THE RECOGNITION OF
TRUE LIMITS AND TRUE OPPORTUNITY
As I sit below the bridge at Siberia ghost town, I can see the Bullion Mountains many miles to the south. I spy them through a portal under the bridge, a window-like opening between the old wooden structure above, and the sandy wash below. There’s no glassy pane between these worlds, just a sharp division of shadow across the ground which marks the limit of my safety in the shade, safety from the summer heat—over 110 degrees today—which keeps me hiding here in the hot dark. The dividing line of shadow in the sand is my limit. Not my true limit, that is a few miles further out in the desert, that true limit I could never return from if I were to cross.
I look from under the bridge at the places I cannot go. And I am keenly aware of how small my limit where I can go. I can stay here. And I can walk safely a short distance out there. I can walk almost safely back to my bike parked at Siberia. I can hide there in the shade of the ruins in late afternoon. I cannot go far. I can not go even as far as I think I can. This place makes me know my limit here. This place threatens like a beast, or someone we know yet cannot trust, we know only we must beware.
It is a pity everything is not so easy to read as a summertime desert. Imagine at work, going to a meeting where some inferno blasts. Where you know so easily how close you can get before being burned. How far to safely remain to hold your own and do your job and produce well and avoid being burned.
Or how about during your commute home. Shouldn’t we expect the inferno on the road? It burns with inconsiderate drivers, or with mistake, or with traffic, even traffic we knew was coming—rush hour—which somehow takes us always by surprise. Maybe not so much if the event burned like a desert, came blowing hot wind on our body from 5:30 to 6:30 PM Monday through Friday. Maybe we would be less angry if we saw this as something beyond our control?
But we do have some control. We do have some say in these and other matters. We choose our job and our commute. We can change these if we like, though with consequences we know. And what we cannot change or control we can adjust our reaction. We can control our response. We can master our emotions, and our actions; and in so doing explore and discover the true limits of our control.
Now the truest extent and limit of our control is the mastery we gain of our emotions and the reactions we couple to these. It is a good use of time to meditate upon the source and substance of our particular and individual mental and emotional character. What touches us deeply? What sets us off? What moves us and motivates us to action? What causes us to despair or give up? And if we come to know these things, what attentions may we apply to spot such emotions rising early and soon in our minds? How can we prepare to handle what we are, to make ourselves better in fact and action than what we really are? This is the paramount goal in recognizing our true limits in both the world outside, and the world within, as well as our true opportunity in every day and moment that remains.
There should be empty space enough around everything important in order to accommodate our need to perceive the important thing clearly, and to have some distance when it breaks, and we must stand clear of flying debris. We commonly meet this need for safe space through social instruments such as insurance, savings, fences, surnames, marriage contracts and even language; all of which produce structure and limits and security around us during every life stage, and keep us safe when accidents do occur, or when we need to know our tribe, or when we desire to enjoy some common words of comfort with those who understand what we really mean. Beyond these safeties though, are the wide margins leading to the foreign, unfamiliar, and unknown. These are good and important margins to keep, lest we wander, unwittingly, into territory where we are not welcome, wanted or even prepared to stay alive. Knowing and forming such boundaries ourselves is not easy, though there are always others glad enough to point them out to us. Tribes and individuals have their own, sometimes very different, ideas about where such frontiers begin and end... There's potential conflict in that. Accept that as a fact. Remember always that wide margins—like good fences—do good neighbors make.
But do not take the margins for granted. Go to them at times and gaze beyond. Trespass even a bit through their barrier to the wilder grounds beyond. Maybe go a little further still if you dare; bringing some provisions for your journey, a snack, and some water and maybe something to trade. Bring instruments to write with or to use to take pictures. Do not bother with a map though, as you will now need to make your own. But keep your eye on the territory behind you, the places you left—do not let these get so far that you lose sight of them, as then you will never get back. You'll never get back...even if you do somehow get back.
What is the cost of yesterday? The cost is now. What is the value of yesterday? The value is maturity—but only when we possess the fortitude to maintain or adjust our course in accord with the lessons we've learned—only if we remember to just glance back sometimes, and not to stare too long at yesterday.
There's a quicksand of complacency
In every backwards glance
There's a giving up of now
In remembering yesterday
It's not a bad thing to look back...
Though looking behind
Is never free
Imagine a sailor crossing the sea while looking at where they'd been... A man or woman at the rudder of a small boat, adjusting course, while gazing over their shoulder at the past. Look too long behind and they'll not see the rocks ahead until they are ruined and going down. No matter how wonderful the places we'd been, we must always, and soon, adjust our attention forward. We should also plan and chart a course into the sea. We should steer and tack and make our way forward. Even in open water the wise sailor attends their forward progress and sets a watch at every hour and season. Where we are now, and where we are headed next, is what matter most. Our past adventures are no longer any real living, and should only serve as reference and remembrance for the benefit of now and what is to come. I'd remember yesterday always if I had no wish to live well today. I'd linger long in the past only if I was too tired or hurt or done with the present.
It is alright to give up when we have had enough... When the journey's been long, and we're ready to go lost with the wind while gazing behind at the sea. To wait for the open waters to swallow us soon while looking happily back at where we have been and lived. Or even to linger with our past pain until the great ocean takes it all away.
But let us not willingly lose ourselves too soon to the sea through gross mis-attention of the past while we're still fit to sail on. Let us keep our eyes forward with just periodic glances to memory for as long as we desire to go on—and then a little further still for safe measure. Let us save the backwards gazing for old age and our readiness for the end. Let us look back quick now for reference and then turn forward to scan the horizon ahead and all around. There are storm clouds out there and wind. There's sunrise and sunset and fine days and breezes to be had. Look again behind, quick, and then forward and all around. Get up and grab the rope and the tiller. There's time yet to attend the sea.
It's time to sail.
Life as a distraction
Dear Eric, Do you remember the flashy show we made of our youth? No, of course, you don't. You can't remember anything... But, I do. I remember how I rode my skateboard recklessly down the pedestrian pathways at the university. And how I went barefoot on rainy days. And a whole lot of other things which I thought were bold expressions of personality and which got the attention of others. You did the same thing... Do you remember those colorful clown pants you sometimes wore? Or how you never laced your tennis shoes? Of course, you don't. You don't remember any of that. But, I do. And I was thinking of this today. It was a loud car that passed me–loudly–on the street while I was walking the dogs. It was the way the man behind the wheel revved the engine as he went by, getting everyone to look...and reminding himself to not see.
We distract ourselves with ourselves. It's a neat trick. We animate our living in such a way as to remind ourselves and others that we are alive. Of course, we need no such overt show of living, but we remind ourselves - and others - nonetheless for a more sober reason. It is because we require distraction. It's what we do not wish to remember that we seek to neglect.
Men with loud cars
To their own distraction
Listen to that engine rev... Vrooom, VROOM!! Wow! Everyone! Listen and look! I'm alive. And I'm YOUNG-ish... Vroom! VROOM!!! Now, I'm going to peel out and roar away from this stoplight. I'm ALIVE!!
It's a nice distraction, perhaps. All show and flash and color. Of course, the car's gotta be red. And it's gotta have pipes—and listen to that stereo! All these things are part of the means to an end of making a good show at being alive, and young-ish, and strong, and potent, and capable, and in command of means, and the right person to get with for tonight or a lifetime. These behaviors can probably be traced to our evolution, and are simple demonstrations of our fitness for the purpose of attracting a mate. I'm sure birds are doing something similar when they sing and croon and prance for a mate. And tomcats when they howl, and male lions who roar and fight for control while the pride looks on. It's a simple bit of biology we're doing—that's for sure... But with us—with us humans—I think there's something more. It's because of our brains, our big brains that know death. And our brains which do not wish to be reminded of death—our own death in particular—so we exaggerate our displays both to find and retain a mate, and also to distance our memory from the fact of what we know is to come, what we know is our fate, what we do not wish to remember; the nothing to come; the nothing we can't remember once it's here. So, we forget, or we try to anyway. Nice try.
The loud noise and flashy display might work for a season. For a time, we get by. Either during youth–when we largely do not know better, there being little bodily pain to remind us that we fail–or later in life, mid-life, perhaps, when the pain begins, and we can't help noting we must fail. And so, we done the clown pants, and make a show; or we walk through the rain barefoot feeling alive with every step; or we buy a flashy red sports car as the hair atop our heads starts to fall out, or take a cruise to Alaska to live a little while we still can.
Or, maybe we simply pray... Maybe we turn to our imagination in earnest and make a show of our conviction and faith. We give up the threat of the death we fear to another, a more powerful being, who hides our fears behind reassuring chapter and verse, and in ritual, and the communion of shared belief. And the others who believe like us are also quite reassuring. There is certainly certainty in numbers. Let's make a show now, shall we? Let's build a big house there on the corner and come together to sing. Let's sing LOUDLY perhaps, shall we not? And the man up front will tell us stories - tales of what is true - and we like it when he gets worked up in the spirit, we like it when he tells us our faith is a virtue. We like it when he revs up the engine... Vroom, VROOM! goes the engine.
Swimming to a park bench by the sea
I swam yesterday in the sea. I swam possibly too far yesterday in the sea, as I am today quite worn and spent. I expect that this is a consequence of my age, and my reluctance to give up the template of living remembered of my youth, when difficult physical exertion was something less endured as enjoyed, both in the moment and after the hard work of exertion was done. I am no longer that young man, and a hard swim now in the sea, maybe a half a mile or more, requires some recovery, both for the body and the mind. I wonder what this advancing condition is like for the very old, when simply standing and going to the bathroom is endeavor enough for one day? Do the elderly sit and lament their remembered youth? Or does the aged mind simply accept and adjust to the new standard and recognized limits--getting old with little or no protest to the evident bodily and cerebral decline?
How do we each accommodate the diminishment of what we are, against the memory of what we have been? How are the lessening limits of what we can do then reconciled against the record of memory of what we once did, and the observance of the young who do so easily and carelessly what we now cannot? I expect that there is something in our Biology which accommodates this transition; a resignation engine of some sort which councils our mind to place safe limits on our ambition, and temper our expectation, and dampen our hopes, at least with regard to the thoughts and action—particularly the potentially harmful actions—which we might seek to engage.
And so now I sit in the morning with this weary and spent body, typing these words while sipping coffee which fails to refresh. Yesterday's long ocean swim took something away from me which I haven't yet got back, and I suspect this fact is the mechanism which advances the gauge of my expectations such that I may not ever do as yesterday once again. My caliber has been reset with regard to how far I can swim in the ocean. Half a mile is clearly too far... Maybe a quarter mile next time, and a little less the time after that. And if I do this well, keeping up the caution, then maybe I won't notice or even experience much, that sense of regret over the loss of my vigor and vitality due to age. Perhaps this is the mechanism of which I referenced above? The bodily machine of adjusting expectations against the feedback of experience. Perhaps this is the course of the gentle road to old age: when one challenging experience after another, the consequence of my inevitable physical decline, must lead me to become that seemingly contented old man seated at the park bench by the sea, amused by pigeons, and the simple joy of watching others who swim in the sea.
Notes from my muse
I need to dispel from my mind the ambition of Mt. Wildness—a place that isn't real. How much better to pursue it while remembering I'll never get there.
I just met two soulless beasts now in the dark. I must be nearing the Edge of Deep Water. What’s a soulless beast? Please consult the chapter titled The Cast within my book Going Alone.