Welcome Home

Welcome Home! The boys stood together, waving their poster-board handwritten signs over their heads like flags, their eyes fixed upon the escalator. We – the three boys, their father, and approximately a thousand other travelers – are gathered at O’Hare, between baggage claim and Starbucks, like the flotsam that gathers in corners everywhere. There are a limited number of chairs; I’ve got one, and I’m not budging. So for the better part of an hour, my view is the same as the boys’: we watch the escalator.

One by one, people are lowered, their arms full of carry-ons, rolling luggage at their knees. Some grimly stride down the lowering steps, inpatient with the steady mechanical speed, though no one here has flights to catch.  These travelers, the escalator-walkers, push between other people’s suitcases and elbows like so much overgrown brush. Others stand quietly upon their allotted stair, placid as ruminants, accepting whatever comes. They’re easily knocked aside by the walkers. Although they’d been written for the one traveler who hadn’t yet arrived, to all the signs are offered: Welcome Home. Yet the faces of the travelers remain unchanged; if they read the boys’ message, they give no sign.

The wind outside whips a late spring snowfall through the dark night, but inside it’s warm, and most of us waiting for one thing or another sit quietly, lulled by the television screens which reassuringly depict how much worse things are everywhere we’re not.

One by one, the boys get tired. The one in a purple jacket wobbles a little, then lets go of his sign. He looks at the paper, then to his brother, the one in a red hat with a yellow pom on top, and there’s a little scuffle that ends when red hat whacks purple jacket on the head with his own sign. Purple jacket starts to cry. The boy still standing, the one with the kind of hair that they call ginger, gives him a hard look, and he stops. The ginger-headed boy, clearly the eldest, continues to hold his sign over his head like the last man standing for a losing team, the fan whose enthusiasm is unnerving in its resilience. He carries his responsibility gravely, and his disappointment in his brothers is severe, but carefully restrained. Red hat picks up his sign, and then, glancing at ginger-head, his brother’s sign, and gives it to him. The younger boys sit, propping their signs in their laps. Waves of tired, distracted travelers continue unabated down the escalator. Not one looks at the boys. Not one stops to read their signs.

It can be hard to receive what’s offered. Perhaps there’s an implication that by accepting an offering, we’re somehow indebted to the giver, even if the gift is nothing more than a kind word. There’s a fear of losing something we can’t define, some kind of autonomy that is, somehow, the way we understand safety. We wouldn’t like to register something unintended for our eyes; the privacy found in a public place is tenuous, fragile. We wish to pass unnoticed, and so to grant others the same anonymity is our password.

I’m struck, again and again, by the small ways the world offers us welcome home, and how, nearly as often, we turn away. It’s exhausting to have to see things, day after day, to register the loose tussle of timothy grass, or the arc of multiflora rose against the evening sky. Each observation triggers a host of affiliated concerns, a registry of unmet needs, a public compendium of how much I have not yet done. Even the frogs, singing from their overgrown ditches, offer a chorus of welcome that I’d just as soon not hear.

So much is interpretation. I remember a young man showing off photographs of his honeymoon in the Scottish moors to his friends back in the North Carolina piedmont. Miles and miles of treeless land, covered with bracken, grasses, heather… “I’d hate to have to mow that,” his friend replied, somberly. The rest nod, and I try to keep from laughing although I, too, know what he means. It becomes hard to see anything as itself, absent the personal narrative lens with which we story the world.

But all around, we’re being offered signs of welcome. Signs we didn’t expect, signs which require nothing of us but to receive them, like the old woman who folds over with laughter while holding her arms out to all three boys at once. Welcome home, cries the flame azalea. Welcome home, says the dogwood. Welcome home, offers the peony. Welcome home, whispers the smell of the tall grass in the rain. Welcome home.

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looking again

Sunlight grazes the edge of the barn. It’s a small plank-built barn, sturdy. Maybe there’s mist rolled out over the field behind the barn, mist thick as biscuit dough, made white by the sun; or maybe it’s one of those cutting mornings, so bright it’s sliced right through any semblance of the previous night. The fields have been, as they are, freshly plowed, and the color of ochre, burnt tomato. Someone gazes across the field: we see the field through her eyes. A man staggers, bleeding, his hand held tight across his belly. Then another, dressed in faded gray. And another. Maybe an entire ragged division of troops, their clothes ragged, their faces gaunt…No, there’s only the one. He stumbles, and now we see the field from his perspective: the way the flat earth seems to pitch and wheel beneath him, the welcome relief it finally offers as his feet finally abandon their tenuous balance. As he falls, he turns, and we see he’s made it to the edge of the field, to a small running creek. As he falls, nothing changes: the earth, impassive, holds him; the creek continues to run from its source, a spring deep within the mountain, down to the rivers beneath.

I don’t actually know what the director will choose for the scene that’s being filmed, but whatever it is, that scene will be the way I end up seeing the field that our neighbor tends, where the little barn is in which L’s tobacco is cured in the late summer and dent corn stored through the winter. There’s a little bend in the road there that I’ve always admired, and a pretty beech tree. But however I see it now will change, because of seeing it on the screen. Ron Rash’s novel, The World Made Straight, is being filmed in and around Marshall right now. For almost everyone else, what is seen in the film is all they will know of the land. The fact that the scene takes place a hundred and fifty years ago, in the midst of the civil war, around 1863, won’t seem important. The fact that there won’t be thick groves of chestnut trees in the woods by the field, towering groves not yet lost to the blight, will go unremarked; that this field, like many others, hasn’t been tilled by anything but machine in many years, will not be observed; nor will it seem askance that the soil will have been decimated, though not discolored, by the regular use of pesticides and herbicides. The fact that the land is cleared at all, which would have seemed strange to other people at other points in time, will go unnoticed. Our attention, all of it, will fix upon the young man, a boy really, and the mystery of why he has been shot.

We’re an obedient audience, accustomed to being led through the director’s field of vision, having a plot that’s laid out for us to follow, smooth as a two-lane blacktop, one panel leading to the next.  There’s only one soldier. There’s only ever been one soldier. We see what we expect to see.

Research suggests that our memories are far less reliable than we tend to believe. We’re easily swayed into believing contradictory evidence, based on the persuasive powers of suggestion based in the present moment. That is, I can easily be convinced that I only saw one soldier, because someone else said so, and it made sense. I agree: there must have been only one. The memory of our one soldier, staggering across the field, so detailed we can see the sun’s glint on his one remaining button, see the stain that darkens that button as he falls. Maybe.

We’ll see the movie the way the director intends. It’s a quiet, scenic mountain community, torn asunder in times both past and present by forces outside its control. There’s only ever been one story. We’ll see the movie, and smile at the parts of our county we recognize. We’ll smile and nod, and agree that it looks just like that, and point out to friends and relations the parts on which our vision differs. We’ll feel significant, because we’ll find ourselves in the privileged position of being able to have an opinion.

Recently, the NPR Planet Money team has been doing a series of stories on the tremendous rise of individuals receiving Social Security Disability benefits. It’s called Unfit for Work, and it’s terrific. Disability, according to social scientists, isn’t a quality of the individual, but a interaction between the individual and the social structures within which he or she lives. Impairment may be individual: an individual may be deaf, i.e. hearing impaired. However, if hearing isn’t required for basic functions of that person’s life, they aren’t disabled. In one rural community, where deafness was so common that, in the words of the one title, “Everyone spoke sign language there”, deafness was a quality like good teeth or freckles. It wasn’t the most significant aspect of a person’s life. It was only a part of who they were.

What’s happening, according to Chana Joffe-Walt’s six months’ research, is that jobs are changing; more and more people are unable to find work that they’re qualified to do, or able to learn to do. Sometimes they’re able to move, to relocate to other cities, to other states, even to other countries. This requires, of course, other abilities: the abilities to move between social support structures; the financial ability to relocate; the imagination and psychological confidence to do so; and some amount of trust and assurance that moving will be an effective strategy in meeting their goal of living independently. If the person has a family, the family must be able to move as well.

Or, they can apply for Social Security/Disability. A person is considered disabled if their individual impairment creates functional limitations for their ability to work. If the work that an individual is able to do does not exist, then that individual is considered, by a judge, in a court, disabled. Millions of Americans are now considered disabled, not because they are unable to work, but because the jobs which they can do are no longer available. But no one tells them that. It’s easier to imagine that there is a new danger among us, the danger of individuals who are too damaged to partake of the healthy desire to work. It’s easier to condemn an individual person for living off the government dime (no matter that the individual has, by accepting disability benefits, agreed to live in poverty). It’s easier to accept that the disabled and the poor are “with us always”, rather than question the lens by which we see each other as poor, or as disabled; or question the lens through which we see ourselves.

Looking again across the field: the soldiers are gone now. The film cameras have moved on to their next shoot. Movie-goers won’t see what happens next: the snow that falls in the night, covering the freshly plowed field.

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beloved community

At first, we thought they were tire tracks, and were disturbed. Great shovels of sod were torn from the field, leaving open the clay beneath. Hundreds of these holes, nearly a foot deep in places and as long as it would take for a four-wheeler to skid out of a slick patch. We recalled the headlines about vandalism at Max Patch. But these tracks weren’t made by tires.

“Looks like we may have some hogs,” a neighbor said.

Hogs? Like wild pigs?

“They can do some damage,” he said, inspecting the clod of upended earth as if this confirmed his diagnosis. I’d had a mechanic look at the underside of my car in this way, and it wasn’t an inexpensive look. Calculations were going on beneath the surface that words weren’t quite fit to express, and so remained inaccessible to me.

What kind of damage?

“This kind, nothing more. They’re not usually dangerous. But if they find a place they like, they can last a while.”

A while?

We shouldn’t be surprised. During the ten years or so we’ve lived here, we’ve been besieged by an army of deer that stripped our yard of anything even remotely considered edible. They ate our vegetables, our tomatoes, our peppers; they also ate our azaleas, our new plum tree, even the hollies. They ate rhododendrons into strange little nubs. There were better years and worse, but for the most part we agreed that there wasn’t any use in planting unless there was a fence, and even then there was no guarantee.

Meanwhile, plants were growing similarly unbalanced. Asian bittersweet, a lovely vine with a red fruit encased in a bright yellow shell, grows as quickly as kudzu but with the strength of a steel cable over trees and deep in thickets. It doesn’t confine itself to perimeters, but forages underneath trees as well as broad open meadows. The deer didn’t seem to like it, and it was often the only growing thing. Except for the poison ivy, which seems worse than ever, and, although it’s not properly considered invasive, it couldn’t be considered much of anything else either. They’ve actually done some studies on the itchiness of poison ivy, and these studies suggest that we’re not wrong to think that this noxious weed is doing pretty well in the new extremes of climate conditions.

My neighbor rigged up a couple of cameras in order to confirm his guess about hogs and has been sharing his findings with the community. Yes, we have pigs, but that’s not it. There are coyotes, deer, raccoons, bobcats, feral cats and dogs – or at least, unidentifiable night-visiting dogs. The pictures show the blurred outline of their bodies, the flash of opaque light in their eyes.

Photo credit: Sam Bingham

And so, now what? That is the question we’ve been considering.

I won’t lie to you. My father, and his father before him, took great pride in their yards and gardens. I was raised mowing grass, trimming bushes, shaking sevin dust over gardens bright with fertilizer. Control of your yard was tantamount to moral discipline; the idea that wild animals could run amok within the perimeters of your property was essentially accepting moral dissipation. My vote, at one point in time, would have been eradication: of poison ivy, of bittersweet, of deer, and certainly now that of wild hogs. And I would have kept doing it, because that’s how I was raised: to keep a clean yard. And there is something beautiful about it, I can’t help admitting; there’s something absolutely satisfying about seeing a clean, weedless garden, a lawn of thick unbroken grass. But at what price, and how sustainable is this precarious idea of beauty?

Josiah Royce, a founder of the interfaith peace organization Fellowship of Reconciliation, coined the phrase, “the beloved community,” that was later taken on years later by another member of the same organization, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The beloved community is all of us, and as such includes not only those we would select as our beloved, but all of us, as beloved by God.

I believe that we’re given an opportunity to practice love in all kinds of ways, not least among them the manner of living within a world that’s wild with living, growing things we didn’t choose. In people, we have a tendency to imagine that within each of us, there’s somehow a better person, someone who doesn’t have the problems, the hangups. The disabilities, the damage, and our tendency is to love that pristine inner person, claiming that the other doesn’t matter. In nature, we long for the pristine virgin forest, unsullied by human contact. But our challenge, in creating the beloved community, is not to love what is all around us in spite of its lack of pristine-ness, but because of it. Loving not just the neatly trimmed lawn or the minuscule patches of old-growth forests, but the clumps of Johnston grass, and the prickly wild yam vine. To love not only the loveable, but the broken, the mean, the petty. To love what is, in all its wildness and damage; and in so doing to live our way into the beloved community, a home of resilience, faith, and love.

Which is great, in theory. But what do we actually do about the pigs? We’re not sure. Love doesn’t mean spinelessness; acceptance shouldn’t imply lack of responsibility for living in a way that’s meaningful and productive. As soon as sorrow crowds our vision, we’re no longer seeing the beloved community. Acceptance may simply mean that we’re willing, at least a little bit, to look with interest at the rutted earth.

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in the deep midwinter

And here we mark midwinter: the celebration of Candlemas, 40 days after Christmas, has become Groundhog’s Day, the morning when, it’s said, the groundhog emerges from his winter’s sleep to determine how long winter will continue. If he sees his shadow, we’re in for another six weeks of cold; but if February 2 is cloudy, that groundhog just may have courage enough to wake up, bringing spring along with him. Here in these mountains, most of us may feel as if we’ve barely been touched by winter. Grazed by cold, our dark days and long nights have been warm and wet for weeks now, as if we’re stuck in the endless bog of a northern tropic. Our orientation of time and place twists and turns; nothing is quite as we remembered it.

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There’s a story “I am not a Jew”, by John Biguenet, that I heard a while back on the NPR radio show, Selected Shorts. In the story, a tourist wandering a German cemetery late at night finds himself suddenly surrounded by a gang of young men with shaved heads and hand-drawn tattooed swastikas. He realizes that he’s within the Jewish portion of the cemetery, surrounded by the etched names, the small faded photographs of men, women and children who’d died in the decades prior to the 1930s. As the men move closer, grabbing him by the collar and laughing at jokes that he, not fluent in German, doesn’t understand, he has a burst of clarity followed by relief as he realizes, they think I’m Jewish. I’m not. He falters in German to express the words that he senses will release him.  I am not a Jew. I am not a Jew.

He repeats the words again and again, I am not a Jew, until finally, they release him, still laughing with contempt. He says, he is not a Jew, the leader announces in English. What are you?

Ich bien ein Americaner. I am not a Jew.

When he’s finally allowed to leave, there’s no indication that the situation would have gone otherwise had he not said what he did. They simply let him go, release him, without causing physical harm. He flees, lost in this strange city, but eventually makes his way back to his hotel where the elderly proprietor welcomes him in. Hearing the man’s story over a couple of late night drinks, the proprietor shakes his head sadly. “What else could you do?” he says, comfortingly. “Anyone would have done the same.”

The man repeats these words, incorporates them into his story. His wife was sleeping upstairs, and he doesn’t wake her as he comes to bed. And, although it burns within him, he doesn’t tell her the story of his adventure for several weeks. In fact, when he finally tells her, he does so in such a casual way that would admit to little ambiguity of emotion. What else could I do? Anyone would have done the same.

She shakes her head, as somehow, he must have known she would. No, she says. No.

“But I’m not a Jew,” he said, plaintively.

She looks sad, and explains, as if to a child: “That night, they divided the world into two kinds of people: Jews and Nazis. And you, you were not a Jew.”

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This story has been haunting me ever since I first heard it. It has to do with identity, how we define ourselves internally and externally. It has to do with disclosure. It has to do with fear, how quickly we cast about for what identity will save us. We’re pack animals, we humans, and we’re safest when we’re surrounded by people who are like us. We’re forever seeking confirmation of who we are, as individuals, within a group. This feels particularly clear during political seasons, but that’s only one fairly coarse example. Most of us are mixed creatures, more “purple” than red or blue, marked more by bruises and blemishes and indifference than by genuine faith in particular codes or creeds. This isn’t a bad thing. Purity of heart is the gateway to barbarism, said someone once. Can we cling to uncertainty, to vulnerability, under pressure, rather than claim an identity through fear of being exposed? That’s the question.

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I’m a musician, and I’ll turn for a moment to music for illustration. In the western musical tradition, we’ve created a language of harmonic dissonance and consonance. Consonance is harmonic stability; music often starts and finishes with consonance. Dissonance is considered unstable, often even abrasive or disruptive. It’s usually found in the middle; dissonance is the hero’s adventure, the thing that must be resolved. We feel unsatisfied unless a piece of music closes with a consonance. We’ve created that expectation for ourselves, and reinforced it in art, in narrative stories, in music, creating the traditions that would have us believe in stable conclusions. But life doesn’t always resolve in a tidy way.

In John Biguenet’s story, the story closes as the man lies in bed beside his now-sleeping wife. He asks himself, What else could I have done? And does not know.

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object permanence

Now the nights have curled up around the edges of the day; the grass is sleek with dark ice that dissolves into ridiculous, extravagant sunlit beauty, all spun gold and cerulean blue.  An earthy dampness lingers just beneath every step, a mustiness that’s reminiscent of the early life of spring, and if you look closely you’ll see more: errant blooms on azaleas, viburnum, rhododendron. Buds quicken upon a branch even as its leaves gently release, one at a time, until it’s bare but for the fat ripeness that remains. Echoes of new life, here, in the turning of the year.

Yesterday, I planned to leave today to visit my cousin as she convalesced in a nursing home, sick with cancer. She was to have her nails done.  Today, I’ll go instead to be with my family as we all grieve our cousin’s death. Barely a month between diagnosis and death: the speed of her leaving is hard to take as a blessing.  It wasn’t supposed to be this way, we think. She wasn’t supposed to leave, not like this. She was meant to be old; she was meant to have her nails done. She was meant to plan our weddings, and to grieve at all our funerals. But she never was old.

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A friend sends a picture of a bald eagle he’d seen by the French Broad River. It was devouring the carcass of a young deer, tearing at it piece by piece. What a beautiful bird, we think. Strong, fierce, proud. Our eyes averted from the faun. Death be not proud, though some have called thee so… why should she have grown old after all, other than the inescapable selfishness of our desire to have her stay? The eagle, in its mysterious strength, the very image of freedom, doesn’t respond.

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How did freedom become something so…terrible? This eagle, like any raptor, is a solitary hunter, someone who survives in a kind of seize-and-consume economy. Free to take what it pleases, not dependent on the permission of a crowd. Yet this afternoon I saw a skyful of swifts that were like music in their ephemeral dance. I saw a dandelion spill its crown of seeds into the breeze, each seed lifted into the breeze, rising and falling with the wind. I saw a leaf, just one, tremble at the tip of a blaze-gold maple, before it, too, released its grip. Which one of these is the truest image of freedom?

Photo by Daehyun Park under the Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

Sometimes, I hear a small voice say, maybe the most genuine freedom is in letting go. That’s not my natural inclination. At any point in time, I would have chosen to stop those swifts in their tracks, affixing them for all time in any given shape, any one that caught my attention. I fell in love with each one of them as it happened, mourned its loss until I fell in love with the next one. If it were up to me, I’d never abandon the starry aureole of the dandelion flower; if, by chance, one were to grow into a crown of silvery seeds, I’d preserve it forever in its perfect orb. Each maple leaf, perfect in its color, never changing, never falling. But, like the country lyric goes, How can I miss you when you won’t go away?

In some theories of childhood development, there’s a stage in which one develops what’s called “object permanence”; that is, understanding that even though one can’t see or touch the object at the present moment, the object is still there. The game of “peek-a-boo” is played at this stage, a gentle tug at the attention: see? I’m here. Even though you can’t see me, I’m still here. Peek-a-boo, I see you. Without these moments of loss, the joyous reunion can’t happen either. I see you! By letting go, there may be the freedom to be found again, again, and again.

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getting lost, part two

This morning as Theo and I walked together in the dark, our feet padding lightly across the scrim of gravel and the spangled-grounded-equivalent-of-lightning bugs whose names I’ll never remember, the constellations of winter spiraling overhead, I thought again of Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. She’s someone, I thought, who would understand something about the long day I’d spent lost, deep in the Smokies, that February afternoon years ago. What I’d learned from getting lost – shaking, trembling and numb: that I could call for help, and that help would come – she’d taken in another direction. Solnit is a writer dedicated to the merits of wandering from the path, to the virtues of being lost.

“Lost,” she writes, “really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing.” Like me, Solnit is fascinated both by what she finds in the natural world and by the resonance within, a landscape that we understand only through our own understanding of ourselves, which itself is inextricably shaped by the land in which we find ourselves. We imagine ourselves in the image of the world we love, and we love it more for the way it reflects our own image. Those, then, are the maps we study, in our dominion. We name things, and so hope to own them.

Solnit quotes Virginia Woolf, in whose To The Lighthouse, these words are found: “For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of – to think; well, not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others. Although she continued to knit, and sat upright, it was thus that she felt herself; and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures. When life sank down for a moment, the range of experience seemed limitless…beneath it is all dark, it is all spreading, it is unfathomably deep; but now and again we rise to the surface and that is what you see us by. Her horizon seemed to her limitless.”

The quiet mystery of a limitless horizon, unfathomably deep, is something I come again and again to think about. “All the being and the doing…evaporated; and one shrunk…to being oneself…invisible to others.” The image I have for this woman is, oddly enough, from the children’s book, Goodnight Moon. The grandmotherly bunny in the rocking chair, knitting. Goodnight knitting. Goodnight chair. Goodnight red balloon. Goodnight moon. But Solnit isn’t writing of dreams, not exactly. She’s writing of being right-sized in the world; she’s writing, although she’ll never say it, of God.

Solnit tells the stories of those who “cease to be lost not by returning but by turning into something else.” That transformation isn’t possible through rational thought. In the old joke, “You can’t get there from here.” You can’t understand the process of getting lost by thinking about it. Try sometime. Try to get lost, truly lost. It’s not easy. We see what we expect to see, in each other, in ourselves, and in the world around us. We protect ourselves from the grief of knowing that our lives are but a breath, and that “at any given moment the sun is setting someplace on earth, and another day is slipping away largely undocumented as people slide into dreams that will seldom be remembered when they awaken.” We grip, intently, to the temporal with a white-knuckled urgency, as if our urgency will make the thing more important. And it is, in a way. Every action, every inaction, has an effect. Mountains are leveled, or not, for their deposits of coal; chemical pollutants are forced into the bedrock, laying waste to our land and water, through the process called fracking, or not. Millions of us who depend upon our state for their daily needs, for food, for shelter, and healthcare are provided for, or we’re not. That’s real. But what’s also real is that we don’t know yet what we don’t know.

If the world were made up of nothing but our own opinions, then it would be a much smaller place. “The landscape in which identity is supposed to be grounded is not solid stuff; it’s made out of memory and desire, rather than rock and soil,” Solnit writes. Yet the world itself is rock and soil and water, and difficult to see, as caught up as we are in our own identity, in what we think we see, and in what we expect to see. It’s only when we’re willing to let go of all that, when we allow ourselves to get lost, that the limitless horizon appears.

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getting lost, part one

Now the road is lit with lightning bugs that do not fly, whose lights pulse in an earthbound imitation of their winged summer cousins, and whose habitation is the barren ground of winter. The road itself, a blur of light gravel and the dark grass, is felt more than seen. A month ago, the sun was rising as Theo and I took our morning walk, but since then the earth has pitched towards dark, and dawn is still a long ways away.

Theo doesn’t, strictly speaking, need me to be here. It’s our morning routine, an occasion for me to work on teaching him to be attentive to the leash. He’s still a puppy, as a man-sized athletic teenager is still a boy. When Theo first arrived, I remember watching as he flew from one side of the road to another, perhaps not even aware that there was a road, or what a road might mean. He didn’t know the paths we now take in the dark, the ones that follow along the fence line. He didn’t know the forks in the path, the ones where we decide whether or not to walk down towards the pond, or back towards home. As he darted into the brush, I’d hold on to the leash with both hands, planting my feet and refusing to move until he relented, and returned to the trail. Now he trots along the narrow grassy line as easily as I do, and I wonder what he’s lost in the learning, what wider understanding of this land would have been like before he could see what I see, an overgrown footpath or a thinly graveled road.

I’ve been thinking lately about what’s been called the radical selfishness with which we’re born, the neurological selfishness that was no doubt intended to ensure survival, and which in no way constitutes vice. It’s the child screaming, “Mine! Mine!” We praise him for using his words; gently explain what’s his and what’s not. We use words to train him, to educate him, to cultivate his understanding of a broader world and one that’s narrower as well, and when words don’t work we gently pick him up and hold him as he sobs, mine. Mine. I’m nowhere near childhood, but I still have fits during which I need to be held as I sob, because I was wrong: what I thought was mine was not. My elemental nature, the radical selfishness that still comprises my understanding of the world in which I live, continues to insist on seeing things as I want them to be, rather than as they are. It can be as simple as a rainy day when I’d planned a long, sunny hike, or a traffic jam during my morning commute. The trail, the path that is where I’m meant to be, includes elements that I did not choose. And yet, what is inevitably proves greater in every dimension than what I’d imagined, or expected.

A few years ago, I spent my birthday hiking in the Smokies. I’d previously hiked the Appalachian Trail, and I thought of myself as a fairly experienced hiker. I was confident in my plans for what I thought would be an easy day hike. The morning of my birthday was soft with rain, but I didn’t mind. I’d decided to leave my heavy pack in the tent and simply hike up the ridge, across and back down to the tent in a daylong loop. I remember how quiet the trail was, how infinitely relieved I was to be there in the woods, as one step at a time carried me deeper into the park.

As I turned up the trail that would lead to the top of the ridge, I was surprised to find the trail frequently blocked with trees that had fallen in the last summer’s hurricane. I slid under or over each one, and the rain fell harder. It was rough going, but not impossible. It’ll be better at the top of the ridge, I told myself.

But along the ridgeline, it was not better. I scrambled up or around enormous downed poplars and hickories. The rain, now blown blindingly sideways, was relentless. This really can’t get much worse, I remember thinking, somewhat hilariously. Here, my birthday, soaking wet, bark-scraped, alone. And then, dear reader, I lost the trail.

I walked back to where the trail was clear, and tried again. Again, I simply could not see it. There were too many downed trees. I walked back, and then forwards again. I was now exactly halfway through the loop; my choices were either to go back along the trail I’d just taken, or to go forward along the ridgeline, praying to find the trail again.

It didn’t even feel like a hard decision. I would go forward. I was an experienced hiker, right? I knew the trail went along the ridgeline. I could see, both on the map and from where I was standing, where the ridgeline went. The only thing missing was the trail, and that, I was sure, I’d find soon enough, if I only kept walking.

You might already know that didn’t happen. I walked along the ridgeline as the rain slowed to a drizzle, and then stopped. At some point, it occurred to me to call for help, and so I did. I shouted, as loud as I could, at the top of my lungs. Help, I called, equally fearful that someone might hear me as that they would not. Help. Help! My voice echoed from the cove below. Far, far below. I was now at the end of the ridge, and could see, as if for the first time, the massive size of the mountain I was on. My choice was either to turn down in the direction of my campsite, the direction of the loop I’d intended to take, or to go the other way, in which direction there was a more substantial trail that ran alongside a creek, one that would take me to a road, one of the few roads not closed to winter traffic. This time the decision was harder, but I chose the one in which I’d be most likely to find another person.

I scrambled downhill, holding tight to rhododendrons and laurels as my feet slid through dense slick gulleys of leaf. Help, I shouted still. Help. It had become my breath; no longer embarrassed that someone might hear. It was late afternoon by the time I found myself on the trail along the cove, not a soul in sight, and four miles to the road. I practically sprinted, and by the time I made it to the road, the sun had just set.

Now there was nothing to do but wait. I hadn’t thought past this part. I tried to remember the signs of hypothermia, to remember what they led to. It was fourteen miles to Bryson City, and my only prayer was that someone would be out driving this dead-end road in winter. Perhaps, I thought desperately, they’d come to see the sunset. I leaned against the guardrail, exhausted. The sun was gone now, and soon it would be dark. I drank the last of my water. And then, I saw headlights.

It wasn’t that night, in an overheated Bryson City motel room with a jumbo-sized pizza, when I realized what a gift that day had been to me, how it had given me what I’d never believed I would have. For years, my deepest fear had been that I would be unable to ask for help when I needed it. But this day, my birthday, I’d spent the whole day calling at the top of my lungs – for help.

I carry that knowledge in my body now. I know, if I need to, that I can call for help, and I know that help will come, though not always in the time or manner I expect. In the cold winter months to come, I’ll walk Theo in the dark, holding tightly to his leash. I’ll try to remember to follow my feet; to trust the path even when it’s too dark to see.

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