Living in the Moment

Moment of Impact

Then comes the day when idealism, providence, and hope collide. The result is not the burst of rainbows you’d expect. The impact cracks open the ground under your feet. The dark place yawning wide smells wrong. The edges crumble. You seek purchase, you reach, but your happy trio is nowhere to be seen. Maybe they were reduced to ash. Maybe they were always just the curls of sandalwood smoke some ancient incubus left burning on the sill.

On that day, don’t peer in. Definitely don’t look down. Feel your way to the closest book and check only that it is not your own. Crack the spine. Open any door on any page. Then step through.

This, from the Stephen Mitchell interpretation of the Tao Te Ching, Passage 13:

Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.

What does it mean that success is as dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
your position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
you will always keep your balance.

What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?
Hope and fear are both phantoms
that arise from thinking of the self.
When we don’t see the self as self,
what do we have to fear?

See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self;
then you can care for all things.


Fight or Flight

Express yourself completely,
then keep quiet.
Be like the forces of nature:
when it blows, there is only wind;
when it rains, there is only rain;
when the clouds pass, the sun shines through.
Tao Te Ching, 10

We are dressed for the day. A Tupperware of cinnamon toast and eggs is ready for Bug to scarf down on the commute. The only thing left is walking the dog. I offer Bug the choice to stay in the house with granddaddy or come with me. He fiddles with his legos, weighing his options. Usually the dog’s constitutional is an all-business trot down the cul-de-sac. Ten minutes, tops. While I know better than to take the kid when we are in a hurry, the situation calls for adaptation.
“Gramma Genie can walk her,” he tells me.
“Gramma Genie is in Dallas, remember? Your great grandma Mardy fell and broke her hip.”
“Oh yeah,” he remembers. “What did they have to do for the operation?”
Many mornings, Bug will hang around my mother’s room chewing the fat as she gussies herself up for her workday. My father sequesters himself in the basement to write. In the blessed reprieve, I can buzz around packing lunches and walking the dog, half hearing that mode of relentless interrogation only a 5-year-old can pull off. This week, the big bedroom upstairs is quiet. Bug tags along after me instead. Great Grandma Mardy needs my mother right now much more than we do, so I attempt to move along at a steady clip while also keeping expectations down where they belong. Bug’s ceaseless chatter accompanies me. I explain as briefly as I can how hip replacement works and what the word “rehabilitation” means. I remind him he is supposed to be choosing between the dog and granddaddy.
Bug glances at the wan light coming from a too-quiet basement. The old man is no match for the outdoors. “I want to walk with you,” he tells me.
Racing down the driveway, Bug kicks through a puddle. It has rained torrents every night for the better part of a week. Giant mushrooms bloom low in the grass and a creek the length of the block has formed along the edge of the blacktop. Fenway snuffles, squashing tiny wild strawberries as she goes. The scent of honeysuckle drapes itself over the mist.
Ahead, Bug sees Cleo dart into a gauze of brambles. Our skinny calico cat often joins us on these jaunts, keeping her haughty distance. In an instant, she is invisible, her patches blending into the spongy decay of last season’s canopy. Bug turns to me, impulse flashing across his face.
“Let’s go on an adventure!”
I feel a sigh gather steam but I quell it. It is getting late. The dog roots around in the puddles. She has peed so we are done here. “It’s awfully wet, baby,” I say, “and we need to get to school.”
“It’s not too wet,” he says. He steps off the blacktop and his feet sink into the muck. I groan. He shrugs. “It’s okay. It’s only a little wet.”
The cat is visible for a moment, stalking her imaginary prey. She creeps further into the shadows. Bug watches her, keeping one eye on me. He is primed. “We have to chase her,” he explains.
“We’ve already gotten all dressed for school. I’m wearing my work clothes.”
“We can change our socks. You will dry off at work.” He grins at me, momentum quivering from toes to scalp. His gaze twinkles with something like. . . flirtation? I’m a sucker for a charmer. No and Yes start throwing punches. The crowd presses in, choosing sides. The determination to distinguish myself in my profession joins the clock in clanging out support for the clear favorite.
The underdog’s backers are silent.

Open yourself to the Tao,
then trust your natural responses;
and everything will fall into place.

Sometimes the hardest steps are the simplest to take. The playground scuffle goes on, but I tear myself away and look only at my son splashed across the canvas of the morning. How many of us get to kick off the workday by ducking into the wild woods? My grandma in that post-op hospital room would probably surrender her reserve seat in heaven for one last moment exactly like this.
“Let’s go get that kitty,” I say. I unclip the dog’s lead. Bug chants “Yay, yay, yay!” as he ducks under the vines and plunges into shadow. We are deep in when a breeze awakens the leaves and showers us with a morning-after rain. We look up through the blue-green awning at the sun making its way through a weave of branch and cloud. Bug and Fenway follow the incensed cat down into a creek-bed and up onto a soggy log. She leaps away and we part a congregation of weeds whispering at our calves.
Our ragtag foursome dips and climbs through summer then winter and even next year’s spring. We burrow through the earth’s core and emerge from the mouth of a cave that smells of seawater and smoke. We wander through a valley teeming with cockatiels that screech from the low branches of mango trees. Every person we have ever known has grown old and died. A waterfall as tall as a mountain washes us free of memory.
Bug parts a curtain of ivy and we spill out onto the road. The cat bounds back towards the house, her tail arched in irritation. My son’s face is wild with pink light and his legs are streaked with mud. “We came out all the way down here!” We have exited fewer than twenty feet from our entry point, but I share his wonder. The continent has shifted in our absence, and nothing will ever be the same.
We dash back to our house and peel off socks and shoes. I take the stairs two at a time to change the whole outfit because three inches of damp trouser cuff might blow my cover. I may be a feral thing, but I still have to don my breathing apparatus to survive in the world of steel and glass.
No one knows where we have been. How could we begin to explain? We slipped through a tear in the damp fabric of the morning and crawled onto the beach alongside those first gilled beasts. Only a skittish cat, one lop-eared dog, a boy and his mama recall what happened here, but our recollection is fading fast. In the car, Bug and I speak of quotidian things, of weekend plans and hip surgery. When we attempt to fit what we have witnessed into the shape of language, our tongues founder.
I know only this: When all the clocks in the world demanded we stay on solid ground, we stepped off the edge. We made our way back, but we may not stay for long. Do we have years or decades? Will we will reach ninety-two or knock off next week? No one gets out of here unscathed. For every moment we claim as our own, we will pay. It is only a matter of time.

If you open yourself to loss,
you are at one with loss
and you can accept it completely.

Walk the dog or stay home? Get wet or stay dry? Everything we love, even the very selves we occupy, might be gone in a blink. Knowing this, what choice do we have but to step over and meet what is here?

Mitchell, Stephen. Tao Te Ching. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.

Living in the Moment, Outdoors

Maiden Name

The unnamable is the eternally real.

Tao Te Ching

In Shenandoah, the first of the wildflowers are beginning to open. A few eager trees lead the pack, popping with pastel confetti. We walk slowly, the dog in tow. Coming here was a last-minute plan for a lazy Sunday. Giovanni’s pack is perfectly provisioned, as always. He has brought not only water and mixed nuts, but a first aid kit, toilet paper, and a knife. Should we end up stuck here a few extra hours, he has a flashlight and an emergency radio.
My pack contains two Audubon guides and a single wilted band-aid. The latter makes a passable bookmark. Also, I remembered my boots.
On the way up the Compton Gap trail, we spot the first of the small purple blossoms tucked into the crevices of the cool rocks. I am fairly certain of their name, but I stop anyway. Flipping through my wildflower book, I find a matching description. With their fifth petal a pointed tongue, violets are almost impossible to mistake for anything else. Among the earliest arrivals in the Appalachian chain, they are poorly hidden Easter eggs, peeking up from random turns in the trail.
At an outcrop, we drop our packs and peel off our fleece jackets. The sun has joined us, brushing against the early leaves. Many trees are still bare-knuckled, fighting a pointless battle against a forgiving sky. One, however, is feathered in a cloud of snowy blossoms that spring from a clutch of slender trunks. She is probably more accurately called a shrub, but since she stands as tall as any of the surrounding oaks, she deserves the more robust title. She seems to think so, too, puffing herself out over the edge of the mountain. Neither her more staid companions nor the wide-open pull of gravity intimidate the brazen thing.
I try to find the tree-shrub in my book, seeking out “white radially symmetrical blossoms.” Her leaves are still embryonic while her slender petals insist on their pull towards day. They are long and translucent tissues, five to a blossom, veined with cracks that make them appear both newborn and wizened.  I cannot find the tree despite trying to match the thin, vertical striations of her bark and the dried leaves below to the photos in the glossy pages. She clearly exists, and it tickles me to imagine I have beaten John Audubon to the pleasure of an introduction. One last time, I look into the yellow-tipped stamens and the blushing bud where the petals grip the branch. The tree is herself. Her greeting of the sun is no less bright for the absence of a name.
Above, an airplane grumbles past, then another. They are high enough in the thin streak of clouds to be invisible, but their whine echoes against the valley and does not end, not for one breath during our extended moment on the mountain. We rest there on the exposed rock, stretching pores and bone. Giovanni has stashed a surprise in his bottomless pack. We share a piece of chocolate cake, taking slow, melting bites.
Down the path, we stop again. Where a trickle of water slicks the rocks dark, more bright clusters shoulder their way through the soil. I park myself on the side of the trail and bend close. The tiny blossoms are no bigger than my pinkie nail. They are white. Even the centers with their aurora of hair-like petals are white. The stems, a furred and frosted green, stand in close bunches with an explosion of flowers at the end of each. Giovanni a little further up the hill. I am worried he is bored, but he tells me to take my time. He steps closer and leans in. “That one?” he asks, glancing between page and blossom.  “No,” he says, answering his own question. “This one is too white in the middle. It’s not as fuzzy, either.” He rests on his haunches, holding the lead as Fenway snuffles in the damp soil. After a few quiet passes, I close the book and shrug.
“Maybe it’s a wildflower,” he tells me.
“Yeah, a wildflower.” We begin walking again. At the crossroads where the Compton Gap spur crosses the Appalachian Trail, a small marbling of grayish white appears at our feet.
“What’s that?” Giovanni asks. This time, he is the first to crouch. I join him. Our foreheads touching, we gaze at the alien flower. It is a midget, milky and bulbous and growing in the low shade. It is nothing anyone would call “beautiful.” Small shoots of the simultaneously spiked and rounded flower push through the moss. We gaze together, naming what we see before we even open the book.

“It is sort of pink underneath.”
“The stalk is furry.”
“The leaves are ovals. See the veins? And they are spread out on the ground.”
We count the seeds, if that is what they are. Finally, I pull out the guide and we leaf through the pages. “No,” he murmurs. “Uh, uh. Keep going.” Then, he cries, “That one!” His shout gets the dog’s attention. She trots over, ears up. All three of us hover between flower and page.
“Plantain-leaf Pussytoes,” I read.
He chuckles. “Pussytoes.” I turn to the page with the description and as I read it out, Giovanni touches the flower, nodding as the particulars of the living thing fall into line with the words describing it. “That’s it,” he says.
We are up, a second wind carrying down the final stretch of the trail towards the car. I am giddy about the flower and its name. “We found one!”
“Two,” he corrects. “That bluebell thing, too.”
“Blue violet,” I say.
We have found nothing, of course, nothing but a series of letters in a book corresponding with what is right in front of us. Why does it satisfy so well, this puzzle and its specious solution? Why are we so compelled to bend in close and inspect the organs of a small, gray seed pod, and to describe it with such precision?
Vision cares nothing for beauty. It cares even less for the confines of language. The eye’s only pleasure is in gazing intently at a thing and painting the edges into memory, rubbing light against husk until a shape appears.Looking closely confirms what we know in our uneasy hearts: every incarnation both clings to and recoils from the earth itself. Borders bleed away. Shrub, stone, seed, sun: each works its component parts into the soles of our retreating boots, catching a lift to someplace entirely new so it can become something entirely different. We take comfort in image as it fades into name, then legend, then just a phantom whispering at the limits of memory. Meanwhile, the living thing has not only forgotten us, it is already gone.


Here, Now

When there is no desire,
all things are at peace.

-Tao Te Ching

Where is the snow?
Those of us who grew up with seasons rely on winter’s calibration. Without it, a melancholy itch infects the mood. Even though we cursed our frost-nipped fingers after a morning walk, the thin leather gloves with their 20 years of wear unfit for the job, the sting was welcome. The hand needs to curl, seeking of warmth in the compressed fist, drawing weak steam. Winter is for burrowing. It is for drawing in. The constriction, the stiff lean of pedestrians trying to compress into the shell of their insufficient layers, is a necessary discomfort. It is the chrysalis of winter. Without it, how can any of us crack open into spring’s new light? How can we become?
I watch my son bound down the dry cul-de-sac in nothing but a t-shirt, and I ache for him. This warming planet, his home? Out on the streets just beyond the cocoon of our neighborhood, swollen vehicles flash and roar as they barrel down. They crowd out the shoulders. Their velocity increases unchecked in the absence of winter’s forced caution.  Bug has no snow day. No crunch or silvery hush, no red nose, no vast and untamed place. My heart contracts under the weight of what is lost. The bending trail to the ice-crusted mountaintop no longer waits just outside his door. He cannot skate across the frozen expanse of a freshwater lake and immerse himself in the blue beyond.
And yet, he bounds. He lives in the Is Is Is. With no basis for comparison, his heart continues to surge, unburdened. The dog leaps alongside him at the end of her lead, and then the two are clambering up a heap of logs cut from a fallen tree in the neighbor’s yard. We count 59 rings before he charges off to press himself into the massive root ball that has released its grip on the thin soil.
What is my nostalgia to him? Nothing at all. His pleasure and his rage are his own. They are not what I believe them to be, and they are not for the things I love. Nothing remains as it was. Only when I clutch at the before do I feel its clawing absence in the now. Bug rarely shows interest in the photo albums or the stories of an old camp life he does not know as his. My sorrow is my own private indulgence. I lick the wounds and secretly savor the taste. I do not wish to share this compulsion with my boy. His world belongs to him. It is exactly as it should be.
I breathe the sunlit air into the torn place in my chest and lift my eyes. At the same instant, my son pauses, glancing skyward. Up in the branches, the exultant song of a cardinal welcomes the February spring.

Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.

– Tao Te Ching