And How Should I Then Live?
It was not a rhetorical question ten years ago this week: what was I to do with myself, standing at the edge of a precipice, the leap of faith promising both pain and promise?
“It is late, and I am last to bed, past the usual time. I step out onto the front porch into the cool, sweet air of early June, and sit on the top step quietly as if not to disturb the wildlife, whose nocturnal day I am entering.The pasture grasses just beyond the maples are in full flower and their pollen smells like midnight bread baking, while Goose Creek sends up wafts of spearmint, wet mud and turbulence.
My eyes soon learn to see in darkness and I am aware of soundless flashes of summer lightning, and stars overhead. My night vision comes and goes with each flash and pause and flash. Rising from the dark field on the fragrance of grasses are tens of thousands of lightning bugs. Put them in a jar, shake and see them illumined with the cold translucence of memory. They pulse and rise above the field in counterpoint to the tempo of the clouds, signaling ancient syllables that we could understand, if we were more often still, less hurried, and more at home in our own pastures.
Gravity pulls me down and I lie on my back, on cool stone horizontal, before a mock-infinity of space, wondering what is my place in this world of men and of words? Do I deserve to be so blessed among Earth’s teeming humanity? What must I do in the warmth of this gentle epiphany that is revealed to me tonight and how should I then live? Maybe I will try to find the words in the morning, after the house is quiet again and the fireflies have gone to bed and the world smells of heat and ozone and toast.”
This short passage comes early in Slow Road Home because it came early in that inexplicable, mapless chapter of my life that had appeared with such jarring suddenness–as if a chaos-creating someone had walked into the room of my life and changed channels from the regular soap opera; only the stage and props had stayed the same. The roles for the two familiar characters was rewritten almost overnight, the lines confusing, the plot and ending a featureless terrain as far as I could see.
And yet, I had a sense that there was purpose beyond the abyss. The destination would not show itself the next morning, the next month. If there was meaning here, if there was a point to this unplanned change of course, I would have to wrestle it to the ground anew every morning. Writing seemed to offer the Rosetta Stone for making sense of both who and especially WHERE I was in June of 2002.
How should I then live in the light of all that had happened? What was I to do with myself if I was not a biology teacher or physical therapist? Was there worth, merit or esteem to be found in simply being fully human, living intentionally where a man woke up each new morning, in an isolated and beautiful mountain valley?
A decade of attention, of stillness, of language and light, has brought answers. And from the fragments, as I had so hoped, is emerging the whole of which they have been a part all along. It’s only my script, only my own synthesis of “what it all means” and of my role, and our role, in it. But getting it down in words seems a worthwhile use of what remains of my time and energy.
All along, the writing has been about relationships–to nature, place and community. But the writing has been fragmentary. Now, I see the possibility to pull the threads together, to knit the patchwork into a larger body of work that tells both my story as a biology-watcher becoming aware of his personal ecology, and our story as a unique generation of humans at a profound and historical turning point.
I imagine the book completed. I lack the skills and discipline, but these are foes that can be defeated. Â I lack the zeal and drive I used to draw from a body of responsive blog and news column readers. Â I have no idea where to find those missing nutrients now.
So what am I to do with this not-so-subtle and time-urgent epiphany?