and let life happen to you.

Down & Out on a Desert Mesa – [Retrospective]

25 Mar

Not far outside of Taos, New Mexico, there’s a stretch of raw, scrubby desert inhabited by the oddest assortment of people.  Here you’ll find young eco-yuppie families living in yurts and earth-ships, burnt out war veterans in sheet-metal shacks, gun-hoarding wingnuts, cultish hippies, freedom-loving anarchists, ranchers, ramblers and rogues.  They’re drawn here by dreams or desperation, hoping to start fresh, paint new lives on the desert’s wide, blank canvas.  Some are just hoping to play out the rest of their days unnoticed and unfettered, quietly drowning in their own histories, demons and addictions.  And some have simply washed up there by chance, relegated to society’s fringe by circumstance or lack of options.  This somewhat uncivilized off-grid realm is known locally, and often with a tone of disdainful mystery, as “the Mesa”.

Now I don’t know what it’s like these days, but when I lived there, the Mesa was considered by the “townies” of Taos to be a lawless and chaotic Neverland.  The roads were packed, rutted dirt, that mangled axles and became an impassable mess in bad weather.  We’d often walk or hitchhike those treacherous roads, sooner than drive them – even when it meant hauling water or food back home on our backs.  Dwellings were spaced far apart, dotting a drab landscape of sage-like silvery wormwood, spreading monochromatically like asphalt in every direction.  I compare it to asphalt because the plant is an introduced species, overly-proliferative, smothering what little diversity a high-desert ecosystem might normally have.  It suppresses the growth of any other desert vegetation, thwarting the potential of beneficial grasses and vibrant flowers: squashed before they could even bloom.

Pulling up sage became a daily job on our half-acre of land, the humble patch of dry, scraggly Earth which I had bought with my closest friend, right at the onset of winter.  We had bought this land as an antidote to the trappings of the culture around us, a chance to rebuild at least our own subjective realities.  We were young and full of ideas, pursuing self-sufficiency and sustainability and freedom.  We wanted to build houses out of dirt and grow corn and beans, write books and push boundaries.  So we pulled up those scratchy sage bushes to clear areas for building, pulled them up to dry for firewood, pulled them up because we were sick of looking at them.  For me, the sage became a ubiquitously irritating metaphor.  But at least it smelled good when it burned.

I had loved the western high-desert at first sight.  Some combination of the crisp, thin air, the endless skies, an indefinable sense of directness and truth.  It felt boundless – an ocean of possibility, and we were ready to dive in.  We purchased our half-acre from a rather shady character, bundled in a puffy coat, shifty and mysterious behind dark sunglasses.  He had made it clear that he needed to get out of town.  Fast.  And was thus willing to give us a pretty excellent deal on his property.  We handed him a wad of cash at the county clerk’s office, and relished our apparent good fortune.

We didn’t ask questions.

The half-acre had good drainage and a nice view of a nearby hill, actually an inactive volcano.  It came with some tools, a run-down RV, a basic shed, and a smashed-up SUV.  The tools were a blessing, as was the RV, since my friend had a wife and a baby to worry about, and adequate shelter was something they had been sorely lacking.  After we installed a wood-burning stove in it, the RV became a pleasant and relatively safe little home for their budding family.  The junked SUV left on the property was less useful.  It was an ugly eye-sore, and at times we would go at it with a pick-axe or a sledge-hammer, enjoying the satisfying crunch of metal meeting metal – our cathartic, symbolic revolt against the suburban culture we had grown up to despise.

While my friends now had the RV, my only home was still my van, furnished with several plastic storage bins, and a large sheet of plywood laid over top for a sleeping surface.  The storage bins contained mostly books.  A lot of books.  Way more books than someone who was, for all intents and purposes, a homeless traveling bum, would ever actually need to keep on hand.  I also had a bin of clothes, though that one stayed shut most of the time, since it was winter and I was pretty much wearing everything I owned.  The New Mexican high-desert is, technically, part of the Rocky Mountains – the lower foothills.  Our elevation was around 7000 feet, and the winter was bitter.  Luckily, I had a quality down-filled sleeping bag that a friend in Virginia (I’ll always be grateful, Hap) gifted me when I first started traveling.  That, combined with multiple hooded sweatshirts and three layers of socks, kept the threat of frost-bite at bay. But the chill nights did offer one spectacular compensation – the most amazing, mouth-gaping, breath-taking starry skies I have ever seen, and maybe ever will.  A fair trade, I say.

Living on the mesa was, at first, a liberating but challenging adventure.  We were free from the utility grid-system, the duties and despair of consumer/wage-earner culture, and the oft-oppressive constraints of society at large.  Ensuring our supply of things like adequate water and firewood was a daily concern, but there was something satisfying in working for our immediate survival.  We had big dreams about growing our own food, building with sustainable techniques, using wind and solar, learning new skills, et cetera and so on.  My friend had been my closest cohort for a few years at this point, my hetero-life-partner I liked to say, and this was our dream coming true.  I felt optimistic about everything, like we were truly reinventing things – not just with arm-chair theorizing and reactionary protest, not just with letters to Congress and pamphlets and angry music, but by actually going out and creating the lives we wanted.

Three Peaks

Three Peaks Mt., as seen from our half-acre

But something happened out there.  The disconnection from civilization, while a welcome respite for me, seemed to gnaw at the happiness and sanity of my friend.  His less-admirable tendencies began to take over, and he became isolated, a bit neurotic.  Meanwhile, other people  had come to stay on our land with us, a turn of events that didn’t turn out so well for me.  Without divulging messy details, I can only say that I saw some dark sides of human nature during these months.  It eventually became clear to me that it was time to move on.  My friend and I had a falling out, culminating in my escape from the desert, and the abandonment of my emotional and material investment therein.  The dream, unceremoniously, came crashing down.

My exodus from the desert was, in retrospect, a good and necessary thing.  It allowed me to grow, though I was sorry that it came at the price of a friendship.  We’ve since made amends, and perhaps he is stronger for having faced the “abyss” and returned.  Me, I had a new chapter of life ahead of me.  Because fortunately (and thank the gods!), it seems the old adage is true – when one door closes, another always opens.  During that strange and dramatic period out on the Mesa, I had also met a girl.  My love.  And we soon began our own dream together, on greener pastures with happier endings.  We traveled insatiably, all over the country – first cramped with a dog in a sub-compact car, then later wandering the country again in another van, vastly more comfortable than my last (this one had an actual bed installed – goodbye plywood!)  Nowadays, we’re a bit more sedentary, and we’re saving up to buy another piece of land, our own version of paradise.  So that particular dream, bruised and tangled as it is by the past, does smolder on.  Dreams can be resilient things.

When I think about the mesa – with its population of the untamed, the hopeful and the hopeless, with its bleak landscapes and extreme conditions, its drug-addicts and activists and lost, aging souls – I think about dignity.  Simple dignity, the goal that I believe underlies many of our decisions in life.  It’s the hunt for dignity which pushes us into low-paying jobs and car leases we can’t afford.  It’s dignity we long for when arguing with relatives or fighting alcoholism or talking our way out of a speeding ticket.  And it’s dignity which has me still hoping to one day own my own bit of Earth again, to create a home and a name and a purpose in this crazy, chaotic, beautifully confounding world.

“Without dreams, there can be no courage. And without courage, there can be no action.”

– Wim Wenders