Friday, December 16, 2011

Be Here Now: More than Just a Great Song

"Be here now, no other place to be.
This whole world keeps changing, come change with me.
Everything that’s happened, all that’s yet to come
Is here inside this moment, it’s the only one."
-- Mason Jennings, "Be Here Now"

Where to begin? The time from my grandfather's unexpected death until now was a nonstop torrent. Exhausting in many ways, it has finally subsided and left me back home in Amherst on Friday night, with a hot fire in the woodstove, a dog and cat for company. Drinking a beer and listening to Bon Iver while my microwave lasagna cools, I'm pretty damn content with this peaceful, albeit hermit-like, occasion.

David Gessner writes that transcendent moments are often aided by beer. I would add great music to the list as well. So here goes some kind of attempt to find truth in my recent reality.

On our hike through the woods yesterday, Dorri (the two-year old golden retriever who occupies my parents' empty nest with more energy than my brothers and I ever combined for) and I came upon a big oak tree that had been chewed completely through its base by beavers. A beautiful wooden hourglass with a sizable carpet of chips beneath, it was the kind of precise effort any craftsman would admire. Yet it was all for naught. Early in its fall earthward – it would have been majestic – the great tree lodged against one of its forest cousins and never completed its descent. It remains stuck up there, its crown crookedly intruding on the neighbor's, waiting for some exceptional gust to send it crashing home.

Do you think the beavers were upset? All that work – imagine the toothaches – and no reward? It's tempting to picture the squat rodents gnashing incisors and slapping flat tails in frustration. Wikipedia even tells me there was an animated Nickelodeon show called “The Angry Beavers” that probably illustrated such imaginings (see what I missed out on growing up without cable?). But reality is not a Saturday morning cartoon set in Wayouttatown, Oregon. No, the beavers probably faced only momentary confusion at the abnormal result of their felling process before moving mechanically on to the next tree, the next lodge, the next dam.

If only it could sometimes be the same with people.

Annie Dillard tells a magnificent story in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek of a certain transcendent moment (no beer or music involved) that she stumbled upon outside of a gas station in Appalachia. Smelling her hot coffee, patting a stranger's puppy behind the ears, and watching a mountain sunset, the author is consumed by the sensory present. But, she writes,

the second I verbalize this awareness in my brain, I cease to see the mountain or feel the puppy. I am opaque, so much black asphalt. But at the same second, the second I know I've lost it, I also realize that the puppy is still squirming on his back under my hand. Nothing has changed for him.

For the nonhuman world, the present is the only concern. I think of a line from the rapper Atmosphere: “So now I keep a close eye on my pets / because they make most of their moves off of instinct and sense.” Imagine it: a life ruled by the senses. Pure experience of present moment, undiluted by excessive thought. The smell of woodsmoke. The taste of beer. The sound of guitar and harmonized voices. The fierce orange of burning coals. Nothing else.

I should clarify. I'm not saying we'd be better off living like all of Earth's other animals. I'm not saying we should reject our beautiful, analyzing, contextualizing brains in favor of primitivism. But there's a whole lot to be said for not over-analyzing, not over-contextualizing our experiences.

Reflecting on the puppy-mountain moment, Dillard writes, “Consciousness itself does not hinder living in the preset. In fact, it is only to a heightened awareness that the great door to the present opens at all.” Indeed, here on the couch, if I do not elevate my focus, I ignore the taste of the beer and the impossible brightness of the coals. The dissatisfaction, however, comes when I start thinking about myself doing these things instead of just doing them (Nike had a lot behind its “Just Do It” slogan, ya know), when I start picturing myself sitting here on a Friday night, unkempt and alone, start imagining alternatives to this reality (Matt at some crazy party, Matt on a date with a pretty girl, Matt anywhere but here). “Self-consciousness, however,” writes Dillard, “does hinder the experience of the present.” It's the over-thinking that kills, the “looking over my own shoulder,” as she calls it.

The same hike that found the beaver tree produced another example of beautiful simplicity when Dorri stumbled upon a Common Water Snake hidden in the leaves along the bank of Plum Brook. She stood erect, tense as a bowstring, as the black reptile bunched itself up and commenced a mesmerizing, twisting dance toward the water, gliding away from the dog while never taking its eyes off of her. Even I, a few yards removed from the scene, was momentarily entranced by its ancient energy. Of course, once the snake was out of sight, it was also out of mind for Dorri, as she hurtled away after a new olfactory intrigue. And although I replayed the episode in my head a few times (as I'm doing now), it wasn't long before I too returned to the forest in front of me, to the deep dark green of the pines and spruces, the grays of the leafless beeches and maples, the moist air and the indifferent slate of December sky. Back in my native woods, I was gladly complete in the moment.


It has been pretty easy to maintain such present-mindedness doing the kinds of things I've been doing lately. Two weeks ago tonight, I was on my way to Tucson, Arizona for a few days of ultimate frisbee and great fun. Team Train Wreck, clad in varying degrees of conductor outfits, was a ragtag bunch of players who either hailed from Santa Fe or, like me and a few other Carleton friends, were convinced to make the trip to Tucson by our unflinchingly upbeat captain, Sam. When we weren't playing bluegrass in between games, we played hard and competed admirably on the field, going 3-3 on the weekend and reaching the semifinals of the “Fun Bracket.” After spending all fall desperately beseeching and rarely convincing my co-workers to play ultimate with me in Texas, I can't tell you how wonderful it was to simply participate in a real tournament again. That feeling after four draining games on Saturday, the one where your entire body rebels at any movement whatsoever yet you find yourself waking up on Sunday to pop some ibuprofen and take the field again? Yeah, can't beat it.

We also happened to be there for probably the only rainy weekend Tucson will see for the next year. As a result, Saturday's games were moved an hour north to drier fields in Tempe. At the end of the day, this shift in location led to the wildest twist of the weekend when Drew's car broke down with all five members of the Carleton contingent inside it shortly after leaving the fields. Closer inspection on Sunday revealed a break in the exhaust pipe that we could have driven back to Tucson with, but we were exhausted and the rain had just arrived in Tempe, so we decided to utilize all 100 miles of free towing that AAA had given Drew. Thankfully, the truck that picked us up was enormous (how often am I thankful for enormous trucks?), with plenty of room for four cozy Carls behind our soft-spoken driver, Gilbert, and me riding shotgun.

The ride down to Tucson became an instance of present-mindedness turning a lemon into wonderful lemonade. Once we concluded that Gilbert was not going to provide much in the way of talk, the rest of us quickly returned to reunion mode. I found myself deep in conversation with Sam, the two of us detailing everything from our romantic lives to winter ski plans as we held one of those talks that reminds you why you make the effort to see good friends who live far away. I felt a little like Kerouac, riding some extraordinary automobile through the deep American night, talking about deep things.

Before long we were back in Tucson, cleaned up, and heading to a tournament party full of delicious beer and awkward dancing, but it was that completely unpredicted tow-truck ride that I'll cherish most from the evening. Had we let self-consciousness enter the picture, had we thought about how ridiculous a thing it was – five of us crammed into the cab in damp, smelly overalls and conductor hats – we probably would have silently shifted in our seats all the way back to Tucson. Instead, we embraced the bizarre present and forgot about most everything except our conversations and the joy of being together as friends, creating an experience that still seems too absurd and too great to have been true.


The time in Tucson wasn't the only intensely present episode from recent weeks. I could go into depth about the many moments at work when I find my mind and heart entirely devoted to the fifth-graders in front of me, whether I'm watching one complete a close-up illustration of a pine cone, stand slack-jawed under a star-strewn sky, or fiercely stick up for a handicapped cabinmate who'd been a stranger 48 hours prior. I could also spew about the unprecedented, heartfelt connections I made with many relatives surrounding Gramp's memorial service this week, about how a gathering to celebrate 91 years of past life became a greatly meaningful present for me and many others because we weren't just mourning the man who wasn't there anymore but were celebrating the goodness that we found alive and radiating in one another. I could go on and on, but I won't. Three paragraphs about a ride through Arizona in a tow-truck was probably more than enough.

The point is this: when you spend most of your time fully engaged with the things and the people around you, the unmeasurable beauty of life can't help but soar into omnipresence.

So what am I saying? That we should ignore past and future entirely and never let our minds spiral at will? Of course not. This largely retrospective blog, for one, wouldn't exist with such an approach. Unceasing present-mindedness is the business of Zen masters and an unrealistic expectation for most of us. If we want to live within the demands of our society, there are times when we must take our eyes away from here and now and look ahead to then. So too, there are countless cases when recalling the past makes us wiser, safer, happier in the present. Yet so often we go too far. So often we over-analyze ourselves and recapitulate unnecessarily. We must choose our battles, striving only to distract ourselves with the thoughts that truly make us better. Then we can spend the great bulk of our lives embracing the dear present, and when the next watersnake or puppy or tow-truck ride comes along, we will drink it clean with eyes wide as children.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Memories of Gramp

Last night my 91-year old grandfather died after a fall on Thanksgiving left him with substantial brain damage and injuries to an already weakening body. He was a proud and strong man who never desired a compromised mental existence at the end of his life and when it became clear that he would not recover to a place of dignity, the decision to take him off life support was a unified one for my family.

The night of his fall will remain clear in my mind for a very long time. We had just finished our traditional late Thanksgiving dinner at my Aunt and Uncle's home and were lounging around in lazy, tryptophany conversation. Earlier in the evening, I'd had the chance to catch up with both Gram and Gramp, explaining my job to them and thanking them for their graduation present of financial help with my new car. It had been most of a year since I'd seen them, and it was plain to see that Gramp, especially, was in rougher shape than I remembered. Much of his hearing was gone and his short-term memory starting to falter, a reality that I knew infuriated him. Our last conversation was a confused one, as he attempted to ask me over the voices of others what my plans were for going back to school. “I imagine you'll want to return soon to academia,” he told me. It might be a few years later than he'd hoped, but when I revisit the idea of grad school in the not-too-distant future, I know I'll remember Gramp's final words to me as a motivator.

The aftermath of the fall itself was probably the most cinematic thing that I've ever experienced. One of those caught-in-the-moment times after which you struggle to believe that such a sequence truly occurred. There we were, carelessly sprawled across couches when my cousin Geof's shouts rang up from the basement like something out of a dream. With my brother in the first-floor bathroom, Gramp had tried to walk down the stairs to relieve himself. But something horrible occurred within his 91-year old body just before he reached the bottom, something that caused him to faceplant on the carpeted cement floor with no apparent attempt or ability to break his fall. Several minutes later, Geof, who'd been out walking his dog, decided so thankfully to come in through the basement door where he found the scene that I would unforgettably witness moments later: our grandfather, our ever-steady grandfather prone and unconscious on the white carpet with a platter-sized pool of blood issued from his broken face.

The ensuing blur of paramedics, Gram upstairs surrounded by family, and the awful wait for news needs no elaboration. What I will vividly remember is the basic need to be doing something that felt useful, to be in action and not thinking about the reality of what had just occurred. Now, however, one week later, with the outcome of that night realized, the truth is setting in. The truth that I will never see Gramp's crinkled face again, hug his weathered, bony shoulders, listen to one of his bad jokes or old farm stories. And in grief, I have remembered just what a remarkable man my grandfather was.

Harry Hart was a quintessential member of his golden generation. He grew up rural in North Rush, N.Y., but as the son of one of the little town's most respected farmers and a dedicated schoolteacher (that's my great-grandmother Martha, or Mattie, after whom I'm partially named), he was educated well along with a childhood of feeding pigs and baseball games with his older siblings. Leaving the farm, he attended the University of Rochester, where he studied engineering. I'll never forget, however, his story from an introductory literature class of a renowned professor striding in on the first day of the semester, leaning back in his chair, lighting a pipe, and whipping off a one-period summary of the English language. It must have been experiences like this that gave Gramp his adroit way with words. Up until the end, he was an eloquent man and a prolific purveyor of dry humor, both traits to which I, of course, aspire.

It was also at the U of R that he won the heart of Jean Lincoln and made her his high-class bride. The rest is the stuff of classic American iconography: the young couple moved to the city, started a family, Gramp became an engineer and rose in the postwar boom, moving the Harts to the suburbs and making a living in the budding global market of the mid-century. Selling the machinery for auto plants in Japan, he explored a far larger world than that of his rural ancestors and gave his family a life of middle-class baby-boom comfort. He traveled the continents, often with Gram alongside, and the home at 8 Greenridge Road, Pittsford became an embassy for businessmen from the Far East and beyond. His livelihood helped give Dad and my uncles the chance to fulfill their own ambitions, to raise loving families, to live in relative ease. In turn, Dad's career has done much to pass those opportunities down to my brothers and me, and I am endlessly grateful both for my father and for the man who helped raise him honest, hard-working, and humble.

Yet for all his rise into modern 20th-century life, Gramp never forgot his rural foundation. Though he settled in the suburbs, he gardened and fished avidly, keeping contact with the land even though he'd chosen not to stay on the family farm (as the youngest son, the family's abnormal succession tradition would have passed it to him). He was in many ways a cosmopolitan man, but he was never too good to get his hands dirty. And when my brothers and I came along, he was never too busy to take us out to cast for perch or pull up carrots, finding the same pride in these simple things as in showing us his photos of Egypt or Korea. After the Saturday opera, he'd talk baseball with me. His knowledge of wines matched his knowledge of bird species. And I wonder where I get my jack-of-all-trades tendencies from? They're from the huge old willow by the pond and the Audubon paintings on the walls. From the zucchinis in the garden and the home-canned peaches in the cellar. From Gramp's creased face and strong back – deep roots of an enduring family tree.

With Gram and Gramp at my HS Graduation, June 2007