I like to take notice when things show up twice. In the summer of 2009 I ran across several mentions, in the span of a week, of a poem I’d never read before, by Dylan Thomas. Specifically, the first two lines of the poem: “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / Drives my green age.” I saw it first on the cover of a local free newspaper in Eureka, California, where I was staying for a month learning things and helping to make a play, and then in a book a friend of mine was reading, about time and our perception of it, which I flipped through on a day off while we sunbathed on river rocks outside of Eureka. Years later now I still remember the lines of poetry and the image they describe. I’m still in my green age. Forced into flowering, I guess. The rest of the poem leaps between these images really rich with life and power, and other images equally full of power and death. Thomas was green, too, at just twenty when the poem was published, and (not knowing much about him, really) I imagine him reckoning with the slowly-increasing speed of life and its lessons. Time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping into the future.
So more recently the thing that’s caught my notice twice is two dudes in their own green age who walked across the country, separately and not quite simultaneously. The first was Greg Hindy, who took a vow of silence on July 9th, 2013 (his 22nd birthday and, incidentally, my 28th) and spent a year walking 9,000 miles, arriving in Los Angeles, California a year later, this past July 9th, 2014.
The other cross-country walker, Andrew Forsthoefel, was 23 when he started in October 2011, and he walked as best as I can tell for just under a year, until September 2012. His trip wasn’t silent like Greg Hindy’s, but he carried a sign that said “Walking to Listen” and asked the people he met for their “advice for a young man.” At the end he produced an hour-long radio documentary which was excerpted by This American Life during my second-to-last month in California, before I moved home to Oregon. I somehow missed it, then.
I had an emotional reaction to both of these stories. Excitement, inspiration, and envy were definitely all in there. And also fear. An “I could never do that” reaction. Because I’m a woman, and these guys are both white men.
It only took a minute for me to counter that reaction in my head with “but I did do that.” I biked halfway across the country by myself in 2010 (after biking the first half with my then-partner). My bike trip had a few potential safety advantages over these cross-country walks in that I was for the most part following an established route with some services for cyclists and a general expectation of their presence, I was moving faster and therefore spent less time between water sources and shelters (and people didn’t have quite as much time to see me coming, I suppose), and I was only traveling in summer and early fall. But I didn’t always know where I’d be spending the night, and I pitched my tent some strange and probably not worried-parent-approved places—most memorably in an empty park several miles outside of a small town where, after having discovered that the historical society in whose yard I’d hoped to camp was unexpectedly closed, I asked a cop about my options and he shrugged and suggested the park. A few hours after dark, some drunk locals woke me up by wondering loudly about my presence; they turned out to be very friendly.
Almost everyone I met was very friendly, and many of them wanted to help me, just like the people who Greg Hindy and Andrew Forsthoefel met on their walks. Only once did I get a “bad feeling” from a man who offered to buy me a meal; I politely declined and biked away and that was that. I have no idea what his intentions toward me may or may not have been.
(maybe I was just looking for an excuse to post this photo)
At the end of my trip I told the members of my grandparents’ church community in Maine that the biggest lesson I learned was that people are, in the absence of fear, pretty much universally good. Fear is the thing I am trying to write about here. Fear is the thing on my mind. What am I afraid of?
Since I started writing this entry I’ve listened twice to the “Fearless” episode of NPR’s new podcast, Invisibilia. The first time was a coincidence, and the second time was because enough time had passed since I listened the first time that I’d forgotten the details. I was thinking, while listening to it the second time, about the fact that I had forgotten most of the details and that itself gave me a clue of a way I might be able to try to dig myself out of whatever uncomfortable place I’m in right now. I’ll get to that in a minute.
A couple of weeks ago I cooked some scalloped potatoes for a friend’s Thanksgiving-themed birthday party, and the milk I cooked them in boiled over in the oven and spilled all over the bottom of it. So a few days later I figured I’d run the oven’s self-cleaning cycle, which was all well and good for about ten minutes until something in there caught fire. I turned off the cycle and opened all the windows in my apartment to let out the smoke and avoided panicking mostly because I’d never run the cleaning cycle on an oven before and wasn’t sure if maybe that was supposed to happen? (It wasn’t.) A bit later I even made myself some dinner on the stovetop, and then I went to my boyfriend’s place for the night. Several hours later I was lying awake in bed, convinced I had left the stove on and the whole thing was going to catch on fire and my cats were either going to die of smoke inhalation or burn to death, depending on how long it took my neighbors in the building to notice that it was on fire. I knew rationally that I had almost certainly turned off the stove, but I didn’t remember doing it, so I couldn’t be sure. So I put on my shoes and my jacket and biked all the way home to check and reassure myself. I visually confirmed that the stove and oven were both off, then went out again, locked my door, and headed back down the hall to go back outside. I got to the door, turned around, unlocked my door, went to my kitchen, and put my hand on all of the burners to make sure they were cool.
It’s not usually so bad—usually I am only just outside my door, or just outside the building, on my way to work, when I backtrack to doublecheck the burners, even if I haven’t used the stove since the night before—but this is a classic obsessive compulsion, of course. I never used to do this—in fact once when I lived in San Francisco I actually did leave a burner on, with a pot full of boiling water on top of it. Luckily, my housemate was home and noticed, but not before the water had boiled off and the pot had been ruined. It was a pretty stressful time in my life (my marriage was slowly but surely breaking up) and I chalked it up to that.
But now isn’t a particularly stressful time in my life, or at least it shouldn’t be. I don’t have major changes ahead for me except the ones I choose to make myself. Which I guess might be the source of the stress. I have to choose to make the changes I need to make. I have to take responsibility for those choices and those changes.
When I biked across the country, a lot of people I met were impressed by my ride. Many, many of them reacted by telling me, “I could never do that!” I was always sort of flattered but also annoyed by this. “I could never do that” doesn’t actually mean “I am not capable of doing that”—it actually means “I would like to do that but I don’t know how to begin and I’m scared to find out.” “I could never do that” isn’t really a problem for me, I guess. I am good at setting goals and following steps when they’re clear and laid out in front of me. (There’s a big difference between “I could never do that” and “I have no interest in doing that.” I have no interest in jumping out of an airplane, for instance, but if I decided that I did, I could figure out how to make it happen, I’m sure. And I’d love to walk across the country like the men I wrote about above, and I know exactly how I’d start to plan that trip.)
But there are definitely things that feel much less clear to me and much more daunting. Things with no clear steps between here and there. Things that may or may not be wrapped up in the fear and anxiety I’m trying to wrestle with. These are some Point Bs that I badly want, or think I want, but have so little idea how to approach as to be terrified of them:
* a livelihood that is satisfying and provides financial security
* a relationship with a romantic partner that can weather changes over many years
* self-knowledge that is trustworthy and can stand the test of time
I was thinking about all of these things while I listened to the “Fearless” podcast for the second time. My inner monologue wandered until I realized I hadn’t heard the last minute or two of the podcast and I had to rewind. “Oh god,” I thought, “maybe I’m not just OCD, I’m ADD, too.” Then I slowed my mental roll and struck on the commonality, the missing piece that led to my distraction and my stove-checking compulsion: mindfulness. Attention. If I could just be more mindful… well, right? Easy fix?
Probably not, but it can’t hurt to brush the dust off my zafu and sit my ass down for a bit. In any case, it’s a thing I can do. A step I can identify and execute. And, damn it all to hell, another thing on my to-do list. Hah! That’s the right attitude, right?
Well. “Start again. Start again.” (Six years after the ten-day vipassana course I took in 2009, I can still hear Goenka’s recorded voice in my head, his deep and slow enunciation of those words.)