Why I’m Here*

I’m an old man but unwise. I’m old by most measures throughout human history but wisdom isn’t an inalienable attribute of age. I’m an old man with more questions, fewer answers, and less certainty than my youth.

I’ve grown old more by chance than design. There was no plan, no strategy, no goal. There was only Joseph Conrad’s wistful phrase: “To see! To see!—that is the craving of the sailor, as of the rest of blind humanity.”

I was drawn to the edge of things—the edge of society, the edge of relationships, the edge of the world. I’ve lived in the desert, in the mountains, on a remote shore. I’ve been so long at sea I could smell fresh water a hundred miles from shore. I’ve done what I pleased without knowing what I wanted.

I’m here because my parents believed the end of the world justified their faith. Our actions as a nation, a culture, a species have fulfilled that faith. We have remade the world in our own image and now the mirrored reflection terrifies us. My face is also reflected and terrifying.

 

SillySeal_EN-US1199693670I’m here because I need the self-discipline necessary to look deeply into that reflection and speak the truth, as much as I can manage, without hope of salvation or forgiveness or even reprieve, to speak against the madness without hope of eliciting sanity.

But mostly I’m here because of heartache for the loss of beauty, the exquisite delicacy and detail that is being gutted as humanity collapses into madness and despair, burning the world down around us. I’m here because of the heartache of unrealized potential and promises never met and sanctity scarified for greed by men who should have known better, been better. I’m here because there seems no wisdom in our wise men, no remembrance from our elders, no reminder of our identity, our inmost selves and our rooted obligations.

I don’t know if the madness can be stayed, if the world can be saved from ourselves. It doesn’t matter whether I succeed or fail or even how the difference is measured. What matters is that I speak with all the strength and honesty in me and when that’s exhausted, find more. What matters is that my voice be among those raised in defense of the beauty and diversity we’re wasting indiscriminately. What matters is that my heart grow stronger even while it’s broken.

That’s why I’m here.

*Written as the introductory assignment: Taft, Cynthia. 21W.730-3 Writing and the Environment, Spring 2005. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare), http://ocw.mit.edu (Accessed 31 Dec, 2012). License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

 

 

Afloat

Someone whose house is firmly aground doesn’t know the experience of living afloat unless at some point they’ve abandoned the shore and sailed across oceans, day after day, weeks between landfall. Living afloat has an intimacy and an immediacy missing ashore, a contradictory sense of shelter and exposure much like a mollusk inhabiting its shell in the turbulent tidal zone.

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A houseboat is alive in a way not possible for something fixed to concrete foundations. It dances in the rising wind and strains against its moorings in a storm. It feels the pull of the sun and moon and the centrifugal force of the turning earth. Life afloat is about life in motion—the isolated impact of the wake from a passing boat or the riotous force of a winter storm. A boat is a thing that moves even if it moves only in place. The floor of a houseboat may not be as lively as the pitching deck of a boat in a seaway but more than one resident has unexpectedly fallen ass over tea kettle because their assumption of immobility proved mistaken.

The certainty of the unmoving earth is something we take for granted since childhood. Every motion we make, every step we take is dependent upon the simple premise that ground won’t rise or fall beneath our feet. In those moments when our expectations are undone and the earth moves we find even the simple act of walking impossible.

A sailor—or the resident of a houseboat—surrenders that assumption of stability. The deck beneath their feet is continuously moving, whether a barely perceptible tremor or energetic enough to create a tempest in a coffee cup. The perception of motion is always present, asleep or awake, a kinetic awareness that orientates them in space. It’s the reason sailors stagger ashore after a long ocean passage, lurching down the street from one handhold to the next. Their bodies have learned to live in constant, unpredictable motion.

The experience of fluidity has ramifications like ripples radiating from a stone dropped in still water. I suspect it removes some of the certainty so characteristic of the middle class. Maybe houseboats attract a bohemian type or maybe it makes them. The truth is all of us are walking on water, we just don’t know it.

Houseboats are wonderfully eccentric, neither one thing nor another, wholly belonging neither to the sea or the shore. Like a foreign embassy, they are sovereign soil transposed on another country. They are the shore afloat, an impossible transposition of land and water. Heart and soul, they are anomaly harboring communities of eccentrics.

They are floating shells, exteriors weathered and roughened but the inside worn smooth by intimacy and the passage of life through chambered cells. Unlike houses anchored to the soil, houseboats can’t afford the luxury of space, the extravagant waste of empty rooms piled one on top another like packing crates. Every inch must be economized, every corner rounded, everything secured. Even a well found house ashore isn’t built to be buffeted by waves, corroded by salt water, or encrusted by barnacles.

Houseboats by preference and construction are ephemeral creations. There are houses hundreds of years old but no houseboats. Nor are they built with the stubborn sturdiness of a wooden boat intended to survive the casual violence of the open ocean, passage after passage. They are vulnerable to hazards both common and uncommon to houses ashore—fire and flood, foundering, parting their moorings, grounding, collision, tsunamis, disdain, envy and bigotry. They are marginal creations that inhabit the edge, a characteristic that is both their strength and weakness.

There were once over 2,000 houseboats on the Seattle waterfront, Lake Union and Lake Washington. Now there are less than 500 sequestered in waterfront ghettos on Lake Union. Their vulnerabilities are less relevant to the decline than the rancor of homeowners who look down upon the ramshackle communities from the Seattle hills and complain about property values, sewage, lawlessness, tax evasion, and moral turpitude. The floating communities have always attracted both derision and envy, the envy of the bourgeois for the bohemian. There’s nothing more rancorous than success.

The houseboat ghettos have created a sense of embattled community. Nothing defines a community more clearly than the struggle to survive against land developers, city commissioners, zoning authorities and citizen committees. The community is further defined by narrow docks that thread together individual homes and anchor them to shore. Walking the dock each day, passing within a few feet of your neighbors’ kitchen or bedroom windows, living in such close proximity doesn’t allow the anonymity of a middle class suburb. When you know your neighbors’ name and the visible details of their lives it’s harder to ignore their distress when their house begins listing or breaks free of its moorings and drifts across the bay.

A Dream of Place

I woke from a dream this morning. We were kids throwing a baseball in an empty lot. Each time it was my turn I was hesitant, apprehensive, unsure how hard to throw, how much force to exert, and each time I threw the ball it fell short, rolling on the ground in front of the catcher. Each time I threw I felt more embarrassed and inept.

Then something changed — I’m not sure what — but I no longer wanted to restrain myself, exactly measure the force of each throw, hesitantly attempt perfection and always fail. Something in me no longer cared whether I tried and failed nor how obvious my failure might be to others. I just wanted to throw the ball for all I was worth.

I cocked my arm back so far my front foot cleared the ground. I was balanced on a single foot, pivoting, utterly committed, focused only on the throw. I put everything I was into that throw, conscious of nothing else. My body uncoiled, my arm whipped forward, and my wrist snapped the ball as it left my hand.

The ball burned past the catcher and broke the windshield of a car parked on the street. The car alarm blared as we stood and looked at the shattered glass.

“Jeez, the cops” some kid said (in my dreams kids still say things like that) and we all ran as if it spooked by a Halloween wind.

I suppose some context is needed. I’ve been wondering about my place in the world and more so, the world in which I have my place. I’ve spent the last year trying to convince other people to do the right thing, the thing I thought right, with predictable results. Even if the right thing was apparent, it remains a game of Prisoner’s Dilemma.

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I don’t have the passion to be an evangelist however secular the cause. I wore myself out for little purpose. Questions haunted me. What was my enduring passion? What sustained me through the bleak times? What made me whole?

I suspect we live our lives in spirals, returning to common themes and familiar places but at different levels, different perspectives. I’ve come ‘round again to this familiar need, to understand the world in which I have my place.

The stories that linger on the land aren’t divorced from our own. They shape our days and measure our nights. They frame our lives with daylight and night, with mythic images, with fire and ice. This place especially, at the edge of the world, between the mountains and the sea, this mythic place obscured by cloud.

We weren’t the first ones here. There are stories older than ours. And older still, the stories told in rock and water, restless mountains and glacial ice. Those are the stories I want to learn.

We are so deeply rooted in the earth that our disdain for it wounds us immeasurably. Without knowing the stories of a place we can’t know where we belong. We become like ghosts driven by the wind.

This I Believe…

National Public Radio (NPR) broadcasts a series of essays titled “This I Believe.” I’ve shamelessly stolen the idea on a smaller scale. These are the things I believe stacked in no conscious order.

  • Humanity is much better at responding to disasters than avoiding them. If we’re not embroiled in crisis, we create one. There’s nothing more abhorrent to us than boredom.
  • We’re past the time when a sustainable economy was an option. What we need now are resilient communities capable of weathering radical changes.
  • Our economy is a Ponzi scheme that’s now unraveling. A few hucksters have stolen the inheritance of generations. Unfortunately, they’re the ones most admired by society.
  • Evolution is no longer just genetics, it’s cultural, even technical. We are no longer the effect of evolution but the co-creators.
  • We need to consciously choose our evolution. The ability to do something simply isn’t reason enough.
  • In order to choose wisely, we need cultural values that encompass not just the present moment but moments across time and generations.