Back to the Forge: Learning from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I revisit texts—novels, stories, plays, and poems—with joy. They stand as mileposts, as reminders of the paths I have walked. I have not always enjoyed this journey, but it has been my journey. No one else has walked this path. I have never wanted it to end, even when the trails of my imagination have become untended and overrun with weeds, when it seemed too difficult a task to return to those paths, to follow where they led, to cut new ways into the wilderness.

The mileposts that speak loudest to me are those that recall not simply the distance but the method of travel. How many times have I dipped into Whitman to find a way I thought I had lost? Perhaps not enough. Or the more diminutive Dickinson, who reminds me of the power of possibility? I re-encounter Prospero every few years, not yet ready to cast my books of power into watery graves.

The first time I read Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I was 20, a junior in college. I read it in one furious sitting, rushing as was the case in undergraduate school. The book shot through me—the sermons in the third chapter frightened me, and the ending befuddled me.  I had not written since the rhyming verse I attempted in high school. It would be a year before I started to cobble together my own stories.

I encountered it again when I was 28, and in my first year of graduate school. I wrote every day and was just learning to read by making connections—or rather, by freeing my mind to read as expansively as possible. I did not see a mirror in Stephen Dedalus, not yet, but I saw how Joyce was beginning to challenge the reader, and followed his challenge into Ulysses, and peered obliquely at Finnegan’s Wake. Reading Joyce intoxicated me—all the word play, all the allusions, all the swirl of events. This is how my brain worked, and I felt a kindred spirit at play in Joyce. Perhaps this was too great a burden to lift as a young writer—to think like Joyce, to aspire to something like his work, but I saw the path, at least one path. There were others, and I tested many.

The next time I was 41, and in my first high school teaching job. For whatever reason, my writing had slowed. The difficulties I encountered in my work made me doubt every word I wrote—and even every word I read—which made reading more distant and difficult. I could read a novel as a collection of themes and ideas, which made for fine if programmatic teaching, but the hearts of the works did not beat with the same sense of connection. I felt hollow. I read Portrait as a kind of roadmap for one man’s feelings about Ireland, faith, men, and women. I nodded toward his art but felt closed off from that part of Stephen’s story. I knew it was there—I sensed it—which made the experience strangely worse. This is what you should be doing, the book chided.

I spent several years away from my life’s work. I wrote here and there—stories for kids, sermons, and—in fits and starts—this blog. I suffered for it, as, I am sure, did those around me. I am not a man who can be what he is not and put on the trappings of happiness. “Fake it until you make it,” may work for some, but I need connection—not simply interpersonal or romantic connection, but to the universe, to some deep unconscious thrum that turns words into flesh and flesh into a play of bright and dark and dense presence. While I started to craft a life that combined the spiritual threads I would need to reconnect me to that seen and unseen world, it wasn’t until I started writing daily that my words found the old (new) purpose. Over the past year, I have kept a daily writing practice that, with very few exceptions, has brought me back.

Now I am 58. I am not young. I have long past the point where Stephen stepped into his work, but my heart bursts, as if newly forged—reforged by my years long effort. I read the book again, and this time I hear the singing—it is for me, and for my students too. I orchestrate a class that includes Portrait, weaving together strands from universes that while shadowy—more to my students than me—move with playful grace. The book sings to me, calls to me, demands my attention, my thought, and my response. Not simply in class, but in my work.  Not just these words, but other words.

I no longer feel called to write like Joyce, or Dickens, or Marquez, or Woolf, or Calvino (though, wouldn’t that be nice). Or, or, or. All the words—from every page, from the labels of soap, from the scraps of memes, to the shifting exchanges of my students call, all the words—insist “forge.” And so, I will, I must. Old father, old mother, old artificers, all of you, “stand me now and ever in good stead.”

The Books

Almost fifteen years ago, I put my books in the attic. They were out, in shelves, but tucked beneath a sloping ceiling and packed behind all manner of family detritus. When my ex-wife and I separated, I moved them into my main living space, where they sang back to me after their—or my—sojourn.  My books matter to me, and I felt their absence. Getting them back onto tall shelves, walking past them every day, reminded me of what I had done, what I had learned, and what I wanted to do with my life and mind.

I have books about writing, books about religion, books about education, history books, philosophy (what we called theory in graduate school), fiction, poetry, books full of art and art history, and even books about sports—mainly baseball. I have a hard cover edition of Dickens published by Chapman and Hall with pages that requires a pocket knife to cut open.  I own a set of Andrew Lang’s color-coded Fairy Tale books.

The books reflect my preoccupations over the past thirty years.  Much of what is on my shelves I first read while I was in graduate school. Some I acquired afterward to keep me in touch with what I spent six years studying. Some comes from undergraduate college—books about gothic art and architecture, an old edition of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. There are some newer books that reflect my current interests: a collection of Sumerian mythology, a book about Djinn.

As much as I love my books, as much as they tell a story of my past, as much as they feel like an external manifestation of my mind, I think it may be time to lose them.

How long can one hold onto the past—a past that weighs an actual ton—without moving into the future? Yes, there are some things that I would keep, and this is true of more than my books, but they possess so much gravity. What is the past to me? Of course it is, was, everything. However, the future beckons, and requires a kind of lightness to which things do not lend themselves. Even memorable things.

There are other presences in my life—deep and profound connections. This time last year, I started unraveling the two jobs I had in Norfolk, Virginia. I moved away from those jobs and in the process also moved away from my daughters, who continue to live with their mother in Norfolk. Of course, I separated from and divorced their mother. It may seem inconsequential, but over 30 years ago, I picked a cat off the street, and have had cats ever since. I have never been more than three weeks away from them. This year I considered giving up a long standing fantasy baseball game that I have played for nearly 30 years with friends.

I wonder about what I have given up, but also what I have stayed with over the years. I have been a teacher for over 20 years—including my work as a TA in graduate school, over 25 years. What would it be like to not teach? I wrote for years, and then, if I didn’t stop, I slowed considerably—at what hazard, I cannot guess. I am writing again now, and have been, but can’t help wonder why my work slowed to a trickle.

I wonder would it would be like to be free of obligation and free of the gravity of myself—that ton of books, the closet full of clothes, my job, my family, my cats, even my friends. I wonder what my life would have been like if I had just chased words—the stories that I had declared as my purpose when I went away to and then stayed in graduate school. When I went away to graduate school, I traveled in a single car, with a mattress tied to the roof, and a single cat riding in the passenger seats. What would it be like to travel to what’s next with even less?

I do not regret the life I led, nor the life I lead; regret possesses a gravity greater than all the books own own, and I have no time for that. Not now. Nonetheless, I am aware of another life that exists, not over the horizon, not over the rainbow, but buried deep within me. I don’t know how I have kept it buried for so long, or at what cost—or even at what gain. Still. It is there.

I wonder, and wonder hard, and the wondering stirs something in me, something alive and insistent. What will I carry into the future? What must I carry? And what must I leave?

Writing, Purpose, and Masculinity

I have been struggling with masculinity as of late. Which is to say, struggling with ambition. Or struggling with my career choices. Or struggling with relationship choices. Or, simply struggling. Because I am a man, I am struggling on the somewhat closed field of masculinity. I haven’t always thought of it that way, and yet, there it is. I have avoided masculinity for dozens of reasons.

I have seen more examples of toxicity and hypocrisy among men than anywhere else.  Maybe these are not inherently male traits, but I grew up in a male-dominated environment—which is to say, the world—including four years in an all-male prep school. I have been bullied and been a bully. I have seen puffery masquerade as accomplishment. I have seen might valued over intelligence. I have watched as surface characteristics outshone deeper wells of strength. In To the Lighthouse, when Woolf takes Mr. Ramsay to the cleaners for failing to see the world outside of his carefully constructed “a, b, c…” hierarchy, I knew of what she was writing. But that came later.

After college my father brought me to his company once, to ask his colleagues what career path I should pursue. One of the men counseled, “Don’t go into business.” This was a man my father had often spoken of as one of his few friends at work. This man did not offer an alternate suggestion, just “Don’t.” Then he spoke of a working world in which the soul found no home. That resonated with me. My father was often unhappy after a day of work, and I had seen that unhappiness first hand.

I drew a line between the life of the soul and the world of business and ambition—the world of men.

I spent a number of years in career limbo and ended up managing a restaurant and working 80 hour weeks. Ambition always finds a way, even in limbo, even when one says, “No.” Part of being a man, I suppose, at least this man, was finding my way into positions of authority. During this time, I started writing—the very definition of authority—something I had done in fits and starts in high school then in college. I applied to graduate school in creative writing and was accepted.

So in my late twenties, I became a student of writing and literature. I went all in.  I was never interested in “finding my voice”; I was interested in hitting the metaphorical home run, of, and pardon me for this, catching the big fish.  There was always a bigger fish in the ocean.  Joyce, Woolf, Dickens, Marquez, Dickinson, Whitman, Marquez, and Calvino were among the literary fish that pushed me forward. The critical fish were there too.  Each set out a mark and said, “Meet me here.” And, right or wrong, I chased that mark.

I sought work that broke the hierarchies and offered more possibilities to all. Brilliance the only goal. Brilliance the reward. I reveled. My classmates often complained of this course or that course, or of school altogether. I did not. There was no class—even bibliography—that did not unlock some possibility. My purpose, clear and simple, was to learn and to write.

I was at graduate school at a time when feminism was fully asserting itself, and I allied myself with that movement, in part under the guise of being a creator, which I identified as a feminine act. I was full of it. In the end, I divided the world not between men and women, with all the problematic tangle that came between those energies, but between writers and non-writers. I saw a kinship between Charles Dickens and Jane Gallup. If you know the work, you know what a leap that is. Or, and this is easier, Hélène Cixous and James Joyce. Words held a primal energy for me, an energy that bridged gender and sex. The only ones who could experience jouissance, truly experience it, not simply having it happen, but calling it forth, meeting it, urging it on—if they could—were writers. And so I wrote fervently, seeking a pleasure beyond limits. And I found it.

Now, I realize that I had harnessed a most basic form of male sexual energy, of masculinity. If I had classmates who imagined me in black leather pants, well, there was a reason. I chased something bigger than me, something vital. And chasing is what men do—secretly or not. Part of our deep-seated masculinity drives us to seek—“to bear it out,” as Shakespeare writes, “even to the edge of doom.” What keeps us from doom, from becoming an Ahab (there’s that big fish) is not avoiding the sea and the hunt, just putting up the harpoon and dreaming of what might have been. We must learn to integrate the hunt with the world. We must listen to the world and find an honorable way forth.

I did not. I stopped. I did not stop all at once, but over a series of years. I let more temporary ambitions, often driven by temporary monetary concerns, take precedence. I grew nervous, even cautious. I stepped off the stage. I continued, as I had when I was younger, to find outlets for ambition. They were circumscribed by my career choices, but they persisted. I became principal of a school and, during a crisis at my church, helped hold a congregation together. But I was not doing my life’s work—the thing that brought me joy, even if it did not pay the water bill.

And, as a man, a life without a driving purpose withers. I’m sure this is true for women too. Finally, at 58, I made a change. It was not an easy, nor a secure choice. It is not the final choice I will make along this way. But it is the first step. And I realize that even though I have been writing—fervently, discovering along the way—that I also have things to learn. About me. About the world. And as a man.

My Destination

I had always shrugged off the idea of traveling to the Grand Canyon. I was one of those, “what’s the big deal about a big hole in the ground” skeptics. I was wrong. Of course I was wrong. The Grand Canyon is an amazement—and of course, I was properly amazed when I saw it—looking into two billion years of rock will do that, should do that. I realized that what I had held aside was not the geology or the landscape, but the travel. Why had I discounted my ability to be amazed by travel? I had done it all my life. Going, all kinds of going, even if so much of it has been more local—on this continent, in this country—has been part of me all my life.

When young, my family would take day trips—Sunday drives—through the Amish country in Pennsylvania. We got in the car and headed out Route 30. Or we would go to the West Chester airport and walk among the privately owned single prop planes. In the summer, we headed to Longwood Gardens for fountain shows. There were trips to nearby parks—I remember lakes with small patches of added sand for “beach.” We routinely drove to Long Island—heading up the New Jersey Turnpike past the refineries—to visit family. When I was ten, we headed to Maine, a day long drive with three boys and a dog. Once we began sailing, it did not take long to head to the British Virgin Islands—my first plane rides, and first swimming in warm Caribbean seas.

I loved airplanes and airports. Departures were invitations to new adventures. When I traveled with my family, I usually sat alone—the hazard or benefit of being an odd numbered group. I took my first plane flight alone when I went to Iowa to swim; I was 15. I traveled by train and bus alone all through my early adult life. I usually traveled to visit friends. However, I also went to cities to simply see them, to look at buildings, and camp in museums—visiting and revisiting works of art that held sway over my imagination.

I loved driving, and would sometimes eschew expedience for country roads, foregoing straight, broad, multi-laned ribbons for winding paths along mountain sides and down by river beds. Landscapes called to me as well as vaulted ceilings. Beauty was everywhere.

And, I loved walking. I hiked 500 miles when I was 12. As an adult, when I took myself to Maine, I would walk the beaches in Phippsburg, breaking up my study sojourns with hours long ambles. When I arrived in Bermuda, I walked off my sea legs with long walks and runs around the island, walking into local places, on roads no taxi or rented moped hazarded. Once, on a trip to NYC, I walked, in winter, from Soho to the Met, freezing along the way, but surrounded by shops and towers and people. When I spent a conference week in Portland, Oregon, I took a day off to wander to Portland Museum of Art to see Native American artifacts from the Pacific Northwest, and a painting by Clifford Stijl. Afterwards, I headed onto Powell’s Bookstore, then to the DeSchutes brewpub. All on foot.

There were trips under sail with my father and brothers. These were tests as well as trips. The ocean makes us foreign to ourselves, our bodies not made to be perpetually wet, and perpetually in motion—shaken and stirred. I have never been anywhere larger than surrounded by sky and ocean, never felt as alive, nor as alone.

This blog began with travel some four years ago—a trip to China, to a strange land to bring a stranger into my life. There are so many strange places yet to go—so many friends to visit—people I have not yet met, whose tables have an open seat waiting.

So, walking to the edge of the canyon should not have surprised me. I am sure that some snobbish impulse to avoid what millions of others had done informed my thought. But I am not like millions of others. I forget that sometimes. On purpose—as a bulwark against being a snob, against falling into the easy habit of travelers to simply bring myself wherever I go. I would rather be a stranger—not just to the place, but to myself, and welcome this new person into my already teeming life.

And so, finally, after one long ago missed opportunity, I am traveling to London. It is an easy enough first step to Europe. I wonder what I will find there, what old memories will rise up, what new experiences will awaken. And I wonder, who I will find there in among the histories and wanderings. Who will come home, amazed, this time? And what will happen if the wanderlust takes a firmer hold of me this time? How will that change me–or, rather, change me again. Eyes up, here I go.

Mothering and Nostalgia

A current meme on Facebook compares what Moms used to say to their kids with what they say now. It is held up as a clarion call to the virtues of yesteryear, when Moms—and their kids—knew what was what. Over and over again, stuff (stuff) like this careens around the internet, in casual banter on news shows, in conversations in my workplaces. Those of us who grew up in the mythical “then” look back with nostalgia, and look at this moment with a jocular disdain. I would like to call “bullshit” on the whole enterprise.

I don’t now what your mother was like. If she was anything like mine, there were highs and lows. My mother stayed at home with my brothers and me. She bowled in a league. Went shopping. Had bridge parties. Took tennis lessons. She was a den mother for my Cub Scout troop, and took us to the Devault Meat Packing Plant, among other places. Her sons were a handful. She scurried us out at a reasonable time in the morning, set out lunch when it was time, and made dinner for the family. She made us Batman capes for Easter one year; she sewed. I remember her stitching up an injury to one of our cats.

Was she happy? Her happiness was never an issue for us. Nor was our happiness overly attended to. We all were content, which, to my gimlet eye, is a horse of a different color. It was only later, some 13-14 years after I was born that she began to explore art, and then took on the work of a painter, and artist. If she found genuine and durable happiness, it was in that work—and the work of making art is not about easy delight, or even contentment (so says her son, the writer).

My mother did what she thought and felt was right. She learned her lessons from her mother and family—and what lessons they were. Some things, she changed. She never leashed us to trees in the front yard. Others were more indelible. I am certain that most of us parent in the same way—sifting through the conscious and unconscious lessons that we received from our parents. What we do, we do almost on a kind of autopilot—in the heat of the moment, dumb memory takes over. Change is hard.

I cannot and will not say that my childhood was perfect. I can recall exceptional moments on both sides of the ledger. Making a judgment seems beside the point. Here I am now, and I go on. There’s a ton of privilege built into that statement, and I fully recognize exactly how fortunate I am to be where I am, and to have traveled to this point in my life. The choices I can make now—and the way I make those choices—are predicated on the choices of my mother and father. And so on. For ages.

I guess that any time I hear someone pass judgment on another’s parenting—and mothering especially so—in that gross, if semi-benign “Look at the snowflakes” kind of way, I want to yell, “Really? Cast aspersions carefully, oh paragons of perfection!” All those old lessons about the log in your eye and casting the first stone ring out loudly for me. Those are the lessons I remember. Besides, the old joke about walking five miles to school in the snow, uphill, both ways, gives the proper lie to ill-kept nostalgia.

Life, and mothering, are hard. No one needs anyone to chide them for the daily duties. The significant missteps require a different consideration. No more abuse, please. But keep the quibbling to a minimum. Please.

In general, and in a larger sense, I distrust nostalgia. Yes, remember, always remember, but without the haze of candy floss. At heart, I am more focused on where we are going, adapting, and learning—and in passing those lessons on. Have I failed? Indeed. I keep at it. I will fail again. So what? I keep at it. Where I came from is a starting point, but not my destination. Eyes up! Here comes life.

Time to Fly

I begin easily enough. Before I know it, a length has passed in the pool—most of it underwater as I dolphin kick on my back until the flags at the far end of the pool pass over my head. Or a new job begins, with all the attendant paperwork and the meetings with people who think they know my job better than I do. They know something better, and I try to learn, as quickly as possible. Or a new romance, which is like falling, and is as easy as falling, the way falling is entirely effortless. What comes next?

The grind of workout #89, when the music on the waterproof MP3 player fails to inspire a quickened pace, and the bottom of the pool is endless. Or the month after the initial set of grades are due, and the fourth set of essays come across my desk. Not again. Not the same mess of misspellings and three page paragraphs. Or when the obligations of work and family eat into the blissful times, and bliss becomes quotidian. Imagine that, quotidian bliss.

In every aspect of my life, the transition from beginning to middle happens almost by accident. Like tripping over a carpet. I get used to the puckered places on the floor—or tug the whole thing up, and set it back down again, flat, until the gremlins shift it around again. And then I tug it up again. And again. One time will not do. One run of the vacuum. One load of laundry. Another set of tests to grade. Another and another and another.

But some things bear repetition, even improve. Like love. While it is hard to make the transition from falling to landing, it is better still to learn to fly, to find the joy. The old joke about, I just flew in from Los Angeles, and boy, are my arms tired. I would live for my arms to be so tired with the effort of flight. And it would be worth the effort, each fluctuation of my unseen wings, soaring in unison with my love.

It is the same with writing. I have used this blog as practice off and on for the past few years. It has been a way to scribble and not to worry about the duration of longer effort. Longer effort—let me call it what it is, a novel—can be daunting. What if, like falling and flying, one mistimes the creative leap and ends up hobbled or broken, with months of work sent to sea like Icarus? I only I can think about something longer as, well, 1000 word spans. 1000 words is nothing. 60 days at that pace, and… But let’s not get ahead.

Is writing something longer romantic? For me, yes. I have fallen out of love with several novels that I have begun. The ideas and characters have soured, or I have not loved them well enough to let them live beyond my narrow conception of them. For me, as much as writing is a commitment of ass to chair (scribble, scribble, Dr. Brennan), it mimics the action of reading—a generous engagement with a book. Seymour Glass’s best piece of writing advice ever— “Imagine the book you most want to read. Now go and write it”—has always resonated with me. And until now, other than some shorter pieces, no longer piece has fully met that criteria. Or, I was not up to the flight.

In the end, really, I don’t write because I have something to say, but still, because I want to discover something. Before I was a writer, I was a reader, and I still love to read. The same way that I love to travel, I love to discover ideas and characters in books. It is flight into unknown places. I love discovering what I do not know. Somewhere along the way the creative process seduces one into intention—I get caught in the web of intention—thinking about what I want to say instead of praising what I see. And letting my words find a way.

I take refuge in Michelangelo’s vision of the sculpture already extant in the stone—we aren’t creators so much as revealers—discoverers if you will. So too, with flight, while there may be a destination, there are also loops and rolls and fields long enough to land, and walk to an untended apple tree, pick a ripe crisp fruit, and eat. Discover this on the journey.

How many other aspects of my life follow this impulse—reveling in discovery more than intentional design? I think too many. Most people still live their lives primarily by design. There is security and satisfaction in the sense of agency that willfulness bestows. My students clamor to know what they need to do to earn an “A,” or a higher score on an exam. How unsatisfyingly do I answer, “Discover more.” That is no way forward, at least no specific way. It is an attitude and not a route.

And frankly, in romance, I have scuttled relationships because I have fought against others’ plans, not happy to simply follow the natural stages of things, and unhappy when a relationship settled into a routine. Of course, life is routine, a series of repeated rituals, a hundred thousand undulations of wings. But that routine, those rituals, can, should, must help one reveal what is hidden in the marble, or what might be found when gloriously in flight.

Perhaps, what I wanted, without knowing it, was someone who was willing to fly with me. And in my writing, something that had the chance of slipping the bonds of my intentions. A goal I could fly toward, that would transport me the same way that love transports and transforms me.

There is a little secret though. I do have at least one intention, and that is for this longer work to last, for it to remain engaging and vital, even when the effort strains my arms. And so, I take small flights. And share these flights, for now, with one who flies with me. I discover something new, one winged trip at a time.

Disappearing Lessons

When kids are little, you can play peek-a-boo with them, and delight them for hours because they have not yet developed their sense of object permanence. Objects that drift out of their sensory field cease to exist—the perfect “out of sight, out of mind” circumstance. It does not occur because of anything they will—it just happens. Sometime during the second year of life (and this is an imprecise measure), children learn that there is a world beyond their immediate senses. Trial and error teaches them that parents and food and comfort exist (or, do not!).

Jean Piaget proposes that we learn schemas—models for understanding the world. As we mature—during our early life—these schemas become more complex. They show us how to navigate a world that is not in our immediate grasp—at our egocentric beck and call. But how much do we simply extend our egos—using the schemas as a way of organizing the world in accordance with our desires?

I wonder how this applies to how we develop a sense of the world—how the schemas we develop shape our senses of morality and mortality. Do the schemas imbue more ephemeral things with a greater permanence than is warranted? Can the trial and error of early childhood be subverted by experiences that teach us about the ambiguity and ambivalence of the world? Or do we, from an early age and onward, cling to one master vision that cannot waver?

Because, as we age, we learn that impermanence is the standard. People come and people go. There must be some kind of formula for this: for every two people who enter our orbit, one must be released. Later, the ratios rise, switching to 1:1, and then 1:2. The causes are myriad—death, disaffection, dumb luck. People appear and disappear with stunning frequency, with hardly a moments notice for peek-a—

For example, I often think of my father, and miss him. I know that he is dead and cannot be a part of the life I lead now, however, his presence feels like the lingering effects of object permanence. Somehow, I have located him in my schema of the world, and no loss, no absence can remove him from that schema. Just like the child who can hunt for the toy hidden beneath the sheet, I can find my father behind the darker veil.

And yet, I am also fully aware that he felt often absent while he was still alive. He entered my life at intervals—holidays, sailing trips. There were stretches of time when I only saw him once a year, other times when when he was without more than with—present in the dimes and nickels that he left on his dresser for us to buy milk and ice cream at school, but only appearing, briefly, in the flesh, at dinner, and then disappearing into his den. Was he really there, or have I constructed a vision of him that became a durable substitute for the times he was away?

My parents championed independence in their children. While we were expected to be independent from them, did we, by happenstance, learn independence or absence as part of the schemas on which we built our early lives? We became free-floating, detached, prepared, in advance, for the disappearances that life would throw our ways—not the peek-a-boos of play, but the more enduring, and finally, more heart-breaking absences of adulthood. There is some solace in that, but also a modicum of sadness. We were pre-lost, almost, before we were found.

Stumbling

Sometimes I step right in it. It could be good, could be bad, but somehow, my foot comes down right into it. All I was doing was taking a walk—could be to anywhere, the post office, the grocery store, down the aisle. The destination is of no importance—tell yourself that Brennan, assure yourself that you are a man on a journey, drifting happily so long as there is a journey whose destination is, truly and fortunately, impossible to predict. And then, splat, I tumble forward—because that is how we fall.

All through my youth my body grew more rapidly than my control of it. I had special gym classes at Paoli Elementary School to help with my coordination. I fell down often. I skinned knees, tore pants, tripped over air. When I walked my feet slapped against the pavement—whap, whap, whap. I was a walking announcement.

And then I hiked 500 miles, and my feet learned to glide over rocks and branches and roots as big as an elephant’s trunk. Maybe it was the ballast—imagine that ballast on the back—of my thirty pound pack. Maybe I simply learned. How do I know? What happens seems to have no reason in retrospect—at the time it was a surprise, and a change I hardly noted.

Now, I still feel moments when that 8 year old boy with limbs of wind can hardly find a corner to swirl out of. My hands follow music with a maestro’s insistence—and plays—and movies. I direct everything, even the line at the grocery store. What I step into now are emotional paths, occasional avalanches of everyone’s feelings—mine too! mine too! Intellectual thickets are no peril. And maybe, just maybe, because there is not one path, but a dozen (a hundred! More!), my feet, so used to gliding, stumble.

Who are all these people, all on their own paths, that veer in and out of my little journey? Little? Hardly. It is, fortunately, a truly immense journey, and I am covered in mud. No worries, there is rain ahead, and then, I will only be wet.