Discover more from Poor Man's Feast
the turning of time
a quarter century meditation
August 1st, 1997
I drive alone from Aspen, Colorado, where I have been staying with family, into the mountains above the Roaring Fork Valley east of the town of Basalt, along the Frying Pan River. I’m on a long vacation from my editorial job in New York City; all I want to do is hike and read, read and hike, and maybe attempt some fly-fishing (I do, and hook a stranger’s bologna sandwich on a back cast). I traveled to this part of Colorado — still relatively undeveloped by real estate magnates — with the plan to be alone, and I’ve made a reservation to stay by myself on a small ranch in a little cabin above the river. I tell my parents that I will be visiting friends, which is a lie. I don’t want them to worry, and I can’t be honest with them about what my heart needs at this moment.
The turning of time: that moment of change when everything swings forward as if on a door hinge.
My stepfather has just died a few months ago, leaving my mother suddenly untethered and, after almost twenty years of acrimonious marriage to this kind man, essentially destitute. It is the first turning of our time, where I would have to make a decision: allow her to replace her late husband and all he represented — love, security, stability — with me, or not. I am thirty-three, not yet out of the closet, and single.
Except for my mother.
I have lost a sense of the seasons. I am living in an apartment whose only window faces another building. There is no light. I feel smothered. I need air and I need sky. I need quiet; I need to read. I need, most of all, to learn how to breathe, which is something I’ve never done well. There’s a line in Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, where the narrator’s wife, Sally, is described as having been deposited in places by her mother like a newborn fawn, and silently taught not to move or to breathe, for her own safety. If I don’t breathe, no one will hear me.
I learn a new language on this day: one of no-ego, and that my surroundings will directly alter me.
I leave Aspen and drive northeast in my little green Toyota rental car, following the river until I reach the ranch, early in the evening. The keys to my cabin — the only one on the property beyond the small main house — hang from a hook attached to the doorframe. I let myself in, make myself a cup of tea on the ancient stove, and go out to the tiny deck cantilevered above a deep valley lined on both sides in aspens. I sit down with my book in a deck chair, and close my eyes for a minute, and when I open them, it is the middle of the night, and freezing on this, the first of August. I go inside and lay down on the tiny single bed, and fall asleep on top of the quilt in my clothes and my hiking boots. I wake the next morning ravenously hungry. Someone knocks on my cabin door, I open it, and there is nothing there but a cup of coffee. I take myself out for breakfast to The Village Smithy in Carbondale and then drive to a trailhead, park, put on my small pack, and hike alone and unafraid. Probably not a wise thing to do; these are the days before cell phones, and I am completely unreachable. This is the last time in my life I can recall being unencumbered by fear, by worry, by the sense of impending doom that often hangs above me like a cloud. The mountains around me were here long before I was born and will be here long after my bones turn to dust. I learn a new language on this day: one of no-ego and that light and air will directly and viscerally alter me.
August 1st, 2022
Working in my office in my home in Connecticut, my wife of twenty-two years working on the other side of the house, I am the primary caregiver to my elderly mother, who is now eighty-seven, in another state, and beginning to show signs of dementia; she tries me, breaks my heart, calls me a f**king moron for contracting Covid. This has taken its toll, and my own heart is, I have come to learn, not doing particularly well.
The light this morning feels different; it feels cooler, like autumn is coming sooner than we’d like. I am currently reading an article about how rivers change course —- this is called an avulsion —- and how rapid sea level rise can move avulsion sites inland on deltas, exposing new communities to catastrophic flood risks. I am reading another article about women who plunge into ice water in Maine, often in the dead of winter: this, they say, is soul-cleansing, and that it lowers the heart rate and centers the soul. Many of my Maine friends do this and swear by it, and after I read the article, an advertisement for Patagonia R-1 Lite wetsuits arrives in my inbox; the algorithm seems to know that I am hoping to learn to surf before my next birthday, in June 2023. I read a quote by Leanne Simpson, a Michi Saagig Nishnaabeg scholar and artist, who says You do not abandon your mother when she is sick. You do not abandon the land because it is contaminated or encroached upon.
I won’t abandon them. Either of them.
But we live in the suburbs and have for almost twenty years, where the home I love is wrapped in weatherproof vinyl. I bemoan our isolation as we get older, and take solace in the garden, in the native plants that thrive when nothing else will, in the hummingbirds drawn by the feeder Susan gave me, in the monarchs who continue to perch on our echinacea. I sit on my own porch now in the evenings, more expansive then the tiny one in Colorado, and read my yellowing, dog-eared copy of Gretel Ehrlich, who reminds me to Love life first
then march through the gates of each season; go inside nature and develop the discipline to stop destructive behavior; learn tenderness toward experience, then make decisions based on creating biological wealth that includes all people, animals, cultures, currencies, languages, and the living things as yet undiscovered; listen to the truth the land will tell you; act accordingly.
All I can do is try, for the next twenty-five years.